“Me being named to the team was something unusual. Most of the guys in here are averaging at least 15 points a game. And here’s me, averaging 8 or 9. It’s a switch for people to recognize my style.”
Years Active: 1973 – 1985
Career Stats: 7.1 ppg, 4.6 apg, 2.7 rpg, 2.0 spg, 44% FG, 33% 3PT, 77.7% FT
Accolades: ABA All-Star (1976), NBA All-Star (1977), 2x All-ABA Defensive 1st Team (1975-’76), 4x All-NBA Defensive 1st Team (1977-’80), All-ABA 2nd Team (1976), 1973 ABA Champion (Pacers), ABA APG and SPG leader (1976), NBA APG and SPG leader (1977)
Don Buse making the 1977 all-star team was a bit of a fluke. If it weren’t for Bill Walton going down injured, he wouldn’t have had a spot. But there was Buse suiting up in one of the more classic all-star games. His stat line wasn’t impressive: 4 points and 5 assists in 19 minutes.
Nonetheless, Boo worked his magic and sparked the West squad to victory along with Paul Westphal. Entering the game with 5:31 left in the 3rd quarter and the West down 83 – 75, Don instantly opened up ball movement on offense and terrorized the East on defense, ultimately ending the game with 4 steals. At the end of the 3rd, the West had swung the game around to a 97-89 lead and would go on to win 125 – 124.
That would be Buse’s 2nd and final all-star game, but the Hoosier State legend had already accomplished much and would continue to do so.
Born and raised in southern Indiana, Buse was a phenom for Holland High School and would attend the nearby University of Evansville. Averaging 17 points and 6 assists while at Evansville, Buse led the Purple Aces to the 1971 NCAA Division II title. The Phoenix Suns in 1972 drafted the collegiate ace with the 34th pick in the NBA draft. However, the NBA franchise would have to wait several years before employing Boo Boo. Instead, he signed with the Indiana Pacers, the preeminent franchise in the ABA.
During their 9 years in the ABA, the Pacers would appear in 5 finals and win the title 3 times. Such success was built on the back of coach Slick Leonard and stars like Mel Daniels, Freddie Lewis, and Roger Brown. Arriving for the 1972-73 season, Buse for the next two years would backup Lewis and Bill Keller at the guard spots. Can’t argue with the decision since the Pacers won the title in Don’s rookie season and lost in the Western Division Finals in 7 games to Willie Wise’s Utah Stars.
By the 1974-75 season, the Pacers would be under the guiding drive of forward George McGinnis and swingman Billy Knight as Daniels, Lewis and Brown entered the twilight of their careers. McGinnis was at the forefront of this new Pacers design, but Boo Boo was the new face of the backcourt. Playing 30 minutes a game for the 1st time in his career, Don would achieve 6.5 ppg, 3.5 rpg and 4 apg.
But the real contribution for Buse was in the realm of turnovers. On the defensive side, his suffocating defense terrorized opponents and his uncanny anticipation led to 2.1 steals per game. On offense he was rarely the victim of such on-court crime. He was a superb ball-handler who didn’t take unnecessary risks with the basketball and at 6’4″ and 190 lbs wasn’t easily bullied by other guards. That season he averaged a scant 1.2 turnovers per game.
However, 1975-76 would be Buse’s true breakout season. He hit career highs in points (12.5), rebounds (3.8), minutes (40.2) and steals (an amazing 4.1) while hitting 35% from the three-point line. His steals per game led the league and blew away second place finisher Fatty Taylor’s 2.7. Buse also led the league in minutes per game and assists per game (8.2). Against the Spirits of St. Louis, Buse plundered like no other…
… Don Buse contributed nine steals and Darnell Hillman 19 points en route to a 113-102 victory in the American Basketball Association game Wednesday night.
“I was really moving tonight,” said a jazzed-up Buse. “I just tried to keep the ball alive as much as possible.”
As for the playmaking, that same season he set a Pacers record for assists in one game:
Don Buse had a pain in the back, but he was nothing but a pain in the neck to the Denver Nuggets.
“Boy what a gutsy effort,” said Indiana Coach Bobby Leonard after watching Buse collect 19 assists in Indiana’s 129 – 119 victory over Denver Wednesday night…
“The back injury sure didn’t keep Boo from having a game tonight, did it?” Leonard said.
Buse’s fortunes were sky high at this point as he made the All-ABA 2nd Team, the 1976 ABA all-star game and his second appearance on the ABA All-Defensive 1st Team. However, the ABA itself had seen better days. The 1976 season would be its last as it was absorbed by the NBA and numerous franchises folded. The Pacers survived the purge but would only make the playoffs twice for the next dozen years.
