From missing the Big Dance to the NBA G-League: Bronx’s Desure Buie persevering in times of COVID-19

NCAA Basketball: Hofstra at Villanova
Dec 22, 2017; Hempstead, NY, USA; Hofstra Pride guard Desure Buie (4) looks to make a pass during the first half of the game between the Hofstra Pride and the Villanova Wildcats at Nassau Coliseum. Mandatory Credit: Dennis Schneidler-USA TODAY Sports
Dennis Schneidler-USA TODAY Sports

Desure Buie always had to be tough.

Whether it was being classified as a three-star recruit out of the Wings Academy in The Bronx and being constantly classified as an undersized point guard at 5-foot-11, or if it was tearing his ACL his sophomore year at Hofstra University on Long Island; off-court hurdles were just as common as defenders harrying Buie — who recently began plying his trade with the Rio Grande Valley Vipers of the NBA G-League — behind the three-point line.

And that was even before the last year.

Life in the times of COVID-19 certainly took a professional toll on Buie, but that patented toughness — as always — is chipping its way through to ensure that this story in the age of a pandemic will have a happy ending.

A nice change of pace from what has become the harrowing normalcy of the past year.

Nothing was getting handed to Buie growing up in The Bronx, even if he just wanted to get on the basketball court to play the game that he loves.

“I got into basketball because of my older brother,” the now-24-year-old told amNewYork Metro. “Like in the house, when I was a young, young boy, my brother used to have the [laundry] pushcart. We used to ball up a bunch of socks, and we used to play one-on-ones like that, as weird as it sounds. But we used to do that a lot.”

Creative and humble beginnings for the youngster who, at an early age, wanted to get to the NBA but had to contend with the fact that he wouldn’t be the biggest player on the court — or at the park.

“Then [my brother] would take me to the park… The guys in my neighborhood, everybody played basketball,” Buie said. “Me going to watch my older brother play basketball, and I knew I had to be good to get picked, too. If you weren’t tough or weren’t good at that sport, you couldn’t play.”

That’s where the work ethic to overcome almost anything began, and that’s where Buie realized that this game could take him places — especially in a place that wasn’t necessarily easy to get out of.

“Playing against my brother and them was everything for me and made me who I am today,” he said. “I just trained every year to be able to play against my brother and them and as I grew older, I was able to play against some guys.”

Buie was drawn to head coach Billy Turnage’s “winning spirit” as the reason why he chose to attend Wings Academy in The Bronx to play his high school ball and it was there that he developed into one of New York City’s top prospects.

In his senior year, 2015, Buie led Wings to the New York City Public Schools Athletic League (PSAL) and New York State Federation championship behind 17.1 points and an NYC-leading eight assists per game. All while taking home Daily News and MSG Varsity First Team All-New York City accolades.

The decision to attend Hofstra on Long Island in Hempstead was fueled by a desire to stay close to home and a special relationship with one of the university’s most prominent basketball alumni.

“Speedy Claxton believed in me,” Buie said. “I knew he could help me have a successful career playing basketball because he played at the highest level.”

Claxton, a Queens native, was a two-time America East Player of the Year and led Hofstra to the NCAA Tournament in 2000 before carving out a seven-year playing career in the NBA with the Philadelphia 76ers, San Antonio Spurs, Golden State Warriors, New Orleans Hornets, and Atlanta Hawks.

After retirement in 2010, Claxton worked his way back to Hofstra as an assistant under head coach Joe Mihalich, who transformed the program from an inconsistent afterthought in the Colonial Athletic Association (CAA) to a steady force.

Considering the CAA is a mid-major conference that is nowhere close to what it once was when it sent the likes of George Mason and VCU to the Final Four in 2006 and 2011 respectively, it is a one-bid league; meaning the team that won the conference tournament is usually the only one to punch its ticket to the NCAA Tournament.

For Hofstra, it hadn’t experienced March Madness since 2001 when it played in the America East and was led by head coach Jay Wright — who has since won a pair of national championships with Villanova.

Joining the CAA the very next season, Hofstra hadn’t touched the NCAA Tournament since with its Big-Dance-drought growing more excruciating during Buie’s tenure.

In his freshman year, Hofstra blew a 12-point second-half lead to lose the CAA title game in overtime to UNC-Wilmington.

Eight games into his sophomore year, Buie’s road out of The Bronx and to the pros looked as though it might come to a premature end.

