Bones Hyland's Journey Is Remarkable, And It's Nowhere Near Complete.
It was late March of 2018, and Nah’Shon Hyland knew one thing: Today, I’m going to die.
A fire had broken out in his house, the cause of which today remains unknown, and Hyland was in his second-floor bedroom. He was laying on his bed relaxing after an AAU basketball tournament, and he smelled smoke. He leapt to investigate. The moment Hyland opened the bedroom door he was stumbled by the smoke and flames. Hyland slammed the door shut as quickly as he recovered his balance, knowing this was an impossible exit.
Hyland tried a window. It didn’t budge. Smoke began pouring into the room. It was followed by a stalking fire that by then had gnawed through the door.
“It was like being in the jungle and you’re surrounded by tigers,” Hyland recalls. “You’ve got nowhere to go and they want you. And you have a blindfold on.”
Hyland’s screams for help were blunted by the advancing flames and window panes—it wouldn’t budge—so he dropped to his knees and manifested that awful thought.
“I thought I was going to die.”
That’s when he started crying, and praying. Hyland thought he had a good life, but there was much more to do. He plays basketball out of joy and love, but also to give younger children in Wilmington someone to look up to, a positive role model in a depressed area where positive role models are scarce. He has a strong faith, and people have a strong faith in him.
“That window never opens,” Hyland says quickly and after a notable pause. You can tell part of him is still in that bedroom, part of Nah'Shon Hyland will always be in that bedroom, flames licking at his heels, with no place to go, blindfolded, thinking he was about to die.
There is another pause.
“But God told me to get up and pick my hand up. I did. And the window moved open for me. He opened it for me.”
Hyland was back on his feet now, lifted by his faith and by his determination to be a positive influence in his community. He pushed out the screen but faced a jump from the second story window, down onto concrete. He was out of time, so Hyland lunged towards the sidewalk. Friends tried to catch him but they were only partially successful. They kept Hyland upright, but his leg smashed into brick stairs, a thud. Hyland couldn’t walk. He was outside the house and on the ground. He was hurting, but he wasn’t finished.
“I was crawling, trying to find a car,” he says. “I needed to get help for Mom-Mom and the babies.” It didn’t matter that friends and family were surrounding the burning house and help had already been called. His condition didn't matter. His concern was for others. Bones Hyland, broken, was going to crawl to help someone else.
Mom-Mom is Hyland’s grandmother Fay Hyland and the babies are Maurice and Isaac Williams, his cousins. They were trapped in the house. Fay and Maurice Williams, age 11 months, passed away at the hospital.
Bones Hyland electrified VCU in his freshman season. In fact, he had one of the best freshman seasons in VCU history, finishing with a 9.0ppg scoring average and a school fresman-record 63 threes, shooting 43.4% from distance. (I say distance because the three-point LINE was rarely in question.) Hyland finished with a kick. He started the final seven games (27.6 minutes per game) and averaged 11.8ppg over his last 15 games. He made five or more threes four times.
But it really isn’t the specific numbers—it’s the manner in which Hyland amassed those numbers. The game was not bigger than the skinny freshman. He hit the court with a style and verve and mega-smile from day one. Swag, you might say. Hyland is having fun on the court. It comes from the building block of swag: unshakable confidence.
“He’s a phenomenal scorer, but probably more impressive is his feel for the game,” says VCU assistant coach JD Byers. “He operates on offense. He understands angles and when to use his body to create an advantage.”
That feel for the game is far more than deep threes, though Hyland made 46-99 (46.5%) from there in A-10 games. With Marcus Evans injured, Hyland took control of the VCU offense. His 57 total assists were second only to Evans (70). After taking eight or more shots three times in the first 15 games of the season, he eclipsed that mark 11 times in the final 16 games. He earned A-10 all freshman team honors.
Swag is not selfish and it’s a lot more than scoring prowess. You’re having fun with your guys, so their success is your success. There were highlight reel passes—lobs to fellow freshman Hason Ward and pocket passes to a cutting KeShawn Curry. There were innate moves, like the hesitation step baseline drive to free himself from two defenders for a layup against LaSalle—with his left hand. Passing up an open shot to give his teammate an equally-open shot. Everyone seemed to respond to Hyland’s touch, and everyone was a beneficiary.
