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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

Madison Hubbell, Zach Donohue can make it 10 straight at Skate America

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If Madison Hubbell and Zach Donohue ever lacked motivation in the post-Olympic summer, they needed only scan their Montreal training ice.

They would spot France’s Gabriella Papadakis and Guillaume Cizeron, the only ice dancers from the Olympic podium who return this season. Papadakis and Cizeron relegated the Americans to silver at March’s world championships, one month after Hubbell and Donohue were fourth in PyeongChang (the French took silver). They have trained under the same coaches in Quebec for three years.

They would also see Madison Chock and Evan Bates and Kaitlin Hawayek and Jean-Luc Baker, the third- and fourth-place finishers from January’s U.S. Championships. Those couples moved to the Montreal group in the spring. They are Hubbell and Donohue’s top threats to repeat as national champions in Detroit in three months, given U.S. silver medalists Maia Shibutani and Alex Shibutani are also taking a break.

Practicing next to rivals is often shunned in sports. It has elevated ice dance the last several years.

Canadians Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir and Americans Meryl Davis and Charlie White trained together in Michigan and split the Olympic gold and silver medals in 2010 and 2014.

When Virtue and Moir returned from a two-year break in 2016, they joined the Montreal group and went one-two with training partners Papadakis and Cizeron at every major competition through PyeongChang.

Hubbell and Donohue thrived last season, their third in Montreal, winning their first national title after six straight years of finishing third or fourth. They were in position for an Olympic medal, third after the short dance, but Donohue fell in the free dance (as he did at 2017 Worlds after they were third in the short).

Then at worlds in March, they delivered back-to-back podium-worthy performances on the global stage for the first time for that silver medal. They are the world No. 2 and the favorites at this weekend’s Skate America, with the French not in the field.

U.S. couples have won nine straight Skate Americas, more than the other three disciplines combined in the last decade.

MORE: Skate America TV/Stream Schedule

“Clearly this formula is working for them,” NBC Sports analyst and 2006 Olympic ice dance silver medalist Tanith White said. “It has proven to work for many of the greatest teams in ice dance over the last few decades. … I cannot see a drawback.”

Hubbell and Donohue (and Papadakis and Cizeron) appear to agree.

They joked back and forth at a press conference after worlds in March. Asked how they would spend the offseason, Cizeron looked straight at Hubbell and Donohue and said, jokingly, “Our goal is to get drunk together as many times as we can.”

“As much as our own personal accomplishment is pretty incredible, being on the podium with training mates and having, literally, everyone from our training center skate the best programs of their season, all at the same competition, was pretty incredible,” Donohue said last week.

Hubbell and Donohue should breeze through Skate America in Everett, Wash. Nobody else from the top nine in PyeongChang is in the field. They’re the favorites next week at Skate Canada, too.

The first real test will be at December’s Grand Prix Final, where Papadakis and Cizeron should join them. Hubbell and Donohue never outscored the French in nine head-to-head competitions and were more than 10 points adrift at worlds.

“The French, where they left off last season, I think that they are still in a category on their own based on the last time we saw those two teams go up against each other,” White said. 

Hubbell said the world silver medal showed that they had tackled their demons, fear and history of errors. If the next goal is gold, they must conquer a much more visible foe, one they see every day on the ice.

“The podium at worlds,” Hubbell said, “was the moment I was able to leave that season behind me and go into the future.”

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NHL helped end USA Hockey, women’s national team wage dispute

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The NHL’s support of women’s hockey included the league stepping in at the last moment to end a wage dispute between USA Hockey and national team players threatening to boycott the 2017 World Championship on home ice.

Two people familiar with the situation said the NHL agreed to pay USA Hockey to help fund the four-year agreement reached in March 2017. The people spoke to The Associated Press on the condition of anonymity because the league and USA Hockey have not made that information public.

The NHL also supports the idea of one women’s professional league and has several member teams involved in both leagues.

The Buffalo Sabres purchased the Buffalo Beauts in December to become the NHL’s first franchise to fully own an National Women’s Hockey League (NWHL) team. The Calgary Flames, Toronto Maple Leafs and Montreal Canadiens each have partnerships with Canadian Women’s Hockey League (CWHL) teams based in their respective cities.

The NHL has been careful to avoid the appearance of favoring one league over the other. Commissioner Gary Bettman told the AP last month he has no interest in forming a third league because he doesn’t want the NHL “to look like a bully” by pushing the existing leagues out of business.

Players want a single North American women’s professional hockey league. Bettman does, too. And now NWHL founder and Commissioner Dani Rylan is on record saying she is working toward that objective.

“One league is inevitable,” Rylan wrote in an email to the AP, her strongest statement regarding a potential merger with the rival CWHL.

Rylan’s comments come nearly four years after she split from the CWHL to establish the NWHL, which became the first women’s hockey league to pay its players a salary.

The investor-funded NWHL has provided a framework for how a pro women’s league can function, but most observers agree that two leagues competing for the same talent pool and limited financial resources isn’t going to last — or help the game grow.

The U.S.-based NWHL, in its fourth season, grew to five teams after expanding into Minnesota this year. The CWHL, in its 12th season, began paying its players a salary for the first time last year and has six teams, including ones in Worcester, Massachusetts, and China.

Rylan is now echoing what Jayna Hefford said in July upon being named the CWHL’s interim commissioner. The former Canadian star called the formation of one league “a priority” and projected it could happen within two years.

Rylan’s comments also come after both leagues discussed merger options this summer, a person with direct knowledge of the discussions told The AP. Also on the table is an NWHL proposal for both league champions to compete in an end-of-season playoff, the person said, speaking on the condition of anonymity because the talks were private.

Rylan confirmed she’s spoken to Hefford, and added: “There is a path, and Jayna and I and our business partners will continue those discussions.”

Hefford expressed cautious optimism regarding the possibility of joining forces.

“It’s certainly something we have to figure out,” she said, while noting she’s still new on the job. “I’m trying to understand what the challenges are, what the roadblocks are and try to figure out a way to get us to the point where we have one truly professional women’s hockey league.”

Hefford was scheduled to meet this week with NHL officials, including Bettman, for the first time since replacing former commissioner Brenda Andress.

Bettman is hesitant of the NHL assuming control of the CWHL or NWHL because, as he put it, “we don’t believe in their models.”

“We need to start on a clean slate,” Bettman said.

“If at some point the leagues say, ‘We’ve had enough, we don’t see this as a long-term solution, we’d like you to start up and we’ll discontinue operations,’ then we’ll do it. But we’re not pushing it,” he said. “If we’re going to get involved, it cannot fail, which means it has to be on us.”

Rylan, who previously worked at the NHL, took exception to the comments.

“What’s it like when Gary Bettman tells the media the model for our women’s league doesn’t work? Of course, it’s really disappointing,” said Rylan, who nonetheless called Bettman a “gracious adviser.”

“Can we improve? No question about it,” she added. “If Gary and more NHL owners want to get involved in women’s hockey, that’s an awesome an exciting thing. Let’s get started now.”

Hayley Wickenheiser, a retired six-time Olympian and newly hired Maple Leafs assistant director of player development, said, “I think the NHL should and could do more and in a heartbeat make it happen.” But she placed more of an onus on the players to make it happen.

“They need to take control and move it forward, and the NHL is there and ready when they are,” said Wickenheiser, the first woman to be hired to a hockey operations role.

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