IT’S A CRISP, sunny October afternoon, and Paige Bueckers is at the door of the holiest of basketball temples. She sees her reflection in the glass as she pulls open the door to the Werth Family UConn Basketball Champions Center. The brick edifice stands in stark contrast to the concrete behemoth of its next-door neighbor — and UConn’s home arena — Gampel Pavilion. The Champions Center is the house that Auriemma built.
The first things Bueckers sees are 15 crystal basketball trophies on display. Thirteen of them glitter behind a wall of glass; the remaining two — from the most recent men’s and women’s championships — rest in their own cases just inside the door. Eleven of these trophies belong to the women’s program.
Dynastic greatness gleams at Bueckers with each step she takes through the facility. In front of the stairs that lead up to head coach Geno Auriemma’s office are the “Pillars of the Program” — rectangular glass displays for some of the players who have walked through these same doors: Rebecca Lobo, Sue Bird, Diana Taurasi, Tina Charles, Maya Moore and Breanna Stewart. All of them All-Stars. Most of them Hall of Famers — and the ones who aren’t yet will be.
The expectations are inescapable. Hanging above the hardwood practice floor are banners for each of the 11 championships. Different banners, these ones bearing the names of high-achieving Huskies, paint two of the remaining walls.
Beginning in October, Bueckers will commune with those names every day for four years.
As the top recruit in her class, Bueckers will be taking her ankle-breaking talents to Storrs, Connecticut, next season. She’s the third top-ranked prospect to choose UConn in four seasons, on the heels of her future teammates Christyn Williams and Megan Walker. Bueckers has the traditional bona fides of a high school standout — she has won a state championship, is averaging 21.2 points, 9.5 assists, 4.9 rebounds and 4.8 steals per game this season, and has been named as a McDonald’s All American. She is a two-time winner of the Gatorade Minnesota Girls Basketball Player of the Year award. She has racked up awards for USA Basketball. She has won gold medals as a member of under-19 and U17 FIBA World Cup teams. After being named the MVP of the 2019 FIBA World Cup in Bangkok, Bueckers was named the 2019 Female Athlete of the Year by USA Basketball.
She is, by universal consensus, the real deal — the next in the long list of greats with the hope of parlaying high school dominance into another piece of UConn’s navy-and-white dynasty.
There’s just one problem: That dynasty isn’t what it used to be.
In other words, she’s joining a dynasty that she’ll bear the expectations of rebuilding — although she ultimately might not bear that burden alone. If Paige Bueckers gets her way, her best friend will do it with her.
SINCE WINNING ITS first championship in 1995, UConn, by every measure, has been not only the best women’s college program in history but arguably the greatest program in the history of sports. Eleven national championships, including three consecutive (2002-04) and four consecutive (2013-16), 22 All-Americans, and six players named Naismith National Players of the Year a combined total of 10 times. The program owns the record for the longest win streak — 111 games — in basketball history (men’s or women’s).
Six of the 12 members of the 2012 Olympic team were Huskies. So were five of the 12 in Rio. Only LSU and Tennessee had multiple representatives on the 2012 team, and just LSU did in 2016.
But the UConn team Bueckers will be joining hardly resembles that of the most dominant team of the past decade. Although the streak of 12 consecutive trips to the Final Four remains unbroken, in each of the past three seasons, the Huskies have failed to claim a title. Add to that the graduation of WNBA Rookie of the Year Napheesa Collier and fellow WNBA first-round pick Katie Lou Samuelson, a 2019 recruiting class that saw only two signings in No. 21 Aubrey Griffin and Anna Makurat, a 16-point loss to No. 6 Baylor in early January and an 18-point loss to No. 3 Oregon in early February and this season appears to be a continuation of a slow, albeit almost imperceptible decline that has nudged UConn from its perch atop the women’s game.
Back in Werth, in Auriemma’s office on the second floor at the end of the hall on the right, there resides on a chestnut shelf each of the 11 brown and gold championship trophies hoisted by the Huskies, with the cut-down net draped over each of them. Nine of those 11 trophies were won with Diana Taurasi, Maya Moore or Breanna Stewart on the roster. “When we lost the last three, somebody said, ‘Well, you know, the only time those guys win the national championship is when they have the best player,'” Auriemma said, sitting in a black leather chair. “No s—.”
It’s an admission, of sorts — that during this three-year drought, UConn hasn’t had the best players. And that signing top-ranked prospects doesn’t mean any of those players will be the next Moore or Stewart.
But when Auriemma points at a photo hanging on the wall next to his door, it’s a shot of Taurasi with the ball in her hand, wearing a Team USA jersey. “[Bueckers] thinks she’s going to be Dee,” he said, not shying away from perhaps the loftiest comparison of all. “She has all the mannerisms. She has Dee’s game. She has all the stuff that goes along with Dee.
“She’s as good as anybody I’ve seen with the ball in her hands,” Auriemma continues. “She has something that’s rare.”
THE FIRST TIME Azzi Fudd met Paige Bueckers, she didn’t think very much of her. It was the USA Basketball U16 trials in the summer of 2017, and Fudd was heading into her freshman season, Bueckers a rising sophomore. They ended up on the same team for a number of scrimmages. Fudd sized up her competition. She was not concerned about Bueckers.
And why would she have been?
Bueckers was something of a local legend in grade school — but a prodigy whose fame hadn’t yet crossed state borders. She had started playing for Hopkins High School, outside Minneapolis, in seventh grade, suiting up for the 10th grade and JV squads. “She was a peanut,” said coach Brian Cosgriff, who’s been at Hopkins for 35 years, winning seven state titles in his 21 years as head coach of the girls’ program. “My nickname for her was Olive Oyl, like Popeye’s girlfriend. She was just a beanpole.”
