Most people will tell you that they can remember exactly where they were, and who they were with, the first time they saw Buddy on screen. The gifted golden retriever warmed the hearts of countless viewers as the centerpiece of the gritty 1997 sports documentary Air Bud, a film often compared to Hoop Dreams for its unflinching portrayal of the use of canine athletes in middle school basketball. But as so often happens, the cameras stopped rolling just as his story was truly beginning.
Buddy continued to play ball with owner Josh Framm throughout high school, racking up the second-highest point total for any non-human prep basketball player in history, trailing only Dennis Rodman. The duo planned to go to college together, but the boy-and-dog bond they shared—the one that played out so stirringly on screen—was strained and ultimately shattered when UCLA offered a full scholarship to Buddy. Rumors still swirl that Coach Ben Howland sealed the deal with a truckload of Morton’s steak bones, but investigators were unable to substantiate the allegations.
After red-leashing as a freshman, Buddy worked his way into the starting lineup by the midpoint of his sophomore season. In the end, however, an otherwise impressive season would be marred by an NCAA-record 642 tripping fouls and the two-game suspension that resulted from a crotch-biting incident involving Joakim Noah. After teaming with Russell Westbrook and Kevin Love to lead UCLA to the Pac-10 title as a junior, "The Barking Bruin" made the controversial decision to declare for the 2008 NBA draft. As Love told the Los Angeles Times that year, "I wouldn't have gone pro after my freshman year if Buddy had been willing to stick around. That team was something special. But he wasn't hearing it."
In the weeks before the draft Buddy worked out for 17 different teams, and was even asked by the NBA to attend the event in person. But Draft night passed without his name being called, leaving him to pant helplessly on camera as every other player was walked to the podium. Speculation among analysts was that teams were scared off by perceived character issues—in particular Buddy's implied refusal to adhere to a little-known clause in the NBA's dress code that limited the length and amount of body hair that players could show.
Feeling humiliated, Buddy was weighing his options—try to get a look in Summer League? Sell out and join the Purina Incredible Dog Challenge circuit?—when he got a call from FC Barcelona. Due to the involvement of teams from Eastern Europe, the Euroleague had no body hair rule. Buddy was eligible—and, thanks to his college success, he was viewed as an attraction. Being signed by Barca reinvigorated Buddy, and in the 2009 Euroleague championship he helped topple Olympiacos with his newly-refined pick-and-roll-over technique.
The overseas success prompted NBA squads to give Buddy another look, and in 2010 the Nets, suffering from a league-worst record, successfully lobbied for what became known as the “Fur Waiver” to the body hair rule. When asked about his controversial decision to recruit the canine, Coach Kiki Vandeweghe said, “Yeah, I know. He’s a dog. But he couldn’t be any worse than Jarvis Hayes.”
Alas, Buddy's comeback tour was short-lived. First came allegations by a Barcelona-based veteranarian that Buddy took performance-enhancing kibble. Then Paris Hilton’s dog Tinkerbell slapped Buddy with a paternity suit, claiming the retriever was the father of her eight “chihualden retrievers.” When asked to comment, Buddy famously growled: “I never met the bitch."
Neither scandal was ever proven, but the damage was done. The Nets cut Buddy, and after an appearance on Bravo’s Doggy Style and a brief stint on Animal Planet’s Canine Apprentice, Buddy disappeared from the public eye. At one point TMZ reported seeing a “fuzzy yellow animal” resembling Buddy enter a Malibu rehab, but it turned out to be Amanda Bynes.
It was three years before he resurfaced again, this time at an ARC youth basketball game between the San Jose Screenshots and the Berryessa Megabytes in Northern California. Buddy, who had taken up residence under a bench in the parking lot of an area In-N-Out Burger, was walking past a elementary school gymnasium when he heard the telltale sound of children dribbling. Long in tooth but still spry, Buddy jumped through an open window, stole the ball from a Megabyte, and executed a single-pawed dunk. The crowd went crazy—though no one more so than the Screenshots' volunteer coach, Josh “Instagram” Framm, now 28 and a recently-minted Silicon Valley billionaire.
“All good dogs know how to find their way home," said Framm after the game. "I know Buddy's had his ups and downs. But in his heart, he has always been a very good dog." Reunited with his onetime master, Buddy now lives on Josh’s sprawling Palo Alto ranch where, according to a recent profile in AARF magazine, he’s spending his golden years lapping cappuccinos with Marley’s sister Marlene and training his puppies how to do double-dog-reverse layups. Although officially retired, Buddy showed he could still wow the crowd at a recent “Senior Paws” charity basketball game when he delivered an epic stuff on Beethoven.
"That was good to see," remarked Framm of the block. "Buddy's wanted to do that for about a hundred years."
Aaron Mendelsohn is the co-writer and co-creator of the Air Bud movie franchise, which has sired eleven sequels to date. He is currently adapting the true story of a notorious mob boss with unusual qualities, which did not include shooting baskets with his mouth.
While the SI magazine editors were busy catching up with for-real former players, we turned our attention to those athletes of yesteryear who actually made an impact on the world: the fictional ones. Over the next week Extra Mustard will learn the whereabouts of six other iconic sports-movie protagonists, as told by those characters' creators. Here's who's coming soon.
Wednesday, July 3: Adam McKay on Ricky Bobby, from Talladega Nights (2006)
Friday, July 5: Sam Harper on Henry Rowengartner, from Rookie of the Year (1993)
Tuesday, July 9: Gurinder Chadha on Jess Bhamra, from Bend It Like Beckham (2002)
Wednesday, July 10: Aaron Mendelsohn on Buddy, from Air Bud 1-5 (1997-2003)