Bahamas' Best: Buddy Hield's Relentless Journey to Oklahoma and Hoops Stardom

Jason King@@JasonKingBRSenior Writer, B/R MagNovember 19, 2015

SYRACUSE, NY - MARCH 27:  Buddy Hield #24 of the Oklahoma Sooners reacts in the first half of the game against the Michigan State Spartans during the East Regional Semifinal of the 2015 NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament at the Carrier Dome on March 27, 2015 in Syracuse, New York.  (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)
Elsa/Getty Images

NORMAN, Okla. — From nearly three blocks away in his neighborhood in the Bahamas, Buddy Hield could hear the brakes squeal in his mother's rickety, green minivan.

If it was after dark in the summer, Hield knew he'd better run.

Around the corner and toward the basketball court on Pinedale Road sped Jackie Swann, determined to "knock the devil" out of 12-year-old Buddy for sneaking out of the house—again—after she'd dozed off following a long day of cleaning houses. Some nights, Hield hid behind a nearby gazebo while his friends lied about his whereabouts. Other times, he'd sprint home using a shortcut and slide into bed before Jackie returned.

At least that way, Hield says, he could take his whipping in private instead of in front of his friends.

Maddening as Buddy could be at times, deep down, Jackie was proud of her son. While other teenagers in the Bahamas experimented with marijuana, dropped out of school and lingered in the streets, Buddy had found a purpose in basketball, a source of motivation. He was 11 when he began telling family members and friends he'd play in the NBA one day, just like Kobe Bryant and all the other stars he idolized on TV.

Most people in the community of Eight Mile Rock rolled their eyes and told Hield his dream was far-fetched. Teenage boys lucky enough to earn diplomas were expected to become construction workers, welders or auto mechanics—all trades that were stressed in the local high schools. Rarely did they attend college, and becoming a pro athlete was almost unheard of.

Buddy Hield with his mother, Jackie Swann, who has seen her son become one of the top NBA prospects in college basketball.
Buddy Hield with his mother, Jackie Swann, who has seen her son become one of the top NBA prospects in college basketball.Photo courtesy of Jalisa Hield.

In fact, only two players in history with Bahamian roots (Mychal Thompson and Rick Fox) had enjoyed significant careers in the NBA.

None of that mattered to Buddy, though.

"People laughed at him," says Hield's older sister, Jalisa, 26. "Nobody took him seriously. Nobody believed in him." 
She pauses.

"Ask them what they think now."

Indeed, just more than a decade later, Hield is only months away from making good on his NBA vow following a journey that's taken him from the Bahamas to a Wichita prep school to the University of Oklahoma, where he enters his senior campaign boasting preseason All-American honors for the No. 8-ranked Sooners.

Assuming he continues to improve, chances are good the reigning Big 12 Player of the Year will be selected in the first round of next summer's draft—an accomplishment that would make the 6'4" Hield an instant millionaire and, even more important to him, a symbol of success for the children of a country in dire need of role models.

Of course, many would say he's reached that status already.

"He used to run through these streets telling everyone he was gonna be like Kobe," Jackie says by phone from her home in Freeport. "Now, all the kids around here say they want to be like Buddy."

It truly is amazing. For years, Buddy Hield couldn't find anyone who believed in him.

Now, there isn't anyone who doesn't.

Kids flock to his free basketball clinics, and strangers plead for autographs and pictures when he returns to his native country. But there were moments not long ago when people in the Bahamas weren't very fond of Buddy Hield.

Particularly, folks in his old neighborhood.

Once forced to sneak out of his house to play basketball, Hield now dazzles on national TV, scoring 30 points in Oklahoma's season-opening win over Memphis.
Once forced to sneak out of his house to play basketball, Hield now dazzles on national TV, scoring 30 points in Oklahoma's season-opening win over Memphis.Joe Murphy/Getty Images

One of them was Mr. Benny, who lived next door to the home Hield shared with his grandmother, mother and six siblings. Initially, there were no objections when Hield sawed out the bottom of a plastic milk crate, nailed it to a wooden light pole and began shooting hoops in the street. But as Hield's practice sessions extended deeper and deeper into the night, Mr. Benny became so irritated that he scattered broken glass across the patch of dirt where the 13-year-old took jump shots.

