In Boston, the public-address announcer had to ask Don Buse how to pronounce his name. In Milwaukee, a sportswriter burned out his typewriter criticizing the Bucks' guards for being victimized by a "nonentity" named Don Buse. In Atlanta, Lou Hudson, a 10-year veteran, said he had "never heard of him" before playing against Buse for the first time. New Orleans' Pete Maravich had "heard of him but never seen him." Presumably that held true the night Buse swiped the ball from Maravich four times.
Anonymity hardly bothers the Indiana Pacers' guard anymore. During his four years in the ABA. he was overshadowed by high-scoring teammates such as George McGinnis and Billy Knight. Last year, while setting ABA records in steals and assists (he had more of each than Slick Watts, who led the NBA in both categories) and playing more minutes than anyone else in basketball, Buse finally got to play in the ABA All-Star Game and made the All-ABA second team. But still no one seemed to have heard of him.
So now. halfway through his first season in the expanded NBA, Buse is neither surprised nor hurt that hardly anyone outside of Indianapolis seems to know who he is. much less how to pronounce his name, although it does seem a bit strange when one considers that for most of the season he has led the NBA in minutes played, in steals and in assists—the latter two by such wide margins that, barring injury, he ought to run away with both titles. "Well, we haven't been on national TV yet," he says. "Don't know if we'll ever be."
Buse was certainly pleased to be an ABA All-Star last year, but the fact that he finished sixth among Western Conference guards in the fans' balloting for this year's NBA All-Star Game didn't faze him. In fact, he says, he prefers anonymity. It suits his game better. "What thief wants to be well-known?" he says, smiling. "And by the way, it's 'Boozey.' "
February 7, 1977
He says the assists, 8.9 per game, come largely because he has the hot-shooting Knight to feed the ball to. "I had to adjust to the assist role," says Buse, who led the University of Evansville to the NCAA Division II championship as a junior. "In college and high school I was always the scorer. A lot of people compare me to Jerry Sloan, because we both went to Evansville, or they'll say I play defense like Jerry West maybe because I look kind of like him. But when I was in high school my idol was Cazzie Russell because he was always putting it up." The steals, 3.6 per game, just come naturally. "I'm not as quick as Watts or Walt Frazier," he says. "I steal with my hands. I do have exceptionally quick hands."
Buse may still be a nonentity to NBA fans and writers, but he is well known to coaches, and especially to general managers who dream of strong, young, 6'4" guards who are smart, steady, confident, commanding, white and unselfish. Buse is all of these. His own general manager, Bob (Slick) Leonard, who is also the Pacer coach, stifles a contented chuckle every time his phone rings and a fellow GM asks if he would consider dealing Buse. "Why, I just tell 'em no," he says. "Fast." Then Leonard counts his blessings and pats himself on the back for having bought the draft rights to Buse five years ago from the Virginia Squires—and for parting with the $3,000 cash bonus that kept Buse from signing with Phoenix of the NBA.
This year Leonard rewarded Buse for his outstanding play by canceling the last two years of his $50,000-per-year contract and giving him a new, four-year deal. Buse's annual salary is still well below six figures, which surely leaves him as the lowest-paid regular starting guard in the NBA. But Buse, a 26-year-old bachelor from a poor, fatherless family of nine in the tiny southern Indiana dairy town of Holland, considers the sum downright generous. "I love him," says Leonard.
So, it seems, does just about everyone Buse comes in contact with: teammates, opponents, fans, folks from Evansville and Holland—all of whom find Buse a comfortable kind of guy to be around. Sipping a beer after a game, or entertaining working buddies who drop by the modest ranch-style house in an unpretentious section of Indianapolis, Buse will smile a lot and joke around in his country Hoosier twang. He'll talk about his racehorse, Scoot 'n Shoot, which came in at 23 to 1 a couple of weeks ago at Latonia, or about the summer softball game in which a team of Pacers upset a team of hockey players from the WHA Racers on three tape-measure Buse home runs, or about the time McGinnis tried to sell Buse his speedboat and the thing nearly sank.
Of course it is for the things he does on the court that Buse is most loved by Pacer fans, and he does far more than just generate impressive statistics. He is the total floor leader—"the perfect coach's player," Atlanta's Hubie Brown calls him. With the exception of Knight, the Pacers are a team of unknowns, and most NBA-oriented experts predicted they would have a pretty good shot at winding up at the very bottom of the league. Few who knew Knight are surprised to see that he is the league's third leading scorer with 26 points per game, but a lot of people were shocked to see the Pacers win in Philadelphia, Boston and Buffalo; run off six straight in early January; and remain thereafter around the .500 mark, several floors above the Midwest Division cellar. And this with a lineup of Wil Jones and Darnell Hillman at forwards, Dan Roundfield and Dave Robisch sharing the center spot, and the 6'6" Knight, a natural forward, and Buse at guards.
