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Chase Budinger, former NBA player, shoots for Olympic beach volleyball

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NEW YORK — LeBron James. Dwight Howard. Kevin Durant. Harrison Barnes.

Just four athletes have been named MVP of the McDonald’s High School All-American boys’ basketball game and won an Olympic gold medal this century.

Chase Budinger aspires to be the fifth, despite having not played in the NBA since 2016.

“I’m a professional beach volleyball player now,” Budinger, a seven-season NBA veteran, said at the AVP New York City Open last week. “I’m still getting used to saying that.”

Budinger used his size — 6-foot-7 — and athleticism — he dunked over Diddy in the 2012 NBA Slam Dunk Contest — to transition to the sand.

Budinger is no stranger to the sport.

He played indoor volleyball in high school and was named the 2006 National Player of the Year by Volleyball Magazine.

For college, he decided among the University of Arizona, UCLA and USC. UCLA and USC offered the opportunity to play both basketball and volleyball, but coach Lute Olson sold him on basketball in Arizona.

“I decided to see how far basketball could take me,” said Budinger, whose older brother and sister both played college volleyball. “But in the back of my mind, I knew could always go back to volleyball after I was done with basketball.”

Budinger played beach volleyball every summer to keep his skills sharp and stay active in the offseason. He regularly partnered with fellow NBA players including Richard Jefferson, Kevin Love and Luke Walton.

About four years ago, Budinger moved to California’s South Bay, home to many of the nation’s top beach volleyball players, including two-time Olympian Sean Rosenthal. During pick-up games, Rosenthal often suggested that Budinger try beach volleyball when his basketball career ended.

“I thought partnering with Chase would be low risk with a very high reward,” said Rosenthal, who competed at the 2008 and 2012 Olympics with Jake Gibb, and has also played with 2008 Olympic champion Phil Dalhausser. “Chase reminds me of guys like that. He moves so well for a big guy.”

In January, Budinger agreed to practice with Rosenthal while his agent solicited professional basketball offers. After a couple of weeks, Budinger was hooked.

“I get to bike to work everyday and practice on the beach,” said Budinger, who has not touched a basketball in three months. “It’s a good life.”

The transition has not been easy.

Budinger and Rosenthal had a daunting draw in their first international tournament as partners in May. They lost to 2016 Olympic bronze medalists of Alexander Brouwer and Robert Meeuwsen of the Netherlands, and were eliminated by three-time Olympic medalist Ricardo Santos of Brazil.

They also went winless in their first domestic AVP tournament, as Budinger battled the flu while they played under the unforgiving Austin, Texas sun.

“We’ve had some bad luck,” Budinger said. “But it’s like any sport. I remember my first NBA game. I think I had two turnovers and an airball in my first couple of minutes. Then in the second half, I was able to calm down.”

Budinger’s goal is to compete for a medal at an Olympics, either in 2020 or 2024. He acknowledged that qualifying for the 2020 Tokyo Games “is a possibility, but a long shot.”

The U.S. can send a maximum of two teams to Tokyo. Dalhausser and Nick Lucena are third in the world ranking, but no other U.S. pair is in the top 20. The 2020 Olympic qualification period begins in earnest in September.

NBC Olympics analyst Dain Blanton agreed that 2020 Olympics is “possible” for Budinger but it “might be too soon.”

“The sky is the limit with Chase’s volleyball background and his competitive greatness as he has shown in the NBA,” said Blanton, a 2000 Olympic champion.  “He will be a force at the net as a blocker with his size and will also be a great attacker.”

Playing an outdoor sport is an adjustment for Budinger, whose high school volleyball teammates nicknamed him “Casper.”

“It’s been a lot of sunscreen and a lot of reapplying,” he said. “This is as tan as I’ve ever been.”

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VIDEO: Beach volleyball on top of a Ferris wheel

Simone Biles routing field, edging note card at U.S. Gymnastics Championships

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BOSTON — Simone Biles leads the field by a whopping 3.1 points halfway through the U.S. Gymnastics Championships. She beat the number at the bottom of the note card in her locker at the World Champions Centre in Texas by a much smaller margin.

No matter the perspective, Biles was more dominant on Friday night than during most of the Rio Olympic cycle. In just her second meet in two years. Nine months after returning to training after a 14-month break.

