The duo went from grade school friends to basketball legends.
As fulfilling as success can be, it’s even better when you get to share it with someone else. One of the best feelings is knowing you’re on top of the world, while getting to watch one of your best friends do exactly the same thing in their field. This is the case for Gonzaga star Jalen Suggs, and UConn phenom Paige Bueckers, two lifelong friends, now supporting each other from across the country, while their stars are shining on college basketball’s brightest stage.
Their roads to the Final Four might have split the two Minnesota natives onto opposite coasts, different timezones, and divergent basketball cultures — but their shared brilliance, honed against each other in backyard games of 21, have turned Suggs and Bueckers into household names overnight. An incredible article from Katie Barnes over at espnW detailed their early friendship.
At 10 years old there was nothing Paige Bueckers loved more than basketball. She’d already been playing for a couple of years, often teaming with kids older than her, and maxing out her rec league time to the point she had to be pulled from games due to league rules. Paige hated it. She’d cry on the bench, begging to be put back in, because all she wanted was to play more basketball. Off the court people remember her as reserved, shy, but the sport lit a spark in her.
Playing in a rec league wasn’t enough. She needed to be around basketball more, so Bueckers began tagging along with a friend to his basketball practice. It didn’t matter that she was hesitant to put herself out there — any kid would be when put into a social situation where they don’t know if they’ll fit in. Learning more about basketball and being close to the game eclipsed any awkwardness. Paige watched from the sidelines as kids ran drills on the court, and it was too intoxicating to resist. She began running them on her own, mimicking what she was watching. Soon watching wasn’t enough. The once-shy girl was pushing her way onto the court, taking part in the drills. Sometimes she’d finish practice with her rec league team, run to the other practice, and take part in that one too. Desperate to get her reps in.
Jalen Suggs fell in love with basketball from a young age. His dad remembers him as a toddler, tossing shots into a Fisher Price hoop, standing behind a line his dad drew on the floor. At an age most kids have attention spans measuring seconds, Jalen would just keep shooting, over, and over, and over again. It was his favorite thing to do, and this love of the game never waned.
The boy never stopped loving basketball. He’d practice at home on the small hoop, and when he outgrew that began playing in rec leagues. When he was 10 years old he arrived at practice and began running drills on the court before noticing a blond haired girl he hadn’t met before running drills by herself, eventually diving in and practicing with his team. It was at that gym that Jalen Suggs and Paige Buecker first met, and immediately became friends — basketball being the common thread that linked them together.
It’s almost impossible to keep in touch with people you meet in grade school. We all change, evolve, and just tend to have those one-fast friends dissolve into fond memories. This wasn’t the case for Suggs and Bueckers. Their bond was always basketball, and it was impossible to break.
Even as league structure dictated they couldn’t formally play together, there was no stopping the duo from having a healthy rivalry. The Suggs and Bueckers families bonded as their children did, having family gatherings and cookouts, Jalen and Paige wolfing down burgers and brats with speed, just so they could get back to the court and play more one-on-one. Brought together by basketball, Suggs and Bueckers became the closest of friends.
Their friendship endured. Even though Suggs and Bueckers didn’t get to spend as much time together with the pressures of their high school careers mounting, they’d often meet at AAU tournaments to give each other pep talks, watch each other’s games, and play fierce games of five-on-five, Suggs’ team vs. Bueckers’ — organized by the two players.
“Just amazing stuff: back and forth, trash talk on both sides,” said Tara Starks, the coach of Bueckers’s Metro Stars AAU team, whose idea it was to invite Suggs’s boys team to scrimmage her girls ahead of the July championship tournament. “Paige would knock down a shot and talk a little trash. Jalen would come down and dunk. They would always go after us hard — running through the middle of the lane and dunking and talking trash. No letup at all. But it would push our girls and get them ready to play.”
The two players defined high school sports in Minnesota while they were playing. Suggs was a Gatorade Minnesota Player of the Year in football and basketball at Minnehaha Academy in Minneapolis, Bueckers won three Gatorade Minnesota Player of the Year awards at Hopkins High School in Minnetonka. A 20 minute cross town drive separated the duo, but the results were identical: Both were dominating.
College drove them apart. Suggs was heavily recruited from across the country, but eventually settled on becoming the highest ranked player to attend Gonzaga, choosing the Pacific Northwest over Florida, Florida State, Iowa State and local Minnesota. Bueckers was so highly coveted that teams began offering her scholarships from the age of 14, ultimately picking to join UConn and become the next great in the program’s astounding history.
A 22-minute drive became 2,700 miles as the two friends began their college careers, but they never lost touch. Avidly following each other from across the country, Suggs and Beuckers followed each other’s games, called each other after big performances and held each other accountable in bad performances to ensure they’d reach their full potential.
Now that potential has been reached. Suggs and Bueckers are in the Final Four, leading their teams in hopes of cutting down the nets at the end. While their primary concern is taking Gonzaga and UConn to victory, they spend their remaining free time catching each other’s games and facetiming each other. In fact, this influence is so great that Suggs credited Bueckers for being a key part of his success in the tournament.
“I texted her after, and we FaceTimed and talked for a little bit,” Suggs continued. “Last night, she said some things that really helped me. I’ve been kind of struggling, trying to get my footing in these tournament games. Of course, seeing her go out there and play great like she did and then talking afterwards, she kind of said some words, it kind of got me uplifted. It got me going. Definitely helped tonight. ... She’s the GOAT for a reason.”
Regardless of what happens from here out, the friendship fostered in Minnesota between two basketball-loving kids has turned them into stars. Suggs is expected to be taken the top five picks of the NBA draft this summer, while Bueckers will have to wait until 2023 or 2024 to enter the WNBA, but will unquestionably be the favorite to be the No. 1 pick when she enters.
There’s no doubt they’ll keep supporting each other in the pros too, ensuring these friends will make each other better for the rest of their careers.