Pacers' small investment paid off big with Buse
by Conrad Brunner
Indianapolis - When Don Buse was poised on the precipice of a professional basketball career, his choices did not involve multi-million-dollar signing bonuses, shoe contracts, commercial endorsements, charter jets, five-star hotels or other such perks.
Buse's decision-making priority list was much simpler, fully illustrative of just how different the game was in the 1970s.
Emerging from Evansville as a certified Division II star, a prolific guard that just led his team to the national championship, Buse had three options: compete with other collegians for a spot on the 1972 U.S. Olympic team or sign with one of the two professional teams that had drafted him -- Phoenix of the NBA and Virginia of the ABA.
Ready to turn pro, Buse ruled out the Olympic trials. That set up a series of events that led to a prolific career -- not with the Suns or Squires, but the Indiana Pacers.
"Really, what I was looking for was a signing bonus that was enough to pay off a Volkswagen that I had bought my senior year in college," Buse said.
Virginia had plenty of guards but as a member of the ABA fraternity didn't want to lose a talented player to the NBA, so the Squires traded Buse's rights to the Pacers, who had an opening in the backcourt after trading away Rick Mount.
"I just happened to be at the right place at the right time," Buse said. "The reason I signed with the Pacers instead of Phoenix was they offered me a $3,000 signing bonus and Phoenix didn't. "
Giving Buse enough money to pay off that little VW proved to be one of the soundest investments the Pacers ever made. Like the Beetle, Buse was low-maintenance, dependable -- and both ultimately turned out to be iconic.
The 6-4 point guard from Huntingburg, Ind., proved an unassuming but productive standout with the Pacers, one of the few players to successfully make the transition from the ABA to the NBA after the merger in 1976. Buse and Billy Knight, in fact, were the only Pacers players to make All-Star teams in both leagues, both doing so in 1976 (ABA) and 1977 (NBA).
He is the only player ever to lead both leagues in assists and steals in the same season. He averaged 8.2 assists and 4.12 steals in the ABA's final season and 8.5 assists and 3.47 steals in the Pacers' first NBA campaign. His nine steals against St. Louis in 1975 remains a franchise single-game record (tied twice by fellow defensive ace Dudley Bradley in 1980).
Not bad for a guy who wasn't sure he was good enough to make it as a pro.
"There was always concern for me, even right out of college," he said. "I knew I was a pretty good basketball player but when you go to these pro games when you're in college you see these older guys in their late 20s and 30s and I thought, 'Man, these guys are big and strong and I don't know if I'm going to be able to compete against those guys.'
"But as you get older and you get a little stronger and more mentally ready for that kind of competition, things worked out. I think one of the things that helped me go ahead and make that transition is I was a team player. That's what got me to have the success that I had. I just happened to fit in with the right coaches and the right teammates where things worked out for me."
A reserve as a rookie when the Pacers won the 1972-73 ABA championship, Buse reached the ABA championship series in 1975 (a five-game loss to Kentucky) and the NBA's Western Conference Finals with Phoenix in 1979 (a seven-game loss to Seattle).
"That (ABA title) was quite a thrill," he said. "There was a lot of talent on that Pacer team. You go to Roger Brown, Freddie Lewis, Mel Daniels, George (McGinnis), Darnell (Hillman), Donnie Freeman -- I mean we had a lot of talent on that team. … It was the highlight of my career, really, to be on that championship team."
He actually had two stints with the Pacers. Traded to the Suns after the 1976-77 season for Ricky Sobers, he was re-acquired from Phoenix in 1980 for a pair of second-round picks. Overall, Buse spent seven seasons in Indiana, averaging 7.7 points, 5.1 assists, 3.0 rebounds and 2.38 steals.
Now 61, Buse still lives in southern Indiana, with 27 acres near his hometown of Huntingburg. He spends a few months a year as an assistant coach with Southridge High School but is otherwise looking to start a new chapter in what has been a very interesting life.
"I tried the restaurant and bar business; that didn't work out," he said. "I've been raising and racing thoroughbreds for a number of years and last year I got rid of all my horses; everything was going out and nothing was coming in.
"So I've been doing this high school basketball for 12 out of the last 14 years, four or five months out of the year."
An Indiana All-Star in 1968 after leading Holland High to an undefeated regular season, Buse's basketball roots in the state are deep. Named one of Indiana's Greatest 50 players in 1999, he also is a member of the state's Basketball Hall of Fame, and was selected to Evansville's all-time team in 2005.
"I had a good career but the things I accomplished, a lot of people deserve credit," he said. "It wasn't just me getting it done. The Pacers gave me an opportunity to start my career and Slick Leonard was my first coach, he gave me the opportunity to play. And then you've got to look at all your teammates that were a part of it, too. There's a lot of people involved when somebody has success at anything. You just don't accomplish those kinds of things by yourself."
It should come as no surprise Buse takes little credit for his success. Dishing off to others was, after all, his specialty.