Q&A: Quinn Buckner On Planning Indy March Madness

Former Indiana player Quinn Buckner talks about his career, during a National Collegiate Basketball Hall of Fame induction event Friday, Nov. 20, 2015, in Kansas City, Mo. (AP Photo/Colin E. Braley)

You were already a co-chair of the Indy Final Four committee before the pandemic hit. At what point did you realize that the NCAA might want to do the entire tournament here, and what was your reaction?

After the tournament went away last year, I was talking to a friend who works for the NCAA. She said they were already thinking about, How can we not let this happen in 2021? These student athletes are only in college for four years. When you lose that experience, it’s gone forever. So the thought was to try to make this happen. In the course of that, we had to figure out what the options were. What’s optimal? I’ve done tournaments all over the nation for CBS. Indianapolis is the best city for it. I don’t say that because I’m here. It’s the best city because we have so many amenities in the same area downtown. When you go to other cities, that’s not the case. Indianapolis is also the Crossroads of America, so getting in and out is not a challenge. And the hospitality community is unique. I think Indianapolis does this as well as anybody in the country.

Obviously, this will be different because Indianapolis doesn’t get to put on the same kind of show it usually does. If fans are allowed at this event, there won’t be many. How is this challenge different than hosting events in the past? 

No one has ever done it before. We’ve had to manage this through the processes of the Marion County Public Health Department and the Indiana State Department of Health because it’s going to be all over the state. Gov. Eric Holcomb and his team have been on board the whole time, as has Mayor Joe Hogsett. There’s even more collaboration involved than usual. 

What does it mean to you that this not only involves the downtown stadiums but the on-campus arenas such as Hinkle Fieldhouse, Assembly Hall, and Mackey Arena?

Some of these venues are never going to have an opportunity like this again. They get to showcase who they are as institutions. And we’re doing it from north to south, east to west. It showcases all of Indiana. This is a state bubble, when you think about it. The bubble scenario has proven successful in professional basketball, and I think that’s what will happen here. At least, that’s the hope.

What do you think it’s going to be like for the players without many fans? 

The reality is they’ve already had to adjust like everybody else. It will be a different experience with fewer fans, but it will be unique. The question then becomes: What do you do with those circumstances? When you’re trying to win a championship, you need to be mentally tough. Coach Bob Knight used to say it’s four parts mental for every one part physical, and he was right. When you have adversity like unusual circumstances, how do you handle those? That’s a life lesson. That’s the beauty of sports. The team that is the most mentally tough has the best chance to be successful. 

This tournament will obviously be unique, but I wanted to ask about how you’ve seen the tournament transform. It’s much different than it was when you played in the mid- 1970s. How have you seen it change over the years? 

In some ways, it’s tougher for the players. Negative social media comments can be a distraction, and we didn’t have those kinds of things years ago. Everybody has an opinion. But I’m glad to see that it has grown in terms of its viewership. People basically stop their lives for March Madness. And the multiple channels it now broadcasts on help. At one point, it was just on CBS. And I worked for CBS, so I’m not knocking that. But the multiple channels give young people the chance to be seen by their families in different regions. Everyone can catch the game that is most important to them. This is a good thing. 

What about your tournament experiences would be hard for players today to imagine? 

Probably the lack of a 3-point line. We had players who could make that shot, but the 3-point line has completely changed basketball. You’re never completely out of a game. That wasn’t the case before. Then there’s the shot clock. Those two pieces have altered the fan experience positively. People want to see a game. They don’t want to see you stall. 

Your 1975-76 Indiana team is still the last one to go undefeated. Do you think any team will ever do it again? 

Yes, it’s just a matter of time. It will happen. But the fact that a lot of young men don’t stay for four years anymore, that makes a significant difference. That’s a big reason that it hasn’t happened yet. Look at Gonzaga this year. They have four-year players. When you have guys who have been committed to the same thing that long, you have a good chance. You tend to be better in life, not just basketball. But for me personally, I mean, have at it. Our team is done. We had our success. I want other people to feel it. 

You mentioned Bob Knight earlier. What did it mean to you that you were able to get him back on the Assembly Hall floor last year? 

Candidly, it was one of the greatest things I’ve ever been a part of. Hoosier Nation needed that. And it was important for him to see what the people here felt about him. When you’re going through it, you’re trying to create the environment for success and sometimes you’re so myopic, you don’t appreciate it. Getting him back there, the best part was seeing coach laughing and enjoying himself. 

What’s your general sense of where Indiana is as a program right now?

I’d love to talk about it, but I’m in the unique position of being a Trustee. To get a comment on the state of it, you’d need to ask IU athletic director Scott Dolson. Nice try, though. 

How about the Pacers? You’re still on those broadcasts. What are your thoughts on the early returns with new coach Nate Bjorkgren? 

I like it. Life changes. People change. Nate McMillan is a terrific guy and did what he could do here, but professional sports is a different species. You’re working with people who are highly compensated in all the things that you know. You have to find a way to keep them at an optimal level mentally. Sometimes, they just need something new to challenge them. Larry Bird told me he was only going to coach for three years. I asked him why, and he said, “Guys tune you out.” What Nate Bjorkgren has brought in is a different view of offense. A lot of 3-point shooting. The guys seem encouraged by it. 

You’re in an extremely exclusive club as one of only eight players who have won an NCAA championship, an NBA championship, and an Olympic Gold Medal. You guys added Anthony Davis to that club this summer. How much pride do you take in that? 

I also happen to be part of a smaller group that won a high school championship as well [laughs]. I say that because my high school teammates would kill me if I didn’t. That makes me one of three, with Jerry Lucas and Magic Johnson, to have won all four of them. I stand on the shoulders of my teammates. I have been extraordinarily blessed. I was blessed by being William and Jessica Buckner’s son, and their parenting helped keep my feet on the ground. Who in their wildest dreams would think I would be in either one of those groups? I’ll give you a story that I tell often. The Dream Team was in Barcelona, and I was working for NBC as a sideline analyst. After they won, Magic Johnson came by me and said, “Gotcha.” I didn’t know what he meant, but later realized he knew that was going to put him in that category. I mean, I wasn’t Magic. I wasn’t close to that. In college, Scott May was the best player on our team. I was just a part of it. On the Olympic team, we had May, Phil Ford, Walter Davis. I was just a part of that, too. Then I played with Larry Bird on the Celtics. Any group I’ve ever been a part of, I just tried to do the best I could. As for that group of eight with Anthony Davis, Michael Jordan, Bill Russell, I mean, come on man. Those are icons of the game. I’m not an icon. I just happened to play on very, very good teams and found a way to make a contribution.