Life is a blast to a reggae beat with Bahamas-born Buddy Hield (aka Buddy Love) around. The high-scoring, fast-talking junior guard has the Sooners gamboling to the Big Dance yet again. Right, daddio?
This is an article from the Jan. 26, 2015 issue
IT WASN'T EXACTLY home, but on a November evening thick with Caribbean warmth, Buddy Hield's aunt and uncle's house did just fine. Some 80 guests gathered in Renee and Jerome Forbes's backyard in Nassau, many of them Hield's family members and childhood friends, the rest teammates and coaches from his new home 1,400 miles away in Norman, Okla. Hield's mother, Jackie Swann, initially planned a simple, home-cooked meal for her son, then opted for a full-blown celebration for the Sooners, who were in the Bahamas for a Thanksgiving-week tournament. There were rented white tents and speakers blaring reggae, and a buffet that included conch chowder, coconut bread, macaroni and cheese, and lobster tails roasted in lemon pepper butter. For dessert, Swann made her son's favorite treat, guava duff, a tropical fruit rolled and boiled in dough then dressed with a rum sauce—a sweet indulgence to punctuate the feast.
For Swann, a mother of seven accustomed to having many mouths to feed, the cooking was a labor of love. They take care of my boy, she thought, so we will take care of them. Junior guard Isaiah Cousins, Hield's classmate and backcourt mate from Mount Vernon, N.Y., deejayed from a laptop, putting on his best island accent to get people on the dance floor. Junior forward Ryan Spangler requested the Popcaan song Hield had embedded into his brain back on campus. Hield's best high school friend, Jordan Grant, greeted the visitors by shouting their surnames as if they were his own teammates. Heaps of food vanished as Hield's two worlds intermingled, those who knew him as their team's joyful leading scorer bonding with those who remembered the mischievous boy caked in dust from endless outdoor play. "The thing that hit me as much as anything," recalls Sooners coach Lon Kruger, "is how much it means that one of theirs has come over and done well. The success that Buddy's had makes them feel awful good."
It has folks in Norman feeling awfully good too. The 6'4" Hield (pronounced HEELED) has gone from slashing sixth man as a freshman to perimeter marksman (17.6 points per game at week's end, 40.8% from three) on the nation's 19th-ranked team. "When he was in high school, he was a great scorer," says Oklahoma assistant Chris Crutchfield. "But now I think a lot of people around the country are starting to see him as a big-time midrange and three-point shooter."
Hield's supporting cast is proving to be big-time too. Through Sunday, Cousins was averaging 12.5 points and hitting 44.4% of his threes; Spangler had fifth double doubles; and 6'8" power forward TaShawn Thomas, a senior transfer from Houston, was providing 11.5 points and 5.9 rebounds. Add the nation's fifth-most-efficient defense and Kruger could have the ingredients to serve Sooners fans a third straight NCAA tournament trip.
An endearingly confident extrovert, Hield once challenged visiting alum Blake Griffin to dunk on him. (Hield was posterized into a giggle fit.) On his recruiting visit to Oklahoma, he corrected a staffer who referred to him as a shooter by asserting, "I'm a maker." Kruger raves about the life Hield injects into routine practices, peppering conversation with Bahamian slang, addressing everyone as "daddio." Understanding his lightning-speed lilt can be difficult—"If you catch about every third word, you're doing well," says trainer Alex Brown—but Hield flattens the learning curve by providing an abundance of material. "When you first meet him," says Spangler, "you think, When's this guy shut up?"
The program's go-to recruiting host, Hield earned the nickname Buddy Love, after Eddie Murphy's character in The Nutty Professor. The guard has adopted this sobriquet as the name on his emoji-heavy Twitter account and as the one he uses when introducing himself to the young women of Norman. "Honestly," says Kyle Lindsted, his high school coach, "life is just better with Buddy around."
And it's usually accompanied by a reggae sound track, which he blasts through the Lloyd Noble Center's P.A. system during off-hours shootarounds. Yet the Bahamian lifestyle that shaped college basketball's Mr. Congeniality also propelled him to leave the islands. "I've seen a lot of people never push for themselves," Hield says. "I'm trying to be that different one. I just tried to find a way to make it out."
CHAVANO HIELD was Jackie Swann's fourth boy and the fourth of her six children with her husband, Vincent Hield. (Swann also has another son from a previous relationship.) Chavano was a large and quiet baby, born with fair skin and a tuft of curly hair that reminded a family friend of a young Bud Bundy from Married ... with Children. It wasn't long before Chavano became Buddy, and the docile infant became a talkative toddler who loved trying to flush toys down the toilet.
Hield's parents separated when he was about 11, and Jackie and the kids settled at her mother's house in Eight Mile Rock, a coastal settlement 15 miles west of Freeport. Their housing situation was cramped—Jackie and her kids at first slept head-to-toe on a pair of pushed-together single beds—but the family was happy. The kids climbed trees and ran through yards, and Jackie chatted late into the night with friends on the front porch.
This was when Hield found his passion. Hearing his classmates chattering about the NBA games they watched on American television stations piqued his interest. Without a TV of his own, Hield hopped between neighbors' houses to catch whatever action he could, mesmerized by Kobe Bryant and Allen Iverson. He marveled at the plays they made and the way the crowds cheered. He wanted that for himself.
