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What would you do
if you were Chase Budinger, two-sport schoolboy folk hero? Would you pursue
your unlimited potential in volleyball, nurture the talent that could earn you
an Olympic gold medal, fulfill the promise that Mike Rangel, the longtime coach
and trainer for Karch Kiraly--the sport's Michael Jordan--casts in historic
terms? "As a high school senior, Chase was head and shoulders better than
anybody we've ever seen at his age in the game of volleyball," says Rangel.
"He's the closest thing we've seen to Karch Kiraly in 30 years."
Basketball or volleyball? The sport in which Budinger was named the co-MVP of the McDonald's High School All-American Game last March, joining the select company of Kevin Garnett, LeBron James and Dwight Howard? Or the one in which he admits he has more skill? Budinger's decision was crystal clear at the start of McKale Madness, the annual fanfest that kicked off hoops practice at Arizona on Oct. 13. While his teammates danced and shimmied onto the floor as their names were announced, Budinger sauntered out wearing sunglasses, with a beach towel draped over his shoulders. Then he symbolically chucked a volleyball into the crowd. Guess I won't be needing that for a while.
"It was such a tough decision," says Budinger (pronounced BUD-ing-grr, with a hard G in the last syllable). "I love both sports, but basketball has always been my passion. If I had to choose between a volleyball game and a basketball game on the same night, I'd always choose basketball. Focusing on basketball was something I'd never done before, and I really wanted to try it."
Granted, Budinger could have played both sports at the other two colleges he seriously considered, USC and UCLA, whereas Arizona doesn't have a varsity men's volleyball program. But as he agonized over his decision, making endless lists of pros and cons during classes at La Costa Canyon High, Budinger came back to three things: 1) Arizona was the first elite hoops program to notice him; 2) he would miss most of the volleyball season anyway playing basketball; and 3) he could finally answer the tantalizing question posed by coaches in both sports: How good could he become if he specialized for the first time?
Now we know. These days the only spiking in Budinger's life is that of his potential NBA draft status, which has risen from outside the top 100 at the start of 2006 into the lottery-pick range. At week's end Budinger was making a case for himself as the nation's top freshman, averaging 19.8 points a game for the No. 14 Wildcats, who improved to 5--1 with an 84--72 victory over Illinois in Phoenix last Saturday. Budinger's 22-point outburst against the Fighting Illini was only the latest evidence that he's becoming, as Olson calls him, "our Sean Elliott"--a reference to the signature player of the coach's 24 years in Tucson. When Olson used that phrase to motivate an overly deferential Budinger against Northern Arizona on Nov. 15, the rookie unleashed his inner Elliott-ness (or was it Elliot Ness?), nailing five three-pointers in a guns-ablazing 32-point tour de force that would have been even more remarkable had Budinger played in the final 9:34. (He returned to his dorm room that night and discovered that his MySpace and Facebook pages had been flooded with well-wishers and hundreds of new "friend" requests.)
Considering that Arizona features a half-dozen NBA prospects on its roster, Olson's willingness to anoint Budinger so early took the freshman by surprise. "I was like, Whoa," says Budinger, sounding like classic Keanu Reeves in Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure. "It was pretty overwhelming when he told me that." But Olson says the Elliott comparison is no stretch, noting Budinger's superior long-range shooting, ball handling, athleticism and unselfishness. Olson also admires Budinger's desire to improve his defense by going head-to-head against teammate Marcus Williams--one of the nation's most explosive swingmen--in practice every day. "It's going to hurt Chase's confidence a little bit," Olson says, "but the great thing about him is he wants to learn, wants to be pushed. A lot of guys who are good are like, 'Hey, don't mess with me.' But he's an absolute joy to work with."
At the same time, Budinger has addressed a potentially tricky chemistry issue by using his vision and passing (2.3 assists a game) to create shots for the older Wildcats. "My teammates have been very supportive of me," Budinger says. "When I have open shots, they'll get the ball to me and want me to shoot, and they know I'll do the same thing for them." Williams calls his wingmate "a highlight waiting to happen," not least because of Budinger's remarkable hops, which he has only enhanced since hooking up in the eighth grade with Trent Suzuki, a former personal trainer for Magic Johnson and Shaquille O'Neal. "Chase has been doing adult-level, high-intensity strength and conditioning from Day One--the same program I would have Magic or Shaq do," says Suzuki, who also trained Budinger's older siblings, Brittanie (a volleyball star who had her number retired by the University of San Francisco) and Duncan (a second-team volleyball All-America at Long Beach State).
Budinger's early work with a personal trainer reflects one of the growing trends in high school sports. Such is Suzuki's relationship with the Budingers ("He's part of the family now," says Chase's mother, Mara) that his influence has extended to Chase's mental conditioning and even media training. "We've spent a lot of hours across from each other at the kitchen table using flower vases for microphones," says the 43-year-old Suzuki, who made sure Budinger was wearing a suit for the August 2005 press conference at which he announced his commitment to Arizona. "Forget the age gap. Chase is one of my best friends. We talked for an hour last night."
Yet not even his Suzuki-prescribed regimen--a high-protein diet and a gallon of water a day--could prevent Budinger from contracting a nasty case of tonsillitis in September, which cost him most of Arizona's preseason exhibition trip to Canada, to say nothing of 12 pounds. (He had his tonsils removed on Sept. 7.) It was a reminder that even a folk hero has his weaknesses. Indeed, Budinger is only now back up to his playing weight (205 pounds), and he acknowledges that he doesn't expect to be a one-and-done phenomenon. "I think I'll need at least two years of college just to get more maturity and physical strength," says Budinger. "I need to learn a lot. Nobody was even talking to me about [the NBA] until after the McDonald's game."
In the near term, volleyball fans hoping to check out Budinger's skills will have to settle for grainy YouTube clips and familiar moves transferred to another sport. As his father, Duncan Sr., points out, "You'll see him go up for a dunk, a block or a rebound with a quick jump--boom, one-and-a-half steps, up!--and recognize that it's a volleyball approach." Not that volleyball is entirely out of the picture. Budinger is still holding out the possibility of making the U.S. Olympic team, either in 2008 or further down the road. ( Olson says he'd have no problem with his young star playing in the Beijing Games.)