Court of Appeal

Putting his Olympic volleyball ambitions on hold, Arizona freshman Chase Budinger is focusing on hoops for the first time--and wowing the likes of Michael Jordan
December 11, 2006

What would you doif you were Chase Budinger, two-sport schoolboy folk hero? Would you pursueyour unlimited potential in volleyball, nurture the talent that could earn youan Olympic gold medal, fulfill the promise that Mike Rangel, the longtime coachand trainer for Karch Kiraly--the sport's Michael Jordan--casts in historicterms? "As a high school senior, Chase was head and shoulders better thananybody 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."

Or would you follow the white-haired basketball sage, forsake collegevolleyball and cast your lot with Arizona coach Lute Olson, who startedwatching you during your freshman year of high school and predicted to hisstaff, audaciously and accurately, that you would become the finest player fromSan Diego since Bill Walton? After all, the sport's Michael Jordan--Jordanhimself--raved to Olson about the 6'7" redhead with the 42-inch verticalleap ("Man, I love that kid") after guarding Budinger at his FlightSchool camp last summer.

Basketball orvolleyball? The sport in which Budinger was named the co-MVP of the McDonald'sHigh School All-American Game last March, joining the select company of KevinGarnett, LeBron James and Dwight Howard? Or the one in which he admits he hasmore skill? Budinger's decision was crystal clear at the start of McKaleMadness, 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 wereannounced, Budinger sauntered out wearing sunglasses, with a beach towel drapedover his shoulders. Then he symbolically chucked a volleyball into the crowd.Guess I won't be needing that for a while.

"It was sucha tough decision," says Budinger (pronounced BUD-ing-grr, with a hard G inthe last syllable). "I love both sports, but basketball has always been mypassion. If I had to choose between a volleyball game and a basketball game onthe same night, I'd always choose basketball. Focusing on basketball wassomething I'd never done before, and I really wanted to try it."

Granted, Budingercould have played both sports at the other two colleges he seriouslyconsidered, USC and UCLA, whereas Arizona doesn't have a varsity men'svolleyball program. But as he agonized over his decision, making endless listsof pros and cons during classes at La Costa Canyon High, Budinger came back tothree things: 1) Arizona was the first elite hoops program to notice him; 2) hewould miss most of the volleyball season anyway playing basketball; and 3) hecould 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 NBAdraft status, which has risen from outside the top 100 at the start of 2006into the lottery-pick range. At week's end Budinger was making a case forhimself 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 inPhoenix last Saturday. Budinger's 22-point outburst against the Fighting Illiniwas only the latest evidence that he's becoming, as Olson calls him, "ourSean Elliott"--a reference to the signature player of the coach's 24 yearsin Tucson. When Olson used that phrase to motivate an overly deferentialBudinger against Northern Arizona on Nov. 15, the rookie unleashed his innerElliott-ness (or was it Elliot Ness?), nailing five three-pointers in aguns-ablazing 32-point tour de force that would have been even more remarkablehad Budinger played in the final 9:34. (He returned to his dorm room that nightand discovered that his MySpace and Facebook pages had been flooded withwell-wishers and hundreds of new "friend" requests.)

Considering thatArizona features a half-dozen NBA prospects on its roster, Olson's willingnessto 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 methat." But Olson says the Elliott comparison is no stretch, notingBudinger's superior long-range shooting, ball handling, athleticism andunselfishness. Olson also admires Budinger's desire to improve his defense bygoing head-to-head against teammate Marcus Williams--one of the nation's mostexplosive swingmen--in practice every day. "It's going to hurt Chase'sconfidence a little bit," Olson says, "but the great thing about him ishe 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 visionand 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'sremarkable hops, which he has only enhanced since hooking up in the eighthgrade with Trent Suzuki, a former personal trainer for Magic Johnson andShaquille O'Neal. "Chase has been doing adult-level, high-intensitystrength and conditioning from Day One--the same program I would have Magic orShaq do," says Suzuki, who also trained Budinger's older siblings,Brittanie (a volleyball star who had her number retired by the University ofSan Francisco) and Duncan (a second-team volleyball All-America at Long BeachState).

Budinger's earlywork with a personal trainer reflects one of the growing trends in high schoolsports. Such is Suzuki's relationship with the Budingers ("He's part of thefamily now," says Chase's mother, Mara) that his influence has extended toChase's mental conditioning and even media training. "We've spent a lot ofhours across from each other at the kitchen table using flower vases formicrophones," says the 43-year-old Suzuki, who made sure Budinger waswearing a suit for the August 2005 press conference at which he announced hiscommitment to Arizona. "Forget the age gap. Chase is one of my bestfriends. We talked for an hour last night."

Yet not even hisSuzuki-prescribed regimen--a high-protein diet and a gallon of water aday--could prevent Budinger from contracting a nasty case of tonsillitis inSeptember, which cost him most of Arizona's preseason exhibition trip toCanada, 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 isonly now back up to his playing weight (205 pounds), and he acknowledges thathe doesn't expect to be a one-and-done phenomenon. "I think I'll need atleast two years of college just to get more maturity and physicalstrength," says Budinger. "I need to learn a lot. Nobody was eventalking 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 forgrainy YouTube clips and familiar moves transferred to another sport. As hisfather, Duncan Sr., points out, "You'll see him go up for a dunk, a blockor a rebound with a quick jump--boom, one-and-a-half steps, up!--and recognizethat it's a volleyball approach." Not that volleyball is entirely out ofthe 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 noproblem with his young star playing in the Beijing Games.)

It may be a whilebefore Budinger stops wondering if he made the right decision. ("We don'tsay Chase quit volleyball," says Mara. "He just chose not to play it incollege.") But whenever the withdrawal pangs kick in, he'll watch theArizona women's team practice in the McKale Center. One day recently thecoaches asked him if he wanted to join in. "But I said no," Budingerrecalls with a sheepish grin. "I didn't want to hurt those girls."

For now, atleast, he'll save his outsized talent for the basketball court.

FAB FROSH

Which freshmenare making the biggest impact? Weigh in on how this class stacks up in LukeWinn's blog at SI.com/collegebasketball.

While volleyball experts say Budinger could become thenext Karch Kiraly, Olson calls him "OUR SEAN ELLIOT."

TWO PHOTOSPhotographs by John W. McDonoughCHASESCENE
Budinger, labeled the best player out of San Diego since Bill Walton, had hisfirst double double against UNLV on Nov. 28 and was averaging a team-high 19.8points.
PHOTOPhotographs by John W. McDonoughPEPTALK
After Olson (right) took Budinger to task for being too deferential, thefreshman poured in 32 points against Northern Arizona.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)