Quinn Buckner will be inducted into the College Basketball Hall of Fame on Friday. If not for a couple of twists of fate, however, it could be Bill Buckner going into the College Football Hall of Fame.
The former Indiana University basketball star will take part in the ceremony in Kansas City on Nov. 20, joining fellow players John Havlicek, Rolando Blackman, Ed Ratleff and Charlie Scott and coaches Don Donoher, Lou Henson and Felton Gayles. He'll do so with appreciation but also reservation, because he has a built-in resistance to being celebrated or recognized. He'll make the best of it, out of respect for those who have awarded him the honor and those who want to see him get it.
"The honest truth is, I wouldn't go, but I don't want to embarrass the people who selected me," he says.
Buckner is so immune to the trappings of ceremony, in fact, that he left his high school graduation ceremony after he had walked up to receive his diploma, and didn't even attend his graduation ceremony at IU. Then one day about 20 years ago, when that topic came up in conversation with his mother, she made a point that stuck like a pin-prick.
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"What if we wanted to see you?" she said.
"I didn't think about that," Buckner admits.
So, OK, Buckner will go. If nothing else, he can stand up for the 1976 Indiana University team that won the NCAA championship with an undefeated season. He was the captain of that team, and one of four starters who became a first-round draft pick. The other one, Tom Abernethy, had to settle for being a third-round pick and playing five NBA seasons.
Buckner's influence on that team was clear to all despite his middling statistics. He averaged just 10 points on 43 percent shooting for his career, and didn't even hit 60 percent of his foul shots. He wasn't a classic point guard, either, a drive-and-dish guy who set up teammates for easy shots.
He was good enough to become the seventh pick of the 1976 NBA draft, though, because, as the son of two educators, he was an unselfish leader and mentor. A stout defender, too. And, the perfect liaison between a coach and players. He knew what coach Bob Knight wanted done, knew how to communicate that to his teammates and knew his role in the bigger picture.
"I was as pure as you can be about the game," he says, which is as close as he'll come to giving himself credit for anything.
Mostly, he's grateful to have been a part of something special. He started on a Final Four team as a freshman, and then on the top-ranked team in the country as a junior before teammate and best friend Scott May suffered a broken arm, which contributed to a loss to Kentucky in the NCAA tournament. Finally, he played on that perfect championship team as a senior.
He received plenty of individual recognition for his work, and was selected to the '76 U.S. Olympic team – the highlight of his career, he says – but it was the group experience that means the most to him. The value of that experience has carried over into his post-playing career, which now finds him as the Pacers' Vice-President of Communications.
"I played on really good teams and I was very well-coached," he said. "I was trying to make sure I was not the weak link, and did what I needed to do to support my teammates, that really was it. It was never about being the person.
"That's served me well over my life. Basically, we're all in a team sport. In group dynamics, you have to watch when people strive to be the individual greatest. That's not an environment I want to be part of."
Buckner doesn't want to be part of a losing environment, either, which is why he ultimately focused on his second-best sport at IU. Football was better-suited to his particular athletic talents. He was an all-state defensive back in high school in Thornridge, Ill., so dominant that, according to Bob Knight's book, he led his conference in scoring on interceptions and punt and kickoff returns alone. He was a prep All-American and the Chicago Area Player of the Year in both sports, but he knew which was his best.
"My gift was football," Buckner says. "I could play football and play it well without even having to think about it. I took my football skills for granted, honestly. I had to work harder in basketball."
His father, William, had been a backup player on IU's undefeated Big Ten championship team of 1945, and tried to nudge him toward football as often as possible. Quinn, though, enjoyed basketball more. He wanted to attend UCLA, where John Wooden was in the midst of his basketball dynasty, but Wooden didn't make home visits. Quinn and his father had to drive to O'Hare Airport and meet with Wooden there, and his father was put off by that. Wooden also discouraged Buckner from trying to play football at UCLA, and Buckner's father later learned Wooden already had a redshirt guard, Andre McCarter, waiting in the wings. Besides, dad said, if you go to UCLA and win a championship you'll be one of many. If you go to IU and win a championship, you'll be one of few.
