Azzi Fudd is indestructible

AZZI AND HER PARENTS They are in the stands of the Williams Arena, the cavernous home of the Minnesota Golden Gophers. It’s the night of March 12 and Azzi’s shortened junior season is over. The Fudds are there to support Bueckers in the Minnesota 4A state semifinals. Bueckers drives his team to win, but the championship game was never played.

The night before, the NBA had suspended its season indefinitely after Utah Jazz center Rudy Gobert tested positive for COVID-19, and in the hours afterward, most of the men’s and women’s leagues did the same.

By the time the Fudds return home, the world is different from the one they left. No in-person school and access to the St. John’s gym. Gone is the next AAU season, the weight gym is over, and the rehab appointments are gone. Gone is the chance to show that Fudd’s ACL injury is a concern of the past. With his parents looking to the side, Fudd plays in the street with the ball and tennis. When it rains, he moves to his basement. He sneaks into a park to take shots and play one-on-one against Jos. Drive to an empty track to race at full speed.

“It was very difficult trying to see the light,” says Azzi.

The Fudds didn’t even have a permanent hoop at home, so they bought one and spray-painted lines across the fairway to create a makeshift court. They rush to get boxes, bands, and weights to work out.

And when body resistance exercises just aren’t enough, the nation’s best prospect ties himself to the leg ankle weights in his room and climbs to the top of his childhood desk.

Sitting on the narrow wooden surface, the weights pulling against her, she struggles to straighten her knee.

SIX WEEKS LATER, After his own season closed, Buecker stopped by the Fudd house. Like Fudd, Bueckers has been in remote learning for more than a month, and his basketball season at the club looks more uncertain by the day. She had heard all about Fudd’s fragmented routine and decided that she needed to be there too.

“The way they find places to exercise, even if it’s at home,” says Bueckers. “I wanted to be a part of it.”

Every morning, Bueckers says, the alarm goes off at six or seven. If she and Azzi don’t get out of bed, Katie yells for them to get down to start moving. The first stop of the day is to get vitamins at the District Sportscenter in Alexandria, Virginia, empty except for them. They then eat breakfast before helping Katie with the camp she organizes outside for a group of girls from the neighborhood. Strength and conditioning are in the afternoon, whether it’s on a track, in the yard, or on the street, anywhere they can run. Then maybe more shots on his makeshift court or some more cardio.

“She never tires of exercising,” says Bueckers.

Azzi and Paige sometimes play one on one. But it is never just a game, always a series. The best of five games from every corner, every end, and every inside zone.

“At the high school level, I don’t think I’ve ever worked with someone who could shoot as well as her.”

– Skills Coach Chris Brickley

The ball bounces between them, they control it over and over again, movement after movement. Sweat spills as they strain. Fudd hasn’t played consistently in weeks, his knee is still bothering him, and Bueckers, the top pick of the 2020 class, is formidable. “She could have won two spots,” says Bueckers. “But I always win three. If he told you something different, then he is lying.”

“I think if we play now, it will definitely be a good competition,” says Fudd.

Even after Bueckers leaves the Fudds’ and heads to UConn, Azzi continues with the routine. Get up early to shoot, run where you can, ball handling in the basement. He heads to New York for private sessions with renowned skills coach Chris Brickley, or to South Carolina to work with Brandon Payne, who trains Curry.

“She is, frankly, better than some of the NBA players I’ve worked with at understanding what needs to be done day after day to improve,” says Payne. Brickley says, “At the high school level, I don’t think I’ve ever worked with someone who could throw the ball as well as her.”

THE FUDD FAMILY She is sitting around the table on the farm in her dining room on an October night. Katie delivers orders for Caf Rio, a nearby Mexican restaurant. It’s ‘Tasty Tuesday’, a Fudd tradition. Azzi enters the room after drinking water from a ‘Game Ready’ portable object that delivers ice water to a compression sleeve. It looks like a red toolbox with buttons. Azzi makes eye contact with her younger brother Jos. “I’m sitting there,” she says, pointing to the chair he is also looking at. Jos sits across the table as Azzi sets the box beside her and slides the sleeve over her right knee. Often bounces for Azzi; he sees it as his job, he says. It’s what I’ll miss the most when she goes to college.

Azzi has been attending classes remotely for the first few weeks. That is supposed to end soon. And the school basketball season is supposed to start in November, but no one knows if that will actually happen. A year ago, he was looking forward to getting back on the court while rehabbing his knee. Now, like so many others, he waits again.

Azzi sits in the middle seat of the table, overlooking the room that displays most of his grand prizes, including the ‘Gatorade Player of the Year’ trophy from his sophomore season. A photo of Gigi Bryant rests near the window.

“I’ve lost a lot of people this year,” Azzi says. A childhood friend had died at the end of November 2019. Kobe and Gigi in January. And then Warren “Bo” Bouknight, an older man who worked at a community center that Azzi frequents for exercise. He and his wife used to go to all of Azzi’s games to cheer her up.

