They’d line up on the court, usually around eight or nine kids about 14 or 15 years old, each digging in their pockets for money to get in the game. Cash was tight in the Bahamas, so the ante rarely topped $5 a pop.
The rules were simple: The first to sink the winner took the jackpot.
Buddy Hield always shot first, effectively ending the game before it began.
Fast-forward a few years, to a U.S. high school. The new crop of players would arrive at Sunrise Christian Academy in Wichita, Kansas, ready to prove their game, and there would be Hield, already sizing up the competition. How about a best-of-five shooting contest at $50 each, he’d suggest?
“If they said it was too much, I’d say, ‘So, OK, we’ll do $40,’ because I knew I already had them. I was a hustler,” Hield says with a big grin. “But it’s not a bad gamble if you know you can shoot, and I always bet on myself.”
The art of the hustle lies in the deception as much as the execution; in making the mark believe he has a chance.
Hield, the Oklahoma senior and leading Wooden Award candidate, deceived kids into shooting against him, just like he’s fooling all of us now.
To the outside world that is content with the caricature, Hield is every inch the happy-go-lucky Bahamian. He greets his head coach with a, ‘Hey, Daddy-O’ (Lon Kruger is decidedly not a Daddy-O) and insists reggae is “good for your soul.”
His Twitter handle is @BuddyLove!!!! And he spreads the love everywhere he goes, his mouth switching from megawatt smile to chirping chatter and back again in an endless stream of joyfulness. He’s carefree and happy, without a serious bone in his body.
Or so he’d have you think.
Go watch him work. Three-pointers and jump shots launched from all over the court, upward of 400 in an hour, passing drills and dribbling work, a T-shirt soaked with sweat.
And it’s only 9:56 a.m., a good 90 minutes before Oklahoma begins its two-hour practice.
The alarm clock goes off somewhere between 6:30 and 7 a.m., rousing Hield to get out the door and over to the Lloyd Noble Center, where assistant coach Steve Henson awaits.
For Hield, Henson is the setup man, dishing out assist after assist. He directs Hield around the court for each drill, cajoling him after the rare miss, shaking his head in wonder at the succession of makes that typically tops out somewhere in the 20s.
The record, Hield believes, is 49 made 3-pointers in a row, but it’s not unusual for him to hit 78 or 79 out of 80 before he takes a breather.
Their private sessions run around an hour, maybe longer, before Hield grabs some breakfast and heads out to class. By midafternoon, he’s back for more, out with Henson for at least another hour before practice begins.
Hield, whose top-ranked-for-now Sooners play Baylor on Saturday (noon ET, ESPN2/WatchESPN) tries to get between 300 and 500 shots a day outside of practice. And that’s on the days he’s feeling good about himself. When he feels like he’s off, he’ll push himself into the 500 to 700 range.
The coaching staff tells tales of Hield, sneaking back onto a practice court on game days, using the four-hour gap between pregame meal and tip time to keep on shooting. They insisted that he stop for fear he’d exhaust himself.
“I’m sure he still does it,” Kruger said.
“Oh yeah, I still do,” Hield admitted sheepishly. “Only on home games. If I could do it on the road, I would, but the schools won’t let me. They know about me. They aren’t going to let me practice more.”
It has all added up to the surest thing going in a college basketball season filled with uncertainty. If Hield has the ball in his hands, something is going to happen — and more often than not, that something will end with a swish.
He ranks second in the nation in scoring, averaging 26.1 points per game. Six times this year he has scored 30 or more (by comparison, the other 133 players in the Big 12 have combined for the same number of 30-plus point outings this year). Those numbers tell only half the story.
Anyone can be a gunslinger. Hield shoots a lot, in part because Kruger wants him to, but also because he doesn’t miss. Hield knocks down 51.4 percent from the floor, 51.5 percent from the arc and leads the nation in 3-point field goals made per game at 3.94.
And it’s not just when the lights go on. Kruger figures in practice he makes better than half of his shots every day.
