Editor’s Note: Quinn Buckner is being honored on Friday, October 21 at The Masquerade, the signature fundraising event of the Simon Youth Foundation and Pacers Foundation. The following story appears in the banquet program for the event.
By Mark Montieth
It would be simple to recognize Quinn Buckner for the depth of his athletic accomplishments, which are, by themselves, extraordinary.
After all, he is only one of three players in history – Magic Johnson and Jerry Lucas are the others – to win a state high school basketball championship (Thornridge, in Dolton, Ill.), an NCAA championship (Indiana, 1976), an NBA championship (Boston Celtics, 1984) and Olympic Gold Medal (Montreal, 1976).
But stopping there would be stopping far short of the totality of Quinn Buckner.
A basketball player who always valued the assist that led to a goal, that trait has followed Quinn into his post-athletic career and is why he is being recognized tonight as the 2016 Masquerade Honoree.
Consider his “other” pursuits:
Big Ten Advisory Commission, Center for Leadership Development, Community Health Network Foundation, First Tee of Indianapolis, Indiana University Board of Trustees, Indiana University Foundation, Indiana Youth Institute, Indianapolis Zoological Society, National Basketball Players Association, Old National Bank Advisory Board, Pacers Foundation, Special Olympics of Indiana, USA Basketball and the YMCA.
Yes, Buckner’s day job is Vice-President of Communications for the Pacers, the most visible aspect of which is his role as commentator for the Fox Sports Indiana telecasts. That alone is enough to fill the hours, but still he devotes time to assisting others.
That seems a natural followup to a 10-year NBA playing career that was forged on leadership and selflessness, and a four-year college basketball career in which he was the acknowledged leader of one, if not two, of the greatest teams in NCAA history. Buckner wasn’t a scorer – he averaged just 10 points over his four seasons at IU, and 8.2 points over his 10-year NBA career – but was the seventh pick in the draft. He defended tenaciously, shared the ball, knew where everyone was supposed to be and acted as a liaison between players and coaches.
There was a reason he was captain of most of the teams on which he played: he was a purist about the game. Now he’s a purist about life.
“I played on really good teams and I was very well-coached,” he once said of his playing career. “I was trying to make sure I was not the weak link, and did what I needed to do to support my teammates. That really was it. It was never about being the person.
“That’s served me well over my life. Basically, we’re all in a team sport. In group dynamics, you have to watch when people strive to be the individual greatest. That’s not an environment I want to be part of.”
Buckner wasn’t a part of losing environments very often. Well, there were those freshman and sophomore seasons he played football at IU, when he was a standout on losing teams. In basketball, his teams tended to win. As a freshman, he was the starting point guard on a team that reached the Final Four in 1973. As a junior, he led the Hoosiers through an undefeated regular season, only to lose to Kentucky in the NCAA tournament because teammate and best friend Scott May had broken his arm and couldn’t play at full strength. As a senior, he was the coach on the floor for an iconic team that remains the last team to go undefeated and win the national championship.
His performance in the final game against Michigan summarized his all-around play: 16 points, eight rebounds, four assists and five steals. Those numbers, however, don’t reflect all of his contributions.
“He was the leader from the first day he stepped on the campus,” IU classmate and teammate Tom Abernethy said. “The leadership is what screams out at you when you’re around Quinn. He’s a no-nonsense guy. He really set a tone for our team, from our freshman year all the way through.
“It was an intangible. We all felt it. We all benefited from playing with him. There are so many subtle things a leader will do that makes your team what it is. Having a leader like Quinn differentiated us from a lot of other good teams.”
Buckner went on to play six seasons for Milwaukee, which drafted him, and three for Boston. He was voted second-team all-defense four times, and was a backup guard on the Celtics’ championship team in 1984, a teammate of Larry Bird. He finished his playing career with a 32-game stint with the Pacers in the 1985-86 season, getting in a tenth NBA season – more than he ever expected to play.
He learned lessons from players during those years, well beyond tricks of the on-court trade.
Bucks teammate Junior Bridgeman, who played on East Chicago Washington’s state championship team in 1971, conducted a free clinic for kids in Milwaukee. Buckner participated – and began one after he joined the Pacers’ front office.
Hall of Fame center Bob Lanier, a teammate in Milwaukee for 2 ½ seasons, was another influence. Lanier encouraged players throughout the NBA to give back to the communities that supported them and made them wealthy, and pushed Commissioner David Stern in that direction as well. Stern eventually ran with it, making community involvement a hallmark of his administration. Buckner bought in, too, and has never stopped.
“I’ve been extraordinarily blessed,” he said. “I just try to inspire and encourage people to do more than they can.”
He doesn’t need recognition for it, though. An honor such as the one he’s receiving tonight embarrasses him a little, frankly. He’s received so many for his athletic career, including induction into the College Basketball Hall of Fame last year, and he’s been adequately recognized for community service, too. No recognition, in fact, would be adequate, because that’s not what motivates him.
You would have no trouble believing that if you stopped by his office in Bankers Life Fieldhouse. It contains no traces of ego. No photos of himself on the walls, no references to his playing career. He did once have a framed newspaper article about himself, but it had been presented to him without him requesting it. And it was resting on the floor, turned toward the wall.
For Buckner, it’s never been about self, but selflessness. The influences on his character have been many, from parents to coaches to teammates. But let’s start with Ben Barkin.
Barkin was a public relations executive and community activist in Milwaukee when Buckner lived there while playing for the Bucks, who had made him their first-round draft pick in the 1976 NBA draft. Buckner had just quarterbacked Indiana University’s basketball team to that undefeated season and the NCAA championship when he moved to Milwaukee, and Barkin, who had a knack for recognizing something in people, befriended the young point guard.
Every now and then, Barkin would call Buckner and suggest they take a walk along the lakefront, just to talk for awhile.
“Quinn, at some point you have to look at life this way,” Barkin told him. “Think about planting the seeds for a shade tree, even though you’ll never be able to sit under that tree.”
And thus a seed was planted within Buckner, who at the time was a typical recent college grad, enjoying his first taste of freedom and money. Here was Barkin, an influential and powerful man who could pick up the phone and reach virtually anybody he wanted, yet was most proud of founding the Great Circus Parade and making it a local institution because of the smiles it brought to so many faces.
“It obviously touched me,” Buckner says today.
So today that continues. The seeds that were planted all those years ago are blossoming in many directions through Buckner’s work, past and present, with so many civic and charity organizations.
For Buckner, it’s not about a day in the sun. It’s about planting shade trees for others.
“You just keep working and try to do the very best you can, and whatever comes with that you take it,” he said. “You embrace it, and your responsibility is to pass it forward.”
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