Hield's arena was the park two streets away on Pinedale Road, where he became addicted to the sight of a ball passing through a rim. On summer mornings he would listen for his mother to leave for one of the many housekeeping jobs that she worked six or seven days a week, grab a gallon of juice and a Popsicle, and make his rounds knocking on windows to rouse playmates. His footwear was often shabby—he sometimes stole his mother's slippers when his shoes became too worn—but he always brought a ball (usually lifted from a local tournament), and when it wore down to its rubber bladder, he would scar it with broken bottles to give it better grip.
Runs lasted well past sunset, long enough for Jackie to return home from her 12-hour day, screech up in her van and force her son to come home. When his mother would later leave for Bible study, he often sneaked back out, but the frequent confrontations were embarrassing enough that Hield devised an alternate plan. He began to take the rectangular plastic crates his grandmother used to store beverages, knock out the bottoms and nail them to telephone poles on his street to serve as makeshift hoops. He took pride in hosting games of his own, and over time borrowed tools to speed the process, cutting plywood backboards with a handsaw and hammering nails rather than bashing them with rocks.
Not everyone appreciated the innovation. An elderly neighbor once spread shattered glass in the street to stop the boys from playing. But Jackie preferred having him closer to home than in a neighborhood she calls a "war zone." Buddy and his mother were seated beneath a kenep tree in their front yard one afternoon when he shared his dream: Someday he too would be on TV, playing in the NBA. His mother told him to prioritize his studies. His friends wondered why he didn't devote himself to track, the more typical path to a U.S. athletic scholarship. But for Buddy, it was basketball or bust. "It's hard," he says now, "but you just need that one person to see you."
KYLE LINDSTED was at a high school showcase in the Bahamas in 2010, scouting talent to play for him at Sunrise Christian Academy in Wichita, Kans. Hield, then 16, was 6'1" and about 160 pounds. There were some high-major prospects on the court, but Lindsted was drawn to the kid dancing in the stands between games and cracking his teammates up during breaks. When he took the floor he drove into the gaps of the defense, made smart passes. His shot was unorthodox, pushed from his hip, but the ball went through the net. And game after game, Hield's team won.
The coach introduced himself to Hield, met his mother. He explained that with a few years of refinement, Hield had a chance to play Division I basketball. At Sunrise he would have housing, education, structure and a full scholarship. Jackie, a devout Christian, felt a kinship with Lindsted. I'm trusting you with my boy, she told him. I don't want any foolishness.
At Sunrise Christian, Hield lived in a house with a half-dozen teammates and took up a second residence in the school's 24-hour gym, feeling as if it afforded him some sort of video-game cheat code. He put up countless jumpers, bringing his elbows upward and inward as he inched toward a higher release point. He haunted the weight room and the nearby China Go Grill, each plate of teriyaki chicken pushing his growing frame toward 200 pounds. His defense was still so unpolished it required the Buffaloes to switch to a 3--2 zone, but he honed that rapidly too. "It was like every day," says Lindsted, "he had to get better."
Hield's personality needed no such improvement. Science teachers offered to take him home, maintenance workers swore they were among his dearest friends. Hield enlivened team trips from the backseat of Lindsted's car with stories from home and an impressive knowledge of basketball trivia. But underneath his seemingly carefree demeanor was an unwavering desire to succeed. After one particularly disheartening loss, Lindsted entered Hield's hotel room to find him on the carpet with a pillow and sheets. If he didn't win, he told his coach, he didn't deserve the bed.
Then an assistant at Oral Roberts, Crutchfield had been tracking Hield since 2007, when he attended a showcase in Freeport and noticed a skinny 13-year-old launching—and making—two-handed shots from his hip. Four years later, Crutchfield joined Kruger's new staff at Oklahoma. The Sooners needed guards, and that same beanpole Bahamian kid had built himself into a perfect fit.
Kansas also courted Hield, but, he says, "Kansas always wins. Why not be different?" Now he relishes their every meeting. Oklahoma has yet to win in the NCAA tournament in Hield's two trips, dropping its first game to favored San Diego State in 2013 and stumbling against 12th-seeded North Dakota State in overtime last March. On the subject of that loss his jubilant veneer vanishes. "I feel like we had the game won, and it brought all this anxiety," he says, squirming on a brown leather couch in the Sooners' film room. "I even hate talking about it now because it burns me up." Jackie, who married her longtime companion, Richard Bryanen, in 2013, doesn't know much about basketball, but she knows the joy it has long brought her son. When she counsels him, she conjures simpler times. You have to go back to those days in the park, she says, those days I wanted to kill you.
Buddy is not Jackie's only child in the U.S. Her oldest son, B.J. Simmons, is a volunteer track coach at Central Arkansas. Another, Curvin, is married and living in Miami. Her youngest daughter, Jennaya, is a sophomore runner at Essex County (N.J.) College, while daughter Pepper enrolled at Miami Dade College in January. Buddy is likely to remain Stateside for some time: He is considered a potential late first- or early second-round NBA draft pick. His dream is to use his earnings to fund reggae concerts back in Freeport, held outdoors to accommodate the droves of people he imagines attending. The money raised would be put toward a basketball complex for the boys and girls of Eight Mile Rock. There, they could shoot long into the night, their mothers never having to worry about their surroundings. Hield has seen what building hoops has given him. Now he wants to see what hoops can help him build.