At the 2012 N.B.A. slam dunk contest, Chase Budinger ran up behind Diddy, intercepted his upward toss, launched his 6-foot-7 frame over the rapper’s head, and smashed the ball into the net in one swoop.
Now the seven-year N.B.A. veteran is making a compelling encore.
Not on the hardwood, where he earned more than $18 million playing small forward for Houston, Minnesota, Indiana and Phoenix. And not on the indoor volleyball court where he was the national high school player of the year in 2006.
Instead, Budinger has spent the last two years establishing himself as a serious contender in professional beach volleyball.
Budinger’s decision to leave basketball wasn’t easy.
In late 2017, he was receiving offers to play overseas, but he wasn’t getting picked up by an N.B.A. team. Basketball was his first love, but he was getting impatient.
“I didn’t want to sit around waiting” he said.
Budinger is not the first N.B.A. player to transition to beach volleyball. Most notably Wilt Chamberlain and Keith Erickson are both enshrined in the California Beach Volleyball Association Hall of Fame. Beach volleyball is also popular among retired N.B.A. stars such as Luke Walton, Richard Jefferson and Steve Nash, as well as the current Pistons star Blake Griffin, who are all avid four-man players.
Budinger, though, is the first N.B.A. player to pursue pro beach volleyball full-time on two established tours. And here’s the thing about Budinger: he is really good, maybe good enough to star for the United States at the Olympics in two-man beach volleyball, an especially brutal form of the game.
“You can bring out the best athletes in the world and we will absolutely destroy them because the skill base is so important,” said Casey Patterson, a 2016 Olympian and Budinger’s current teammate. “Chase has that history of indoor, and he played a position where those skills were necessary to be an influential player.”
Budinger, who was an outside hitter in indoor, has become part of an age-old trend among elite athletes, who occasionally try to transfer their skills from one sport to another. Bob Hayes won two gold medals in track and then went on to win a Super Bowl ring. Eric Heiden won five gold medals in speedskating then competed in the Tour de France.
Despite his status as an indoor volleyball phenom growing up in Encinitas, Calif., with an older brother and sister who also played basketball and volleyball, there was never anything about volleyball on Budinger’s “dream board.” (Instead, it featured Michael Jordan quotes, the N.B.A. logo, and a silver Ferrari.)
In college he opted to focus on basketball, playing for Lute Olson at the University of Arizona. After three years, Detroit picked him in the second round of the 2009 N.B.A. draft and traded him to Houston the same day.
In 2011, during the N.B.A. lockout, Budinger dropped a public hint about his future when he entered a pro beach volleyball tournament with a buddy from home.
“It was a spur of the moment thing,” he said, and it didn’t exactly make him eager to change sports. “It just showed me how much tougher beach volleyball was, how exhausting,” compared to basketball.
At the same time, he knew that N.B.A. careers rarely lasted longer than 10 or 12 years. Even if he retired in his early 30s, he could still have 10 prime years on the pro beach scene. “So that was my game plan: when my basketball career was done, go play beach volleyball,” he said.
Budinger’s N.B.A. career stalled at 27. So he was open when the two-time Olympian Sean Rosenthal approached, but it took him a month to decide. “The toughest part,” he said, “was putting basketball behind me.”
Budinger still misses the N.B.A. lifestyle — the team bonds, the physical contact. “Some days I wake up and just want to push and hit people,” he said.
On the flip side, he said, “I don’t miss waking up and having my back hurt, my knees hurt, and never getting enough sleep. My body’s feeling great now!”
At 210 pounds, he is eight pounds lighter than his N.B.A. weight. He also lost two inches from his waist.
Last year, as a rookie, Budinger teamed with Rosenthal and finishes second at an A.V.P. tour stop in San Francisco. This year, Budinger and Patterson have already placed fifth on the F.I.V.B. international tour, in Brazil, in May, and have made two top-three finishes on the A.V.P. circuit. They next play in Switzerland, where they will try to to accrue valuable F.I.V.B. points toward Olympic qualifying. A 2020 Tokyo Olympic berth may be a long shot given the depth of American talent and the two-team-per-country limit, but expect to see Budinger “for sure in 2024 and 2028,” said Tyler Hildebrand, the director of coaching for the USA Volleyball beach national team program.
“He’s so far ahead intellectually, with his beach volleyball I.Q. — as far as understanding, not execution — than probably 80 percent of our longtime players,” Hildebrand said. “He moves incredibly fast. He jumps extremely well. He’s an unbelievably good passer — hardly anyone at that height is a good passer.”
Budinger has two key assets for passing: a “great platform,” Hildebrand said, referring to the way a player’s arms fit together and form a flat surface when they are fully extended, and “he creates great angles. The volleyball is only going to react off the angle it hits. You could be standing on one foot facing the other way, but if you create an angle and the ball hits toward your target, it’s a good pass.”
Budinger is also “a great hand setter,” Hildebrand said. Many players will bump set instead, afraid that the referee will call them for double-hitting the ball. “Chase doesn’t fear that.”
But most professional players agree that Budinger’s best talent is blocking, which is particularly difficult because it involves timing, deception and reading the hitter.
“A hitter can hit to the angle, to the line, hit high, close their eyes and swing, shoot it over you, and they have a huge range of speeds, angles, and directions to hit the ball,” Hildebrand said. Unlike indoor volleyball, on the beach there is only one blocker and one defender — and plenty of court.
Effective blocking is not measured in statistics alone. A blocker must also instill fear to make the attacker hesitate. To that end, Budinger often dips into Hildebrand’s collection of 6,000 match videos to study opponents’ tendencies, their arm speeds and when to time his jump.
The U.S. has some of the best blockers in the world in the 2008 Olympic gold medalist Phil Dalhausser, 39, and Jake Gibb, 43, but neither is likely to vie for another Olympics past 2020, which is why Budinger, 31, is vital to the country’s future medal hopes.
His daily routine consists of two 90-minute practices separated by a lengthy break to simulate the competition format on tour, where athletes play multiple matches per day. He’s earned about $46,000 to date, a tiny fraction of what he made as an N.B.A. player.
And while he is no longer paid to guard Lakers and Cavaliers, he would relish an All-Star day at the beach. “I would love to see LeBron on the sand — or Kobe,” he said, “to see athletically what level they would be at.”