Sports

Buddy Hield's Home Court

Was Buddy Hield's hometown of Eight Mile Rock in the Bahamas an obstacle the star University of Oklahoma guard had to overcome? Or would there be no Buddy Hield without it?

by Aaron Gordon
Mar 17 2016, 1:30pm

Photo by Aaron Gordon

This feature is part of VICE Sports' March Madness coverage.

To get to the court where Buddy Hield learned to play basketball, you first have to get to Grand Bahama, an island 55 miles east of West Palm Beach. The international airport, in Freeport, sees about two dozen flights a day, mostly shuttles to and from Nassau, on the island of New Providence, 130 miles to the southeast. The airport has two gates, confusingly labelled E and F, that open to the same runway. Planes pull up right to the gate, their doors unfurl like a panting dog's tongue, and passengers descend like billionaires out of a private plane into a sunswept vista.

Once you get to Grand Bahama, finding Buddy Hield's court gets much trickier. The neighborhood of Pinedale, in the settlement of Eight Mile Rock, is on the west side of the island. Pinedale does not appear on Google Maps and neither do any of the businesses in Eight Mile Rock. Some of the roads there, nameless loops circumventing vacant inlets, have not been mapped by modern technology.

If Google Maps scrolling is your only exposure to the area, you'd be excused for thinking it is uninhabited. Eight Mile Rock has some 1,300 residents, roughly 400 of whom live in Pinedale. Any one of them can tell you about Hield—the University of Oklahoma star guard who is a leading contender for national player of the year. And they'll happily do so.

Ross Burrows and his wife, Lawanda, have lived in Eight Mile Rock for their entire lives. Ross works for social services and coaches three youth basketball teams at different age levels. Lawanda works for the main Bahamian TV network as a producer. A decade ago, Ross was Hield's basketball coach.

After picking me up in Freeport, Ross, a 40 year old, amply proportioned gentlemen whose days as a basketball stalwart have given way to the paunch of fatherhood, drove us across the island. Ross described Eight Mile Rock by juxtaposition with the Freeport area, the main tourist—and therefore economic—hub.

During the drive, Ross rarely had to slow down. There isn't much traffic on the island. Freeport, a planned city of 50,000, was meant to be the locus of several different industry and tourism booms spanning the 1950s and 60s, but never quite lived up to the ambitions for it. In the end, Grand Bahama got a few resorts, a port, and a cement factory. The roads are meant for more cars than the island has.

We hit traffic just once, at a construction site where the government is building the bridge over an area that tends to flood during heavy rain, preventing people on the west side from getting to work in Freeport. It doesn't take much rain to flood the road; Grand Bahama is remarkably flat, with a maximum elevation of 40 feet. This bridge will serve as a functional divider between Freeport, which has the resorts, gated communities, supermarkets, and a Wendy's, with the west side, which has Eight Mile Rock.

"This is like the hood side," Ross told me as he showed me around Eight Mile Rock. Men loitered outside of convenience stores. Stray dogs aimlessly strolled through the streets or lazed on the deck of abandoned properties. Hollowed-out buildings seemed almost as common as livable houses. "That's why we so proud of Buddy. To come from this side."

It took about 15 minutes to drive to Eight Mile Rock. Cars tailgated as if towed by the vehicle in front of them. Ross made fun of me for buckling my seatbelt. More than once, we stared into the windshield of oncoming cars, overtaking vehicles on a two-lane road.

We headed west for a bit. Soon, we saw a sign that read "Welcome to Pine Dale" in green and yellow letters. A few minutes from there, Ross finally pulled up to the court.

The court where Hield learned to play is stained with skid marks from tires and littered with strewn water bottles. A pair of Nikes tossed over power lines frame one of the baskets. Both backboards are heavily stained. The nets, half-torn from the rims, wave in the steady breeze like home court flags. Judging by the massive cranes in the distance, the court sits roughly two miles from the port, on the far side of a vast, empty tract of low-lying shrubbery.

The court was recently named after Fritz Forbes, a local coaching legend who lived a few doors down from Hield and was his first mentor. Forbes died when Hield was a kid, and his house is now abandoned; windows shattered, door sliced off the hinges.

