Buddy Hield’s March from Bahamas to NBA Motivated by Family
LOS ANGELES -- When you think of the Bahamas, you probably imagine clear turquoise waters, white sand beaches, maybe even the famed Atlantis resort.
You think vacation.
To Buddy Hield, though, the Bahamas represents hard work and a humble beginning.
“Everybody say, 'Do you live on the beach?' And I was, like, 'No.’ I say, ‘Because the beach is not making nobody in the islands money,’” Buddy tells CloseUp360 this offseason, while ignoring a less-than-authentic plate of Caribbean jerk wings at Cha Cha Chicken in Santa Monica. “I go to the beach for workouts.”
For Buddy, the Bahamas isn’t a vacation destination at all. It’s home—far from where he came of age as a basketball player in Kansas and Oklahoma. And farther still from Los Angeles, where he spent some time training this summer (away from his offseason home in Dallas) and Sacramento, where he’s off to his best start in his third NBA season, scoring 22 points or more in each of his past five games (all Kings wins).
Buddy found basketball in his hometown of Freeport, where the population measures near 46,000—about half the capacity of the Gaylord Family Oklahoma Memorial Stadium in Norman, where the Sooners’ football team plays.
The Bahamas, let alone Freeport, isn’t known for basketball. There isn’t a national team or professional league of any kind. There is no pipeline of talent to the NBA. If you’re a professional athlete from the Bahamas, chances are you run track and field, as did Buddy in his early days.
“If anyone says, ‘I was gonna make it,’” he recalls, “like 95 percent of people would say track would have been number one, like, the way out for me.”
So how does a kid on an island whose family has next to nothing not only find his way out, but also become the 2016 Naismith College Player of the Year and a lottery pick in that year’s NBA draft?
Two words. March. Madness.
“I didn't know it was like a big thing,” Buddy says. “You know, it was college, but I never knew it was like a big NCAA tournament and it's a big thing. So I look it up and I see it's like all day, 24/7, games back and forth.”
Once Buddy discovered college basketball growing up, that was it. He loved the passion and spectacle of it all, but it was J.J. Redick’s smooth outside shot at Duke and Joakim Noah’s emphatic finishes at Florida that captivated him. Buddy became obsessed to the point where he would do whatever it took to get his March Madness fix—even if it meant skipping school to watch the games.
“I used to sometimes just call, tell [the school], ‘I don't feel too good,’” he remembers, “so I just stay home just to watch the games, just to watch the big teams play, teams who I know I like.”
Whether talking trash during a skills workout with Trey Slate, his college teammate-turned-trainer, or battling through summer pickup games at UCLA, Buddy’s love for basketball is obvious. But the way his face lights up while reliving memories of watching past tournaments reveals more than just a passion to play the game.
Buddy Hield drives past Trey Slate, his personal skills trainer and longtime friend. (Magdalena Munao)
“The momentum when they start making threes and dunks and the crowd is crazy,” Buddy beams. “People taking their shirts off going crazy… That was like the biggest thing I liked about it, and after that I always wanted to feel that moment. You know, that excitement… that rush.”
He remembers the first time he felt that rush. He was a 15-year-old sophomore leading Sir Jack Hayward High School through a tournament sponsored by Vitamalt, a popular Caribbean beverage. It was a moment made for March Madness—and one that caught the attention of coaches from Sunrise Christian Academy in Bel Aire, Kansas.
“It was like a minute left and [my teammate] got a steal or something, and he just passed the ball to the corner to me and everybody in the gym just rised up,” he recalls, lifting his hands like a priest appealing to a church congregation, careful not to drop his cup of freshly cut mango from a LA street vendor.
“I remember in the back of my head, you know when you feel everybody, like when J.J. Reddick [was] at Duke, when everybody just rises up? Everybody knew me for shooting, so everybody just rised up. And [the crowd] say, like, ‘Threee,’” Buddy continues, mimicking a three-point make. “Everybody [was] just screaming and I always want to have that feeling, like, I really got that moment.”
The high of that emotion hooked him, turning his relationship with basketball from a passing fling to a love affair that persists to this day.
But as much as Buddy lives for basketball—and those favorite, yet fleeting in-game experiences—it’s not all that sustains him. Follow him on Twitter (@buddyhield) and every morning, without fail, you’ll see the same seven words and four emojis on your timeline.
“Thank God for Life, Health and Strength. 🙏🏾💪🏾✊🏾💯”
“I get it from my mom,” he says of the tweet.
Off the court, so much of Buddy’s energy and thoughts are rooted in the Bahamas and, more importantly, in his family. His devotion to God and his mother, Jackie Swann Braynen, is what drives him.
At a young age, Buddy saw how hard his mother worked, cleaning houses day and night to make sure all seven of her kids never missed a meal.
Buddy’s voice takes on a familiar tone as he explains his mother’s dedication. He speaks about his mom with such reverence, as if channeling the same excitement he savors during a game.
“If we didn't eat, it's because we fell asleep,” Buddy says. “You know, she never left us hungry or nothing like that.”
Buddy is no stranger to sweat equity himself. He spent the summer sharpening his inside finishes and tightening his handle, so he can be more aggressive in the paint.
“I need to attack the basket more, though,” he says, “That's stuff that I been working for. I can shoot it, but it's more of just trying to attack the basket. My whole goal of the offseason is that when I go into training camp and go into the season, get to the basket and try to draw more fouls.”
Those efforts, like everything else in Buddy’s life, come back to supporting his family.
“The biggest stress was taking care of my mom,” he says. “And now that that's out of the way, I'm just most proud that God gave me the ability to do what I do best each and every day, you know, where I can take care of my family and support them.”
Just as Buddy craves “that rush” on the court, he lives to get better, so he can repay his mother for everything she sacrificed for him and his siblings.
“That's why I work so hard, so like now she can go travel,” he says, “go do what she wants to do.”
Buddy, too, gets to do what he wants—including feeding his secret candy obsession.
“Sometimes when I used to go to the store with my mom and I couldn't get candy,” he recalls. “I always say this, ‘When I get older and I get rich, I'm gonna buy all the candy and yogurt I want.’”
Buddy's Top-5 Island Playlist
Small and maybe even childish, this aspiration of Buddy’s reflects more than a sweet tooth. It’s the product of a lifetime of grinding. His determination to provide for not only himself, but also his mother and family, has brought him from the Bahamas to the biggest stages in basketball.
Buddy kicks back with Kings player development coach Akachi Okugo (left) and agent Brandon Rosenthal (right). (Magdalena Munao)
While he looks ahead to the season with the Kings, Buddy remains grounded in his roots—grateful for the opportunity he’s earned through basketball. His success and drive on the court is a tribute to where it all started, and his desire to pave a path to prosperity for his fellow Bahamians.
“Coming from the islands, you do not know when you'll get the next [opportunity], especially coming to America because if it doesn't work out for you, you go back home,” Buddy says. “There was other guys in the past that were really good and didn't have the opportunity like how we have today. Thank God for that. … We're living out our dream for them.”