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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

Punahou, Barack Obama’s school, produced Olympic talent in 4 sports

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Some high schools have a swimming tradition. Others produce great ice hockey or water polo players. The Punahou School in Honolulu, private and K-12, is best known for a student who also played basketball — its most famous graduate, Barack Obama.

Also this: Dating to Obama’s tenure in 1976, at least one Punahou student went on to make the last 11 U.S. Summer Olympic teams.

And with the addition of skateboarding and surfing to the Olympic program, there are former Punahou students among the best in the country in four different Olympic sports, plus another Paralympic sport.

“One of my favorite things about going to Punahou was that I felt like I was surrounded by a lot of excellence,” said Carissa Moore, the reigning world champion in surfing and a Punahou grad. “A lot of my friends are some of the smartest girls, women. … The whole school, everyone is doing something.”

Moore, 27, qualified for the U.S. Olympic team with her fourth world title last year. Heimana Reynolds is the reigning world champ in park skateboarding.

Brothers Taylor and Trevor Crabb are on different beach volleyball teams ranked among the top three in the country. Erik Shoji is a veteran libero and Micah Ma’a a promising setter and outside hitter for the U.S. indoor volleyball team.

Shelby Baron is a Rio Paralympic wheelchair tennis player who is now ranked third in the country.

It’s possible that they could all qualify for the Tokyo Games, which have been postponed to summer 2021 due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Punahou, whose name means “the New Spring,” referencing renewal and a spring at the center of the campus, bills itself as the largest single-campus independent school in the U.S. and reportedly the oldest west of the Mississippi.

It was founded in 1841 with a first class of 15 students who were children of congregational missionaries. Now, it has more than 3,700. Annual tuition is $26,000, though there are financial aid options.

“This used to be an elite school, you know. Mostly rich. Predominantly Caucasian,” said Eric Kusunoki, who was Obama’s homeroom teacher for four years as part of his four decades working at Punahou. “But then when I stepped foot here, I said, wow, you know, it’s so diverse. Hawaii’s golden people, you know.

“It’s [a] very cosmopolitan campus and very reflective of what Hawaii is like.”

The school has been compared to Stanford. Sports Illustrated ranked it the No. 1 high school athletic program in 2008, replete with an eight-page magazine spread, and again in 2009. The magazine deemed it a “76-acre citadel of academic and athletic excellence where Aristotle meets Duke Kahanamoku.”

Kahanamoku, the Olympic swimming champion and surfing pioneer, never attended Punahou.

But several famous athletes are among the alumni. Like Michelle Wie, Manti Te’o and Obama, who played one season of varsity basketball on the Buff n’ Blue’s 1979 state title team.

In fact, Obama wrote in his autobiography that the lure of Punahou helped keep him in the States with his grandparents rather than flying back to Indonesia with his mom.

Obama, needing a financial aid scholarship to attend, toured the campus with his grandfather before the fifth grade. “Gramps grabbed me by the arm. ‘Hell, Bar,’ he whispered, ‘this isn’t a school. This is heaven,’” Obama wrote.

“He wasn’t a big standout,” Kusunoki said of the student they called Barry. “But yet everybody knew him. He was well-liked, well-known, but he did it real subtly.”

Others followed Obama with athletic success. Reynolds was a skateboard prodigy, profiled by the local NBC affiliate as a 10-year-old before leaving Punahou after 10th grade. He switched to online classes to accommodate all his traveling for competition.

Skateboarding and surfing are not sanctioned high school sports in Hawaii. Moore still won a record 11 National Scholastic Surfing Association titles. In her spare time, she was such a convincing tour guide for prospective Punahou students that admissions officers called her “The Closer,” according to SI.

“I have heard this,” Moore said, smiling when told the nickname. “It wasn’t really ever a big thing for me, but yes, I would bring potential prospects that would come to the school and stuff and give them tours.

“It’s just a beautiful environment to learn. It’s a very comfortable, free environment. The best part of this community is they’re going to support you in chasing your dreams.”