In many ways, the court symbolizes Eight Mile Rock, which was described to me by those who live or work there as: humble, modest, quiet, grounded, and proud. Unprompted, a few emphasized they are not poor. Being poor means you have nothing to eat.

On the cement pavilion to the court's side, a banner bears Forbes's name and photo, as well as a small tribute to Hield, his most successful student, who returned to the court last August to christen the new park and hold a free basketball camp for the kids of Pinedale. The court bursts with character, much like Hield himself.

Hield has had an unlikely journey from that court to the University of Oklahoma and basketball stardom. Born one of seven kids, and raised mostly by a single mother in a less than fortunate area, Hield had to overcome a lot.

But now Hield, a senior who averages 25 points per game and shoots 50 percent from the field for the No. 7 ranked Sooners, is the unquestioned leader of the team. Mostly because of Hield, Oklahoma are a two seed in the NCAA tournament, and one of the hodgepodge of teams that could make a deep run. He's a projected top-10 pick in the 2016 NBA Draft, the highest for a Bahamian since Mychal Thompson went first overall in 1978.

Before I came to Eight Mile Rock, I thought Hield's was a classic story of a young kid with dreams of something bigger escaping his humble roots to make a name for himself, doubters be damned. I expected people to come out of the woodwork laying dubious claims on Hield's success, everyone wanting a stake in the pride of Eight Mile Rock.

Instead, there's a more complex relationship between Hield and his hometown. Although Hield, through a University of Oklahoma spokesperson, declined to be interviewed for this story, I spoke to many people who know him well, including former coaches, family members, and friends. In fact, it was hard to find someone in Eight Mile Rock who didn't claim to know him well. They all seemed to have slightly different characterizations of Hield's success. Was Eight Mile Rock an obstacle he had to overcome? Or would there be no Buddy Hield without it?

Eight Mile Rock's main road. Photo by Aaron Gordon

When Hield was 11, his parents divorced (his father reportedly still lives on the island but has no relationship with the family), and, along with his mom and six siblings, he moved into his grandparents' house, a single-level cement structure with a plywood door. The roof angles downwards and hangs over the porch, supported by wood beams. There's a water pump in the back, a relic from when the house didn't have running water. But the family still uses it during heavy storms.

"Some people would say it's crowded, but it ain't crowded because you had outside to play and time to go to bed, go to sleep, so it wasn't really crowded," Kizzy Robinson, Hield's cousin who has lived there her whole life, explained in a thick Bahamian accent. "It was good."

As we pulled up to the house, Robinson asked for a minute before we talked so she could film the police arresting her neighbor. Two uniformed officers and one plain-clothesman in a bright orange shirt wordlessly escorted a tall man in a white tee to an unmarked police van down the block. Robinson said it was for armed robbery, and generally seemed unfazed by the affair, as if she had seen this play out before.

Drugs, robberies, and petty assaults aren't exactly rare in Eight Mile Rock. Crime statistics for the area aren't very reliable, but a disproportionate number of the arrests on the Grand Bahama's police log occur in Eight Mile Rock.

Before the court was built around the corner, neighborhood kids played ball in the street with a bottomed-out milk crate duct-taped to a pole. When Hield first started playing ball around seven years old, he would spend all day out there, the roots of his legendary work ethic.

Robinson recalled one moment when Hield was eight or nine. He was playing ball with her late husband. Hield's mom, Jackie Swann, was sitting on a bench under a big, lucious tree in their backyard, waiting for Hield to come home.

"You lookin' for me?" Robinson remembered Hield asking when he got home. "You know I was on the court."

Then Robinson held a phantom basketball in her hands. She tapped the ball, pounding on its imaginary shell with conviction, mimicking Hield that day, declaring, "This same ball here, this can cause you to don't work no more. This gonna make you rich! This same ball right here." Then Robinson smiled and lowered her hands. "And it look like it comin' to pass."

Hield, one of the best college players in the country, has come a long way since Eight Mile Rock. Photo by Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

According to Robinson, upbringings in Eight Mile Rock are generally strict. "Well, we have a tendency of—when you're rude and disrespectful, you get beaten. And that'll put you in order." Hield has told stories before about getting "whippings" from his mother for being at the court too late.

When Hield returned to Pinedale for the basketball camp, he told the Freeport News, "No matter how old you are and no matter what you do, manners and respect and you have to learn. Being around these areas, a lot of boys have a lot of tempers and their respect doesn't get them as far as they need to."

