Chase Budinger is an athletic powerhouse. I’m sure you’ve seen or heard about his meteoric rise on the AVP Tour the last two seasons. The former NBA player shook the AVP world when he retired from basketball and took up beach volleyball in 2018. In his first two seasons, he made four finals, won Rookie of the Year (2018) and Most Improved Player (2019), and blocked 2647 balls (rough estimation). But what did his journey look like from the NBA to the AVP?
Chase grew up in Encinitas, CA, the youngest of three. His older brother, Duncan (whom you may also know from the AVP), and sister, Brittanie, played basketball and volleyball. So naturally, Chase did too. “Volleyball was in the family,” Chase says. “I grew up watching them and wanted to be like them.” Chase started playing at 10-years-old, but always played two years ahead of his age. “I was an outside hitter. If I would have played at my age, I was taller than everybody, and they probably would’ve put me at middle. I wouldn’t have gotten the extra skills of passing that you get from being an outside. My parents are really smart; they did that with me in both sports.” In basketball, Chase would’ve likely been a center, but playing up afforded him the chance to play guard. “Because of that, I got to learn the smaller person skills, which helped me excel at those positions.”
This tactic is so brilliant, one I will be stealing for my future kids. Playing up forces you to be better, I always knew that. But when you’re the tall kid (like I was — 6’2″ at 13-years-old), you’re destined for the tall roles. But if a kid is athletic enough to do more, playing up opens their game up exponentially. Like Sarah Pavan and Alix Klineman, Chase honed his overall skills and capabilities, making him a better athlete in both sports. And it worked spectacularly. Chase Budinger is the only NBA to AVP athlete in the history of the game. There are other notable crossovers, like Wilt Chamberlain who got pretty serious about volleyball after his celebrated basketball career. Or Mike Dodd and Mike Whitmarsh who were both NBA draft picks but never played. Or Steve Nash who regularly plays for fun at Marine Street. But Chase is the only one to make a career in both, an impressive and wholly unique accomplishment.
Chase played both sports year-round for his high school and club teams (busy kid) until college. He initially wanted to continue both, but when he chose the University of Arizona, a school with no men’s volleyball team, he focused on basketball full time. “I thought, ‘I’m gonna put volleyball aside for now and see how far basketball can take me.'” He went pretty far, getting drafted 44th overall after three years at U of A and spending seven seasons in the NBA.
During his tenure with the NBA, Chase didn’t play much volleyball. Towards the end of his career, though, he moved to Hermosa and started playing in some four-man beach tournaments for fun (maybe he saw Steve Nash there). “I fell in love with the South Bay,” he says. Hermosa had a lot of Chase’s friends, was closer to basketball training facilities, and had a thriving volleyball community. “In the summer, I found a group of guys that would play four-on-four together two or three times a week. I just really got back into the groove of playing volleyball consistently, finding that passion and love for it again.”
So that’s why, in early 2018, when Chase found himself done with the NBA, in Spain playing international basketball, and a little burnt out, he was ready for the next step. “I was mulling over my options, if I should retire from basketball or not. And then Sean Rosenthal hit me up on text asking me if I wanted to play together that season. I wasn’t even really thinking about volleyball at the time. It was more if I wanted to be done with basketball.” Can you imagine that? Not even thinking about playing pro volleyball, and the legendary Rosie randomly asks you to play the season. Chase’s reputation must have preceded him.
Of course, his talent wasn’t an unknown. He ran with the same crew as Rosie and played exceptionally well in all of the fours tournaments. Mutual friends knew Chase may be ready for a change, and Rosie was on the hunt for a new partner. He wisely jumped on the opportunity to snag the basketballer (before anyone, including Chase, knew he was available) and turn him into a beach volleyballer.
After two hours of chatting over coffee (a common first-date adjacent occurrence between potential partners), Chase was still on the fence. “And Rosie was like, ‘Let’s just get down to the beach and practice a couple times a week.’ So we did. And that’s what got me to fall in love with the sport even more and made my decision a lot easier to retire from basketball and transition into beach volleyball.” Until this point, Chase’s beach volleyball experience was fun yet unorganized, just weekends at the beach with friends and a few brews. Getting into a structured practice with a coach, a plan, and a phenomenal partner opened his eyes to what this sport could be. “Sean is such a great player. I knew if I played with him, we’d already be competing to win tournaments, just because he was that good.” He was in another position to see how far a sport could take him, and he figured there was no time like the present.
Chase was right. He and Rosie made it to the finals that year but fell short of the title. Chase describes that first year as being really fun but himself as being really raw. “I learned a ton about my game, about how to improve. It was tough because I was such a raw player, and you can only get better with experience. I was really happy to have Sean as a partner. He taught me a lot – like how to get through the tough times in a match. And those happen a lot, especially for a blocker. The frustration of blocking is one of the toughest things in beach volleyball. Growing from my first year to now has been a really big transition for me.”
Chase is right again. Even though he won Rookie of the Year that year (duh; not many rookies make it to the finals in their first year), Chase had a ton of untapped potential. Last year, with Casey Patterson, Chase was a completely different player. “Casey’s energy is so contagious,” Chase says. “It brought more out of me; he got me more excited and energized during games. And I think that’s why we did so well.” Not only did he get his first AVP title, but he also got to two more finals and three more semi-finals. In their seven tournaments, only one did Chase and Casey not make it to Championship Sunday. Chase transformed into a blocking machine, and his heavy-handed hits shook the stadium.
As a blocker and spectator, it’s been so fun to watch Chase improve. We all knew he had the potential to make a name on Tour, but his transition has been quick and profoundly impressive. “It’s crazy to think back to playing with those two guys for my first seasons,” Chase says. “I mean, I’m playing with Olympians that have been playing for 20+ years. It’s very humbling that I got to learn so much from guys that are at the top of the game.” While Chase attributes much of his success to his partners, we all know he’s the most significant part of it. Learning the game is one thing; translating those lessons into blocks, kills, and wins is another.
So what’s next for Chase? Playing with another Olympian, of course, this time Canadian-American Chaim Schalk. Both players are in their prime, anxious to compete for the USA on the FIVB Tour (Chaim’s American status was officially confirmed last October). The 31- and 34-year-olds have their sights set on Paris 2024. Now that Tokyo has been postponed another year, they may have a (admittedly small) shot at 2021. “We’re both in the same boat of looking towards the next Olympics,” he says. “We’ll try to play in as many tournaments as possible and try to do well. But we’re not trying to make a run; we’re so far behind it would be a miracle.”
I don’t know about you, but I’d love to see that miracle.
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