ANAHEIM — As the final seconds ticked away in a victory that would send Oklahoma to the Final Four, Kobe Bryant hurried toward an elevator in the bowels of the Honda Center.
For the second time in three days, the Los Angeles Lakers star had made the 10-minute drive from his home in Newport Coast to watch Oklahoma’s Buddy Hield, the soon-to-be lottery pick who’s created more buzz than any player in college basketball this season.
After witnessing Hield—who grew up idolizing Bryant—score 37 points in Saturday’s 80-68 Elite Eight victory over Oregon, the NBA legend reacted like so many others who have watched the national player of the year front-runner this season.
“Blown away,” Bryant told Bleacher Report. “Blown away.”
Impressed as he was with Hield’s skill level—he made 13 of 20 shots Saturday—Bryant said the senior’s intangibles are what stuck with him the most.
“I just love his motor,” Bryant told B/R. “I love his passion and his energy. He puts everything he has into the game. Lots of guys go hard out there, but with him, it’s a on a different level. You can see it on his face. He truly loves every minute that he’s out there.”
Bryant smiled gently, lifted his arms chest-high and clenched his fists.
“He plays, man,” Bryant said. “He plaaaaaayyyyss!”
There is indeed something different about Hield, something that sets him apart from the other All-Americans who have funneled through college basketball the past few seasons, something that’s caused the nation to fall in love with the kid from the Bahamas who is known as much for his smile as his stroke.
“Whether you’re talking to him in person or watching him on the court, he’s just got a knack for making people feel better about themselves,” Oklahoma coach Lon Kruger said earlier this season. “Life is a lot better when Buddy is around.”
The Final Four will be better, too.
College basketball enthusiasts are familiar with Hield and his inspiring story, but now he’ll be introduced to the millions of other casual fans who tune in each year to the game’s marquee event.
The timing couldn’t be more ideal for a sport that has taken some publicity hits in recent years for its rash of one-and-done players, cheating scandals and sloppy play. As good of an ambassador as he’s been for Oklahoma, Hield could now do the same for the entire NCAA.
“He walks into a room, and people just gravitate toward him,” said Hield’s mother, Jackie Swann. “It’s the spirit of the Lord that’s upon him. He loves people. I always told him, ‘Be honest with people. Treat them well, and they will treat you right.’”
Watching from the Honda Center court as Buddy stood atop a ladder and took celebratory snips of the net, Jackie wiped tears from her eyes as she spoke about her son’s unlikely journey.
It all began in Eight Mile Rock, a low-income community near Freeport in the Bahamas. Hield—who lived with his grandmother and, for a period, shared a queen-sized bed with his mother and six siblings—spent hours upon hours in the streets shooting hoops, often into a milk crate he'd hammered to a light pole.
One neighbor became so irritated with the ruckus caused by Hield’s late-night dribbling that he spread shards of glass across Hield’s makeshift court, forcing him to find a new place to practice.
Other times, as he got older, Hield would tiptoe out of his home after midnight and walk toward a local park to play pickup ball with friends until he heard the squeals of Jackie’s green minivan as it rounded the corner. At that point Hield knew to either hide—or run home.
Friends laughed at Hield when, as an 11-year-old, he vowed he’d become an NBA basketball player. A jokester with a goofy smile and a reputation for playing pranks, Hield said folks never took him seriously.
“They thought I was an entertainer,” Hield said. “Not an athlete.”
It also didn’t help that the Bahamas had virtually no basketball tradition. Only two players with Bahamian roots (Mychal Thompson and Rick Fox) have enjoyed significant careers in the NBA. Hield, though, was determined to alter the trend.
Hield’s big break came when he was discovered at a summer showcase in the Bahamas before his junior year by a coach at Sunrise Christian Academy, a prep school in Wichita, Kansas. Within months, Hield had packed his bag and moved overseas. As a junior, he was once so upset with his play in a high school road game that he slept on the hotel room floor because he didn’t feel he was worthy of a bed.
When he arrived at Oklahoma, assistant coaches had to lock up the ball rack on game days because Hield was wearing himself out with intense shooting sessions hours before tipoff.