But Robinson clarified that Hield and his six siblings didn't need much harsh treatment, not like some of the other neighborhood kids. "I must say, Jackie, all seven of her children have manners and respect. They answer you yes ma'am no ma'am good mornin' good day. She taught them that. And she taught them how to pray. I watched them do that. She joined, every night she go to bed, she kneel round her bed with her seven children, and she make each one of them pray, includin' me."

Like much of the Bahamas, discipline and manners are rooted in deep and fervent Christianity, illustrated by the two churches on Hield's block and the frequency of God's mention during normal conversation. "Pinedale is real quiet," Robinson said at one point. When I asked her what people did outside of work and school, she replied, "You go to church."

As I was about to leave, Hield's grandmother, who is deaf but can lipread, came out of the house with two plastic cups filled with frozen kool aid, a favorite treat of Eight Mile Rock. As we ate, she returned with a photo of Hield as a baby, just one year old. She mimicked him in the picture, sticking her thumb in her mouth, smiling a great big smile.

Hield as one year old. Photo courtesy of the Swann family.

Hield went to school in Freeport, where his mom worked cleaning houses, mostly for well-off foreigners. He attended Hugh W. Campbell Primary School, then Jack Hayward High, where he excelled on the school's basketball team. In the Freeport schools, Hield met Jordan Grant, his best friend. Grant didn't play ball, but he'd hang with Hield for hours after school as he shot around.

The two remain inseparable, if only digitally. When I spoke to Grant at the liquor store where he works, he wore an official Sooners sweatshirt. He speaks to Hield every day, and seemed somewhat taken aback I would even ask about the frequency of their communications, as if the answer was obvious.

I asked Grant how he and Hield became such great friends if it wasn't through basketball, which took up so much of Hield's time and interest.

"Our life is similar," he said. "We ain't ever really"—he paused to collect his thoughts—"we went through a similar life. Whatever we need, we used to have to hustle for. Know what I mean?"

I told him I didn't, to be honest. He gave an example. "Say lunch cost three dollars. I get a dollar fifty, he get a dollar fifty, we share a three dollar plate." He paused to look around, eyes wandering. "We never got lunch money."

Ross and Lawanda had picked me up from a local private school, Tabernacle Baptist Christian Academy, where Norris Bain, a major figure in the Bahamian basketball scene, is the school's principal. While waiting, I asked if there was a water fountain I could use. The school's secretary summoned a student, a young teenage girl, to escort me there. As I filled my water bottle from the cooler, I saw two fountains down the hall. I asked if I could just use those. The student half-smiled, somewhat embarrassed—for one of us, although I couldn't determine which—and very politely explained that I should only drink the tap water if I want gallstones.

Ross, Lawanda and I stopped for lunch at Pat's Bar and Restaurant, a hole in the wall on Eight Mike Rock's main drag. When we pulled into the parking lot, a man greeted Ross—this happened every single time the car stopped, and sometimes when it didn't—and they exchanged pleasantries.

Inside, a TV hanging from the corner of the bar played Jerry Springer, the signal picked up from South Florida. Four young men sat at the bar mostly in silence sipping from mixed drinks. Lawanda and I sunk into a small, rickety table by the window while Ross ordered us fried conch with rice, a Bahamian speciality. We talked about how often kids go swimming here—only in the summer, for some reason, even though the weather doesn't change much year-round—and how often locals go down to the touristy areas (they don't, unless for work).

Throughout my time on Grand Bahama, whenever a teacher, principal, or politician spoke about the importance of education, the emphasis was on keeping kids from dropping out. Few kids from Eight Mile Rock go to college; if they do, it's often through an athletic scholarship. Most end up staying on the island, working in local stores, shops, or in the tourist area, if they have a job at all. Some of Hield's old teammates still play for Ross in a night league.

Hield was obviously motivated, but he was motivated by basketball. At Jack Hayward High, head coach Ivan Butler immediately noticed Hield's talent. Usually, the best players get recruited by private schools. Every year, Butler would hear rumors Hield would be swept away. But he stayed, which Butler credited to the community that had formed around Hield, giving him a comfort zone and support system few Bahamian players have.