Hield took the hint. The next evening, he moved his makeshift basket 50 yards down the block in front of a home occupied by his mom's friend, Carol. But that experiment ended quickly, too, when Carol, unable to sleep because of Hield's constant dribbling, stormed onto her porch in her pajamas and unleashed a howl that could be heard for blocks.

"Buuudddyyy!" she yelled in her Bahamian accent. "Stop makin' dat noise and take ya skin home to ya momma!"

Jackie hated that her son was annoying the neighbors—and she definitely didn't approve of him being out so late. But by then, she'd realized it was impossible to rein in Buddy's passion, and it was comforting to have him close to home instead of three blocks away at the park following a string of child kidnappings and sexual assaults in Eight Mile Rock, a coastal village 14 miles west of Freeport.

Hield was 11 when Jackie divorced his father, Vincent, and moved the family into the home of her mother. The house was cramped. Jackie, Hield and his six brothers and sisters slept head-to-foot on a queen-sized mattress, with one of them almost always ending up on the floor. Each sibling had a designated section of the room to stack his or her clothes and other belongings. Even with Jackie working three jobs, money was scarce.

Through it all, the family remained tight-knit and close. There were prayers (and sometimes a Bible study) each morning before breakfast; chores and homework came before television. If Jackie needed to dole out a spanking from time to time to maintain discipline, so be it. Mostly, though, she was known for her kind soul.

Buddy says he still remembers his mom telling her children to scoot over in the backseat of her van so she could offer rides to strangers walking in the scorching summer heat. And Jackie took pleasure in cooking for kids in the neighborhood on nights when they may not have eaten otherwise.

The example Jackie set rubbed off on her children.   

"We've never seen the inside of a jail cell," Jalisa says. "My mom never went to the courthouse because of one of us. No one ever called to tell her one of us was stealing. She raised us the right way."

Says Buddy: "We were blessed."

Uncomfortable as the living situation may have been, relatives credit Buddy for creating an environment void of tension and angst. When his sisters began fighting over space in the crowded bed, Buddy would crack a joke to lighten the mood. If everyone seemed stressed out at dinner, Hield would break into song or do an impersonation—anything to make people laugh.

A baby Buddy Hield (right) with his brother, Curvin.
A baby Buddy Hield (right) with his brother, Curvin.Photo courtesy of Jalisa Hield.

"I was the same way around my friends," Hield says. "People saw me as the comedian, the entertainer. They just thought I was a goofy kid who smiled a lot, a kid who was all about laughing and joking.

"I think that's why most people didn't take me seriously. They didn't know that I had a killer instinct inside of me, where I knew I was going to make it out."

So obsessed with basketball was Hield that he often paid his siblings (or bribed them with candy) to do his weekly chores so he could spend more time on the court. With only one television in the house, he often woke up 30 minutes early each morning to seize command of the remote control so he could watch highlights from the previous night's NBA games. "Otherwise," Hield says, "I'd be stuck watching Nickelodeon."

Other mornings saw Hield leave his house for the park around 7 a.m. Toting a water jug in one hand while bouncing a ball with the other, Hield would coax friends out of bed along the way and then spend the entire afternoon practicing the moves and footwork he'd seen from stars such as Kobe, LeBron James and Dwyane Wade on TV.

Still, as hard as he worked on his own, Hield realized he needed help. He wanted to learn the X's and O's of basketball from high-level coaches who would demand the best from him. That type of tutelage didn't exist in the Bahamas, where youth-league contests resembled pickup games.

But it was available across the ocean.