Skip Robinson, who coached Hyland for his We R1 AAU team, saw it as early as the ninth grade. Robinson had his guys running a track for conditioning, and while Hyland was a hard worker he hated the track. Despised that track.
“It’s the only thing he wouldn’t do,” says Robinson. Hyland at first begrudgingly ran the track, but he noticed the change in his teammates. Soon, Hyland was the first on the track. He began to understand it.
“He started going really hard and would get on others if they didn’t give it their all,” says Robinson. “He figured out the team concept a long time ago. He understood sharing the basketball and doing the work together, putting in time and how to be a good teammate. How to lift guys up. How to take criticism from teammates, and coaches. I pride myself on coaching a team concept, we may have six or seven guys averaging 13 points, and that’s what you had at VCU. He was prepared. I’m not at all surprised by his success because he had a lot of the things other freshman don’t have.”
Hyland was coached by Rod Griffin at St. Georges Tech high school. Running came up again, this time when Griffin and Hyland would talk about the VCU experience. There was more of it in college. Hyland admitted that playing 94 feet of defense was new and demanding but he was adjusting. Griffin was a tremendous help, not just in how Hyland plays the game but in how Hyland thinks the game.
“I always knew he was going to be a college player so we’d talk even before he left,” says Griffin. “I’d tell him everybody on the bench was ‘the man’ in high school and he had to be ready for that. He had to be ready when it was his turn to do his thing and if he did that, the coaches would turn him loose. But I knew he would be ready. He’s humble and careful about making sure he fits in, and he works hard at everything so I knew he could keep up with the demands. Once he adjusted, his natural abilities would shine.”
Swag tends to shine.
“Confidence,” Hyland says of what served him well during his successful freshman season. “It was a learning experience, an adapting experience. I wasn’t going into shock though. I’ve played at a high level. Once I adapted to the pace the swag helped carry me through it. It’s basketball, and I was confident playing at this level. People lack confidence, it’s one of the hardest things to truly have. But the late nights in the gym paid off. It showed.”
He was also helped by Marcus Evans, a senior point guard not exactly lacking in the confidence department. It’s different for guys like Evans and Hyland. It isn’t ego and it isn’t overconfidence. It’s what former VCU head coach Jeff Capel once described as a “guard-cocky and something I look for in every recruit.” It’s an asset. It also created some battles early in the season.
“We were going at each other hard. I was new kid on the block had something to prove, he was the vet,” says Hyland. “I mean we went hard. But I also tried to pick his brain. Towards the end of the season he opened up and I was like his little brother. He was guiding me. The whole time he was telling me to ‘keep going, they can’t stop you.’ He had confidence in me and I appreciate him for that. It helped me greatly.”
The numbers and the future are nearly imaginative. As Hyland laid in the hospital bed, merely hours after laying harmlessly and carefree in his own bed, there existed tumult and doubt. Hyland was unsure about the health of his close family. That tragedy had not yet been laid at his feet. Hyland also knew he had a major issue with his knee. Doctors were still unsure the extent of the injury.
Hyland has a glow in his voice, a bounce in his inflection that gets you leaning in to the conversation. If you’ve seen his smile you can see it through the phone. He has no idea you are feeling better for no other reason than you are talking to him. But that bounce is flat when he recalls that time. There is a seriousness about his tone.
“Yeah, I thought it could be over. I could be done. I wanted to give up,” he admits softly.
Hyland suffered a torn right patella in his knee. It would take months of rehab but he wouldn’t give up. Couldn’t give up. Too much was on the line. He attacked his recuperation for himself, his family, and for the larger community around him.
Wilmington has one of highest crime rates, and violent crime rates, in the country. This includes comparisons to large cities and communities of similar size. It was called "MurderTown USA" by Newsweek magazine in 2014 and the city fights decaying infrastructure and blight every day. The city released a statement in January that overall crime was down by three percent last year, but shootings rose 42%, and incredibly the number of juveniles shot rose 163%.
Remarkably, Hyland understands and embraces his mission.
“A lot of kids around here don’t have anybody to look up to. I didn’t have anybody to look up to,” he says. “I want to put on for the younger kids who have no guidance. It’s bigger than me. It’s rough out there and maybe I’m some hope that they don’t usually see, that they’ve got to keep going. They can be something good in this world.”
