Lots of guys get married, of course, but few men’s players have made the kind of rapid pro beach volleyball rise that the 6-foot-7 former NBA player has done in three years.
But Budinger wasn’t just any rookie.
His athletics resume includes eight seasons in the NBA as a small forward for the Houston Rockets and Minnesota Timberwolves (three seasons each) and the Indiana Pacers (one). He then played for the Phoenix Suns and Brooklyn Nets before ending his career with Baskonia in Spain.
Budinger, who grew up in Encinitas, California, also was Volleyball magazine’s 2006 high-school player of the year and his Seaside Volleyball Club won an 18s national championship. And he always intended to play professionally after his basketball career ended.
It didn’t take Budinger long to ascend the pro-beach ranks once he left the NBA.
In 2018, he and Rosenthal played all seven domestic events, finishing second in San Francisco.
In 2019, he partnered with Patterson and won at Hermosa Beach, finished second in Huntington Beach and Manhattan Beach, and third in Seattle, Chicago and Waikiki, Budinger also won the AVP’s most-improved-player award that season.
In the COVID-limited 2020 season, Budinger had two thirds and a fifth with Chaim Schalk.
Budinger, now 33, reunited with Patterson and they beat Theo Brunner and Schalk 14-21, 21-16, 15-13 to win in Atlanta before falling to Tri Bourne and Trevor Crabb 21-19, 24-22 in Manhattan Beach. As a result, Budinger and Patterson are the top seed at next week’s AVP Chicago, the last pro stop of the 2021 season.
Early in their careers, most players would be satisfied with two AVP wins. Budinger isn’t.
“Each year I get a little better, I get a little bit more confident in myself, and I try to work on a new skill and get better at that,” he said. “I try and take away that from basketball, where each off-season you try and work on a new skill and get better at that and implement that into your game when you get onto the court.
“I’ve tried to take that to heart …
“I would say that I’m at a B, maybe B-plus. I’m my own toughest critic, I think I can do better. There’s always things that you can work on. I don’t ever think that I would be at an A-plus.
“That’s just the type of person that I am, I always think that you can improve at something.”
In particular, Budinger is working on his block.
“I’m trying to get better at reading blocking situations and coming off of my blocking calls and reading a little more.
“I think I’ve stuck to my call too much instead of reading and evaluating the play and set to come off my call or pulling. That’s something that I’ve been focusing on later in this season.”
Partner changes are rife on the AVP Tour, but reuniting with a partner is relatively unusual.
“When we split up,” Budinger said, “my thinking was to go with Chaim to look at the bigger picture, to go for the next Olympics and build something long term, knowing that Casey wasn’t going to go for the next Olympics.”
But with COVID reducing the number of AVP events and all but eliminating international travel, it made sense to again partner with Patterson.
“During the off-season, it was pretty much a no-brainer, knowing that there weren’t a lot of international tournaments, plus the rest of the AVP season,” Budinger said. “Everything was really smooth sailing, getting our rhythm and getting our timing back.”
It’s difficult for Budinger to practice with Patterson, who lives in Camarillo. Patterson must drive two hours to get to Hermosa Beach, and 90 minutes on the return drive. They typically practice together twice a week, sometimes three. Budinger usually practices with other teams during the week, but veteran Patterson finds that his body is better with less practice.
One big adjustment for Budinger is altering his mindset from a 13-player basketball team to a two-person-plus-coach beach volleyball team.
“Every player is different. Every player’s personality is different. You have to learn how to adjust to their personality, to them. I think I was really bad at that my first couple of years.
“This year, I’ve been a much better partner, in knowing that I have to change my personality to help my partner … You have to realize your partner’s strengths and weaknesses, know what they’re really good at in situations, and know what they’re bad at in situations, and let go of the bad stuff because you know how great he is at the good stuff….
“Beach volleyball team dynamics is so much smaller, it’s you and one other person. It’s kind of like a relationship, right? Like you and a girlfriend, pretty much. You’re around each other so much, you’re traveling. When you’re playing, you have adversity, there’s so much that goes into beach volleyball that you need to build that chemistry, on and off the court. Just one other person that you have to build that foundation of going to war with every single match or day.
This year, Budinger and Patterson have added Mike Campbell, the head beach volleyball coach at Long Beach State, as their coach. Campbell has a 107-53 record in six seasons at Long Beach.
“It’s been super-smooth, we just picked up where we left off in 2019. We’ve tweaked some things, we added Mike Campbell as our coach, he’s been our new wrinkle.”
The Hermosa Beach AVP win in 2019 was especially meaningful for Budinger.
“That was really special because it was in my hometown, and I got to do it in front of a lot of family and friends,” he said. “I got to celebrate it with all of them at Waterman’s.
“That’s a night that I’ll never forget.”
It was also a relief because Budinger had lost two previous finals (San Francisco in 2018 and Huntington Beach in 2019).
“It got the monkey off the back to finally win one and getting that feeling on how to win that first one,” Budinger said. “Once you get close, you still have to figure out how to win that championship match….”
Budinger’s second victory was in the 2021 AVP season-opener.
“I feel like the win in Atlanta was very unexpected,” he said. “Casey and I had the mindset of going into these three tournaments of just having fun, because we haven’t been practicing together that much, we haven’t been getting after it like we did in 2019.
“We had that mindset of just having fun, but if you make it to Sunday, anything can happen. Our goal has always been, ‘Let’s make it to Sunday, and then let’s just have fun and see what we can do.’
“We’ve been playing really well, we’ve been siding out really well, and giving ourselves chances to win every match.”
One of his passions is competing in the legendary Manhattan 6 Man, where Budinger has played since he was 17 (he has missed only one 6 Man since). This year, his Soho Yoga team added AVP stalwarts Troy Field and David Lee and had a team-best second-place finish, losing to 12th Street in the finals.
Budinger — who lives in Hermosa Beach with his bride of one month, Jessica Fine — has two major goals in volleyball: to make the Olympics and to have his name on the Manhattan Beach Pier.
“When I have kids, I could walk down the pier and show them my name. I think that would be really amazing.”
As for the Olympics, breaking into the FIVB tour isn’t easy under the quota system. With a maximum of four USA teams competing in FIVB events, the fourth team must defeat additional USA challengers in country-quota competition to even reach the qualifier. This system prevented Budinger from reaching FIVB qualifiers in Doha 2020 and Warsaw and Sydney in 2019.
However, there are rumors that the FIVB will eliminate the five-star and country-quota system by next year. This would allow Budinger and other U.S., Brazilian and German teams additional berths in qualifiers.
“I think they’re implementing a new system which hasn’t come out yet,” Budinger said. They’re getting rid of the star system, and I think they’re heading into a three-tier system with smaller 16- or 24-team tournaments.
“There won’t be any limitations on countries, so it would all be based off points, so country quotas would be eliminated.
“It gives you a little more opportunity without having to beat a U.S. team before getting to the qualifier.”