HUNTINGTON BEACH, Calif. — As Nick Lucena began his approach toward a set from his 2016 Olympics partner Phil Dalhausser, it looked like there was nothing obstructing him from killing the ball.
Crouched on the other side of the net was 6-foot-7 blocker Chase Budinger, who sprang up just as Lucena made contact and swatted the ball to the sand for a point.
It was one of Budinger’s nine blocks in a Saturday match that boosted him and partner Casey Patterson over the No. 2 seed at the AVP Huntington Beach Open. Budinger and Patterson, the No. 6 seed, would lose in the finals on Sunday to No. 1 seeded Taylor Crabb and Jake Gibb.
Budinger, 30, began his professional volleyball career at this tournament a year ago after taking basketball as far as he could. That career included seven years in the NBA and another in Spain.
“It was tough making that decision of stopping a sport I've been doing all my life,” Budinger told Yahoo Sports. “The only good thing is it was planned this way. Just the timing of it was the toughest part. I was in that really unsure phase.”
During that phase, two-time Olympian Sean Rosenthal asked Budinger if he wanted to play beach volleyball, and with the opportunity to learn from the best, he agreed. Rosenthal guided Budinger through his frustration and helped him overcome his nerves in their first matches.
Budinger grew up in Encinitas, California, which is home to Moonlight Beach, where Budinger and his brother Duncan spent their weekends when they were in high school.
“Moonlight is still one of the few beaches with court lines,” Duncan said. “The beach community is kinda like a big volleyball community. We knew everyone down there. If I went back today, I’d still run into a few people that I know. It’s kinda like a small beach family.”
The brothers picked the brains of the players at Moonlight and excelled at the indoor game. Budinger was named Mizuno National Player of the Year by Volleyball Magazine when he was a senior at La Costa Canyon High School and won three state titles.
The jumping ability and athleticism Budinger acquired from volleyball translated directly to basketball. He became a McDonald's All-American and the No. 4 player in the country according to Rivals.com in 2006. USC and UCLA offered Budinger scholarships to play volleyball and basketball, but he turned them down.
Instead, Budinger forwent volleyball and solely focused on basketball at the University of Arizona — and, no, it wasn’t because Arizona offered him $10,000 a month to play for its program.
After three seasons of college ball, he was selected in the second round of the 2009 NBA draft.
Budinger played for the Houston Rockets, Minnesota Timberwolves, Indiana Pacers and Phoenix Suns. He wowed in the 2012 NBA Slam Dunk Contest by jumping over Diddy and throwing one down blindfolded but wasn’t the same player after meniscus surgery in 2012 and arthroscopic surgery in 2013, both on his left knee.
“Basketball was always my first love,” Budinger said. “I just love the competitiveness. I love the physicality.”
Budinger brings that same passion to the sand. Just one point into Saturday’s match against Lucena and Dalhausser, Budinger dove into the video board on the sideline to save a ball. The skin on his left forearm was scraped off and the arm was bandaged on Sunday.
“I didn’t know it was not padded, so it’s kinda like a cheese grater,” Budinger said while showing off his wound. “But it’s alright. I’ve had worse.”
Budinger and Patterson are hoping the worst is behind them with Sunday’s loss now that the Olympics points have started. The duo will compete internationally this year in hopes of qualifying for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.
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