But there was a reality lurking during his recovery. He missed an AAU season.
“That’s such a crucial summer. Kids like a Bones make huge jumps,” says Josh Verlin. Nobody covers the Philadelphia/Delaware region as deeply and with as much knowledge as Verlin and his site, CityofBasketballLove.com. “People knew him locally and everyone thought he was going to take off nationally that summer, but after that everyone sat back and said ‘let’s see what happens.’ A major injury and traumatic life event changes a lot of things. Coaches knew the kid was talented but you’ve got to see what level he’s at after that.”
Hyland kept going, undaunted. He stuck close to his training regimen, spending an extra three months strengthening a knee he says still needs some work even today. Hyland remained a four-star recruit and was named the Delaware high school player of the year. UConn, Temple, and Boston College continued to pursue Hyland. He became Mike Rhoades’ recruit on June 4, 2019.
“I love playing basketball. It’s my passion,” he says. “There’s no stress. No pain. No nothing. I’m always smiling and laughing because I love it. I get a mean face sometimes because I want it. I want to win.”
Hyland starts laughing.
“Yeah, I play with joy and I know I love the game and I know that the hard work is paying off so I smile,” he says. “The work is paying off. It’s stress free. There’s no nerves. So you see shots go in most don’t think you should’ve taken. It goes back to the work. You do that and you love it and good things happen. That makes me smile.”
The mean face Hyland talks about is a fairly recent development.
“The tragedy changed him,” says Robinson, the AAU coach. “He went from a fun-loving kid to someone who appreciates everything. He goes out of his way to be successful to help his family and his community. He’s more determined than ever. That combination is powerful. In his mind he’s getting VCU to another Final Four and I don’t doubt him.”
“How he’s played thus far shouldn’t surprise anyone who saw Hyland play either before or after injury,” says Verlin.
Griffin, his high school coach, remembers a conversation when Hyland was in the hospital. “I told him you’re facing incredible adversity, more than you deserve. How you handle it is going to matter. He nodded, and said ‘Coach it’s like this: everything could be over. I’m going to work harder than ever when I get back.’ As college coaches came in they saw his shot, but really were impressed by his desire. He was down on the mat but he showed character to fight. It would be been easy for him to pack it in and he didn’t.”
“I admire him.”
It’s interesting that Hyland uses the word swag. The smile is the outward expression of swag, but the passion and confidence inside fuel it. You have to have both, ego and drive, or it’s nothing more than braggadocio. You have to be willing to climb a mountain to punch an echo. And laugh on your way back down.
Hyland has both. Brandon Rozzell may own the patent. And Joey Rodriguez had it, the smile, the determination. He had that Jeff Capel guard-cocky. It was never more apparent than in VCUs 2011 Final Four run, punctuated by what’s known as the Kansas Pregame.
Legend has is it Kansas star Marcus Morris, when the captains of each team came together with game officials to go over pregame details, told Rodriguez something along the lines of “you’ve had a great run, but it’s over.”
Rodriguez’s curt, and swaggy reply: “We’ll see.”
Marcus Morris saw that day, but he had no idea VCUs 71-61 victory would not be the last time VCU swag smacked him in the face.
Fast-forward eight years. Morris was working out with Self Made, the Kansas alumni team competing in The Basketball Tournament as that group prepared for the TBT. By now Morris had established himself in the NBA, a solid 17/5 guy whose versatility was coveted. Self Made had finished its workout and was wrapping things up. While that was occurring, We R1, Bones Hyland’s AAU team, was preparing to take the court.
“So Bones walks right up to Marcus,” says Robinson, who coached Marcus and his twin brother Markieff in AAU play many years ago. “He says to Marcus ‘I didn’t come here to meet you, I came here to play you one-on-one.’”
By now Robinson is laughing, retelling the story. “Marcus gets these big eyes and asks me ‘who is this? Who IS THIS?’ And Bones jumps in with ‘you don’t have to ask Coach Skip who I am. My game will tell you. We can take pictures afterward, but a game to seven, all ones, and we will shake hands when we’re done.’ He was dead serious!”
Of course it never came to an actual game, but there was a lot of laughing, with an undertone.
There’s talk, and there’s do. Sometimes there’s both. That’s when talent and determination come into play.
