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For former NBA player Chase Budinger, a second career in beach volleyball was a path to the Olympics

After seven years in the NBA, Chase Budinger still had some goals left on his dream board.

The former Rockets and Timberwolves forward has wanted to compete in the Olympics ever since he was a child, when his family would pore over the TV schedule to decide which events to watch.

“There were even some Games where I think my parents let me skip school to watch the Olympics,” Budinger told The Associated Press this month after he qualified for the Paris Games. “Just watching the history and the celebration and everything that goes into the Olympics, I was always thinking how would it be if I could get there someday.”

It will be beach volleyball — not basketball — that landed the 6-foot-7 redhead on Team USA. Budinger, who didn’t start playing regularly on the beach until after his NBA career ended, qualified for the Summer Games with partner Miles Evans; both will be making their Olympic debuts in Paris.

"Once I decided to start my next career, my main focus — my main goal — was the Olympics,” Budinger said. “I’ve always said it from Day 1: This is it. This is the goal. This is the highest standard that you could get.”

Now 36, Budinger grew up on the California coast between San Diego and Los Angeles — a beach volleyball hotbed — playing basketball and indoor volleyball in high school. He was offered the chance to continue with both in college at either UCLA or Southern Cal but was drawn instead to Arizona to play for Hall of Fame basketball coach Lute Olson.

Focusing solely on basketball, Budinger started all three seasons for the Wildcats, averaging 18 points and six rebounds as a senior while leading the team to the NCAA Sweet 16. He was picked in the second round of the NBA draft and played three seasons in Houston and three more with Minnesota before he bounced to Indiana and Phoenix and Brooklyn, then out of the league.

That’s when he had to decide whether to play basketball in Europe or dust off his old volleyball skills.

“I finally decided to make the switch, which was a very difficult and grueling decision,” he said. “I kept weighing the pros and cons: Should I continue to play European basketball, or should I start my next career? And eventually I decided to start my next career."

Budinger teamed up for a time with former Olympians Sean Rosenthal and Casey Patterson before joining with Miles Evans for this qualifying season. Budinger and Evans finished 13th in the FIVB rankings, good enough to earn the second American men’s berth. (Pairs qualify for the Olympics by earning points on the international tour over a two-year period; there is a limit of two teams per country.)

Budinger knows that playing in the Olympics will be different from watching it on TV with his family. He and Evans have been asking their friends around the pro beach volleyball tours for tips on how to prepare for the two-week tournament and all the pomp surrounding it.

“They all try to tell me to enjoy the experience, to try to enjoy all the other athletes and talk to them as much as you can and go to other sporting events,” Budinger said. “But they also said how tough it is because you get wrapped into this mode where you’re enjoying too much of it and you’re not focused on your actual job.”

One lingering question for Budinger is whether to march in the opening ceremony — his longtime dream — even though it can be a late and exhausting night, with the beach volleyball competition starting the next morning. (The pools and schedule for the Olympic tournament have not been determined yet.)

For a basketball star-turned-beach volleyball Olympian, balancing two separate roles is familiar territory.

“I’m trying to get my head wrapped around being like two different people, right? Like, one person to just enjoy this experience and try to enjoy every moment of it, trying to see as many different sporting events as I can,” he said. But then also to be locked in as that athlete, competing.

“And really trying to manage that dealing with enjoying the experience, but also having the type of focus trying to win this Olympics as well. So, you know, it’s like my main goal is to try to do both," he said, “and we’ll see how it goes.”

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AP Summer Olympics: https://apnews.com/hub/2024-paris-olympic-games

Jimmy Golen, The Associated Press