Feb. 23, 2011
By Larry Watts
A natural born leader?
Quinn Buckner would hear nothing of that. In the eyes of this 56-year-old, who is now in his 11th season as vice president of communications for Indiana Pacers Sports & Entertainment, all the credit for his leadership qualities can be traced back to the teachings of his parents, Jessica and the late William Buckner.
“I take no credit for that (leadership),’’ he says. “My parents were educators and they molded a young man to do what was right and everybody just followed me. My parents made a point of how I should act and it was clear there was a hierarchy, an appropriate behavior and a way to avoid conflict.’’
Through his playing days at Thornridge High School in Chicago’s southeast suburban Dolton, four years at Indiana University and another 10 seasons in the National Basketball Association, Buckner was never the dominant star. But his teams won and they won often.
He was the starting guard when Thornridge won back-to-back Illinois prep titles in 1971 and ’72 while compiling a 64-1 record, including a 33-0 run in his senior year. Through four years leading Indiana, the Hoosiers were 108-12, including their national championship run of 32-0 in 1976.
Throw in an Olympic gold medal in 1976 and an NBA title with the Boston Celtics in 1984 and Buckner became the second of three players ever to complete the basketball sweep — high school, college, Olympics and NBA. The first was former Ohio State standout Jerry Lucas and Michigan State’s Earvin “Magic’’ Johnson joined the group after the 1992 Olympics.
“Before the Olympics, Magic came up to me and said, ‘You are the only one who has more than me’ and at the time I didn’t know what he was talking about,’’ Buckner says. “I happened to be part of the broadcast team in Barcelona, Spain when the USA won the gold and Magic came up to me and said, ‘Gotcha.’ That’s when it hit me.
“Accomplishing that feat is not something I sit around and think about. I had heard so much about Lucas from coach (Bob) Knight, who played with him at Ohio State. The thing I find most interesting about it is all three of us played for Big Ten schools.’’
As an incoming freshman, Buckner was in the second group of students to be bused from Phoenix to predominantly-white Thornridge High School.
“Thornton and Thornridge were both in the same school district,’’ he says. “My parents were paying taxes for both schools, so they decided I should be able to go to whatever school they wanted.’’
Buckner was a Prep All-American in both football and basketball at Thornridge. Although his athletic prowess was evident early in high school, he had to learn patience.
“Heading into my sophomore year, I had practiced all summer with the varsity football team and anyone who watched would tell you I was clearly the more skilled safety out there, but I was told to go back to the sophomore team,’’ he says. “I told my dad I was through with football, but he stayed on me every day. He finally told me in my senior year that one of the coaches had told him the community was not ready yet for a kid from Phoenix to move up to varsity. Until they started busing us in, Thornridge had been 85-to-90 percent white.’’
In basketball, Buckner played on the sophomore team as a freshman and then joined the varsity for the postseason of his sophomore season. He wound up running the show for head coach Ron Ferguson in his final two seasons.
“I played with some really good players,’’ he says. “There was no reason for jealousy, but I have since learned there was some.’’
The lone blemish on the Falcons’ record during their two-year state title run came at the hands of Mounds Meridian during a holiday tournament in Buckner’s junior season.
“We deserved to get beat; it was something like 48-40,’’ Buckner says. “They played very well and we were cocky about being undefeated. We played like we owned the game and didn’t respect it.
“We were humbled and coach Ferguson didn’t have to work us hard to get us to pay attention to what he was saying. We didn’t know how good we were until we got lucky and won the state title that year. That (title) was somewhat of a validation and we picked up a transfer from Thornton the following year and we knew we were going to be good again.’’
All but three of the victories during the Falcons’ second title run were by 20 or more points and no team came closer than 14. In the state championship, they routed Quincy 104-69.
“At the time you’re doing it, you’re just a kid playing and not thinking about a legacy,’’ Buckner says. “With all the good teams from Chicago, no one thought about being considered among the great teams. We were just having fun.’’
The college offers for Buckner’s services in both football and basketball came pouring in. He was also graduating at the perfect time because freshmen became eligible to play at the college level in the fall of 1972.
Indiana was an obvious choice to visit because Buckner’s father played football for the Hoosiers and his older sister was a student in Bloomington. He also took trips to UCLA, Michigan, Kansas, Cincinnati and Illinois.
“I was all ready to go to UCLA,’’ he says. “But coach (John) Wooden didn’t make home visits and I had to meet him at an airport. My dad didn’t say anything until later, but this really upset him.
“In the conversation with Coach Wooden, he understood I was also going to play football and he made the comment that it would be really tough at UCLA. My dad later found out Wooden had a redshirt player he was planning to use as the starting guard, so it became clear I would not be receiving a fair shake. UCLA then got whacked.’’
According to Buckner, Knight’s visit to the house produced a mixed response.
“My mom loved him, but my dad was ambivalent and very apprehensive,’’ he says. “On the last day of the signing period, I was lying across my bed and my dad came in and threw the letter of intent on my bed and said, ‘Sign this boy, you’re going to Indiana University.’
