For a guy named Bones, a winding road to the NBA has him ready to show what he’s made of — and where he comes from

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7min 43sec
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Denver Nuggets’ Bones Hyland plays during an NBA basketball game, Monday, March 14, 2022, in Philadelphia.

Laurence Hinds is a lieutenant with the fire department in Wilmington, Delaware. And if you’re not familiar with that neck of the woods, you’re not alone.

“You still get people that are like, ‘Dela-where?’ said Hinds, an 11-year fire department veteran. “I’m like, ‘The place your president is from.’ And they’re like, ‘Yeah? Where’s that at?’”

Of course, Wilmington’s most well-known resident on the world stage is President Joe Biden. But if you ask Lt. Hinds who the most famous person from Wilmington is, he would say it’s a guy named Bones who plays for the Denver Nuggets

“If you ask anyone from Wilmington, just Wilmington, probably Bones,” Hinds said. “Now, once you get outside of Wilmington, the rest of the state, Biden. But he’s still catching him, he’s still growing in popularity, so you gotta watch that!”

Nah’Shon “Bones” Hyland – who earned the nickname Bones in his hometown because of his skinny frame – has been a rookie sensation for the Nuggets, stepping up big time for a team that’s lost two of its biggest stars to injuries. And as the Nuggets start a best-of-seven-game first round playoff series with the Golden State Warriors Saturday, Hyland will get to show off his flashy play and infectious smile for a national audience on the game’s biggest stage.

While Bones will soon be showing off his skills to millions of viewers from around the world who might be seeing him play for the first time, those who have known Hyland the longest aren’t surprised by how far he’s come.

“He definitely plays off of emotion, which is exciting to watch,” said Hinds, who has been following Hyland’s basketball career since his early high school days. “His range has always been incredible. He’s one of those kids who would take shots from distances where in your mind you scream, ‘No!’ as he would let it fly, but when it would go in you would just shake your head and go, ‘OK, he’s special.’”

It all started in July last year, when the Nuggets drafted Hyland, who was the 2021 Atlantic 10 conference player of the year at Virginia Commonwealth University.

“I remember it like yesterday,” said John Shelton, Hyland’s 5th grade teacher and basketball coach at Thomas Edison Charter School in Wilmington. He was with Bones and his family on draft night. “You could see his agent on the phone, it looks like he had gotten the call. And a hush went over the whole room. Then, the joy, the raw emotion from his mom and him, and tears and all the heartache of making it out of Wilmington, all of that, they let it out on stage.

“It was like a movie. I’m telling you there could be a great movie made from this story right now.”

Sophia Schmidt/For CPR News
Assistant Principal and head basketball coach John Shelton holds the jersey Nah'Shon "Bones" Hyland wore as a middle schooler at Thomas Edison Charter School in Wilmington.

A fire, a career-threatening injury and 'Murder Town USA'

So, what’s the big deal about Bones Hyland? Why is he so popular in his hometown? And why is his story, as John Shelton would describe, like a movie?

Well, to better appreciate Hyland’s Cinderella story, you need to know where he came from and the adversity he’s faced.

Bones Hyland grew up with a single mom raising kids in a tough neighborhood in a tough city. Salome Thomas-EL, the principal at Thomas Edison, recalled a 2014 Newsweek magazine article that dubbed Wilmington “Murder Town USA” for its high violent crime rate. And it hasn’t gotten any better in recent years. WFYY reports that 2021 was Wilmington’s deadliest year

“We literally had people get shot and killed right outside the school building,” Thomas-EL said. 

“Unfortunately that’s a normal thing. And that’s part of the environment that (Bones) had to grow up in,” Shelton added.

“I grew up in a tough environment,” Hyland told reporters last month. “I’ve seen everything from … literally everything. I don’t even want to have to say it. But it made me who I am today.”

Bones navigated these challenges by focusing on basketball. By the time he reached high school, his play was getting a lot of attention from college scouts. He was regarded as one of the top high school basketball players in all of Delaware.

Bones was on his way to achieving his dreams. 

Then tragedy struck on the evening of March 25, 2018.

That night, at 7:14 pm, the Wilmington Fire Department responded to a house fire. It was the Hyland family home. Inside were Bones Hyland, his 59-year-old grandmother Fay Hyland and her grandbabies, 11-month-old Maurice Williams and 3-week-old Isaac Williams.

Bones, who was 17 at the time, saved his own life by jumping out of his second story bedroom window. But in doing so, he injured his knee badly. Doctors told him he would never play basketball again.

Fay Hyland and Bones’ baby cousin Maurice were hospitalized, but died soon after.

“It was very devastating. It was very scary,” said Lt. Hinds, who investigated the fire. “You had the loss of two people and then you had this kid who we all knew had a promising career, who you worried about, not only physically but mentally. That's a lot to overcome. To be in a room with other family members, knowing you escaped but they didn't. I know he questioned himself as far as if he could have, or should have done more, and the answer is he did the right thing. Had he tried to be a hero, he would have ended up a statistic, unfortunately.

“I don’t think people fully understand what he went through, at that age too, to go through something like that. I see adults — successful, grown adults — who don't recover after a fire, especially with a loss to a loved one. There’s constant remorse, survivor's remorse and doubt.”