Moore said she was classmates with Taylor Crabb, one half of the U.S.’ top-ranked men’s beach volleyball team. Taylor’s mom, Paula, a champion canoe racer, has been a Punahou P.E. teacher since Obama was there. Taylor and partner Jake Gibb have been competing against Taylor’s older brother, Trevor, and Tri Bourne for Olympic beach volleyball berths.

It’s possible both Crabb brothers, who grew up a five-minute walk from the Punahou campus, can make it to Tokyo.

“Whenever someone says, oh, I went to Punahou, the first thing someone says is, oh, it’s where Barack Obama went,” said Trevor, who won a state basketball title and goes back to campus about once a year to see the old gym.

Shoji’s father, Dave, was the University of Hawaii’s women’s volleyball coach for 42 years, capturing four national titles and retiring in 2017 as the winningest coach in NCAA history. Ma’a won four state titles in volleyball at Punahou and others in football and basketball. At 22 and fresh out of UCLA, he was the second-youngest U.S. player at the 2019 Volleyball Nations League.

Both Trevor Crabb and Moore said you wouldn’t know it by walking around campus that Obama once roamed the grounds. He contributed to just one of a reported 505 state championships in the school’s history, a record for any state.

“There’s nothing up there yet,” of the 44th U.S. President, Moore said, “but it’s definitely something the school is very proud of.”

MORE: Hockey field to hospital ward: Olympian’s life amid coronavirus pandemic

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IOC, sport federations in talks about Tokyo Olympic age rules

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The International Olympic Committee and Olympic sport federations hope to finalize any adjustments to age rules for the Tokyo Games within the next two weeks.

Two sports’ rules stand out in particular.

Since the 2000 Sydney Games, an age minimum in artistic gymnastics requires female Olympians to turn 16 years old or older in the Olympic year (men must turn 18, though the age rule is less of a factor for top male gymnasts). As such, Tokyo Olympic eligibility rules state all female artistic gymnasts must be born Dec. 31, 2004, or earlier.

The International Gymnastics Federation (FIG) can choose to keep the Dec. 31, 2004, deadline. Or it could keep the 16 or older mandate by moving that date to Dec. 31, 2005 for the Tokyo Olympics in 2021. The federation hasn’t announced its plan.

Its decision could impact U.S. Olympic women’s gymnastics team selection. At least one woman who turned 16 or younger in the Olympic year made the last 10 U.S. Olympic teams. That includes Kyla Ross, the 2011 U.S. junior all-around silver medalist who made the 2012 Olympic team. And Laurie Hernandez, the 2015 U.S. junior all-around champion who made the 2016 Olympic team.

The 2019 U.S. junior all-around champion, Kayla DiCello, turned 16 on Jan. 25. The 2019 U.S. junior all-around silver medalist, Konnor McClain, turns 16 on Feb. 1, 2021. Under the 2020 Olympic eligibility rules, McClain is 32 days too young for the Tokyo Games. If the birthdate deadline is moved one year forward, McClain would be eligible.

Another sport facing an age decision: men’s soccer. Olympic men’s soccer tournaments are limited to players who turn 23 or younger in the Olympic year with three over-age exceptions. Similar to the FIG, FIFA can keep its 2020 deadline of Jan. 1, 1997. Or it can keep its under-23 mandate and move the birthdate deadline to Jan. 1, 1998.

Fourteen of the 16 men’s soccer teams already qualified for the Games using players from under-23 national teams. The last two spots are to be filled by CONCACAF nations, potentially the U.S. qualifying a men’s team for the first time since 2008.

“You can imagine there’s a logic to looking at that, having the same athletes or teams that achieved the qualification place to be the ones taking part next year, but aiming to confirm that with the respective federations,” IOC sports director Kit McConnell said Thursday.

The U.S.’ biggest star, Christian Pulisic, was born Sept. 18, 1998, and thus will be unaffected. Same goes for French superstar Kylian Mbappe, born Dec. 20, 1998.

Brazilian forward Gabriel Jesus was born April 3, 1997, and would become an over-age exception if the birthdate rule is moved to Jan. 1, 1998.

However, players need permission from their professional club teams to play in the Olympics, often limiting the availability of stars.

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