Before he even got to high school, Hield was telling his mother the only way he could achieve his basketball dream was to move to the United States. Jackie called Hield's grandmother, who lived in Naples, Florida, but she wasn't in a position to take him in. And with so many relatives in the Bahamas, moving the entire family wasn't a consideration, either.

With no other options, Hield accepted that his best—and perhaps only—chance of training overseas was to get discovered during a basketball showcase that took place each spring in the Bahamas. With numerous college and high school scouts watching from the stands, the event provides exposure to players who would've otherwise gone unnoticed.

"I showed up every year," Hield says. "Eighth grade, ninth grade, 10th grade. Each time, I'd play well and say, 'This is the year it's going to happen for me,' but then I'd leave and never hear a thing."

Hield, though, refused to get discouraged.

Instead, he just kept going back.

Notebook in hand, Kyle Lindsted was prepared to scout an afternoon of basketball games when he walked into a Grand Bahama gym in the spring of 2010.

But as he settled into his seat, Lindsted's attention was drawn away from the court and into the stands, where a group of teenagers continued to erupt into roars of laughter as one of their friends told jokes and danced and bro-hugged anyone in his path. Without ever seeing him dribble or shoot, Lindsted asked around and found out the kid with the charisma was 16-year-old Chavano Hield, a 6'1", 120-pound guard who was nicknamed "Buddy."

"It was love at first sight," says Lindsted, then the head coach at Sunrise Christian Academy, a prep school in Wichita, Kansas. "He was the most popular guy in the gym, and he hadn't even stepped on the court. People flocked to him. Everyone wanted to be around him. He seemed like a guy you'd want on your team."

After watching Hield swish virtually every shot he attempted in a scrimmage the following night, Lindsted introduced himself and then drove to Buddy's home to meet with Jackie. "I'm sorry," he told her, "but I can't go back (to the United States) without your son. He's too good."

Difficult as it was to allow her baby boy to leave home, Jackie wasn't going to stop Buddy from chasing his dream. With the agreement that he'd move at the end of the summer, Hield spent the next four months in the Bahamas, waking up at 5 a.m. each day for weightlifting sessions and conditioning drills on the beach with Richard Bryanen, a man whom Jackie had been dating for a few years and would later became Buddy's stepfather. A construction site supervisor, Richard had become the male role model Hield lacked in his early childhood.

"He told me that I couldn't be the goofy kid anymore, at least not all the time," Hield says. "He told me I needed to be mature and focused in everything I do. He said it was time to do what I'd set out to do."

In August, Jackie and Richard flew with Buddy to Wichita to help him move into his new home. Their initial plan was to spend two nights with Buddy in a hotel suite before returning to the Bahamas. But after the first night, Buddy told them to go ahead and leave, that he was ready to start his new life.

"So we left him there in that room, all by himself," Jackie says. "He was ready to become a man."

Once struck with a sense of loneliness upon first living in the United States, Hield has come to feel energized by playing in front of the Oklahoma fans.
Once struck with a sense of loneliness upon first living in the United States, Hield has come to feel energized by playing in front of the Oklahoma fans.Sue Ogrocki/Associated Press

The transition to American culture wasn't always smooth for Hield.

The first few months, he found himself making frequent trips to the grocery store to buy lemons, limes, hot sauce and black pepper to replicate the "island taste" he so loved in foods back home, such as conch and curry chicken. His new teammates joked that he talked too fast and laughed at his Bahamian accent. Buddy said they made him feel dumb.

Nights he used to spend socializing with friends in the streets of Eight Mile Rock were replaced by lonely evenings in his dorm room, wondering if he'd made the right choice.

"All of a sudden, I'm at a small Christian school where I don't know anyone," Hield says. "It was all business, just going to class and working out. I couldn't just walk into town anymore to get some chicken and fries.

"I never thought it'd be like that. You feel like you're alone, like you're lost. I was like, 'Is this what I want to do?'"