As a freshman, Hield told Kruger his goal was to win a national championship in his inaugural season.
“He was like, ‘Buddy, calm down, let’s just worry about making the NCAA tournament first,’” Hield said. “We made it, so the next year I said the same thing and he said, ‘Let’s try to get to the Sweet 16.’”
Now, finally, Hield and the Sooners are in the Final Four—two wins away from his goal. Oklahoma has never won a national title and hasn’t been to the Final Four since 2002. The program had missed the NCAA tournament three straight seasons before Hield arrived in 2012-13.
Country music star Toby Keith, a Norman resident and longtime supporter of the program, said Hield’s presence has revitalized the entire fanbase. He noted how Hield “fist-bumps about 50 people”—even the Sooners’ radio crew—after his name is announced in the starting lineup.
“Even when he goes to places like Kansas, they cheer him,” Keith told B/R after Saturday’s win. “It’s no secret that our program was in pretty bad shape when Buddy got here four years ago. Now everyone is making plans to go to the Final Four.
“Decades from now, people will look back on this group and say, ‘That was Buddy’s team.’”
So lopsided were the scores in Oklahoma’s two wins in Anaheim this week (the Sooners beat Texas A&M 77-63 in the Sweet 16) that the victories almost seemed easy. But Hield said that was hardly the case.
Late Friday night, Hield spoke with his mother by phone and told her he was nervous. Deeply religious, Jackie emailed him scriptures and told him to rely on God to carry him.
NCAA March Madness @marchmadness
Buddy Hield made 8 threes today. That's a lot. #MarchMadness https://t.co/l021v91hCI2016-3-27 00:15:52
Hield didn’t waste any time establishing himself against the Ducks, scoring 17 first-half points as Oklahoma took a 48-30 lead. When Hield swished a long three-pointer just before intermission, he looked into the stands at Bryant, who gave him a salute. Hield had met Bryant after Oklahoma’s game two nights earlier, when the Lakers star informed him he’d be returning for the showdown with Oregon. Growing up in the Bahamas, Hield was so infatuated with Kobe that he often used candy to bribe his older sister, CoCo, for remote control privileges so he could watch the Lakers on TV.
“I’m a Kobe freak,” Hield said. “I’ve got a serious man crush on Kobe. You’ve gotta perform when the Mamba’s in town. He gave me a little dap and nodded his head and I said, ‘OK, it’s time to go to work.’”
Hield only got stronger during Saturday’s second half, when the only thing in question was whether he’d surpass the 40-point barrier.
Despite going 8-of-13 from three-point range for the game, Hield fell just short of the benchmark with 37 points.
But that hardly seemed to bother him after the game, when he climbed into the stands for a long embrace with his mother, who’d spent the majority of the second half pacing the concourse, praying for her son instead of watching the action.
“All of this was for her,” Hield said. “She gave me the confidence and the motivation. She always instilled positivity in life by taking me to church. I’m glad we got to have that moment.”
You can bet Hield’s fans back home were relishing the moment, too. Hield’s success has made him one of the most recognizable figures in the Bahamas. Two years ago, when the Sooners played in a tournament at the Atlantis resort, he could hardly walk through the lobby because he was so bombarded by natives—many of them hotel employees—who wanted autographs and pictures.
Hield puts on free clinics when he returns to the Bahamas in the summer. And multiple times each season, he sends laundry bags full of the free shoes and athletic gear he receives as a college athlete to people in his hometown who can’t afford extra clothes.
“Knowing they were watching me tonight … I’m glad they got to see it,” Hield said. “This doesn’t happen very often in the Bahamas. I’m happy they get to watch another weekend of basketball.”
Bryant is happy, too, although his schedule as an NBA player will keep him from making the trip to Houston to see Oklahoma take on Villanova in next weekend’s national semifinal.
Bryant didn’t get to wish Hield well before leaving the Honda Center on Saturday, but that didn’t stop him from sending a message to college basketball’s biggest—and most likable—star.
“Go get ‘em,” Bryant said. “Go get ‘em. You've taken your team this far, now it’s time to finish the job. It’s time to bring it home.”
Jason King covers college sports for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter @JasonKingBR.