SAN ANTONIO – The restaurant patios and hangouts offering live music and specialty margaritas along the famed River Walk were in full swing on a pleasant midweek evening. A man wearing a UConn T-shirt and hat navigated a busy sidewalk when a passerby noticed his attire.
“Hey, your team is doing good with all those young players,” he said.
Bob Bueckers smiled. He had just FaceTimed with one of those youngsters 10 minutes earlier.
He found a quiet spot to enjoy a drink on a balcony overlooking the river that snakes through downtown when his 8-year-old son, Drew, came bouncing over, giggling into the phone.
“It’s Paige-y,” he said, handing over the phone.
There smiling on the screen was Paige-y, his big sister, who also happens to be the best player in women’s college basketball.
Paige Bueckers is not the first UConn player to wear that mantle, but her arrival has created an intersection of unique athletic talent, ultracool personality and a digital generation drawn to her every move.
The former Hopkins star became the first freshman in the history of the women’s game to win Associated Press Player of the Year honors in piloting UConn into Friday’s national semifinals here at the Final Four.
She leads her team in scoring, assists, steals and three-point shooting and is accomplishing things unseen in an exemplary basketball program that has produced some of the sport’s greatest talents.
Her persona shines like a supernova off the court as well. Bueckers has a gigantic social media presence with more than one million followers combined on her Instagram, Twitter and TikTok accounts. Her followers include professional athletes and celebrities.
A company that helps athletes monetize their social media brand predicts that sponsors already are lining up to sign Bueckers to endorsement deals once the NCAA passes legislation that allows college athletes to profit off their popularity.
Bueckers uses social media to post dance videos and display her effervescent personality, but also occasionally weighs in on serious matters such as racial equality. Her family is blended, and her brother Drew is biracial.
“She has spoken correctly about it and admitted that she doesn’t know what it means to be Black and to know what you have to face every day, but that I’m here with you,” her dad said.
She is a superstar who prefers to blend in, not be put on a pedestal. She steers interview questions about her individual success to acknowledge teammates. Those closest describe her as genuine, humble, the exact opposite of self-absorbed. UConn coach Geno Auriemma constantly presses her to shoot more because Bueckers would rather pass.
In high school, little kids gathered outside Hopkins’ locker room after games to get an autograph, picture or TikTok video with her. Some nights, there would be 100 kids waiting. Bueckers never left before every kid had a moment with her, even if it took an hour. She drove to road games separately from the team bus to accommodate everyone.
“She realizes that with great success comes great responsibility,” said her mother, Amy Fuller. “She truly wants to be an inspiration for the younger generation. It’s kind of become the norm for her and she really has embraced it and handled it with a lot of maturity and grace.”
That’s a lot to take in and process for someone who’s still only 19 years old. It wasn’t that long ago when she was a middle schooler playing varsity despite being so undersized that coaches nicknamed her Olive Oyl because her frame resembled Popeye’s girlfriend.
“She’s kind of a phenomenon,” former Hopkins coach Brian Cosgriff said.
Worth the waitLast March 14 was supposed to be a fairy-tale finish to her high school career. Hopkins went undefeated her junior season and was undefeated again going into the state title game. The novel coronavirus intervened and forced the championship game to be canceled. Bueckers was crestfallen.
Her mom threw her an impromptu party that night, hoping to cheer her up. They booked a room at a hotel with a water park. Bueckers spent the evening shooting baskets on the Pop-a-Shot game at Dave & Buster’s with her close friend Jalen Suggs, former Minnehaha Academy star and fellow freshman phenom at Gonzaga.
Fast forward 383 days. Final Four. Player of the Year. Big stage. She’s having the time of her life.
“My dreams were sort of shattered as a senior,” she says. “But if you could tell me a year ago that I would be in this position, I would be ecstatic. It’s really surreal, just the sort of turnaround that happened.”
Auriemma reflected on UConn’s previous stars — Maya Moore, Diana Taurasi, Breanna Stewart and so on — in debating how to handle the arrival of another highly decorated recruit. Even the great ones didn’t always start as freshmen. Maybe Bueckers would benefit from coming off the bench, too, just to defuse some pressure, Auriemma thought.