Still, each time Hield second-guessed himself, he remembered the stories he'd heard of so many other people from his country who moved to the U.S. before returning to the Bahamas a few months later when they were unable to adapt.

"If I did that, I'd have been just like the rest of them," Hield says. "My mom always told me, 'God gives his toughest battles to the guys with the strongest shoulders.' I wasn't going to give up."

Instead, just as he had back home, Hield took refuge in the gym—or as he called it, his "happy place." With reggae music booming over the sound system, it wasn't uncommon for Hield to shoot baskets and work on his footwork until 3 a.m., forcing his coaches to lock the balls in a storage closet on nights they thought he needed a break.

Shortly before the season, Hield asked Lindsted if he thought he was a Division I-caliber player.

"He said he thought I could play at a mid-major school," Hield says. "It pissed me off. It fueled me. That's not why I came over here. I wanted to play big-time basketball. I wanted to be on TV so kids back home could see me and realize they had a chance."

Just as he did with his detractors in the Bahamas, it didn't take long for Hield to prove Lindsted wrong. Sunrise Christian won the National Association of Christian Athletes national championship during Hield's junior year, and he was named the tournament MVP. One season later, as a senior, Hield averaged 22.7 points in just 21 minutes per game while flourishing in his role as a team leader.

Hours after one particularly tough road loss, Lindsted entered Hield's hotel room and discovered the guard, who had played poorly, curled up on the floor.

"He told me he didn't feel worthy of sleeping in the bed," Lindsted says.

Hield's desire to help rebuild the Oklahoma program under Lon Kruger convinced Hield to pass on an offer to play for Kansas and join the Sooners.
Hield's desire to help rebuild the Oklahoma program under Lon Kruger convinced Hield to pass on an offer to play for Kansas and join the Sooners.Randy Snyder/Associated Press

Long hours in the weight room—along with numerous visits to China Go Grill near campus—helped Hield gain nearly 40 pounds during his two years in Wichita. The kid who used to hoist three-pointers from his hip now shot with textbook form. More than anything, it was clear that Hield made everyone around him better, that people loved being in his presence, just as they did back home.

Hield's success didn't surprise Oklahoma assistant Chris Crutchfield. Like Lindsted, Crutchfield had been taken aback while scouting the showcase years earlier in the Bahamas. But Hield was only 13 at the time and not even an official participant in the event.

"He walked in that gym and started dappin' everyone up and making people laugh," says Crutchfield, an assistant for Oral Roberts at the time. "He had dust all over his face and shoes from playing on the blacktop outside.

"All of a sudden, he walks onto the court, gets into the game and starts making every shot he takes. Every time the ball went through the net, he'd chirp really loud. 'YEEEOOWWW!' I was like, 'That kid can play. I don't know if anyone else in here is any good. But that kid can play.'"

That's why it was no surprise when Crutchfield made Hield his top recruiting priority after joining Lon Kruger's staff at Oklahoma in April 2011. As the 86th-ranked player in the 2012 class by Rivals.com, Hield had been offered a scholarship by tradition-rich Kansas prior to his senior season. But he canceled his official visit and committed to Oklahoma following a trip to Norman, where Kruger had been hired to resurrect a dormant program. Kruger is the only Division I coach in history to lead five different teams to a victory in the NCAA tournament.

"Kansas is a great program," Hield says. "But I like challenges. I've been challenged my whole life."

Shortly after Hield signed with Oklahoma, Crutchfield received a congratulatory call from Lindsted at Sunrise Christian.

"He told me, 'This kid is going to change your program," Crutchfield said. "At the time, I don't think I understood exactly what he meant.

"I do now."

An October practice in Norman has just ended as Buddy Hield, smiling from ear to ear and still shiny with sweat, jogs toward the sideline to greet a visitor he's never met.