Butler called it a "committee." Coaches, friends, relatives, and many others were there for Buddy with anything he needed. It was like a big family, Butler said.

A lot of my questions about Hield were answered with a story. When I asked Butler why the area rallied around Hield, he didn't talk about his basketball abilities. He told me about a time when the team went to a tournament in Nassau and the hotel clerks met Hield during check-in. They were so smitten they kept asking about him for the rest of the stay. "Once you come in contact with Buddy, it's almost like you're never the same."

"Even though he played for me," Butler continued, "all the coaches on this island, all the high school coaches, they all had an impact shaping him, helping him, assisting him in one way or another because they would constantly give him a ride, a soda. They just love Buddy." Butler, who seemed to have the composition of a man who rarely smiles, didn't smile, but he appeared to consider it. "Buddy played for all of us on Grand Bahama."

But not everyone sees it this way. Hield's sister, Jalisa, told Bleacher Report, "People laughed at him. Nobody took him seriously. Nobody believed in him." Jason King wrote that "Most people in the community of Eight Mile Rock rolled their eyes and told Hield his dream was far-fetched," while pointing out that only two players with Bahamian roots have had "significant careers" in the NBA, Mychal Thompson and Rick Fox.

But, with a population that has steadily risen over the last few decades from 170,000 to 377,000—roughly equivalent to Colorado Springs or St. Louis—a country producing two "significant" NBA players and dozens of Division I players is, per capita, an impressive feat.

"In the U.S., there's such a great volume, that when a Steph Curry pops up, it's like it's expected. We just don't have the volume. We don't have the numbers," Fred Sturrup, editor at Grand Bahama's main newspaper the Freeport News and a prominent sports voice in the country, explained. "So while it might seem like this great surprise, when you look at it relatively, it is really not that big a surprise to me."

Perhaps there's a bit of truth to everyone's point of view. Nobody did take Hield seriously at first; who does take a kid seriously from a neighborhood of 400 people with no track record of producing NBA talent who restlessly declares he will be exactly that? Who looks at the kid shooting hoops on a milk crate taped to a pole and thinks, there's a future NBA player? Who takes any kid who says he's going pro seriously?

Many people did believe in him, although it may have been expressed in a way that Hield interpreted as doubt. Ross has a rule on his teams: if you miss an uncontested layup during practice, go home. He enforces it inconsistently, but it's a coaching point, not a tryout.

When Hield was 10 or 11, he missed a layup. "If you miss another layup like that, go straight home to Jackie," Ross scolded him. "Because I cannot see how you will make the NBA like this if you cannot layup."

Hield shot back that, when he made it to the NBA, Ross better not come around asking for anything.

After Ross told the story, Lawanda said that Ross's comment stuck with Hield. Every time he went up for a layup. In Hield's mind, that comment was Ross not believing in him. But Ross says he always did. He just wanted to help him. The best way to help Hield was to motivate him. And the best way to motivate him was to tell him he couldn't do something.

Hield left Jack Hayward in his junior year; but not for a private school in the Bahamas. He went to Sunrise Christian Academy in Wichita, Kansas after one of their coaches spotted him during an annual recruiting trip. Five of Sunrise Christian's 2014 alumni played in the Sweet 16 last year, including another Bahamian, Lourals "Tum-Tum" Nairn of Michigan State.

Even after leaving the Bahamas, other people's doubt still fueled Hield. There was the time his Sunrise Christian coach told him he could play at a mid-major school, but perhaps not at a major conference program. "It pissed me off," Hield told Bleacher Report. "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."

After his junior year at Oklahoma, Hield wanted to enter the draft, but his coaches didn't think he was ready. They gave Hield the feedback from NBA scouts: "Need to be able to attack the basket more...Need to be able to finish. Need to improve on defense. Gotta improve ball-handling skills. Gotta improve decision-making." Not only did he stay, but several of those areas are now strengths in his game. He's gone from a possible second round pick to almost surely a lottery pick.

These are not merely fleeting flashes of motivation. They stick. When Ross met one of Oklahoma's coaches recently, the coach, unprompted, joked, "So you're the one who's not getting any NBA tickets."