(for more on the Pacers malaise, listen to Jared Wade’s latest contribution to Voice on the Floor).
Despite his penchant for prodding defense and playmaking, Buse was still unknown to most NBA players:
In Boston, the public-address announcer had to ask Don Buse how to pronounce his name. In Milwaukee, a sportswriter burned out his typewriter criticizing the Bucks’ guards for being victimized by a “nonentity” named Don Buse. In Atlanta, Lou Hudson, a 10-year veteran, said he had “never heard of him” before playing against Buse for the first time. New Orleans’ Pete Maravich had “heard of him but never seen him.” Presumably that held true the night Buse swiped the ball from Maravich four times.
Needless to say, the on-court transition to the NBA was fairly easy for Buse. He led the NBA in both assists and steals per game with 8.5 and 3.5, respectively. That February came his all-star game heroics to propel the West to victory. But trouble was brewing between Buse and Pacers management. Despite renegotiating his contract, the Pacers still paid Buse far below the going-rate for starting guards in the NBA, let alone all-star and all-defensive caliber guards.
The Pacers, in exceptional financial trouble, began a fire sale. Billy Knight was shipped out in the summer of 1977 and a young Adrian Dantley averaging 26.5 ppg was traded weeks into the 1977-78 season. Buse, too, was traded during the summer to the Phoenix Suns, who finally got the guard they drafted in 1972.
Over the next three seasons, Buse would team with Paul Westphal, Walter Davis, Truck Robinson and Alvan Adams for a high octane Suns team that won 49, 50 and 55 games. His assists totals took a hit as everyone but Robinson was a superb passer and averaged over 4 a game, but his skills remained undiminished as he fit like a glove into their defense-leads-to-offense scheme.
Five Suns players in 1978 averaged over 1.4 spg as they attempted to always get out on the break whether it was by theft or their gang-rebounding. During their most successful season together, these Suns lost to the Seattle SuperSonics in 7 games in the 1979 Western Conference Finals. During that playoff journey, Buse contributed fine play like this game against Kansas City that the Suns won 102-99:
Buse, the Suns’ other starting guard, scored 16 points, took down nine rebounds, dished out five assists in the contest, and also made four steals, including one with 23 seconds left that sealed the victory…
With the Suns leading by a point, KC forward Bill Robinzine stole the ball from Truck Robinson and dribbled the length of the court. He stopped his drive and tried to move around Robinson for a shot. But Buse slipped behind Robinzine, stole the ball as he pivoted, and passed the length of the court for an Alvan Adams stuff that gave Phoenix a three-point lead.
During the 1980 offeason, Buse would be dealt back to the Indiana Pacers, where it looked like the old gang was getting back together again. Billy Knight and George McGinnis had also returned after wandering the Sinai of the NBA. But the old gang was old. McGinnis was 30 as was Buse. Billy Knight was the spring chicken at age 28. Nonetheless, the Pacers scrapped together a 44-win season in 1980-81, the best record the club would have in the NBA until the mid-90s Reggie Miller edition. They would be bounced 2 games to 0 in the first round by Philadelphia, however.
That ’81 season snapped Buse’s 6-season streak of All-Defensive 1st Teams (2 in the ABA, 4 in the NBA) as he was relegated to backup point guard duty. Boo Boo would return for one last season as a starter, though, for the 1981-82 campaign. Predictably, he averaged just a shade below 10 points with 5 assists, 2 steals and nary a turnover. That season Buse also went bombs away from three-point range netting a then-league record of 73 on a percentage of 38.6%.
That would prove to be Buse’s last hurrah. He bounced around for three more seasons between Kansas City and Portland before retiring, but he led quite the career.
Among guards who’ve played at least 20,000 minutes, Buse has the 4th fewest turnovers overall and the 3rd fewest per game (1.1). During his majestic 1976 season, he had an assist to turnover ratio of 4.33. For perspective, last year’s apg leader, Steve Nash, had a ratio of 3.23.
His 4.12 steals per game in 1976 remain the all-time record for the NBA and ABA. In 2nd place is Alvin Robertson’s 3.67 average from 1986. Oh, and Don’s 3.47 spg the following season in 1977 are 3rd place all-time.
Along with Slick Watts, Michael Ray Richardson, John Stockton, and Chris Paul, he’s the only man to lead the league in apg and spg in the same season. He and Paul are the only ones to do it in back-to-back seasons. Finally, Buse’s streak of 6-straight All-Defensive 1st teams makes him one of 3 PGs (Walt Frazier, Gary Payton) and 12 players overall to accomplish the feat.
When it’s all said and done, Boo Boo comes out smelling like a dozen gorgeous roses.