“I keep waiting for him to have a bad day and it never happens,” Kruger said. “And this is against guys who know what’s he’s going to do.”
Hield is genuine. His effervescence and joy is real. Asked if he has ever seen his star down, Kruger doesn’t even pause.
“No, never,” he said. “Not once in four years. Even when he’s sick, you ask him if he’s OK and he apologizes and goes back to being Buddy.”
But Hield goes much deeper than that, so much deeper.
He works like someone is chasing him because he believes that someone is — a player somewhere is working harder, getting better, about to replace him on whatever roster spot he is trying to own.
“I’m scared of failure,” he said. “I never want my teammates to be mad at me because I had a shot in the corner and I missed it. I spend all the time working on my shot so I don’t let people down.”
He rarely does, of course. This season, Hield’s worst shooting night of the season, an 8-for-23 effort against Iowa State on Jan. 2, still resulted in 22 points. His lowest scoring output (12 points) came in a rout of Wisconsin in late November.
Even in the Sooners’ two losses this year, Hield almost single-handedly won the game. At Kansas in a three-overtime thriller on Jan. 4, his 46 points, along with the 54 minutes he played out of a possible 55, earned him a standing ovation from Jayhawks fans who waited to salute him after a TV interview. At Iowa State, Hield scored 11 points in a dizzying 2:42, drilling back-to-back-to-back 3-pointers in less than 90 seconds.
Hield will admit he probably puts too much pressure on himself. In one breath, he says he can shake off a miss and move on to the next. Then he doubles back and says he analyzes his misses with surgical precision, wondering what went wrong that the ball would have the audacity to clang off the rim.
“I think, ‘I put too much work in for it not to go in, so why isn’t it?'” Hield said.
He even jokes that he dreams of winning the lottery so when that alarm clock goes off he can hit snooze and roll over. But Hield knows of no other way to be.
Back in the Bahamas, he’d shoot at the hollowed-out milk crate he’d fashioned into a hoop for so many hours his mother would literally come in the dark to chase him home. At Sunrise Academy, his coach, Kyle Lindsted, locked the balls in a closet at night, for fear Hield would pull an all-nighter of shooting.
And as soon as he arrived at Oklahoma, he became the best sort of pest to Kruger.
“After every practice it was, ‘Coach what do I have to do? How can I get better?'” Kruger said.
Back then as a freshman, he was more a slasher and scorer than a shooter, his game predicated on a quick first step to the hoop and a lot of playground-made creativity after that. With all the work, his game hasn’t simply evolved; it has changed almost entirely.
In both his sophomore and junior years, he attempted more 3s than 2s, parking himself on the arc to become the Sooners’ most reliable shooter. This year he is both a shooter who can score and a scorer who can shoot, his game a symmetrical thing of beauty. Hield has taken 280 shots, 136 of them 3-pointers. His 51.5 percent accuracy beyond the arc is a near-mirror image of the 51.3 he connects on from inside the 3-point line. And that’s why, instead of merely being the Big 12 Player of the Year as he was a season ago, he’s now the front-runner for the Wooden Award and has worked his way up to No. 14 on Chad Ford’s Big Board.
“People get to college and realize, ‘Oh, there’s a hole in my game,’ but when they get to the gym, they work on what’s comfortable and the things they do well,” Kruger said. “That’s easy. We challenged Buddy to work on the things he wasn’t comfortable with and because he was so receptive to it, he’s where he is.”
At 1:15 p.m., Kruger huddles up his Oklahoma team, the day’s work done. Within minutes, the Sooners scatter, leaving just one little boy who watched practice to shoot with his dad at an empty hoop.
Finally, he too heads out the door and for a few minutes, the practice gym is quiet.
And then it begins again — the squeak of a sneaker, the bounce of the ball followed by the same sound over and over again.
It’s four hours after he took his first shot, and Buddy Hield is shooting again.
Now the one-time hustler is simply outhustling everyone else.