Buckner relishes role as executive: IU great recalls lessons from Knight, Bird

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Quinn Buckner has always sought out strong mentors, but he didn’t have to search for his most solid role models.

From Bob Knight to Larry Bird and Donnie Walsh, Buckner has surrounded himself with some of basketball’s best minds. But he credits his parents with instilling in him the leadership skills and determination that have carried him through good times and bad.

“Coach Knight was a great mentor to me at an early age,” said Buckner, who played for Knight’s undefeated 1976 NCAA championship team at Indiana University. “But the foundation was already there. My parents are my greatest influence and inspiration.”

So Buckner, 50, didn’t quiver when he was thrust into chaos as the Pacers Sports & Entertainment’s vice president of communications last fall. When he was hired without fanfare in July, he couldn’t have imagined his first season would include contending with the fallout of the Nov. 19 brawl at the Palace at Auburn Hills, Mich. The challenge hasn’t fazed him, and he’s even making long-term plans for an NBA management role.

Despite being one of only a few players to win a high school and NCAA championship, Olympic gold medal and NBA title, Buckner had already met his share of challenges before that fateful night in Detroit.

“When people ask about difficult times-Lord, I played for Coach Knight,” Buckner said. “He made things difficult. But those were life lessons. Including what we went through here, I knew everything would be OK.”

Some lessons, Buckner admitted, were harder learned. His lone year-1993-as an NBA head coach was disastrous. Buckner had a 0.619 winning percentage in 10 seasons as a player with the Milwaukee Bucks, Boston Celtics and Pacers, but his winning ways didn’t rub off on the young Dallas Mavericks.

The team finished 13-69 and Buckner was fired at season’s end.

“I’m not sure I had the patience when I coached the Mavericks,” Buckner said. “I didn’t do a good job managing the people or their expectations.”

It’s another lesson he learned from Knight.

“Coach Knight is a genius, and I’m not just talking about basketball,” he said. Buckner saw that Knight was sometimes frustrated with performances only because he talked over the players’ heads.

“It’s not a level of effort; it’s a level of understanding,” Buckner said.

Buckner’s improved understanding of the NBA’s business side led him to exercise patience in pursuing his new professional endeavors. Buckner is interested in learning franchise operations from the bottom up.

Scott May was Buckner’s teammate on IU’s championship team.

“When I met him, Quinn was a highly recruited two-sport athlete, but he was always straightforward, down-to-earth and demonstrated a great work ethic,” May said. “His type of leadership was magnetic.”

Buckner’s a longtime TV commentator for college and NBA hoops, including stints with the Cleveland Cavaliers and Minnesota Timberwolves, and for the last eight seasons with the Pacers. Becoming PS&E vice president of communications was a natural extension, Buckner said.

While Buckner still enjoys his TV job and plans to continue at least through next season, eventually he’d like to become a president or general manager of an NBA franchise.

“I’ve admired Donnie Walsh for quite some time; he has a law degree and he has one of the best minds in the NBA,” said Buckner, who graduated from IU with a business degree. “People point out Larry doesn’t always use proper grammar, but his thinking is crystal-clear. Larry’s clarity of thought is why he’s been so successful. He and Coach Knight get to the bottom line as fast as anyone I know.”

Walsh was the Pacers assistant coach when Buckner suited up for the Blue and Gold, and he teamed with Bird during his playing days with the Celtics. They won the NBA title together in 1984.

Buckner had no idea just what a learning experience his first season in the Pacers’ front office would be. When he removed his headset after the dust had settled on the melee in Detroit, he began to realize the ramifications on the team-and his job.

“When it was happening, it was surreal,” he said. “What you can’t see from TV or understand unless you were there is, the situation was exploding on all sides of you.”

“Where’s security?” Buckner yelled on air. “Where’s security?” he repeated over and over.

As Buckner entered the locker room and the enormity of the situation began to sink in, he realized he was going to be part of the effort to protect the franchise’s image and rebuild its reputation. He was joined by Walsh, Bird and owners Mel and Herb Simon.

Buckner’s role has been more behind the scenes.

“Quinn Buckner has a great name and recognition all the way back to his days at IU,” Walsh said. “But that’s not primarily why we hired him. He’s a very smart guy, who has a good business background. He’s had diverse experiences and comes in with good vision.”

In addition to his experience as a player and coach, Buckner has served on USA Basketball’s board of directors for two decades and co-owned and operated a California-based computer consulting firm while still playing. He later sold that interest.

“Quinn’s background is highly unusual and perhaps unprecedented,” said Tom Jernstedt, NCAA executive vice president and president of USA Basketball. “He’s demonstrated his leadership on and off the basketball floor, but it goes beyond that. He has not only sound judgment, but has demonstrated a sensitivity and concern for his fellow man, which has a tremendous impact.”

Despite his accomplishments in basketball, Buckner learned some of his best lessons on the football field, he said. Buckner played football two years at IU before giving it up to focus on hoops full time.

“My mom didn’t want me to play, but my dad allowed me to play because of the lessons the game taught,” Buckner said. “In football, he told me, you get knocked down almost every play. And what do you do? You pick yourself up, and get back to the huddle and try again. I’ve never forgotten that lesson.”

Buckner’s dad was an IU graduate and both of his parents were educators.

Buckner approaches his job analytically. He recalls the changing role of NBA players and how that affected his coaching stint with the Mavericks. He’s not bitter about player control, but said the insight has helped him in his current job.

“A lot of young players don’t understand their impact on the business side,” Buckner said. “It’s important that we help them.”

And though Buckner aspires to one day lead an NBA franchise, he’s squarely focused on the present.

“You have to be willing to crawl before you can walk,” Buckner said. “It’s all a part of being prepared. Some people may see this as a step backward in my career, but I don’t see it that way. People always worry about the next step, the next job. My advice to people is to focus on the job you have. Make the people around you better, and in the process improve yourself.”

For those who haven’t forgotten the fiasco that engulfed Buckner’s alma matter with Knight’s firing in 2000, Buckner is pragmatic.

“I was disappointed in the way both my coach and my university handled that situation,” he said. “But like everything else, you have to pick yourself up and carry on.”

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