By John Rohde // SoonerSports.com
Oklahoma junior shooting guard Buddy Hield has attended a few OKC Thunder games the last two seasons. He has marveled up close at the remarkable skills of four-time NBA scoring champ and 2013-14 Most Valuable Player Kevin Durant, who not only has captivated the state of Oklahoma but the entire basketball world.
It is impossible to not notice Durant, but what Hield didn't know is that Durant had noticed him, too.
Last April, Hield received an electronic invitation letter that arrived on a flash drive in the shape of a 2½-inch gold Nike basketball shoe. Recognized as one of the nation's top college wing players, Hield had been selected to participate in Durant's Skills Academy in Washington, D.C. (June 27-29).
The invitation didn't come directly from Durant, but rather from Merl Code, the Elite Youth Director for Nike Basketball. Who actually invited him didn't matter to Hield because he had a point to prove.
"It's something I always wanted to do," Hield said of attending an elite skills academy. "I just wanted to go there and show what I've got. I wanted to compete against the best. There's nothing like competing against the guys you'll maybe have to go up against in the NCAA Tournament."
Durant wasn't just a figurehead at the 2½-day camp that consisted of five workouts. Hield said Durant made it a point to scrimmage against as many participants as possible. "He (Durant) was doing what he does best -- scoring the basketball," Hield said with a smile. "He's ridiculous. He's just so hard to guard. You think you've got him, but you don't even got him, you know what I mean? That's why he's made thousands and thousands of shots."
I just wanted to go there and show what I've got. I wanted to compete against the best. There's nothing like competing against the guys you'll maybe have to go up against in the NCAA Tournament.
Though their home arenas are just 22 miles apart, Hield and Durant had never met before the academy. Durant immediately made Hield feel welcome by recognizing him.
"It was shocking, but he knew who I was," Hield said. "It shows you that they (NBA players) are watching, they know who we are. That made me feel so good."
Durant was the 2006-07 collegiate player of the year as a freshman at Texas and has been known to playfully flash the Hook 'em Horns hand signal around OU fans and athletes. Not so with Hield, however.
"No Hook 'em with me," Hield said with a laugh. "Nah, he knows better than that. He's not playing there anymore. He can't help them out like he used to."
Hield already was a Durant fan, but now there's a bond attached. "He's got a great personality and the people he keeps around him are good people, too," Hield said.
Hield's summer fun had just begun. Having excelled at the Durant Skills Academy, Hield parlayed his performance into an invite to the LeBron James Skills Academy in Las Vegas (July 9-12), where he was among college basketball's top 30 players, regardless of position. Joined by 80 of the nation's top high school players, participants held workouts and 5-on-5 games in front of NBA scouts and NCAA coaches.
James was a bit distracted during his academy, which was held the same week he announced his decision to leave the Miami Heat and return to the Cleveland Cavaliers. Hield said he didn't have a chance to compete against James, but the four-time MVP still spent time with the campers. "I could see LeBron's personality in the locker room," Hield said. "He was a fun guy. It was pretty cool."
Born and raised in the Bahamas, Hield is known for having a magnetic personality himself, which explains why OU starting wide receiver Durron Neal gave Hield the nickname "Buddy Love" after the smooth-talking character in the 1996 Eddie Murphy remake of "The Nutty Professor."
Not only did Hield have the proper first name, he also had Buddy Love's omnipresent smile and his love of life and people. The nickname stuck so tightly, some people initially didn't know Hield's actual name.
"I just thought Buddy Love was his real name when I came to visit," said Khadeem Lattin, a freshman forward out of Redemption Christian Home School Academy in Houston. "When I was on my (recruiting) visit, he made me feel like family even though I didn't commit yet. It was just awesome."
I just thought Buddy Love was his real name when I came to visit. He made me feel like family even though I didn't commit yet. It was just awesome.
Hield's personality has helped lure a few future teammates, including Lattin. "He's a great leader. He's really honest, really genuine," Lattin said. "He's transparent. What you see is what you get, and he's a caring guy. He cares about his teammates. Basketball-wise, he's a hound. He's one of the toughest players I've seen in a while. He's a get-after-you type of dude. He loves to be in the gym."
Hield's relentless tenacity is the primary reason Sooners coach Lon Kruger gave the green light to Hield's hectic summer schedule.
"Buddy's a guy who's going to play, regardless," Kruger said. "That's why he's made the progress he's made. He loves being in the gym. He works hard at it. I think an organized situation like that (the two academies), where others can take note of his progress, I thought that was great for Buddy."
Kruger said he is not concerned that Hield will look toward his potential NBA future rather than concentrating on the present. "He understands what's out there," Kruger said. "He understands what he has to do to make the progress that's necessary. He's focused on the moment. He's focused on his teammates right now."
As a sophomore last season, Hield was a second-team All-Big 12 selection, averaging a team-high 16.5 points and tying a league high with 63 3-pointers in conference play while shooting a very strong 42.9 percent beyond the arc.
At the Durant Academy, the Big 12 also was represented by Kansas freshman forward Kelly Oubre and Iowa State freshman guard Bryce Dejean-Jones.
At the James Academy, Hield was alongside conference opponents Oubre and Perry Ellis of Kansas, West Virginia guard Juwan Staten, Iowa State forward Georges Niang, Kansas State guard Marcus Foster and Texas guard Isaiah Taylor.
Hield said the academies gave him a boost in confidence, not that he needed it. "I've always been a confident basketball player." Hield said. "Every time I go on the court I approach it as though I'm the guy to beat. I always feel I have to be the one to stand out. Going there (to the academies), I saw where I can compete. Not many guys have the energy I put on the floor. I play with a chip on my shoulder and I play like there's something I want and I'm not going to stop playing until I get it."
He has confidence in an appropriate way. I don't think he's ever gone outside the lines with regard to respect for opponents or respect for teammates. He understands the value of all that.
That mindset was also on display in early August as Hield ventured to Mexico to compete for the Bahamian national team in the FIBA's CentroBasket Championship, a tournament that featured 10 national teams from Mexico, Central America and the Caribbean. Playing four games in the city of Tepic in the western part of the country for former Iowa State and current Colorado State head coach Larry Eustachy, Hield averaged a tournament-leading 19.8 points per game and a team-high 6.0 rebounds.
Making those numbers even more impressive is the fact that Hield came off the bench in all four outings. He said he was asked if he wanted to start but elected to yield to the squad's more veteran players.
In spite of that noble gesture, you might say Buddy Love loves him some Buddy Hield (or vice versa).
"He has confidence in an appropriate way," Kruger said. "I don't think he's ever gone outside the lines with regard to respect for opponents or respect for teammates. He understands the value of all that."
Hield received an ample supply of gear at the academies, including basketball shoes, shirts, socks and additional workout attire, but Hield said he only kept one pair of shoes from Durant's event and a shirt from James'. He spread the rest of his swag wealth among OU teammates.
"I feel like they're the reason I got to go," Hield said. "Me wearing all that fancy stuff wouldn't look good. My teammates should be part of that, too; like if I'm there then they're there, too."
Indeed it was the Summer of Love.
|About John Rohde|
|John Rohde is a respected name on the Oklahoma sports scene and will provide regular features for SoonerSports.com. Voted Oklahoma Sportswriter of the Year five times, Rohde has covered OU football and basketball, the Oklahoma City Thunder, OKC/New Orleans Hornets, Dallas Cowboys, Texas Rangers, the Final Four, Masters and PGA Tour. He spent over 26 years for The Oklahoman, serving as a columnist and beat writer. He can be heard on 107.7 The Franchise, the flagship station for OU Athletics weekdays from 5:30-9 a.m.|