NEW YORK — Life for those with dreams of becoming a professional athlete is a crapshoot. For every genetically gifted physical specimen who turns into a success story by not just making it, but thriving on the highest level, there are thousands similar whose ambitions wilt due to misfortune with size, finances or simply just not being good enough. Others reach the pros, but have their careers cut short due to injury or not finding the right team fit, amongst other reasons.
Take this as an example: Kevin Durant was a 2006 McDonald’s All-American co-MVP, then went on to become the Naismith College Player of the Year at Texas, the No. 2 pick in the 2007 NBA draft, was named the MVP in 2014 and recently captured his second NBA title and Finals MVP with the Golden State Warriors.
A path that straightforward to success, however, is an aberration. Just ask the other 2006 McDonald’s All-American co-MVP: Chase Budinger.
Budinger finds himself now not preparing for a grueling basketball offseason, but rather perched in the stands on an NYC pier overlooking dual volleyball courts—one built by the AVP (Association of Volleyball Professionals) a couple days before for the New York City Open and the other permanently residing on the pier over to go along with a miniature golf course and a dog park.
The white-gray skies are accompanied by a light breeze from the neighboring Hudson River whispering around the Pier 26 court. Overall, not quite the picturesque scene of visitors becoming as golden as the sand they’re standing on, like at California’s Huntington Beach—where Budinger made his professional beach volleyball debut in early May—but it’ll have to do as he embarks on his latest chapter in life.
Budinger was a rare case: A true two-sport athlete at La Costa Canyon High School who had a five-star pedigree in basketball to go along with being named the Mizuno National Player of the Year by Volleyball Magazine in 2006. Several universities yearned at the opportunity to don the then-strawberry-blond-curled prodigy with their jersey colors in both basketball and volleyball.
He first tried out basketball around six years old, and then added volleyball to his repertoire five years later. His older sister Brittanie and older brother Duncan each played both sports, and the youngest Budinger wanted to follow in their footsteps. But his rapid progression in both sports can be credited to his mother and father.
“What was really cool was my parents always played me up, up a year or mostly actually two years up, which I think really helped me as a player,” Budinger said. “I was always taller than everybody in my age group, and mostly when that happens, you get kind of typecast into a position, like becoming a center or becoming a blocker in volleyball.
“Because I was playing up, I was not the tallest, I was mostly one of the smallest. So for basketball I was always a guard and then for volleyball I was an outside hitter. Because of that, I was able to really learn those skills and it helped me as I got older and older. Even when I got to high school, I stuck with those positions. I give a lot of credit for that.”
The final three colleges in the running for Budinger were Arizona, USC and UCLA. The Los Angeles schools offered him the chance to play both sports. Arizona didn’t have a men’s program for volleyball. Yet in the end, his connection with then-Wildcats basketball coach Lute Olson was the major driving factor in his commitment.
It was tough for Budinger to put volleyball in the backseat, especially after he had recently captured his national accolade. Yet, he also thought his best chance at success was sticking with just one athletic obligation.
“The way I looked at it was I could always come back to volleyball,” Budinger said. “My mindset was let’s see how far basketball can take me. I’m going to put 100% of my focus, invest fully into basketball and see what it does for me.”
A three-year career at Arizona propelled the 6’7” forward into the second round of the 2009 NBA draft. The Pistons took him 44th and then he was promptly traded to the Rockets later on draft night. Budinger averaged 7.9 points per game in his seven years in the NBA, spending three years apiece in Houston and Minneapolis followed by brief stops in Indianapolis and Phoenix.
Once the basketball season was over though, he quickly turned back to his other love.
“I always played a lot of beach volleyball in the offseason,” Budinger said. “I had a group of guys I would play with two or three times a week. I thought it was great cross training just because it wasn’t hard on the body, it wasn’t the pounding that you get from the hardwood. It was very soft on your legs and your knees and your ankles, but also it was really good for your muscles.”
Playing on the courts of Hermosa Beach is where Budinger first met Sean Rosenthal. The two would frequently be teammates in four-on-four casual matches. Rosenthal had represented the U.S. at the 2008 and 2012 Olympics in beach volleyball with his former partner Jake Gibb.
Despite Budinger having no professional volleyball experience, Rosenthal was rather impressed with his play. The seeds of a radical idea were planted shortly after at Shellback Tavern—a beachside watering hole gracing the edge of the Manhattan Beach pier.
