Brandon Buckner: Great Basketball Player, Good Student, Role Model

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Team player. Fundamentally sound. Gym rat. Coachable.

Those often-overused sports vernaculars can be used to accurately describe a score of the state's high school basketball players.

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Brandon Buckner cuts loose on a dribble drive down court during a state tournament game played at Northern Arizona University. PHS coach Chuck Hardt said Buckner "saved his best for last," turning in his finest effort in the tournament game against Chandler Seton.

But, there's another portrayal to throw in when characterizing Payson High School senior Brandon Buckner -- "Good kid."

Just ask former Longhorn coach Mike Loutzenheiser.

"What I liked most about Brandon is that he's a good basketball player but also a much better person," he said. "He never complained about anything and, let me tell you, that is very refreshing."

Buckner, 18, just wrapped up his final prep season as one of the most accomplished all-around players to come out of the school in the past decade.

During the 2005-2006 season he led the team in free throw shooting, sinking 82 of 97 attempts (84.5 percent) and was the second leading scorer on the team with an 8.9 ppg average. From the field, he hit 92 of 177 shots to finish with a commendable 52 percent average.

What basketball purists noticed about Buckner during his three years on varsity was his commitment to the team. Under Loutzenheiser, and this year while playing for Chuck Hardt, Buckner was willing to do the dirty work.

Whatever was needed -- rebound, set screens, score, defend, bring the ball up court -- Buckner would get it done.

But those who have known and coached him understand Buckner's unselfishness is simply a part of his personality.

"I just try to do things that will help the team," Buckner said. "That's one of the reasons I play."

Last season against Chinle, he led the team in scoring with 15 points, and corralled seven rebounds. In the Winslow Shoot Out tournament, held Dec. 1 to 3 against St. Johns, Buckner had perhaps one his best games of the early season, finishing with 19 points that included seven-of-12 shooting from the field and five-for-six from the line.

Also in Winslow, Buckner drew plaudits for his defensive efforts in a 47-45 loss to Greyhills.

In the defeat, Buckner hooked up defensively with teammate Carlos Lopez to hold Greyhills' star LeDaniel Gishie, an all-starter last season, to a season-low of six points.

In the Flagstaff Pepsi-Cola tournament, held Dec. 9 and 10 against Coconino, Buckner finished with 10 points and hit a pair of clutch free throws in the final seconds that nailed down the win. The senior sharpshooter finished the game four-for-four from the line.

Against Tucson Sabino in the Flagstaff tournament, Buckner led Payson in scoring with 15 points and drew the praise of Hardt, who said, "He worked hard around the boards."

Hardt also praised Buckner as the team's go-to player.

"He wants the ball late and the kids want him to have it," Hardt said.

Off the court, Buckner draws the admiration of teachers and administrators for being cooperative, a good student and a role model for fellow teens.

"He's a model student," PHS assistant principal Tim Fruth said.

The early years

Buckner's interest in basketball was piqued as a third grader when he played on the Timberwolves youth league team with Robert Neuman and Jake Winans.

The three went on to become senior teammates on last year's Longhorn team.

After several years of playing in the town league, Buckner plunged into White Mountain League action as a seventh grader at Rim Country Middle School.

"I was playing for coach (Ross) Carpenter, and that's when I really started to like basketball," Buckner said.

Last season, while Carpenter served as an assistant to Hardt, Buckner had a second opportunity to play for his seventh-grade coach.

"That was fun, playing for him again," Buckner said.

Following a banner eighth-grade season at RCMS, Buckner attended a summer Arizona Sports Camp where he was tutored by Mesa Mountain View coach Gary Ernst.

"That was a good experience," he said. "I learned a lot."

During his first two years in high school, Buckner held down starting slots on both the freshman and junior varsity teams.

Late in his sophomore season, Loutzenheiser brought Buckner up to varsity for postseason play.

After that, he became a two-year varsity starter.

In reflecting on his high school career, Buckner said the highlights were playing against the state's reservation teams, like Alchesay.

"The crowds that attend are always so huge it's a lot of fun to play," he said. "Especially this year at Whiteriver (Alchesay). The gym was packed."

Last summer, Buckner and some of his fellow high school students formed a team that participated in the Town of Payson adult league.

"That was fun, playing against older, bigger guys," he said. "It was a more physical game."

The team played well enough to reach the championship finale before being ousted from the tournament.

Another opportunity to play competitively turned up last week when Buckner was asked to participate on an Arizona team that will travel to Australia this summer to play in the Down Under series.

Buckner doesn't know if he will accept the invitation because he'd like to stay in Payson and work to raise money for college next year.

As good as Buckner is on the court, he hasn't been the "dumb jock" as some athletes are mistakenly characterized. He's currently maintaining a perfect 4.00 GPA and has aspirations of a career in law enforcement.

Next year, he'd like to attend Mesa College, major in justice studies and go out for the Thunderbirds team as a walk on.

If he doesn't make the team, basketball will continue to play a big part in his life.

"I'll always be looking for pick-up games and leagues to play in," he said. "I don't ever want to stop playing basketball."

In leaving Payson, Buckner has some words of wisdom for aspiring young players eager to someday make their mark on the Longhorn varsity.

"Work hard," he said. "Play basketball whenever you get the chance and take every opportunity given you.

"And, oh yeah, study, pay attention in class and stay out of trouble."

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