Sometimes when she’s sad, when this all gets too strong, Azzi crawls into Katie’s arms. “She makes me feel better,” he stressed.

The machine makes noise throughout the dinner. Like your rehab, sound is ubiquitous. Azzi chooses half of the folded tortillas. “That’s where the cheese is,” he added.

Azzi taunts Jos for hitting him at practice that very night. Jos remains unfazed. “Whenever you talk ‘trash,’ you miss me,” he says.

Azzi looks playfully in their direction. Jos and Jon are definitely little brothers. They regularly take shorts and other clothes out of their closet. But for Azzi, that’s better than the time Jon ate a jar of his beloved Nutella. “I’d rather have my clothes stolen than eat my food.”

Azzi Fudd and Paige Bueckers have debated for years which of the two is the better player. Courtesy photo: Fudd family

FUDD LOOKS above the railing in a corner of the Thompson-Boling Arena in Knoxville. He has traveled 460 miles with his family to watch his future Huskies teammates play their biggest game of the 2020-21 season, against his longtime rival, the University of Tennessee. It’s the first time I’ve seen Bueckers play in the UConn uniform in person.

The Huskies guard is having the worst game of his young career. Shot after shot, the nets ring after ringing, to the melody of a night of 2-out-of-13 shots as the game clock reaches its final minutes. Now things are even worse. With just 3:12 left, Bueckers sits at a table with a UConn coach wrapping duct tape around a badly sprained ankle. He can barely move. She catches Azzi’s attention.

Fudd watches his friend wince. 21 months ago, on a training bench in a Colorado Springs gym, with ice packs circling Fudd’s rapidly inflamed right knee, a person came closer to Azzi than anyone else. It was Bueckers. He leaned over Fudd’s left leg, healing it, as if to protect it.

They have risen together. They have fallen. The one and the other have risen. Now they know that the future is theirs.

And that tantalizing future begins shortly. Fudd signed a national letter of intent with UConn last November, and excitement (or fear) has since erupted over what a Bueckers-Fudd duo will look like. Comparisons with the legendary Sue Bird-Diana Taurasi duo of the early 2000s are already ringing. Talk of extending, or reviving, perhaps the greatest dynasty in sports history is more than mere talk.

Bueckers, in his freshman season, has burst onto the college basketball scene, displaying ‘swagger’ in a good way by leading the Huskies to an 18-1 record and the No. 1 ranking. She is among the nation’s top scorers (20.5) and 3-point shooters, averaging 53.7% in her first 18 games.

And Fudd, who once hit 256 3-pointers in NBA range in 18 minutes during a catch-and-shoot drill, could be even better, bringing a grit, a steadfastness to match Bueckers’ relentless style.

In other words, they are a perfect match.

Says Bueckers: “You just have to watch us play. That would be a better way of putting it.”

Back in Knoxville, Bueckers hops off the table and limps back onto the court. UConn has come up two with 30 seconds to go. As the shot clock approaches zero, Bueckers catches a pass down the left wing and fires on a converging double team. She lets out a roar as she slides through the net.

“I knew it was good because it was made for moments like that,” explains Fudd.

WITH LESS THAN 30 Seconds remaining in the first half and leading 35-21, Fudd dribbles slowly down the court and wipes the soles of his shoes with his hands. His senior season was officially canceled.

He has thought about leaving early to go to the University of Connecticut, where there will be better competition, games that count and an additional season with Bueckers. Instead, she is here, at home. “Being a graduate of St. John is very important to me,” says 18-year-old Fudd. She is the vice president of the student body, and she wrote to the principal of the high school, asking to be allowed to play … unofficially. When it was granted, it was an easy choice. “I want to be here,” he stated. “I’m glad I can finish this with my teammates.”

With no conference title or DC championship to chase, Fudd plays games like this in mid-January. He leans toward his opponent, dribbling with his left hand before stepping back and bouncing the ball between his legs to go to the right.

Cross again to your left and attack. After a dribble, he hesitates and turns right again. At the triple line, Fudd sends the ball once more towards the basket. As it bounces to your hands, take a step with your left and then your right, rising to become a contested float in the lane.

His eyes are fixed on the ball as it rises through the air and falls gently through the net.

Katie barnesBarnes writes about basketball, MMA, and the intersection of sport and gender, and his reporting has been award-winning. Follow Barnes on Twitter at @ katie_barnes3.

Makeup by Demetress Valentine / THE Artist Agency; Stylist by Liza Collis; jerseys and shorts by Augusta Sportswear; red and orange styles: footwear by Under Armor, socks by James Fiallo; blue and yellow styles: footwear by Adidas, socks by Hattie Doolittle; pink jacket and black shorts by Nike; basketball by Chance.