“That’s how my house was run and it was the right thing to do because my dad knew I was procrastinating. It was not a decision I was anxious to make because I was a momma’s boy and I didn’t want to leave home.’’
However, the letter of intent Buckner’s father had him sign was for football.
“My dad was an educated man and he had street smarts,’’ he added. “He knew what Coach Knight was like as a coach and nobody likes to see their kid get in a situation where someone is verbally reprimanding you in public as strongly as he does. He had me sign the football scholarship because he didn’t want that man (Knight) having too much control over me. And he convinced Coach Knight by telling him this would free up another scholarship for him.
“My dad was all about control. I never had a problem with Coach Knight and my dad eventually told me the main reason he sent me to Coach Knight was he knew he would never lie to me. There were going to be a lot of people who would lie to me in life, but he wouldn’t be one of them.’’
Buckner was the starting free safety for John Pont during his first season on the Indiana football team. He was also on all the kickoff and punt teams. But when Pont left for Northwestern and Lee Corso came in the following season, he began having second thoughts.
“Let’s just say Coach Corso is perfect for what he is doing today,’’ Buckner says. “He wasn’t a terrible coach, but his way of coaching was hard for me. He liked to have gimmicks and I thought a couple of the things he was doing were making a mockery out of the situation. Football is not a game where you try and trick people; you figure out who hits the hardest and who will make the plays.’’
Buckner’s father convinced him to stick it out one year with Corso, but it was a tough season. Some helpful advice from basketball teammate Scott May convinced him he was making the right move by leaving football at the end of the year.
“Scott was an All-American tight end in Ohio, so he knew a little something about football,’’ Buckner says. “He’d come out to all the games and told me they weren’t blocking for me. Coupled with getting my brains knocked out against Michigan and Ohio State, it was an easy decision. I was more naturally gifted in football, but basketball was my favorite sport.’’
Although he was splitting time between the gridiron and hardwood, it didn’t take Buckner long to make an impact with the Hoosier basketball program. He averaged 10.8 points as a freshman, when Indiana went 22-6 and won the Big Ten title. In a rare move, he was named captain as a sophomore, when Indiana was 23-5 and shared the conference crown with Michigan.
“The fact I was named captain can be attributed to teachings of my parents,’’ he says. “I had always been held to a higher standard because my parents were teachers. Trying to uphold that standard meant I was least likely to get outside the rules, boundaries or limitations. It made me a de facto leader and people just gravitated toward me, but I take no credit for that.
“Scott (May) and Bobby (Wilkerson) were leaders as well, but I was more apt to challenge people when they got out of line. I’m a little more outgoing and if I believe I’m right, I will challenge you.’’
Buckner remembers Knight taking a team vote for captains each year. But to this day, he’s still not sure the results reflected that vote.
“I think the vote reflected what he decided and we just didn’t know it,’’ he says with a laugh. “He would tell me later, ‘Do you think I was going to let you guys mess that up?’ The decisions he didn’t care about he let us have, but he wouldn’t turn over the important ones to us. He let us think he did, but that was all part of his brilliance.’’
Although they shared the conference title, the 1974-75 season marked the lone time Indiana didn’t receive a bid to the NCAA Tournament in Buckner’s career. Only 25 teams received invites and since there was no conference tournament, Indiana lost a playoff game to Michigan at Illinois to determine the Big Ten’s representative.
“There was no reason why we shouldn’t have been in the tournament other than those were the rules then,’’ he says.
With the field expanded to 32 teams in 1975, Indiana rolled to an undefeated regular season, which included a victory over Kentucky. However, May suffered a broken arm near the end of the season and was just working his way back into the lineup when the Hoosiers dropped a 92-90 rematch with Kentucky in the regional finals and ending the year 31-1.
“We were a different team after Scott’s injury because he was clearly our best player,’’ says Buckner, who averaged a career-high 11.8 that season. “Kentucky played harder this time and I think we had some guys who were immature in the way they handled Scott’s return to the lineup.’’
With Buckner earning All-America accolades for the second straight year, Indiana proceeded to run the table the following season. The year included three wins over Michigan, including an 86-68 victory in the NCAA championship, but it was the 65-51 victory over UCLA in the semifinals that really sticks out with Buckner.
“The year before, Knight asked us what we thought about playing UCLA in the opening game of the season,’’ he says. “He no sooner got the words out of his mouth before we said yes.
“UCLA was the dominant team in college basketball at the time and we beat them. Then when it came time to meet them in the semifinals, one of their players said our first meeting was just a practice game. It didn’t hurt my feelings to beat Michigan three times, but I took great satisfaction in beating UCLA a second time.’’
Indiana was forced to play most of the victory over Michigan without Wilkerson, who suffered a concussion in the first half and was removed on a stretcher.
