Brayden Wierzba doesn’t want people to be mistaken.
When Brayden, the two-year-old son of IU women’s basketball assistant coach Rhet Wierzba, wears his cream and crimson IU jersey with the number one on it, many people assume he’s a fan of the men’s team’s incoming freshman Romeo Langford, or former point guard Jordan Hulls.
But he wants to make something very clear — that’s no Romeo jersey. That’s his Bendu Yeaney jersey.
He dons his Yeaney jersey with pride and he considers her one of his “big sisters” on the team.
“He takes on loving them,” Wierzba said. “They basically treat him like a little brother.”
After constantly being around the program with his father, who is going into his fifth season as an assistant coach, Brayden has grown close to the entire team. However, he and Yeaney, a sophomore guard who averaged 8.4 points and played an integral part to the Hoosiers’ WNIT Championship run last season, have built a special bond over the course of her first season in Bloomington.
She babysits him, plays race cars or play-doh with him and always comes and finds him to talk after each home game.
“For whatever reason, he’s just really hit it off with Bendu,” Wierzba said. “After the games, Bendu signs autographs and she always comes and finds him, and they talk and sit down.”
One doesn’t have to look much further than Yeaney’s Twitter page to see the kind of relationship she’s built with Brayden. In her pinned tweet, there’s a picture of the two of them sitting together on a sideline bench in Simon Skjodt Assembly Hall after the Hoosiers' 74-54 WNIT second-round victory over Milwaukee on March 18.
Yeaney scored 12 points on 50-percent shooting that night, but it was her missed layup with 4:40 left in the first quarter that still lingered on Brayden's mind, as evidenced by their dialogue featured in the tweet.
“Did you like watching the game?” Yeaney asked.
“Yeah, but you missed your layup over there,” Brayden responded.
“Did you see me make my other ones?”
“Yeah, but you missed over there.”
Whether Brayden was satisfied or not, Yeaney said his tough coaching style is nothing new for her.
“He’s a little bit of a tough coach,” Yeaney said. “Sometimes he’s really nice when I have really bad games, but then there’s games where I have good games and he’s like ‘you still missed a layup.’”
Even though Yeaney and Brayden have built a special friendship, he’s not the only kid that’s made friends with her. Her influence has stretched beyond just her IU women’s basketball family.
Eight-year-old Avery Schwartzman has learned that firsthand.
Schwartzman was one of many kids that attended the program’s basketball camp this summer, where Yeaney and her teammates were working as coaches. Schwartzman and her family had been to many of the Hoosiers’ games in the past and she was already one of Yeaney’s biggest fans, admiring her scoring ability and her knack for constantly getting the opening tip for her team.
“She’s really nice and she’s really good,” Schwartzman said. “Every time she tips the ball, she always gets it and it’s really cool.”
During the camp, Yeaney tweeted she really wanted to see the newest Disney film, "Incredibles 2." Schwartzman told her father, Ed, she would go with her, so he half-jokingly replied to Yeaney’s tweet, suggesting she take Avery to see it with her.
Somewhat to her father’s surprise, Yeaney reached out to them immediately. Before they knew it, Yeaney was at their front door, picking Avery up to go see the movie.
“She jumped on it right away,” Ed said. “She didn’t have to respond or she could’ve ignored me. I kind of said it as a joke, but she immediately said yes.”
It was just one of a number of instances in which Yeaney has gone above and beyond people’s expectations.
As Wierzba says, IU Coach Teri Moren and her staff have set up three core tenets for their players to live by while at IU — graduate, win and serve. They're expected to sign autographs after games, coach kids at the team's basketball camp and help with the team's annual Candy Stripe Crew program for people with special needs.
In Yeaney’s case, Wierzba said she’s been a shining example of how to serve the fans, especially the children, in the community.
“She’s phenomenal,” Wierzba said. “Whether it is at our camps or just seeing her out, she really takes the time to connect with them. It’s not just a ‘hey, how’re you doing,’ she really goes that next level deeper. I think the kids can see that genuineness from her.”
Yeaney said she considers herself a family person that likes to make people smile and has learned a lot about how to deal with children by being around her nieces and nephews in her hometown of Portland, Oregon.
However, whether it’s signing autographs after games, coaching at camps or going the extra mile and taking a young fan to the movies, Yeaney says it’s all much larger than just serving the community.
Her actions reach from Bloomington, all the way back to Portland.
“I’m obviously a role model to those kids, but I’m also a role model to my nieces and nephews,” Yeaney said. “I want to always be a positive influence on them.”
In the end, Brayden will still be Yeaney’s “little brother” and Avery will still be one of her biggest fans.
But Yeaney sees them as just the start of many more smiles to come.
“I’m down for whatever if I have the time,” Yeaney said. “That’s another thing some people say they’ll do and then they won’t do it. I’m the type of person that if I say I’m going to do it, I’m going to make sure I follow through.”