He tore his ACL and was forced to redshirt while Hofstra brought in a more seasoned guard that could have very well replaced him for the next few seasons. On top of that, during the rehabilitation process, he welcomed a daughter into the world at 19 years old. But he worked his way back, citing his daughter as his motivation.

After coming off the bench the year back from his rehab, Buie took the reins as the starting point guard where he created a trio alongside Justin Wright-Foreman — who has since been drafted by the Utah Jazz — and Eli Pemberton to go a program-best 27-8 and take the CAA’s top seed heading into the conference tournament.

But a slow start in the conference title game to Northeastern put them in a hole too big to get out of, falling just short of an NCAA Tournament berth yet again.

“Coming up short and not making the NCAA was tough,” Buie said. “That pain is something I can’t describe but I won’t forget it. It just hurt a lot.”

Around this time one year ago, Buie and his Hofstra teammates were gearing up for the CAA conference tournament in Washington, D.C. as the No. 1 seed following a 26-8 season.

Buie was Hofstra’s leading man, the senior posting 18.2 points and 5.9 assists per game while shooting nearly 42% from three-point range in his fifth year of eligibility.

That included a 44-point effort against Elon on Jan. 4 and 35 against Towson just five days earlier.

He had arrived, and so did Hofstra.

The Pride beat down Drexel by 18 in the first round, breezed past Delaware by 14 in the semifinals, and — on the night of March 10 — exacted some revenge on Northeastern in the final, fueled by Buie’s 20 points to win by nine and officially punch Hofstra’s first ticket to the NCAA Tournament in 19 years.

Finally, Hofstra could scribble its name on those famous brackets. The campus could shut down on an idle-mid-March afternoon to see students, classmates, and peers meet the nation’s college basketball elite.

“This is not just for me,” Buie said after that game. “This is for teammates, my freshman year, the dudes that have been here and done it all, and the legends up on the banners, I look at that every single day. I just want to be great as I can be. Tonight, it showed.”

But just two days later, on March 12, it was all gone.The realization of just how serious a threat the pandemic came to light while Hofstra celebrations were still in full swing.

On the night of March 11, the NBA game between Wright-Foreman’s Jazz and Oklahoma City Thunder was postponed after center Rudy Gobert tested positive for COVID-19. The season was subsequently suspended indefinitely, setting the tone for other major sports leagues to shut things down.

On March 12 at Madison Square Garden, St. John’s Big East quarterfinal matchup with Creighton was canceled at halftime due to the threat of the virus. By that night, the NCAA Tournament was canceled with Hofstra not being able to take the floor at the Big Dance while Buie was forced to leave without realizing the entirety of his college basketball dream.

“It felt so good to finally get over the hump because that’s a kid’s dream to play college ball in March,” Buie said. “It was very hard knowing we couldn’t participate in the tourney because of COVID at first. But that conference tournament championship put that at ease because I was able to earn that. ”

Buie still managed to get to the pros despite missing out on the added exposure that comes with playing in the NCAA Tournament.

In July, he signed on with ZZ Leiden of the Dutch Basketball League in the Netherlands and got off to a promising start, averaging 16.5 points, seven assists, and five rebounds over his first two games. But on Oct. 16, he opted out of his contract due to the increasing number of COVID-19 infections in the Netherlands and moved back home to the United States.

“It was a tough decision to make because that was my first pro deal,” said Buie, who returned home to try and stay in shape while staying isolated amid the pandemic. “I just tried to keep myself in shape, I worked out every day. In-house workouts, gym, and basketball workouts.”

All that work — whether it was with the laundry basket, or rehab, or on the hardwood — continued to pay off.

Just 50 weeks after he watched his NCAA Tournament dreams pass by, just 18 weeks after he was forced to pass up on his first professional basketball contract, Buie was signed by the Rio Grande Valley Vipers of the G-League, the NBA’s official minor league, on Feb. 19.

“It feels great to be a part of the G-League and be able to play the game that you love,” Buie said. “It’s always great to be around basketball. It is a sense of normal coming back, things are active and up and running.”

The Vipers are affiliated with the NBA’s Houston Rockets and often used as a feeder team, ensuring that Buie’s NBA dream remains alive.

“The NBA is still my ultimate goal and always will be,” he said.

In the meantime, he doesn’t have to worry that much about getting picked at the park when he returns home to the Bronx.

“Now I’m getting picked first.”