Biles tallied the highest score on every apparatus in the field and the world’s highest all-around score since Rio — 60.1 points. The second-highest score since Rio? Biles’ 58.7 from her comeback meet at the U.S. Classic three weeks ago.

“At Classics, I was still easing back into everything and kind of feeling the surroundings and getting used to competing again,” Biles, 21, said on the fifth anniversary of her first U.S. all-around title. “I feel like today I really embraced it.”

NATIONALS: Scores | TV/Stream Schedule

In the last Olympic cycle, Biles averaged a 1.94-point lead after the first day of nationals.

She rolls into the final day of competition Sunday, looking to become the first woman to win five U.S. all-around titles and the first non-teen to win since 1971. And send another message ahead of October’s world championships.

Morgan Hurd, who won the 2017 World all-around title in Biles’ absence, is in a distant second after four clean routines. The margin between Biles and Hurd is greater than the margin between Hurd and the eighth-place gymnast.

Asked to put her 60-pointer in perspective, Biles brought up the note card.

“I think it says 60 at the bottom,” said Biles, who hit 62.366 in Rio under a different scoring system.

Biles hit 60 points in a practice meet at her gym right before she left for the U.S. Classic. Her new coaches, Cecile and Laurent Landi, encouraged Biles to keep the visual reminder placed in her locker leading up to nationals.

“I wanted to show her that she could reach that score,” Laurent Landi said. “It’s not a big deal. If she does normal, she can be there.”

But nobody else can. Biles had 25.4 total points in difficulty on Friday. The next-highest gymnast (Hurd) had 22.7.

Biles essentially began the meet with a 2.7-point head start. She then was judged to have better overall execution than everybody else, even though she had the disadvantage of performing harder routines.

“She’s just mentally there,” said Riley McCusker, who led Biles going into the last rotation at the U.S. Classic and is in third place here. “She can take that time off and [be] physically there, too.”

BILES ROUTINES: Balance Beam | Floor Exercise | Uneven Bars | Vault 1 | Vault 2

Biles’ flaw in her comeback meet three weeks ago was the uneven bars. She fell trying a more difficult routine than in Rio.

On Friday, Biles nailed her bars set, receiving applause from Laurent Landi, who coached Madison Kocian to a bars silver in Rio.

Biles has never won a national title on bars. At the Olympics, she had the highest scores in the all-around on beam, floor and vault and the seventh-highest score on bars.

“She needs to go through more mental belief that she [belongs] at this level on the bars,” said Laurent Landi, a 40-year-old former French gymnast.

Landi insisted Biles was not at her best Friday. He noted her two overcooked tumbling passes on floor that cost her six tenths for going out of bounds. Imperfect landings on other events. He dismissed Biles’ lead and said he already has plans for upgraded routines before worlds, next year and possibly in the Olympic year.

“Sometimes when it’s difficult in the gym, we, my wife and I, try just to remind her who she’s trying to beat,” he said. “It’s herself.”

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GYM NATIONALS: TV/Stream Schedule | Where Are The Final Five?

Laurie Hernandez faces big decisions before comeback

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BOSTON — Laurie Hernandez still hopes to compete in 2019, but she must find a coach and a gym first. And transition from conditioning to regular gymnastics training.

“Kind of dipping my toe in the water,” she said Friday at the U.S. Gymnastics Championships, where she is strictly a spectator.

Hernandez hasn’t competed since earning team gold and balance beam silver in Rio. Other than Simone Biles, she is the only member of the Final Five openly expressing a desire to return to elite competition next year.

“Because I’m still passionate about it,” she said. “Ever since I was a little girl I’ve always loved it, and I still do. It’s still really important to me.”

Hernandez said she has been on gymnastics equipment every so often but not consistently. She has said hello to new U.S. high-performance team coordinator Tom Forster.

She hopes to pick Aly Raisman‘s brain about coming back. Raisman took almost a year off after the 2012 London Games, then trained for a full year before returning to competition in March 2015.

Unlike Raisman, Hernandez said there is no unfinished business from the Olympics that motivates her.

“I know what I’m getting myself into,” Hernandez said. “It’s kind of like curiosity killed the cat but satisfaction brought it back. Being 16, being so curious, not really knowing what I’m walking into, that was such an interesting experience [in Rio].”

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GYM NATIONALS: TV/Stream Schedule | Where Are The Final Five?