Hield's 17.4 points per game last season helped guide the Sooners to a second-place finish in the Big 12 and an appearance in the Sweet 16.
Hield's 17.4 points per game last season helped guide the Sooners to a second-place finish in the Big 12 and an appearance in the Sweet 16.Sue Ogrocki/Associated Press/Associated Press

"What's up, Big Time?" he says. 
This is trademark Hield, a small but poignant illustration of how his personality can impact not only a locker room, but an entire fanbase as well.

His 17.4-point scoring average last season was obviously important. But so were the times he stopped on campus to take pictures with fans and the moments he pumped his fists and raised his arms to amp up the Lloyd Noble Center crowd. His knack for taking over games has sparked the Sooners to three straight NCAA tournament berths, but equally vital is the tone he's set at practice. Hield's Big 12 Player of the Year award and status as a preseason All-American have brought publicity to the school, but so has his inspiring story.

Perhaps it's no surprise, then, that Hield's nickname around campus is "Buddy Love," an ode to the lovable but mischievous character from The Nutty Professor. Or that when someone introduced Hield as a shooter, he corrected them by saying, "I'm a maker." Or that Hield, who sometimes refers to teammates as "Daddio," is the player Kruger calls on week after week to host recruits when they visit Norman.

Hield has helped revive a program that had posted three consecutive losing seasons before his arrival.
Hield has helped revive a program that had posted three consecutive losing seasons before his arrival.Joe Robbins/Getty Images

It's impossible, Kruger says, to have a bad time when you're flanked by the most congenial guy on campus.

"He's a character, a guy that's given our program an identity," Kruger says. "His ability to energize and excite everyone around him continues to pay off for us in so many ways."

Hield's presence was sorely needed upon his arrival in Norman, where fan apathy had set in following back-to-back losing seasons and a recruiting scandal that occurred under former coach Jeff Capel.

An average of 8,563 people were on hand for Sooners home games during Capel's final season in 2010-11. That number had risen to 11,120 during Hield's junior year and, last week, Oklahoma officials announced that the entire allotment of student season tickets had been purchased for 2015-16, a benchmark that hadn't been met since the Sooners reached the 2002 Final Four.

"Hearing the student section get loud and seeing them go crazy...that's what I live for," Hield says. "I love watching them get fired up."

Uplifting as he is off the court, Hield operates with a different persona between the lines.

Two years ago, a few hours before a critical home tilt against Iowa State, Hield followed up the team's pregame meal with a full shooting-and-conditioning workout on the Lloyd Noble Center court. Usually coaches want players to use that time to rest and stay off their feet. When Crutchfield discovered Hield drenched in sweat, he ordered him to the locker room. Hield refused.

Sue Ogrocki/Associated Press

"He was like, 'No, Coach, I've gotta get my mind right,'" Crutchfield says. "Finally, I had to yell at him and say, 'You're done!' And then I literally wheeled the entire ball rack up the tunnel and locked it away."

Hield is also regarded as one of college basketball's biggest trash-talkers, going as far last season as to publicly proclaim the Sooners would halt Kansas' run of 10 straight Big 12 titles. The prediction didn't come through, but Hield hardly regrets the statement.

"I have my happy moments," he says, "but when I look at the other team, I want to tear them apart. I want to expose them. That's what fuels me."

The Sooners have finished second behind Kansas in the Big 12 standings the past two years and are a legitimate threat to end the Jayhawks' run of 11 straight conference titles this spring. As nice as it would be to win a league championship, Hield's ultimate goal is to be the last team standing in March.

The NCAA tournament has been a disappointing experience for Hield thus far. The Sooners suffered second-round losses in his first two seasons before falling in the Sweet 16 to Michigan State last spring. It was a game Hield believes his team should've won, and seeing the Spartans advance to the Final Four didn't make it any easier to absorb.

When Lindsted embraced Hield in the stands a half-hour after the loss, the guard was crying so hard that he was shaking.