“About two-and-a-half years ago we were joking with each other," Rosenthal said. “I’d say ‘Hey are you gonna finish your basketball career? Why don’t you just retire now, let’s go play.’ But obviously he was still in the NBA then.”
That changed. The basketball player who recorded a 38.5-inch vertical and jumped over Diddy at the 2012 NBA Slam Dunk Contest saw his athleticism on the hardwood wither after going under the knife a couple times—he underwent meniscus surgery in 2012 and arthroscopic surgery on his left knee in 2013.
The injuries eroded his confidence in the later stage of his NBA career, and then effectively ended it. Not yet ready to give up on his hoop dreams, however, Budinger explored options elsewhere. He ended up choosing Baskonia in Vitoria-Gasteiz, Spain.
A rejuvenated Budinger quickly struggled to adapt to his new life overseas.
“It was a real big adjustment. Just the way they play, the way the style is, the way they ref, the way they practice, the way they travel,” Budinger said. “It was night and day of how the NBA works and how Europe works. I remember my first couple months there, my first two months, I was having a really difficult time with it just getting adjusted.”
It wasn’t just on the court where he felt lost.
“Most of our practices were at night, which was kind of crummy because people [in California] didn’t wake up until I think four o’clock my time over there,” Budinger said. “That window of talking to my family or my girlfriend or my friends was after practice for maybe two hours. So I had a whole chunk of the day by myself in a foreign country trying to waste time until practice. I really had to pick up some hobbies, watched a lot of movies, did a lot of walking, lot of going to different coffee places in the morning just to waste some time.”
Budinger’s play at Baskonia picked up toward the end of the season. After coming back to California, though, he knew the only way he’d go abroad for basketball again was if it were a perfect situation. While he was waiting for offers from prospective teams, he received a phone call with a different type of offer in mind.
“[Rosenthal] came calling to see where my mind was at and if there was any chance for me to play with him,” Budinger said. “I texted back and said ‘Hey, let’s meet for coffee.’ So we sat down and talked for a few hours, I told him where my head was at the time because I was still unsure of going overseas or switching over. The way he came about was ‘I understand where your head’s at, but let’s go down to the beach and get some practice in to see if you like it.’”
The two trained together for weeks, back where they first played during Budinger’s NBA offseasons, at Hermosa Beach. After seeing how well they co-existed on the court, Rosenthal made up his mind. He told Budinger that if he chose volleyball over basketball this time around, they’d be an official pair on the circuit. A couple days later, Budinger called Rosenthal and said, “OK I’m in for volleyball, I’m done with basketball. So let’s go.”
But why would a 38-year-old Olympian take a chance at this point in his career with a first-time pro?
“I took the risk because I felt with the partners that I was going to be able to play with, I had already played with them,” Rosenthal said. “I feel like Chase is a low-risk, high-reward type of play. I didn’t feel like I was losing much starting with him over some of the other guys I could have grabbed. I feel like once we get into a groove, once we get a little more comfortable and used to the game of two-man beach volleyball at the highest level, which may sound like a lot, but he’s there. All the skills, he’s there.”
At the New York City Open, the 10th-seeded Budinger and Rosenthal lost their first match to No. 6 Jeremy Casebeer and Reid Priddy. They went on to win their next three matches at the event before falling in their final contest vs. No. 2-seeded Theo Brunner and John Hyden.
They tied for fifth in NYC, a vast improvement from their 13th-place finish at their previous event, the AVP’s Austin Open. In their other two tournaments since their partnership formed, the duo came in 33rd at the Huntington Beach Four Star and tied for ninth at the Lucerne Three Star—both of which are on the FIVB World Tour.
Despite the progress and early positive signs, Budinger knows from his NBA past that the path toward success in volleyball won’t be easy. Budinger and Rosenthal are already in a tricky position for a 2020 Tokyo Olympics spot with the U.S. One of the two spots will likely go to Phil Dalhausser and Nick Lucena. The other is viewed as up for grabs, but it will be a dogfight, especially for a team that was established only a few months ago.
“We know it’s going to be a tough road, it’s going to be kind of a long shot for us just because we’re so far behind the eight ball of getting started,” Budinger said. “But for sure, [the Olympics is] definitely a goal of ours. That’s been my ultimate goal from when I switched over to beach volleyball is that I want to play in an Olympics in some point of my life. But right now the way I approach volleyball right now is one day at a time and one tournament at a time.”