One more factor worked in favor of Quinn attending IU: His older sister, Kamala, already was enrolled there, so he would have family on campus.
Buckner didn't commit to IU until July 31 after his senior year in high school, the last possible day for him to declare. It wasn't his decision, though. He was laying across his bed at the family home in Phoenix, Ill. when his father walked in, tossed a letter of intent at him and said, "Sign this, boy, you're going to Indiana."
So, IU it was. For football and basketball, although he enrolled on a football scholarship. Dad, for one, was more interested in the football part of it, but was all for his son playing basketball, too. He knew playing both sports would limit Knight's control over his son, and he sold Knight on the fact it would free up another basketball scholarship for him.
Buckner's timing was fortunate, because he entered college the first year freshmen were eligible to play on NCAA varsity teams. He was an immediate starter for John Pont's last football team at IU in the fall of 1972, and a star performer as a safety and kickoff and punt returner. He led the team in interceptions, passes broken up and kickoff returns.
Basketball went well, too, despite his lack of preparation.
He was hoping to delay his introduction to the sport after football season ended with a loss at Purdue. His parents were at the game, and he planned to make the 2 ½ hour trip home with them. Bloomington Herald-Telephone sports writer Bob Hammel, though, told him in the postgame locker room he was expected to report for basketball the next day.
His first day on the job, he played in an intrasquad basketball game. It consisted of three 20-minute periods. He sat out the first one while an assistant coach explained the offense to him. Eleven minutes into the second one, he was told to report in for Kim Pemberton. He had no idea who Pemberton was, since he hadn't yet had time to meet all his teammates. Within a week, he was directing the offense in practice, and by the opening game, exactly one week after his final football game, he was starting at guard. He wound up being an instrumental player on a team that reached the Final Four, where it lost to eventual champion UCLA.
Pont was fired after Buckner's freshman season, replaced by Lee Corso out of Louisville. Corso brought an entirely different approach, seeming to put as much focus on entertainment as fundamentals. Buckner, aware of the potential over in basketball and put off by Corso's approach, didn't commit to playing football again until shortly before practice was to start. He made his decision pushing a cart down the aisle with his father at a Kroger supermarket.
"He's a new coach, give it a try," Dad said.
"OK, I'll play," Buckner conceded.
Buckner knew from the outset it wasn't going to work. Corso had his team take the field for the opening game in a double-decker bus, driving down from the practice fields, barely arriving in time for the kickoff because it got stuck in traffic. The team piled out, the fans went crazy, and the Hoosiers marched down the field for a touchdown on their opening drive – but wound up losing to Illinois, 28-14.
Buckner still recalls the conversation he had with his father after that game.
"I was like, 'Daddy, this guy is about jokes. You can't win football game with jokes, you have to get out there and beat somebody in the head.'"
His father encouraged him to stick with it, to give it a chance, but Buckner's heart wasn't in it. He realized that one day when his position coach, Trent Walters, came to him at practice and told him Corso wanted him to go work with the running backs. He refused, a totally out-of-character response from someone with a built-in respect for authority. His attitude became so casual he didn't even bother to tie his shoes for practice sometimes.
"That's arrogant; I admit to it now," he says. "But I was that confident in my ability to play."
Buckner was good enough to be named a second-team all-Big Ten safety as a sophomore despite IU's losing record, but that didn't subdue his frustration. And if he needed a final persuasion to give up football, it came when he was drilled after catching a hanging punt against Ohio State. He can still feel that one. But it was worse than that. May, a member of the same basketball recruiting class, who also had been a high school All-American football player, told him some of his older teammates weren't even bothering to block for him. He had taken playing time from some of them, and perhaps that was how they were exacting revenge.
May's opinion meant a lot to Buckner. They had hit it off immediately upon arriving on campus, and remain best friends today, playing golf at least once a week during the summers in Bloomington. The potential of the basketball team was diametrically opposed to that of the football team, and May wanted Buckner to be healthy enough to fulfill it.
"I used to go to the games, and I was an old football player," May says. "I was like, 'Man, hey, we really need you. We don't need you getting hurt on the football field. I was the one who talked him out of it. We were trying to win.
