Entering this year’s AVP Gold Series in New York City, there was a big question mark as to whether Chase Budinger was truly ready to compete at the top tier of professional beach volleyball. Skeptics were weary of the 6’7″ California native, as he just returned to the sand this winter after capping a seven-year NBA career—as well as a season playing in Europe.
Spending the weekend playing alongside two-time Olympian Sean Rosenthal, the pair came away with a fifth-place finish—led by Budinger flashing dominant stretches at the net both blocking and hitting.
“I had a good run,” Budinger said at the 2018 AVP Gold Series last weekend in New York City. “[I had] three great years at Arizona, seven years in the NBA, and one overseas professionally. This winter, I didn’t want to go back overseas, and pretty much Sean [Rosenthal] came calling. It was the right fit and the perfect timing for me to make the transition.”
For those inside of the volleyball community, Budinger’s prowess is of little surprise. He was one of the most lauded prep stars in California’s history. He was Volleyball Magazine’s 2006 National High School Player of the Year. However, he was also the co-MVP of the 2006 McDonald’s All-American basketball game alongside Kevin Durant. When it came time to choose a college, he could not resist Hall of Famer coach Lute Olson’s pitch to focus solely on basketball at the University of Arizona.
“I pretty much went to Arizona because of Lute Olson,” he said. “Looking at that team, I felt like I could play right away and he had high expectations for me. … My three final schools were Arizona, UCLA, and USC. If I chose the other two schools, I would have played both [sports] … At that time I pretty much put it in my head to get away from volleyball and focus on just basketball and see how far basketball could take me.”
Once he committed to returning to his volleyball roots, Budinger leaned on Rosenthal’s two decades of professional beach volleyball experience for support. Training together for the past six months, Budinger has tried to soak up as much knowledge as he could while building their partnership.
“It has definitely been a learning curve for me,” he admits. “There has been a lot of learning on the fly just because it comes so quickly. We started in late January teaming up and practicing. For now, communicating is the biggest thing while working together at every practice just picking each other’s brain, me especially picking his brain.”
Even though it is early in the beach volleyball season, the duo are already showing signs that they will be a formidable team for the rest of the summer. At the first AVP stop in Austin, Texas, they lost both of their matches en route to a 13th-place finish. But just a few short weeks later in New York City, the pair had a breakthrough performance that put them within a few points of advancing to the semi-finals.
“Every tournament is going to be really helpful for us getting that game experience,” he said. “For me, it’s really just about repetitions and game experience. It seems like you play these guys over and over in the AVP. I am so new to these guys and they are to me, but eventually you’ll start getting some reads on these guys. Taking it all in, I knew this first year was going to be a lot ups and downs for me.”
In most professional sports leagues, a 30-year-old rookie would be far from prospect status. But in the world of beach volleyball, the top talents peak in their late 30s, with many competing well into their 40s. Budinger felt that he is right on time to make an impact on the tour.
“I want to play for a long time,” he said. “I think I started at a good time. I’m still young. Volleyball players can play for a long time in their 40s; that is at least another ten years for me. That is kind of the goal, to play for ten years. When I made the transition, I always knew that in the back of my mind that I wanted to go back to volleyball and the only way that I was going to permit it was if my body could hold up. I think I came here at a time when I am still athletic, still can jump, and still can play.”
Budinger’s showing in New York City came on the heels of the Golden State Warriors winning the NBA championship. Playing as a small forward in the NBA, he had the daunting task of guarding both LeBron James and the aforementioned Kevin Durant. Taking a moment to reflect on how he approached defending both superstars, he explained the nearly impossible task of stopping them.
“They’re un-guardable,” he admitted. “I had to try to guard Kevin and LeBron. Those two guys are just unbelievable. Durant, the way he could handle the ball, it is just unreal for being 6’11”. His handle makes him everything, just how he could cross people up, get into the lane and get to his spots. Once he gets to his spots, all he needs to do is jump and shoot over you and you can’t do anything about it.
“LeBron is just a bully. If he knows that he’s bigger than you, he’s just going to bully you and you can’t do anything. That’s what happened to me.”
So, does Budinger’s experience of going up against arguably two of the best basketball players of his generation transfer to the volleyball court? He said it’s another world where facing those legends earn you no points on the sand.
“It’s different,” Budinger says. “I just put my basketball days back and enjoy the memories I had from them. Out here, the energy is completely different. I will take all of the work ethic and approach that I learned over the years [playing basketball] to this game. But as far as playing against those guys, it doesn’t mean anything here.”