INDIANAPOLIS — What most basketball fans in this state refer to as legend are moments Quinn Buckner witnessed up close.
For it was Buckner, Indiana university’s ball-hawking point guard, who was cradling the basketball and dancing a little dance the final seconds of the Hoosiers’ historic 86-68 win against Michigan in the 1976 national championship game in Philadelphia.
It’s Buckner in those black-and-white postgame photographs that to this day are as revered in and around Bloomington as they were the morning after.
A net around his neck, Buckner is beaming, showing off a gap-toothed smile while standing alongside teammate Scott May and the plaid-jacketed version of coach Bob Knight.
Perfection had been achieved. Not a single loss. A feat no men’s college team has since duplicated.
“When I see a picture of me, coach Knight and Scott from that night in Philadelphia ... you can read body language. That was the first time it was there. Just pure joy. I don’t have that picture. Don’t know where my (championship) ring is,” Buckner said. Holding up 10 jewelry-free fingers, he adds, “That’s not me.”
“The thing that stood out about Quinn as a player is that he was a leader, a very smart basketball player who knew what coach Knight wanted done on the floor,” said Don Fischer, the radio voice of Indiana University football and men’s basketball since 1973. “His leadership skills in that era were impeccable.”
It requires many a brush to accurately paint what Buckner, now 58, is about.
Decades removed from his last televised dribble penetration, the man who was part of two state title teams in high school, captained the gold-medal-winning U.S. Olympic basketball team in 1976 and was part of the 1984 NBA champion Boston Celtics has remained close to the game.
Buckner’s commentary can be heard during 60 of the Indiana Pacers’ 82 regular-season games televised by Fox Sports Midwest this season. Since 2004 he has worked as the franchise’s vice president of communications for Pacers Sports and Entertainment, employment that gets him out in the community with great frequency.
A Chicago native, the third of William “Buck” and Jessica Buckner’s four children also does public speaking and finds time to serve on the boards of various local charities. He wears a lot of hats, that No. 21.
Yet like any human being closing in on six decades of living, Buckner has experienced disappointment. His one season as an NBA head coach resulted in the 1993-94 Dallas Mavericks producing dreadful results — a 13-69 record that got Buckner fired one season into a five-year contract.
This week, Daily Journal sportswriter Mike Beas had an opportunity to sit down with Buckner, a two-time All-American who, while at IU, scored 1,195 points and dished out 542 assists.
How often do you speak to coach Knight?
I just talked to him Monday. I call probably every three months just to see how he’s doing. All of us at some point recognize the good things that have happened to us in our lives. He’s doing good. I think he enjoys the television (commentating). He hunts, fishes, does some public speaking.
Who is your closest friend associated with Indiana University basketball?
Scott (May) and (New York Knicks coach) Mike (Woodson). Those guys I can talk to about anything and everything. We’ll have a variety of conversations. We’ll play golf, go to dinner. Just have a good time.
You were an all-state football player in high school in Illinois before playing two seasons at IU. Any regrets about not playing football all four years in college?
No. Not at all. I say this humbly, but my gift was football. I was innately better as a football player, but I was more passionate about basketball.
Your least-favorite memory affiliated with coach Knight?
He was never really that bad to me. My dad, who was demanding but quiet, used to tell me to listen to what (Knight) is saying and not how he says it. He didn’t like me playing football, I can tell you that. The only thing he did that was disappointing was when he benched me for two games my senior year. You have a four-year starter you’re sitting down. Oh, man, I was hot.
Describe your 1993-94 season as head coach of the Dallas Mavericks.
Unwanted outcome. I don’t consider it a failure, though. You learn from it and move on. (Then-franchise owner) Donald Carter is a good guy. His franchise was going through a transition at that time.
How difficult is broadcasting basketball compared to playing and coaching it?
It’s the next thing that I do, and I try to go about it with the same expertise. I work at it. I’m on the computer reading about a myriad of things. When Chris (Denari) and I are on the air, I’ve already written down the things I’m going to talk about. I don’t just look at the game, but how the players interact with each other and how they interact with fans.
Do you want to see another men’s college basketball team go undefeated and win a national championship like your 1975-76 Indiana Hoosiers?
I don’t mind one way or the other. It wouldn’t diminish what we accomplished. No, I have no problem with it.
What was the gymnasium you liked playing in the least while in college?
The one that was the oddest and still is is Minnesota (Williams Arena). That’s a memorable floor because it’s elevated. You are cognizant that, if the ball rolls out of bounds, you’re only putting forth so much effort (laughs). But if it’s to win the game, I’ve got to go get it.
Based on comments coach Knight has voiced since the time you completed your career there, it’s apparent you are one of his all-time favorite players. Was he ever angry at you?
If he got mad at me, it was from my lack of concentration. I was a freshman or maybe a sophomore at tops when one day he told me he didn’t want to talk to me. He was going up some stairs. I can still see it. I called home because at the time I didn’t know how to grapple that. My mother, who called my dad, “Buck,” said, “Buck, leave that boy alone. He can’t serve two masters.” My dad had his share of frank discussions with coach Knight.
You know coach Knight better than most. Does he ever come back to Assembly Hall so that Indiana University can properly honor him?
You’ll have to ask coach that. (Pausing) I don’t think so. He’s hurt. Still very hurt. He deserves to be recognized. Probably his concern is he would worry about the sincerity of it. I would love to see it happen.
If it does, will you be there?