Then they started practicing.
“It was, we’ve only been here two weeks, but she’s the best player on our team,” Auriemma said. “I knew it would happen at some point. I just didn’t expect it to be that quickly and that evident.”
Bueckers is a magician with the ball on her hands. Her skill level is high-end, but her natural feel for the game — the way she threads a no-look pass or sees plays develop before others do — is what separates her. That and her ability to rise to the occasion.
She has always possessed a flair for the dramatic. A killer instinct hidden beneath her jovial personality.
Junior year, state title game, Hopkins trailed Stillwater by two points at halftime. Bueckers was so sick that day she couldn’t keep food down. The locker room at halftime was tense.
“Paige was like, ‘Nah, we got this,’ ” Cosgriff recalled.
They won by 29.
Captain Clutch has revealed herself at different times this season. She scored her team’s final 13 points in a win over No. 1 South Carolina in the regular season. She finished with 24 points in her NCAA tournament debut, then sparked a second-half rally with UConn trailing Baylor by 10 points in the Elite Eight.
“Paige does a lot of things that you can’t explain,” Auriemma said. “Paige can sense the moment. And she has the ability to fulfill that moment.”
Her competitive spirit gets unleashed in those moments with celebratory screams or fist pumps. She even smacked Auriemma on his rear end as she ran down court after a teammate made a three-pointer in a tournament game. That spontaneous act was both comical and startling considering the recipient is known for being no-nonsense and unafraid to dish out tough love to players.
“I just gave him a little pat on the butt just to let him know that it was a great play,” Bueckers said.
Those two have a unique relationship. Sort of an odd couple that somehow click, which inspired a reporter to ask Auriemma if he ever gets mad at his star pupil.
“Every day,” he said. “You should probably ask me when I’m not mad at her. I was mad at her today.”
Something about her defense.
On the day that Bueckers won national Player of the Year honors, someone mentioned to Auriemma that he will be coaching the best player in college basketball for a few more years.
“I’m happy for her, but until I tell her she’s the best player in America and that she has nothing to learn, she’s got lots of problems,” he said. “Her problems are just getting started, trust me. She’s going to rue the day she won this award.”
‘Built for this’Auriemma laughed after delivering that deadpanned gem. The Hall of Fame coach who was college roommates with former Vikings tight end Joe Senser clearly is enamored of his latest superstar. Those who have walked a similar path as Bueckers are also admirers.
“The beauty with Paige is, there’s nothing she has to change about who she is,” former UConn great Rebecca Lobo said. “She’s built for this. She’s built for the spotlight. Her game is, her personality is. She’s built to be a future star in the WNBA. The next three years she and [Iowa’s] Caitlin Clark are going to be the faces of women’s college basketball. That’s like home for her.”
Bueckers will be eligible for the WNBA draft after her junior season because of her birth date, though she and Auriemma wish women had the same draft options as their male counterparts. Many believe Bueckers is good enough to be a one-and-done if rules allowed it, just like her close friend, Suggs.
“Two kids from same neighborhood, same backgrounds, same everything go to school 3,000 miles apart and their paths are 3,000 miles different,” Auriemma said. “One will have the opportunity to be [a top-three] pick in the NBA draft and make millions and millions of dollars. And the other one is going to be back at UConn.”
Bueckers is content with that. She loves where she’s at right now, in basketball and life. She texted her parents recently that she made the dean’s list.
“Behind the scenes as her parents, we know how many times she’s been in very high-pressure situations and how she handled it,” her mom said.
She steps into that big spotlight again in Friday’s semifinals. Bueckers has lost only one game since her junior year at Hopkins, the lone blemish being a 90-87 loss to Arkansas in January.
A national championship would cement her freshman season as one of the greatest individual campaigns in women’s basketball history.
Her biggest fan will be there in the stands cheering her on. Drew adores his sister. He calls her his best friend. They have a special gameday ritual. Drew yells “Paige-y” and she can always hear him. She waves back.