She was just 7 years old, but no one could tell Tyra Buss that she would not be able to win at something. Well, they could, but she wouldn’t hear them.
At North Intermediate Center of Education, now called Mt. Carmel Elementary School, in Mount Carmel, Illinois, Buss, not much taller than the teacher’s desk with her blonde hair pulled back in a ponytail, always had the drive to be first whether it was in the classroom or out on the blacktop.
Buss' third grade teacher, Jennifer Huff, realized this about Buss early.
“She knew the word competitive in third grade,” Huff said. “At recess she played the hardest, ran the fastest and beat every boy and girl. In her subjects, she had to be the best.”
That winning attitude didn’t get in the way of her manners, though.
Huff taught in classroom 7, and Buss was exceptionally good at math. As an activity to get her students to practice their math facts, Huff would have them play "Around the World." No, not the basketball game, but a math game where you go around the classroom while the teacher gives you a math problem to solve such as two plus three, four minus one, etc., and you would have to beat your classmate to the answer to move on to the next classmate. If they got a question right, then Huff rewarded them with a Tootsie Roll.
One day, Buss began the game. She went all around the room and beat all 22 classmates and collected all 22 Tootsie Rolls. After the game, Huff said she would still give every kid a Tootsie Roll for trying. But, before she could turn around and grab the bag to pass out to the remainder of the kids, Buss was already passing back out the 22 Tootsie Rolls to her classmates.
“She was an excellent student,” Huff said. “She was just a fun person to watch. Always humble, though.”
But Buss’ kindness and humility always coexisted with big ambitions and big passions. Every night, she would lie down in bed and look above her closet at a phrase given to her by her mother, Kelly Buss.
They were four simple words, but four words that stuck with and motivated Buss every night into every morning. She would look up, see “Dream Big Little Girl,” then close her eyes and fall asleep.
* * *
The drive from Bloomington to Mount Carmel consists of cornfields on shuffle and farmhouses that look like they have been there for over a hundred years. Get on Interstate 69 South and drive for 88 straight miles until taking Exit 33 toward Princeton. From there it’s 23 more miles on Highway 64 until finally the home of Buss is reached.
No matter which way you drive on those roads, in Mount Carmel or Bloomington, the name Tyra Buss resonates with local residents.
Before Buss got in her own car and relocated to Bloomington for the next four years, she made herself a household name to the 7,200 people of Mount Carmel. It wasn’t a goal of hers to seek out the spotlight and be the center of attention. Her athletic prowess drew the spotlight.
Just two years removed from when Buss was beating her classmates for Tootsie Rolls, she was now beating every fifth and sixth grade team she played. Averaging 30 points per game in elementary school, the 9-year-old Buss led both teams to undefeated records.
In 2007 and 2008, Buss played on the seventh and eighth grade teams as a sixth grader and averaged 23 points per game. She was named MVP of her seventh grade team after leading them to an 18-0 record and won the Playmaker Award for her eighth grade team.
Buss wasn’t just good at putting the ball in the net. She was also good at hitting the ball over the net.
Starting in 2006, Buss was ranked in the Midwest as a singles tennis player. Her ranking was 14, and she stayed ranked until high school.
High school, a time where athletes begin to fizzle out of the variety of sports they played as a kid and become specialized in one sport or the other.
Not only did Buss do four sports, she excelled at each of them.
“She was so good at the other sports,” Mount Carmel High School Coach Tim Willis. “It didn’t matter what we wanted Tyra to do basketball-wise, she would always have time to fit that in.”
In cross country, Buss became the only member on her team to qualify for the state meet her sophomore year. She finished 40th overall. Buss won team MVP junior and senior year with 18 minutes 43 seconds as her fastest time.
For track and field, Buss was a state finalist all four years. Freshman year she finished fifth in the 300-meter low hurdles, sophomore year she placed sixth in the same event, junior year placed fifth in the 800-meter run at 2:14.48, which is the school record, and senior year finished fourth in the low hurdles and fifth in the 100-meter high hurdles.
On the tennis courts, she had an overall singles record of 102-7 and a regular season singles record of 72-0. Buss also received Southern Illinois Player of the Year each year she played.
Then there's basketball. She broke the Illinois All-Time career scoring record with 4,897 points. She was also the No. 2 career point scorer in the United States in 2014. She was Ms. Illinois Basketball in 2013 and 2014. The list goes on.
Her father, Tim Buss, encouraged her as well as other kids to compete in more sports.
“We’re so proud,” Tim Buss said. “I think all the sports she has done has made her a fierce competitor, and she just doesn’t like to lose.”
