From hardwood to pigskin: Bud Grant understands basketball skills translate to the NFL

Bud Grant was the coach of the Minnesota Vikings from 1967-83 and 1985.

Brace Hemmelgarn/Brace Hemmelgarn-USA TODAY Sport

TAMPA, Fla. — There came a time when Bud Grant knew he must trade the hardwood for hard knocks on a 100-yard field. Deep down, he understood the time was right to leave behind a basketball passion and focus on football alone.

That light-bulb moment happens early for most everyone now. This is an era of specialization, one in which two sports often are one too many if someone is serious about reaching the NBA or NFL.

But in 1951, Grant prepared to live it all.

"I was just blessed I was able to do both," he told FOXSportsFlorida.com earlier this week.

Then 24 years old, the 6-foot-3 Minnesota product and former fourth-round draft pick had played as a Minneapolis Lakers forward since the 1949-50 season. He had earned 249 points and 90 assists in 96 career games. He was part of the Lakers team that went 51-17 and beat the Syracuse Nationals in six games to win the NBA Finals in 1950.

Still, Grant felt the pull of a different life. The Philadelphia Eagles had drafted him 14th overall in 1950. His NFL career, one that eventually transitioned into becoming a renowned Minnesota Vikings coach and a 1994 Pro Football Hall of Fame inductee, was about to begin.

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"You reach a certain stage in your career where you level off," said Grant, who coached the Vikings from 1967-1983 and 1985. "You can take a kid and you develop, and you get better. … But at a certain stage, you level off, and you don’t quite get to be a starter or you don’t quite get to be as good as you think you could be or want to be. I had reached that level. I could play pro basketball. I could probably make the team for a couple more years. I made some winning baskets. I won the world championship. I got all the thrills out of it.

"I was only 6-foot-3, and I was playing against guys who were 6-5, 6-6, 6-7. And while I could jump a little bit, they were better than I was. So I decided, ‘I leveled off here.’ But football, I could see where I could excel."

More than one of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ draftees last weekend likely had similar thoughts in recent years. A heavy basketball influence is present among three of the additions: Wide receiver Mike Evans was a standout forward at Ball High School in Galveston, Texas, who received an offer from Texas to play the sport; tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins became a reserve forward at Washington in the 2011-12 season, totaling 19 points and 36 rebounds in 122 minutes; and offensive lineman Kevin Pamphile averaged 20 points and 11 rebounds as a senior at Miami Central High School.

So it’s no surprise that basketball nicknames were as free-flowing as a fast break within One Buc Place. After the first round, general manager Jason Licht used an old Houston Rockets moniker, the "Twin Towers," to describe Evans and wide receiver Vincent Jackson, both 6-5 targets. A day later, Licht referred to his new pass-catching options as the "Dunkaneers" after Seferian-Jenkins, who’s also 6-5, was taken in the second round.

"It helps a lot," Evans said of his basketball influence. "When you see me go up for catches, I’m treating it like a rebound."

"It helps me so much, being able to play basketball at a high level, adjusting to the ball in the air, quick feet, quick hands and all of that stuff definitely translates to playing tight end in the National Football League," Seferian-Jenkins said.

Those opinions sound right to Grant, who made rare history with his double-dip into the NBA and NFL.

In addition to his Lakers career, he played as an Eagles defensive end and wide receiver in 1951 and 1952. He and Otto Graham are the only two men believed to have played in regular-season games within both the NBL/NBA and NFL. Graham was a guard/forward for the NBL’s Rochester Royals in the 1945-46 season before becoming a Cleveland Browns quarterback in 1946.

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"Certainly, not a lot of positions in football now relate to basketball," said Grant, 86, a Vikings consultant. "But defensive backs and wide receivers could qualify in terms of skill levels, hand-eye coordination.

"You’ve got to be able to handle the ball. Maybe some guys are good ball-handlers in basketball, but they’re not particularly good shooters. Some guys are great shooters, but you’ve got to get them the ball. So it’s all a little bit different."

Turns out, someone with a basketball influence burned Grant in his quest to reach a third consecutive Super Bowl. It was December 1975 on a frigid Sunday at Minneapolis’ Metropolitan Stadium during the NFC divisional round. Grant, nine years into his Vikings coaching career, had led Minnesota to two consecutive NFC titles — three overall — and looked primed to keep his championship hopes alive.

Minnesota led the Dallas Cowboys 14-10 with 32 seconds left in the fourth quarter. Dallas quarterback Roger Staubach lined up in the shotgun formation at midfield and lofted a pass down the right sideline for wide receiver Drew Pearson, a 6-foot target who starred as a basketball player at South River (New Jersey) High School.

Pearson positioned himself below the underthrown ball and treated the pass like a rebound to be corralled. He boxed out cornerback Nate Wright near the end zone, the season hanging in the balance for both. There was a shove. Pearson cradled the prize.

Touchdown. Heartbreak.

The Hail Mary Game was born.

"A lot of receivers couldn’t do that," Grant said. "But Pearson was a basketball player, see. I talked to him later, and we laughed. I was sick at the time, of course. But we talked about it later. He said, ‘Yeah, no question about it. That’s the only way I was going to catch the ball.’"

Grant’s era was different, of course. It’s rare to see players try to make careers work within both the NBA and NFL for many reasons. Training in basketball and football has become a year-round grind, a demanding lifestyle that requires charting the future at a young age with precision.

There’s no offseason for the elite with visions of making a childhood dream an adult career, with possible riches to follow.

Since 1951, the stakes have changed.

"The athletes are so much better," Grant said. "I don’t know that there would be many that would equate to playing both sports. It would be hard today to do what I did more than 50 years ago. There are certainly high school kids who have played both sports, but not enough to develop at a pro level."

Once, three new Bucs players had playing interests in both sports. But this is a different time. Their interests changed. They became elite on a football field rather than the hardwood.

Still, as they transition from college stars to NFL rookies, their roundball influence remains. It will never go away, even with a new professional life.

You can follow Andrew Astleford on Twitter @aastleford or email him at aastleford@gmail.com.