"We do it this way," says Leonard. "We let Boo-Boo bring the ball up, post Billy, and watch Boo-Boo pass it to him. Then we often get a basket."
Buse controls the ball 90% of the time, running what is really a one-guard, four-forward offense. He sets up on the point and waits for a man—usually Knight—to get open inside. Then Buse gets it there. His passes are not as flashy as Tiny Archibald's, but lightning quick and deadly accurate. "It's because of Buse that I'm having a great year," says Knight. "I'll pass the ball in and he'll be bringing it upcourt and he'll ask me if there's anything special I want to run. I tell him I'll do a thing, then I do it and the ball comes right to me."
NBA guards who have not yet encountered Buse often drop off him and play the passing lanes. Buse's response is to pull up and shoot the jumper—which he hits with 44% accuracy for an average of 9 points a game. He did this three times in a row against Chicago's Norm Van Lier. "When he shoots like that he's really dangerous," says Van Lier, "because you can't cheat on him."
Yet on defense, Buse gets by just that way. He cheats. Or rather, he anticipates. Usually assigned to the passing guard, Buse studies his man's eyes and decides where he is going to pass. Often the two men make their next move simultaneously. Buse drops a step toward the passing lane, his quick hands flicking at exactly the right spot to make the steal, deflect the pass, or at least distract the passer. Sometimes, especially when the Pacers are behind, Buse will go for a steal at the wrong time—when his man is driving by him, for instance. Leonard would not mind this kind of mistake if the other Pacers played the kind of help-out defense that Buse does.
"Buse is a great team defensive player," Leonard says, "not a great individual defender. He is as consistent a player as I've ever seen. How we do usually just depends on how the other players do around him. Shoot, I don't even have to have him come to practice."
This is how consistent Buse is: in the Pacers' first 48 games, he made fewer than six assists only seven times; against Boston last week he had a career-high 17. He failed to make at least one steal only twice, and he made four or more in 25 games. In a home win that stopped Cleveland's five-game winning streak in early December, Buse had 11 assists and eight steals. Some of the beaten Cavaliers grumbled that Buse's numbers were padded. Two weeks later at Cleveland, the numbers were nine assists, six steals and two blocked shots. He had 15 points, 11 assists and six steals at Denver. At Philadelphia in November, 19 points, 11 assists and three steals in a big 123-117 win. The 76ers were floundering and in search of a strong floor leader at the time. An Indianapolis reporter asked McGinnis how he thought his old Pacer teammate would fit in with the talent-laden Sixers. "If we had Buse, we'd win 70 games," said Big George.
Leonard was thus not surprised a short time later when he received a phone call from Philadelphia General Manager Pat Williams, who had apparently been talking to McGinnis. "Can we talk about Buse?" he asked Leonard. "Not unless you want to give us George back and Dr. J, too," said Leonard. End of conversation.
After Buse's 13-assist, four-steal performance—plus 39 points from Knight—had beaten Chicago, Sloan, now a Bulls assistant coach, was talking about Buse. "I can't tell you how badly I wanted the Bulls to draft him out of Evansville," he said. "I followed his career there. He lived with the same family that I had lived with. He was a better player than I was in college, and he's a better player right now than I was. He's a superb ball handler. He's unselfish. His game is helping other people, and there are a lot of teams—21 of them, in fact—that are starving for a player like that."
Before the 1972 NBA player draft, Sloan urged Coach Dick Motta and the Bulls' general manager at the time—ironically it was Pat Williams—to grab Buse. In the third round of the draft, the Bulls were next to pick when Buse was claimed by Phoenix on the recommendation of Jerry Krause, a new addition to the Suns' organization who had scouted Buse—again ironically—for the Bulls. While a minor battle ensued between Phoenix, Virginia and, then, Indiana to sign him, Buse, as usual, was detached. "I didn't care whether I went ABA or NBA," he says. "I still owed $2,500 on the Volkswagen I bought in college, my very first car, and I would have signed with anybody that offered me that much in bonus money so I could pay it off."
Let history show that for $3,000 the Indiana Pacers signed a man who would become one of the most sought-after guards in the NBA. Buse drove the Volkswagen for just one season as a pro, then moved up through a couple of Chevies to a Jeep, and now has a green Cadillac Coupe de Ville, which remains, among all his possessions, the only conspicuous symbol of affluence. "I know," he says a bit defensively. "Cadillacs are only for scorers, right?"