This story originally appears in the April 4, 2016, issue of Sports Illustrated. Subscribe to the magazine here.
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The frenzy followed Buddy Hield everywhere last Saturday in Anaheim, from the Honda Center court, where he Duck-hunted Oregon, to the stands, where he autographed everything from flip-flops to forearms after the game. The celebrities in attendance saluted the Oklahoma guard, and his growing legend, from Kobe (Bryant) to Toby (Keith) to Oregon alum Ty Burrell, the dad from Modern Family. Yes, even Phil Dunphy is a fan.
Welcome all to the Buddy Love Experience, a show as intoxicating as anything in sports. In Oklahoma’s resounding 80–68 victory, the 6’4” senior guard from the Bahamas dropped 37 points, the most in a regional final since Loyola Marymount’s Bo Kimble had 42 against UNLV in 1990. Hield’s eight three-pointers tied both his career high and an Elite Eight record. The 117 points he scored through the first four tournament games are the most since Stephen Curry had 128 for Davidson in 2008. Asked to explain his performance, Hield just shrugged. “If I’m open,” he said, “I shoot it.”
Hield will enter the Final Four as only the fourth player to average at least 25 points since 1975. The others: Larry Bird (Indiana State, ‘79), Glen Rice (Michigan, ‘89) and Dennis Scott (Georgia Tech, ‘90). Hield’s career arc is the result of four years of persistent practice, but it’s his personality, his island charm, his no-worries saunter, that has made him a crossover star, even if he doesn’t see himself that way. “I’m just Buddy,” he said after the game, although to Oregon he was no friend.
Last Friday night Hield hardly slept, his mind racing with thoughts of leading the Sooners to their first Final Four since 2002. At the arena on Saturday afternoon, he noticed an army of cellphones pointed at Bryant, who had settled into the third row. The sight of his lifelong idol, who offered a simple head nod, calmed Hield. He turned to junior guard Jordan Woodard and gushed like a One Direction fan. “Kobe’s here,” he giggled. The teammates bumped fists. “I knew then,” Hield said, “that it was time to go to work.”
He proceeded to turn the top-seeded Ducks into spectators at a three-point contest. Hield’s fifth triple came just before halftime, as he backed up, shifted left, backed up again and let fly another rainbow from the far left wing over 6’6” Elgin Cook for a 48–30 lead. Oklahoma’s season can be summed up by a single image: Hield beyond the arc, right arm extended, wrist flopped, smiling that goofy smile as another shot whistles through the net.
To Keith, Buddy’s act resembled performance art. The country music star, a longtime Oklahoma fan, had seen a crowd at Kansas shower Hield with a standing ovation on Jan. 4, after he scored 46 points in a triple-overtime loss. It was Hield’s personality, as much as his performance, that inspired that reaction. “You just knew he was a special guy,” Keith says. “He’s going to make a lot of money. I used to tell [former Oklahoma star] Wayman Tisdale he made as much with his smile as he did with his jump shot.”
Inside the Sooners’ raucous locker room, Hield shouted out to his new friend Kobe and his old friend Toby and grappled with how much his life had changed the past two weeks. “I worry about him,” says Kyle Lindsted, Hield’s high school coach, who watched from his home in Wichita, Kans. “I don’t know how he can continue to be as good to everybody as he has been and be the star he has become. But then again, it’s Buddy. If he got both legs cut off tomorrow, he’d still be smiling.”