After the tragedy, Wilmington firefighters took Hyland under their wing and provided him with whatever support he needed.

“Myself, my mother and my sister had to jump from a second story window after our home caught fire,” said Lt. Craig Black, a 24-year veteran of the fire department. “We were very fortunate as a family to be able to escape a fire that way. And every chance I get to support some of the youngsters in the city who have gone through something similar, I take it.”

But it was very much in doubt as to whether Bones would ever play again. He tore his patellar tendon from landing knee first after jumping out of his bedroom window during the fire.

“Just think, man. At the time he was a high school kid, he goes to a doctor, he goes to surgeons, he goes to all these people who got degrees behind their name and they tell him, ‘Look, you wont play basketball again,’” said Demetrius Todd, a battalion chief with the Wilmington Fire Department. “And he says, ‘No, that’s not my dream, that’s not my vision, and I'm not gonna listen to that. I’m gonna obtain every goal I'm gonna get.’” 

Bones refused to give up. He put in long hours late into the night at his old middle school gym, rehabbing his knee. And by God, he somehow proved the doctors wrong.

“When they told him he might not play again, he came back and scored 50 points in three straight high school games! After the injury! This young man. Tell him he can’t and he will!” Thomas-EL said.

Sophia Schmidt/For CPR News
Wilmington firefighter Lt. Craig Black in front of a fire truck at Station 5. He responded to the 2018 fire at Nah'Shon "Bones" Hyland’s home, and later attended the game between the Denver Nuggets and 76ers in Philadelphia.

The NBA, a reunion, and eyes on the future

If the Bones Hyland story is made into a movie, the big finale would take place at a Nuggets game against the 76ers on March 14 of this year. The stage: The Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia, less than an hour’s drive from Hyland’s hometown in Wilmington.

Several hundred friends, family members and firefighters who helped Bones recover after the tragedy drove to Philly to watch their hometown hero play.

“You couldn't go to the bathroom, you couldn't go to your seat, you couldn’t go anywhere in that place without running into two or three people from Wilmington, which is all of 9 square miles,” Hinds said. “So when I literally say there were 500, 600 people from the city to watch this kid, that’s not even an exaggeration.”

And that night, in front of hundreds of folks from his hometown who were there to see him play in the NBA for the first time… Bones Lit. It. Up.

“You know what I was most proud of?” Thomas-EL said. “Shelton and I were telling our friends for a long time about Bones but nobody believed us. That night, they were texting us like crazy at the game like, ‘Yo your boy Bones is lighting it up! Tell ‘em to take it easy on my Sixers!’”

Hyland scored most of his 21 points in the fourth quarter. He led the Nuggets to victory with his big three-point shots in the clutch. By the time the game ended, many Sixers supporters had become Bones fans.

“Obviously it was a lot of Sixers fans. But when they realized what was happening, that he was a kid from Wilmington and they figured out what his story was, people started cheering for him,” Todd said. “It reminded me of that Rocky-Drago movie where people were cheering for Drago and they were in Russia, and then at the end of the day, they started cheering for Rocky. That’s what happened at that Sixers game. They were cheering for the Sixers, but at the end of the game, they were cheering for Bones.”

Sophia Schmidt/For CPR News
Assistant Principal and head basketball coach John Shelton, left, and Principal Salome Thomas-EL in the gym at Thomas Edison Charter School in Wilmington.

After the game, a reporter asked Bones about his relationship with the Wilmington Fire Department. He politely declined to answer the question.

Then he broke down in tears. 

After collecting himself, Hyland opened up.

“Every tattoo on my body is something I play for and what I stand for. Literally, I got on my left shoulder — I got my baby brother and my grandma, that’s who I play for. Everytime I enter the game, I do the cross against my chest just to be thankful that I'm still in this position just to play basketball. Because doctors told me four years ago that I would never play basketball again.”

“That's what I do each and every day, just go out there and play with joy and that swag and just go out there and be me at all times.”

Back at Hyland’s old middle school in Wilmington, John Shelton says the hallways are filled with young Bones fans.

“It’s a sense of pride, like one of our students made it, and they just look up to him. I had a kid come up to me the other day and said, ‘My Bones shirt just came in the mail. Can I wear it? Can I wear it to school?’ We have to wear uniforms at school. I'm like, ‘Maybe on the dress down day.’ There's just a buzz around the school that’s great to see. He gives them all hope that you can do it. You can make it out.

“I was just saying to my wife the other day while watching the game, when I was a kid, that was just one of my favorite things, watching Jordan, watching Shaq play and now I'm watching Bones play, one of our former players and students. I’m in awe.”

“We're living our dreams through Bones,” Thomas-EL said, adding that he thinks Denver is a great place for Bones to succeed in the NBA. He likes that Hyland gets to be paired with a superstar like Nikola Jokic.

And as the Nuggets get ready to face the Golden State Warriors in the NBA Playoffs, the question is: Are the Warriors ready for Bones Hyland?

“I don't think so, but they better get ready,” Thomas-EL said. “They better get ready like Freddie ‘cause Bones is coming!”