“Part of the reason we sustained was because we had played without Scott the year before,’’ Buckner says. “Even though Bobby was a freak of nature at 6-7 and did so many amazing things, we didn’t miss a beat. The only thing that bothered us was Knight wouldn’t let us visit him in the hospital afterward.’’
Before heading off to the 1976 Olympics in Montreal, Buckner was the seventh overall pick in the NBA draft by the Milwaukee Bucks despite averaging only 10 points per game for his Hoosier career.
“I wasn’t shocked because I kind of had a sense of what was going on,’’ he says. “Knight, (Milwaukee general manager) Wayne Embry, (NBA consultant) Pete Newell and (Boston general manager) Red Auerbach had all been talking and it was pretty clear I was going in the first round.
“Truthfully, I didn’t feel I could play (in the NBA) until my senior year, after seeing some of the guys from my junior season make it. I didn’t care where I was going to go, I was more interested in that chance to play.’’
But first and foremost in his mind that summer was avenging the fiasco in the gold medal game of the 1972 Olympics, when the Soviet Union was given three chances in the final three seconds to defeat the USA for the first time in the history of the Olympics.
“I watched those games and I wanted to be part of the group to recover the gold medal,’’ Buckner says.
North Carolina coach Dean Smith, whose team included six ACC players (four from North Carolina), picked May and Buckner from the national champions squad. They rolled to an 8-0 record and brought home the gold.
“It was more important for me to reach that goal than gain redemption,’’ Buckner says. “To wear that gold medal around your neck for your country, I can’t explain the feeling. To be an NBA Champion is unique, but wearing a gold medal is more unique than that.
“Coach Smith was very smart in the way he selected the team. He had four of his players from his team and they could translate and show the rest of us what Coach Smith wanted. That’s a big reason why Coach Knight had Steve Alford on the Olympic team in ’84.’’
Buckner says his gold medal is locked away in a safety deposit box.
“I showed it to my (four) kids a long time ago, but they understand that’s not who I am,’’ he says. “It’s the same with my Celtics championship ring and my NCAA ring; I just don’t wear jewelry. I’m not about that and there’s no need for me to look at them.’’
Buckner played six seasons in Milwaukee, making all 70 starts for the Bucks in 1981-82.
“Those six seasons in Milwaukee were terrific,’’ he says. “I played with smart guys, had success and fun; you can’t ask for more than that. We just didn’t have enough depth to win the title.’’
But at the end of the 1982 season, Bucks coach Don Nelson, a former player with the Celtics, orchestrated a trade with Boston for former teammate Dave Cowens, who had been retired from basketball for two years.
“I was insulted by the concept,’’ Buckner says. “I was a starting point guard being traded for a guy who had been terrific in his years but had been sitting out for two years. I really struggled with that concept until Coach Knight pulled me aside and convinced me I was getting a chance to play for one of the most storied franchises in all of sports and I would have a chance to win that fourth title.’’
Buckner started 56 of 72 games in his first season with the Celtics and Knight’s foresight came true in the second year, when Boston won the NBA title in 1984.
“The worst part of the Boston experience was in the first year, when Milwaukee swept us in the playoffs,’’ he says. “That was the first time in history Boston had ever been swept in the playoffs and it motivated us to win the championship the next season because we never wanted that taste again.’’
Buckner only started six games in his third season and averaged an NBA-low of 2.4 points. He was then shipped to the Indiana Pacers, where he was eventually cut 32 games into the 1985-86 season.
“I was traded here to teach the kids how to be successful, but I wasn’t very good at it,’’ he says. “I got mired in my own self-pity to tell you the truth. When I got here, I was angry about being traded and then my father died. He had been such a strong figure for me from an athletic standpoint.
“All things that had made me successful in my career, where I was more of an extrovert, ultimately were my downfall here. I was leading more definitively than the head coach and staff would have liked. Embry was general manager with the Cleveland Cavaliers and asked me if I wanted to be an assistant coach with Lenny Wilkens, but I was burned out and needed to get out.’’
Not interested in getting back in the NBA rat race, Buckner began a consulting business for systems integration and computer technology. Later in the summer of 1986, he was approached to start doing TV work for ESPN and CBS, which led to gigs with the Cleveland Cavaliers and Minnesota Timberwolves.
In 1993, Dallas general manager Rick Sund convinced him to become the Mavericks head coach. Buckner went 13-69 in his only season as a coach and found himself looking for work the following spring. He returned to doing college games on CBS and NBA radio work until landing his current job with the Pacers 11 years ago.
“I pretty much manage a youth basketball program throughout the metropolitan area and state for the Pacers,’’ he says. “I spend a lot of time supporting community and charity outings as well as doing analyst work for some 50 Pacers’ games on cable television. I’m also doing four games for the Big Ten Network this year.’’
While Buckner excelled as a leader on all levels of the basketball court, he knows where credit is due. He will be the first to admit the molding process began with his parents and it was fine-tuned along the way by people like Ferguson, Knight and Embry.
Behind every leader stands an equally strong supporting cast.