"It was a real easy decision for me to make for him. I'm not saying he couldn't have played in the NFL or been drafted, but I think he did the right thing."
The hard part for Buckner was breaking the news to his father.
"Dad, Buckners don't quit, right?" Quinn said.
"That's right," Dad said.
"We'll I'm not quitting, but I'm not going out next year," Quinn said.
He put his entire athletic focus into basketball his final two years at IU. The world still remembers how that turned out, because no team since IU's in 1976 has finished a season undefeated and won a national championship. Buckner wasn't the most talented member of that team, but perhaps was the most instrumental. His performance in the championship game win over Michigan was indicative of his all-around contributions. He finished with 16 points, eight rebounds, four assists and five steals.
Now that team is putting its first member into a national hall of fame. It could just as easily been May, the national Player of the Year in 1976, or Kent Benson, an All-American and No. 1 draft pick in ' 77, or even Wilkerson, another first-round draft pick. But it's Buckner, the acknowledged leader of that team. Objections are unlikely.
"Quinn is well deserving of this honor," May says. "It's cool with me."
But to think how differently it could have turned out.
Had IU's football program been more competitive at the time, he might have stuck with that sport. It's difficult to imagine Knight letting Buckner get away from the basketball team, but there was enough friction between his father and coach – both strong-willed men who occasionally clashed – that it's not out of the question Buckner might have chosen his best sport if he was enjoying it more. Or, perhaps he would have played both sports all four years, keeping open the option for an NFL career.
It's also not so far-fetched to consider how close he came to being known as William, like his father. His full name is William Quinn Buckner. "Quinn" came from Paul Quinn College, then located in Waco, TX, where his maternal grandfather had been the president. He was usually called Quinn around the house, although his mother, Jessica, often went with "Willie Q." Or, if he was in trouble, the more formal "William Quinn."
He was called William at school, though, up until his junior year. Then, he asked a local sports reporter to go with Quinn instead, that being more familiar to him at home. His father found out about it in the newspaper, and wasn't pleased. His father was commonly known as "Bill," or by his nickname, "Buck," and was imagining headlines proclaiming the feats of another Bill Buckner, his son, along with references to "Bouncing Billy Buckner" and the like.
So, a Bill Buckner going into the College Football Hall of Fame in Atlanta isn't so far-fetched.
Buckner still could have tried football after he finished basketball at IU. He was in Hawaii for a post-season all-star game when he took a call in his hotel room from George Allen, coach of the Washington Redskins. Allen wanted to know if Buckner was going to take advantage of the opportunity to play football as a fifth-year student at IU. Immediately, the hit he had taken against Ohio State came back to him. He said no.
Still, Allen drafted Buckner in the 14th round (out of 17) of the NFL draft, the 393rd overall selection. Just in case.
Buckner went on to play 10 NBA seasons for Milwaukee, Boston and the Pacers. His peak season came with the Bucks in 1980-81, when he averaged 13.3 points on 49 percent shooting for a team that won 60 games. He was traded to Boston for Dave Cowens, and was a backup on the Celtics' championship team in 1984. Overall, he was an NBA All-Defensive second-team selection four times.
That made for a satisfying professional career and a nice pension from the NBA. His best days, though, were at IU, where he reigned as an on-court and locker room leader for four years for one NCAA champion, two teams that reached the Final Four and another that could have won it all if not for an injury to an All-American.
"He was the leader from the first day he stepped on the campus," Abernethy says. "The leadership is what screams out at you when you're around Quinn. He's a no-nonsense guy. He really set a tone for our team, from our freshman year all the way through.
"It was an intangible. We all felt it. We all benefited from playing with him. There are so many subtle things a leader will do that makes your team what it is. Having a leader like Quinn differentiated us from a lot of other good teams."
Buckner's office at Bankers Life Fieldhouse indirectly hints at his leadership ability by proving his lack of interest in individual glory. You wouldn't find a single hint of his career at IU on the walls. The best indication of his lack of ego is the framed newspaper article about him that someone presented to him. It rests on the floor, turned toward the wall.
Soon, Buckner will have another honor to make him feel uncomfortable. But it will mean a lot to his family and friends.
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