“Bones knew when we needed to have the big baskets. Even though he was scoring he knew how to operate as a coach on the floor,” recalls Griffin, his high school coach. “That’s the thing I like the most. He competes in everything. Talented guys don’t always play hard. Not him. He’s always competing, against the clock or whatever. He would argue with me in practice. ‘Bones your team has six,’ I’d say. ‘No we’ve got seven coach.’ He knew the score in practice. He’s just feisty.”
“His freshman year, we’re playing on the UnderArmour circuit, and we lost something like four games by a combined seven points. Bones was doing everything he could to will us to win—take the shot, the pass, the free throw, whatever. He weighed about 120 pounds, if that, but he was mixing it up with anybody.”
Anybody included a game in which We R1 had a particular problem. “We were playing a team that had a kid that was 6’7, 200 and he was a player,” recalls Robinson. “He was killing us. We come over at a timeout and Bones says ‘I got him.’ I asked ‘you’ve got WHO?’
“I’ve got him.”
“And Bones got him,” says Robinson. “I don’t know how he did it. There’s something in his chest a lot a of kids don’t have and won’t have. Bones is not scared of anything. Everything he lacks in stature and size he makes up in heart and effort.”
This summer is about strength for Hyland, and that includes working on his jumping ability. Daniel Roose, VCUs chief wonder delivery agent, has laid out a very specific plan of attack. Hyland will continue to learn defense at the collegiate level, even if by video and individual quarantine activity.
He will need it. The rigor of a full season when you become the object of an opponent’s scouting report is very different than a freshman who can shoot and has fun on the court. With five seniors graduating and Marcus Santos-Silva headed elsewhere, Hyland is VCUs leading returnee in minutes, points, field goals made, threes, assists, and steals. He is second in rebounds. He becomes the focal point.
But there’s plenty of time for basketball minutiae. This is about an incredible young man. Hyland’s transcendent personality is as-discussed as his basketball abilities.
“He has a dynamic personality that can completely change the mood in the room when he enters,” says VCU assistant coach JD Byers. It should come as no surprise that Hyland wear uniform number five because it’s the number his brother used to wear, and it represents grace.
Griffin, his high school coach, has watched children scream at their moms that Bizzy Bones is in the same Wawa. There’s always a photo, kind word, and an autograph. If you hang around the Siegel Center, long after the buzzer, you will find Hyland taking pictures with kids, smiling broadly. Griffin knows that he’s making an impact.
“Bones literally lights up a room. You can be in the most serious of moments and he fully understands the degree of that moment, but he knows how to put a smile on faces,” says Griffin. “I’m not sure where that comes from but he makes you relax and feel better. He has a great impact on people. Outside of basketball he wants to help. That’s where his heart is.”
For his part, Robinson has “He’s been here before,” says Robinson, who is not talking about any basketball arena or metaphorical situation. “He’s in his second life of life and he was put here for others. Kids gravitate towards him, people love his energy. He is an old soul.”
Hyland is a VCU guy. He has it in his soul. He plays basketball with passion and joy, a love rooted in competition and winning. People will discount his stature but what's inside him fuels success. It's greater than any measurable. It's the spinal cord of a true team. It's VCU.
Hyland knows the jump he wants to take this upcoming season. "Leadership," he says of the impact he wants to make. "A sophomore can be a great leader even with (upperclassmen). I can do it, too, with my character and work. VCU is a fun place but a working place. I want to come in and be the hardest worker and let that rub off on the freshmen."
Exactly like the track from ninth grade.
He will impact the VCU basketball community, but importantly his community back home in Wilmington.
"It's a city where not a lot of people can go through with their dreams," he says. "I've made it here and want it to translate to the next generation, give them the motivation that they can do it, too. They will see they can do it because I came from there and I did it."
You can hear his smile, that light. It surrounds Bones Hyland and reaches out to those in his orbit. A smile is really a light, if you think about it. It warms. It draws you in. It brings about the ability to make things better. Bones Hyland smiles. He is a light. He is going to lift up everything and everyone around him, when he's playing college basketball and throughout his life. He vibrates with the world in a very positive manner.
Thich Nhat Hanh, the Tibetan monk and healer, once said that "if we are peaceful, if we are happy, we can smile, and everyone in our family, our entire society, will benefit from our peace."
This is the light Hyland brings. This is his impact.