Here’s the thing about Bud Olsen – former Sonic, former Louisville Cardinal – the man had a way of finding memorable teammates.
You look at Olsen’s career and you don’t reach for superlatives; four points a night in about 450 games will do that. But the teammates, oh the teammates the man had.
Let’s start in Cincinnati, the introduction of Olsen to the NBA, where he played with Oscar Robertson (future Hall of Famer), as well as Jerry Lucas (HOF). From Cincy, Olsen was sent to San Francisco, where he was introduced to Rick Barry (HOF), as well as Nate Thurmond (who would be if he had played for Boston or LA). Then to Boston for a brief spell, where, naturally, Olsen picked up a few more HOFers, including Bill Russell, Sam Jones, John Havlicek, Tom Sanders, and Don Nelson (not yet, but we know it’s coming some day).
Next came Detroit, where Olsen played with Walt Bellamy (HOF), Dave Bing (HOF), and Dave Debusschere (HOF). That gives us 11 so far. Next comes two more – Bill Sharman and Alex Hannum – both HOFers, both of whom coached Olsen at some point, making the total 13. Add in Dan Issel and Artis Gilmore from the year Olsen served as an assistant with Kentucky and we’ve got 15 Hall of Famers with whom Bud Olsen had direct contact as a player or coach. For someone who never played in the NBA Finals, averaged fewer than eight points a game, and had a career of less than a decade, it’s a remarkable feat. Who knows, maybe I missed a couple in there, but after awhile you start to lose count.
Enoch “Bud” Olsen made a name for himself in Ohio high school ball in the 1950s, where he ran into folks like Bobby Knight, John Havlicek, Jerry Lucas and Mel Nowell, before heading to Louisville, where he took the Cardinals and their new building – Freedom Hall – to the Final Four in 1959. Perhaps as important, Olsen’s presence helped lure his brother, Bill, to Louisville, where he wound up being a key figure in the revitalization of the Louisville athletic program in the 1990s and 2000s.
Anyhow, thinking he’d make a nice addition to their club, the Cincinnati Royals took the local kid in the second round of the 1962 draft, where Olsen began his rather vagabond journey through the NBA. Obviously, Olsen wasn’t expecting life in the pros to be just life in Kentucky, but just how different it would be was a revelation.
Olsen was a teammate of the great Oscar Robertson with the Royals, who recalled this humorous story to the NY Times’ Ira Berkow in 2002:
''I was told that when you go to the Garden, and a kid says he wants to carry your bag, don't let him,'' he said. ''And I didn't. A few years later, when I was playing for the Royals, Bud Olsen, a teammate of mine, gave his bag to a kid. The kid disappeared with it. Olsen couldn't play that night. No uniform.''
Olsen was an admirer of Robertson’s skills. In his book, “The Big O,” Robertson said Olsen would “sit on the bench and watch my moves and punch the guy next to him, ‘You see that? You see that?’”
Anyways, aside from getting a chance to watch Robertson up close, Olsen never got much time with the Royals, with his best season coming in 1964-65 when he averaged 17 minutes and 7.5 points a game. He was traded to San Francisco at the end of the season and spent one year in the Bay before being exposed in the expansion draft, which is how he wound up wearing a Seattle Sonics jersey in 1967.
(Which , when you think about it, was one heckuva ride for a 25-year-old. In the span of five years ol’ Bud went from Ohio to San Francisco; and not just any San Francisco, either. 1966 San Francisco.)
His time in Seattle was relatively unmemorable, and at the end of the season the Sonics let him go in another expansion draft, this time to Milwaukee.
Bizarrely, Olsen failed to latch on with the expansion Bucks, but somehow found a role as a backup to Bill Russell (in what would be Russell’s last year) with the perennial champion Boston Celtics. By December, though, Red Auerbach decided he had seen enough, and he let Olsen go so that the Celtics could grab Jim Barnes instead.
Olsen drifted to Detroit for 10 more games that season (this was 1968-69), but that ended his NBA career. Thinking they could capitalize on Olsen’s college fame, the Kentucky Colonels grabbed Olsen for the 1969-70 season. He wasn’t the only player with Kentucky ties … the Colonels used a total of nine guys who went to college in Kentucky that year.
He had a good year for the Colonels, advancing to the Eastern Division Finals while playing 18 minutes a night during the playoffs. Olsen later told a Louisville magazine, “But when they brought in Dan Issel on a no-cut contract, I decided to retire from playing and became an assistant coach. I was under Joe Mullaney and then Babe McCarthy for two years and then a new opportunity came up and I accepted a position that put me in charge of ABA officials.”
Whether Olsen retired or was traded is hard to tell. According to multiple sources, Olsen was dealt to Dallas in July along with two other players for Cincy Powell (who would play in the ABA All-Star Game that season). Olsen served as an assistant coach with the Colonels in 1973-74, but not during the 1971-1973 period. In addition, he worked as a broadcaster for Kentucky Colonels games during the 1971-72.
With his basketball playing/coaching/broadcasting/referee overseeing in the past, Olsen turned to the real world and worked in sales for Schardein Mechanical and while also acting as a director for Team Up for Kids in Louisville. Olsen never garnered as much recognition in the NBA as he had in the NCAA, and it isn’t a huge surprise that he returned to Louisville to live when his career ended. Now 69, Olsen lives less than 10 minutes from the Louisville campus, where he no doubt is still active in the area’s ongoing love affair of all things Cardinal.
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