Buss handled tennis and cross country in the fall, basketball in the winter and track and field in the spring. After she would get done playing a tennis match, her coach would give her the OK to run around the area for a cross country workout.
Despite putting up big performances in every sport, it was ultimately always basketball. No matter what sport she was playing on a particular day, before it ended she would go to the gym and get shots up.
Her two older brothers, Kyle and Tyler, would bring friends to their house and play basketball on their hoop in the driveway. On days that it was too cold outside, they would play in the basement where one hoop was nailed to a pole and the other was a miniature Little Tikes hoop directly across from the other creating a full court.
It didn’t matter if she was outsized. It didn’t matter if she was younger. She just wanted to play — and win.
In 2013, she officially committed to play basketball at IU. That was when her dreams grew a little more specific, but nonetheless the 5-foot-6 guard still dreamed big.
* * *
It’s Feb. 17, 2018, and Buss is playing her final regular season home game in Simon Skjodt Assembly Hall. She boxes out a player from Nebraska until their arms get locked. The Nebraska player leaps up, and the next thing Buss knows she's bent over at the waist, a 5-foot-10 girl on top of her. She crashes to the floor while the crowd erupts in anger at the foul called on Buss, now on the ground, in serious pain.
She gets up and heads toward the tunnel wincing and holding her right shoulder.
In her mind, she knows she’s fine, she just needs a little bit more time to shake off the pain. But, in the minds of the 5,258 Hoosier fans, including her parents and brothers, could have been panic? Sadness? It’s unknown what every fan was thinking in that moment, but all of them were quiet and anxious.
From helping the team reach the NCAA Tournament for the first time in 14 years in 2016 to also getting the program’s first win in the tournament in 33 years as well as setting all sorts of records, Buss’ name will forever be remembered when talking about IU women’s basketball.
Her following at IU is a big one, but it isn’t all unfamiliar faces.
Huff, the third grade teacher who watched all of Buss’ high school games, just couldn’t imagine not watching her former student play anymore. Huff has been at every single home game in Bloomington and a decent amount of the away games. She and her husband occasionally take a bus full of 12 people from Mount Carmel to see her play.
Even Willis, the high school coach, has made it to some of Buss’ games, when the games don't conflict with his high school coaching.
Then there’s the people Buss doesn’t know, the hundreds of younger girls and boys that wait in a line to see her after the game. She waits and greets every single one of them.
“I want to be someone they can look up to,” Buss said. “Your work ethic shows and really pays off, and I want that to be something they can learn from me.”
Her work ethic has led her to score 2,156 career points, which is the most points scored all-time at IU. She is also the only woman and just the sixth player in IU history to eclipse the 2,000-career point mark. Her 582 free throws made is an IU record, as are her 271 steals. She is just eight assists away from breaking the all-time assist record.
She broke the scoring record on Jan. 3 at Penn State, but the Hoosiers lost and that’s all she could think about. IU won the game in which she broke the steals record, but if they were to have lost, the record wouldn’t have boosted Buss’ spirits.
“I came to Indiana to make an impact and build the program up,” Buss said. “All my individual achievements are awesome, and I’m humbled, honored, grateful and all those words, but I couldn’t have done it without my teammates and the support system I’ve had.”
Anyone from the coaching staff to her family members know that to be true. They know she is a fierce competitor and just wants to win.
Buss’ fierceness showed in her reaction to that shoulder injury on senior day. She was in the tunnel for one minute stretching out her shoulder, trying to get it ready to go back in the game. In that one minute, the anxiousness of her return turned into what felt like hours as IU was tied with Nebraska, desperately fighting to keep its tournament hopes alive.
She came running out of the tunnel and didn’t even have to talk to IU Coach Teri Moren before heading to the scorers table to check back in, receiving one of the many standing ovations she got that day.
Buss hit three 3-pointers, one after the other, when she got back into the game. She finished with 37 points and the Hoosiers won their seventh straight game, 83-75.
Tyra Buss has two regular season games left in her IU career, then the Big Ten Tournament, and then after that . . . well, who knows? What happens next will come down to her effort and her leadership — to how well she plays on the court and to all the hours she spent off the court in Mount Carmel and in Bloomington working to get better. For the first time this season, with IU’s current win streak, there’s reason to hope — to believe — the team might make the tournament, might upset a powerhouse, might do something big and unforgettable. There’s a chance this year might end with something special. But none of that is surprising to Tyra Buss. She hasn’t had many chances lately to look at the phrase over her bedroom closet, but she still knows the message.
“This was definitely the dream,” Buss said.
* * *
This is one of two profiles featuring members of the IU women's basketball senior class. Follow along here to read about teammate Amanda Cahill's IU journey.
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