Bueckers, despite her size, was putting in reps all over town. “I would pick her up from the gym, to take her to the gym, to drop her back off at the gym,” said Tara Starks, who coaches AAU in Minnesota and has worked with Bueckers for the past eight years.
By eighth grade, Bueckers had made the varsity team, coming off the bench. In her fourth career game, she checked in — and made seven 3-pointers. “She essentially won the game for us,” Cosgriff says.
It was the beginning of what would become an illustrious high school career.. Minnesota schools are prevented from playing a national schedule because of a Minnesota State High School League policy that limits schools’ travel to North Dakota, South Dakota, Wisconsin and Iowa.
So when Bueckers received an invitation to her first USA Basketball camp the summer after her ninth grade season, she was underestimated — and by none other than the person who would become her best friend.
“I looked at her, saw her on my team and thought, ‘OK, well she’s not that good. I definitely got her,'” Fudd said.
It was after the team was selected that Fudd realized her mistake. “There were at least seven straight possessions where she scored in a row,” Fudd said. “No one could stop her, and I was like, ‘Oh, so she’s a lot better than I thought she was.'”
Although Fudd is quick to add, “I wasn’t guarding her, of course.”
On the court, the two began to jell. Both scoring guards with strong ballhandling skills, their styles complemented each other. “The way they played on the floor, we were like, ‘Oh, they must be pretty good friends,'” said Fudd’s mom, Katie.
“She’s as good as anybody I’ve seen with the ball in her hands. She has something that’s rare.” UConn coach Geno Auriemma, on No. 1 recruit Paige Bueckers
It wasn’t until after the 2017 FIBA AmeriCup that Bueckers and Fudd bonded off the court. With gold medals in hand, they boarded a flight from Buenos Aires to Minnesota. Fudd, who lives in the D.C. area, was going to visit family, and Bueckers was on her way home. The two sat next to each other and talked the entire 15-hour trip — although Bueckers says they were friendly before the flight. “She doesn’t remember at all that we were bus buddies,” Bueckers said. “She has a terrible memory.”
Since then, there have been many card games, many hotly contested Mario Kart matches. (Said Fudd: “[Bueckers] is cocky, so she’s going to say that she’s better, but I’m better at Mario Kart.” Said Bueckers: “Oh yeah, we play Mario Kart. I won, for sure. Did she say she won?”) There was even an ill-fated trip to toilet-paper Cosgriff’s house after Bueckers led Hopkins to a state title last season.
Fudd flew in for that game. Afterward, she, Bueckers and one of the assistant coaches loaded toilet paper, themselves and some mischief into a car. The trees proved to be worthy adversaries. “I have never seen anyone so bad at TP-ing a house,” Fudd said. “How do you miss the tree?”
Theirs is a legitimate friendship — two feisty, like-minded, high-energy talents — and it has huge implications for college basketball. Although Bueckers has committed to UConn, Fudd, the nation’s top-ranked junior and first sophomore to win Gatorade’s National Player of the Year award, has yet to commit to a school — and says she has no plans to do so anytime soon. But that isn’t keeping Bueckers from putting on the sell. “I know her game better than anybody else knows her game, so I would rather be on a person’s team that knows my game than playing against them, you know?” Bueckers said.
It’s a consistent onslaught from Bueckers — recruitment by annoyance, you might say. Bueckers already knows Fudd’s game. She knows where Fudd likes to catch the ball. She knows Fudd’s strengths. And she lets Fudd know all of this, often. “I’m like ‘Oh, my god, shut up,’ I love playing with her, but she’s also a lot of fun to play against,” Fudd said. “So I feel like it’s a win-win situation wherever I go.”
Says Auriemma: “I’m anxious to see how that plays out.”
PAIGE BUECKERS CHASES her little brother around the gym at Hopkins High School on a Sunday morning in late October. With the first official game of the season still a month away, Hopkins supplements its offseason workouts with weekend scrimmages. After a blowout victory earlier in the morning, Bueckers is spending a few minutes before a matchup with rival Wayzata doing what an older sister does — picking on her little brother.
When she catches him, a Gatorade bottle becomes her weapon of choice. She squirts it in his face as he laughs. After surviving the ordeal, he sputters and wipes his face before getting up and running after his big sister.
Then Bueckers & Co. set up their layup line. Now there are no games. No theatrics. Hopkins beat Wayzata three times last season, including a tense three-point victory at home. During that game, Wayzata students had chanted “overrated” at Bueckers. That didn’t go well for them. She silenced the crowd with a career-high 43 points.
“I like when games are competitive and there’s meaning behind them and trash talking,” Bueckers said. “I really enjoy that part of the game. And I don’t know, you have to be kind of good for people to chant ‘overrated.'”
In the Lindbergh Center, Hopkins ends the first half with a one-point lead. But in the second half, the Royals’ defense stiffens and the lead swells to 13. Bueckers drives down the right side of the lane, leaping into the air to lay the ball in the hoop. On her way up, a Wayzata player hip checks her, and her body starts to spin. As she’s falling backward out of bounds, Bueckers makes eye contact with the hoop and, at the last second, flips the ball toward the basket with just a bit of English on it. Bueckers lands on her back, eyes fixing on the ball as it falls through the hoop. After her teammates pull her up off the floor, Bueckers smirks and rolls her shoulders forward like she just put on a jacket. She flexes her right arm and smacks her other hand against her biceps.
Said Bueckers, “Everybody says I’m not as strong as I should be, and I’ve been trying to tell them, I’m in the weight room.”
“I’m trying to learn to let the game speak for yourself,” Bueckers said. “But that just isn’t me.”
She smirks. “You just can’t hold it in sometimes.”