Bucky Buckwalter: Bound By Basketball
As a young boy growing up in La Grande, OR, Morris "Bucky" Buckwalter had hopes that basketball would take him somewhere. He'd spend hours shooting on a hoop made out of timber with a rim that occasionally had to be bent back into shape. His father, a salesman for the Utah Woolen Mills who attended the University of Utah and gained an appreciation for the game by watching the Utes, instructed Bucky and his brothers on the finer points of a game invented by Dr. James Naismith roughly 60 years prior.
"He was the first one who took me out, tutored me," said Buckwalter. "He showed me how to shoot. We spent a lot of hours developing a shot. About half the time it would get dark before we quit. It was a lot of fun learning to do that along with my brothers and friends in the neighborhood."
Those dawn to dusk sessions eventually paid off, as Buckwalter blossomed into a star player at La Grande High School leading the team to the state tournament during his junior and senior years. Just a bunch of country boys going to the big city.
"We ended up having a pretty good bunch of players at that time," said Buckwalter. "We won our conference and got into the state championship two years in a row. We felt pretty good about that. You know, a little town like La Grande getting to go to Eugene, we were just pleased to get into the big time. So that's how it started."
Basketball had taken him to Eugene, a bustling metropolis in comparison to La Grande.
But that was only the beginning of his basketball travels. While playing in the state tournament, Buckwalter caught the attention of Hall of Famer Jack Gardner, then head coach at Utah. Bucky already had offers from both Oregon and Oregon State, but he decided to sign with Gardner and the University of Utah since both of his mother and father were alumni and Salt Lake City wasn't that much farther away from La Grande than Eugene or Corvallis. And besides, he had already been to those places.
Buckwalter would go on to play four years at Utah, making the NCAA Tournament during his junior and senior seasons. He might have won a National Championship with the Utes were it not for the misfortune of going up against one of the greatest players of all time.
"We had the misfortune during that time of being involved in playoffs with USF when Bill Russell was playing," said Buckwalter. "That wasn't going to go well. There were no goaltending rules in those days. It was tough to score. He was a phenomenal jumper and shot blocker. We were beaten two years in a row in Corvallis. One year, I think, by eight and the other by 12. We had a great career though. We beat some very good teams and playing at the University of Utah was a lot of fun."
At the time, that final loss to Russell and the University of San Francisco Dons seemed like the end of Buckwalter's career in basketball. He graduated college in the middle of the Korean War and, by virtue of his involvement in ROTC, was required to serve two years in the Army, a commitment he had the good fortune of completing at the Schofield Barracks on the island of Honolulu, HI, which Buckwalter described as "not a bad duty at all."
With his service completed, Bucky set off for Phoenix to attend the American Institute of Foreign Trade. The plan was to learn Spanish, which he did, and head overseas to work in exporting. If things had gone as planned, Buckwalter might have spent his career in international trade, but a request from home changed those plans, and in turn, the landscape of basketball.
"My father called and wanted me to come back and help with the ranch in Utah," said Buckwalter. "I came back and started doing some graduate work at the University. Coach Jack Gardner asked me to get involved with helping recruit the freshmen, helping coach a little bit. And I enjoyed it, so I stayed there and continued my academic work. And then finally got the opportunity to become head coach at Seattle University."
He did well enough in his first head coaching gig to be offered a job as an assistant for the SuperSonics. The team, skippered by Buckwalter's friend Tom Nissalke, raided the ABA for players; a tactic that produced mixed results.
"We recruited Spencer Haywood, Jim McDaniels, John Brisker, some very talented guys," said Buckwalter. "But there wasn't a lot of attention paid to chemistry and role playing. We ended up being the team that looked good on paper but lost a lot of games early in the year."
Nissalke would eventually be fired, with Buckwalter taking his place on an interim basis. He would be replaced, coincidentally enough, by his old college nemesis, Bill Russell, but he had learned a valuable lesson from those early Sonics teams that would greatly influence his approach to player personnel.
"You become very aware of (team chemistry) when you see a lot of higher scorers," said Buckwalter. "You become aware you can't have five people out there determined to score big. You have to have role players, which we did at the University of Utah and continued to have on the Blazers teams I was associated with."
The realization of the importance of team chemistry, along with an appreciation of the open court style of play he learned under Gardner at Utah, would shape Buckwalter's view of how basketball should be played in Portland as he transitioned from a coaching role to that of Vice President of Basketball Operations.
"The Blazers had been kind of a control team when I came on board in 1980," said Buckwalter. "I was hired first as an assistant coach and then became involved in player personnel. We were determined to try to get more good athletes. At that time the Blazers were always a pretty good team, but not great. Not as good as we wanted to be, but not bad enough to get a top choice, so we decided we would recruit athletes and turn them into basketball players. Jerome Kersey was a good example of that.”
That good-but-not-great dilemma which resulted in the Trail Blazers drafting unheralded yet athletic players like Kersey and Terry Porter also prompted Buckwalter to start looking overseas for players who might be acquired further down in the draft, a practice that was almost unheard of at the time. Buckwalter had coached the Brazilian national team, with a fair amount of success (he was detained in Moscow for a short period of time after his Brazilian team upset the USSR in 1975), during the mid-70's, so he was aware that, while the caliber of teams from overseas couldn't match those found in the States, there were still individuals who had the skills to play on an NBA team. That realization prompted Buckwalter and the Trail Blazers to draft Arvydas Sabonis, the first international player drafted in the first round, and Drazen Petrovic during the 1988 Draft despite an outcry from some in the media. But it would be Bucky who would have the last laugh.
"There were a lot of comments, a lot of negative views because people felt they just weren't able to come in and compete in the NBA," said Buckwalter. "As you may know, there were some 80 or 90 foreign players in the NBA last season. It proved to be true that foreign players had developed and were able to compete."
The drafting of foreign players wouldn't be the last time Buckwalter was associated with a new practice that is now commonplace in the NBA. During his time in Portland's front office, the team would go on to be one of the first to use computerized scouting reports, a move that, like their decision to draft European players, was derided by the media at the time, only to be eventually proven as an invaluable resource.
Even today, Buckwalter still has an eye on the future. He served as a consultant for the Basketball Association of China during the run-up to the Beijing Olympics and continues to travel to China to advise and keep tabs on what could very well be the next frontier for NBA-caliber players, just as Europe was 20 years ago.
"They've got a number of big, 6-10 and above players that are very active, quick and are now getting some good coaching," said Buckwalter. "They're going to be very, very hard to beat in the Olympics from now on. I think they finally found a couple of guards, which was what they were missing the last Olympics. They have a lot of big players. Basketball is very important to China. They're spending a lot of money and a lot of time to develop these players."
Basketball has taken Buckwalter to places he never expected, from the eastern corner of Oregon to all the corners of the earth. And now, basketball brings him to the Oregon Sports Hall of Fame, where he will be enshrined for accomplishments ranging from being named to the 1952 Oregon High School All-Tournament team to winning 1991 NBA Executive of the Year. Not bad for a kid from La Grande.
"In some ways, coming from a small town, you have to learn to do things that maybe you're not required to do in a big city," said Buckwalter. "You gain a confidence in being able to do some of those things and that confidence kind of carries over from one thing to another. It allowed me to give new things a try, work at it and try to make it happen. It was a lot of fun to pursue your dream and to have a ball in your hand as a young boy and then to get a scholarship to college then have it take you around the world and ultimately be associated with the best basketball players in the NBA and the world."