SYRACUSE, NY - MARCH 27:  Buddy Hield #24 of the Oklahoma Sooners reacts after being defeated by the Michigan State Spartans  62 to 58 during the East Regional Semifinal of the 2015 NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament at the Carrier Dome on March 27, 2015 in
Elsa/Getty Images

"He was inconsolable," says Lindsted, who is now an assistant at Wichita State. "He takes losses very hard."

Before the NCAA tournament last spring, Hield told his mother he planned to leave school early and enter the NBA draft. But his status as a fringe first-round pick and the painful setback in the Sweet 16 caused him to change his mind.

Encouraging as his progress has been, Hield knows he hasn't come close to reaching his ceiling. He's challenged himself to improve his ball-handling ability and shot selection (he made 35.9 percent of his three-point attempts last season) while applying himself more on the defensive end.

"I want to leave on a good note," Hield says. "Everyone keeps telling me how well I've done, but I'm not comfortable with it. There's a lot left. I can still polish my game so much more."

As his final season gets underway, that's Hield's sole focus. Not the millions that await him in the NBA, not the awards he could win as a senior or the fame on which he could continue to build.

Hield's mind, his mother says, is in one place. She senses it every morning, when she and her family use an international messaging program called "WhatsApp" to connect via conference call so Jackie can lead them in prayer.

"Sometimes, we talk for a while after we pray," Jackie says. "If anyone brings up the NBA, Buddy says, 'I have to go now,' and then he hangs up. He doesn't want to hear about that stuff right now. He's not going to let it get in his head."

Earlier this month, Jackie Swann's husband walked through the door carrying a large grouper he'd caught during a fishing excursion in the Atlantic Ocean.

"You don't want to take this to Oklahoma, do you?" he said.

Jackie laughed.

"Are you kidding?" she said. "I'm definitely taking that to Oklahoma."

And lobster and conch and curry chicken, too. For months, Jackie has been anxious for the beginning of Hield's senior season at Oklahoma. Now, she's planning a trip in late November to witness some of it in person—and to bring some "island flavor" to Buddy's kitchen after every practice and game.

Photo courtesy of Jalisa Hield

Work obligations will prevent Jalisa from joining her mother on the trip, but hearing the increased excitement in Buddy's voice the past few weeks has been uplifting nonetheless.

"He told me, 'Get ready, because I can feel it coming,'" Jalisa says. "He's in such a happy place right now. He's seeing the heavens open up, and he's ready to explode. He's ready to see his dreams come true."

In some ways they already have.

Although the NBA will provide a much larger stage, Hield's success at Oklahoma has already inspired people in his native country. In November 2014, when the Sooners competed in the Battle 4 Atlantis in Nassau, locals who worked at the hotel stood in lines to take photos with the Bahamas' newest sports hero.

Hield's main concern, though, is the children.

Perhaps someday, he'll earn enough money to build a community center in his old neighborhood or to buy shoes and basketballs for boys and girls who wouldn't be able to afford them otherwise. Anything to give them hope and a purpose, he said. Anything to convince them they don't have to settle—and that they have a chance.

"I grew up playing with so many guys that were better than me," Hield says. "Either they didn't have the resources to get off the island, or they just gave up and started getting into trouble because they didn't have the same kind of support that I had.

"Hopefully, I'm starting a trend. I want to motivate kids and encourage them. They don't have any role models. They don't have anyone to look up to."

Or rather, they didn't.

Photo courtesy of Jalisa Hield.

Hield returned to Freeport for two weeks last summer and conducted a free basketball clinic for kids. As much as they enjoyed shooting baskets and learning how to dribble and pass, the highlight clearly came at the end of the camp, when Hield granted autograph requests and posed for pictures with every single child in attendance.

Standing next to him the entire time was Jackie, who encouraged her son to reach out and hug or touch each young fan before they walked away. At one point, Hield gazed up at his mother. His eyes were weary.

"Mom," he said, "I'm so tired."

Jackie smiled.

"It's just starting, baby," she said gently. "It's all just starting."

Jason King covers college sports for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter @JasonKingBR.


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