Buddy Hield's grandparents in front of the family home. Photo by Aaron Gordon

The day after Ross showed me around Eight Mile Rock, I saw him again in a packed high school gymnasium in Freeport for the opening ceremony of the first annual Bahamas National High School Basketball Championships. The tournament has been in the works for a few years, thanks to the efforts of Norris Bain, the principal of the Tabernacle Baptist Christian Academy in Freeport and a basketball enthusiast. The Department of Finance kicked in $125,000 to make the tournament happen.

Students wearing traditional prep school outfits—button-down shirts, ties, and long plaid skirts for the girls; the Bahamas, after all were an English colony until 1973—lined the bleachers. Twenty-five participating teams from the country competed in the four-day tournament, which would crown a national high school basketball champion for the first time. If there is another Buddy Hield, he was in that gym.

That, indeed, is the question in Bahamian basketball circles. The first golden age of Bahamian basketball occurred in the 1970s. Miami Jackson Senior High School won the Florida Class 4A state championship with a starting lineup of Mychal Thompson, three other Bahamians, and a Cuban, crushing opponents by an average 33 points per game. (Thompson and three other players were later found to be ineligible due to a variety of reasons, including age and having already graduated from high school in the Bahamas.)

There seems to be a second Bahamian golden age of basketball afoot. It's not entirely clear why this is happening in the Bahamas now, but more scouts are making the trip to take a look at the best high school players. American high schools can offer a clear path to college, which otherwise would be unlikely.

In the corner of the gymnasium stood the only other white person in the entire building besides me, a guy named Mike from a third-party service that connects athletes with recruiters and universities.

"We have about 10 ballplayers from this little country of ours that are playing in the United States in Division I," Charlie "Softly" Robins, president of the Bahamian Basketball Association, told the packed gym during the tournament's opening ceremony. "Unheard of since the days of Cecil Rose and Mychal Thompson."

Sunrise Christian has played a significant role in this resurgence, recruiting several Bahamians in the past few years, four of whom made the jump to Division I schools. And it's not just men; one of the best players in women's basketball, Jonquel Jones of George Washington, grew up with Hield on Eight Mile Rock.

But Hield is the unparalleled jewel of this Bahamian basketball generation. Every single speaker that day, including the Prime Minister of the Bahamas, mentioned Hield by name, at which point the gymnasium invariably burst into hysterical cheers.

Indeed, whether it's Lawanda's son—"everything with him is Buddy, Buddy, Buddy"— Hield's niece, sitting at home, chanting "Let's go Buddy, De-fense" which she learned from watching Sooners games, or the 25 teams in the gym, Hield is already casting a long shadow over the Bahamian youth. He is already a national icon and he has yet to play an NBA game.

But not everyone can be the next Buddy Hield. In fact, I don't think anybody can; not exactly, anyways. You don't become the face of an entire country by trying to be somebody else.

With every new speaker invoking Hield, I thought back to something Sturrup, the Freeport News editor, told me about Hield's success. "I honestly believe that a lot of it is about fate. I really do. F-A-T-E and F-A-I-T-H. You have to have faith in yourself. You have to have conviction in yourself and your surroundings." He drew the feedback loop between what you believe about yourself, what others believe about you, and what comes to pass.

"People, you know, they gloss over this necessity," Sturrup went on. "When they see a star, they think that's automatic. But there's so many steps along the way where everything has to fall in place."

And as I thought about Sturrup's observation, I realized everyone sees in Hield what they want to see about themselves, and maybe that's his greatest asset. Sturrup sees a kid fated for greatness who had the faith in himself to make it happen. Bahamian politicians see a son of the soil, a testament to the country's potential. His family sees a kid who overcame the doubters, that resilience and self-determination in their blood. His coaches see a unique person who got a community to rally around him, proving that coaches really do shape young men for the better. None of these are false, but none of them capture the complete story.

While I was at their house, Hield's grandparents hardly said a single word to me, and mostly eyed me with straight-faced skepticism. But then, ever so quietly, just when I was about to leave, his grandfather said, "What you see Buddy doing now, he was born that way to do that."

Nobody laid claims to being responsible for Hield. It was always someone else, some other factor, another person I should talk to who "grow Buddy up," in Lawanda's words. Nobody was trying to take credit for him, but nobody was completely letting go, either. I asked Ross why that is.

"Eight Mile Rock's too small to be telling lies."