BLOOMINGTON — When Tyra Buss first arrived on the Indiana University campus for her freshman year in the fall of 2014 she remembered walking into Simon Skjodt Assembly Hall one day with men’s basketball players James Blackmon Jr. and Robert Johnson.
Those in the arena quickly flocked to Blackmon and Johnson, getting autographs and posing for pictures. Buss, and a few of her women’s basketball teammates, kind of faded into the background.
Buss said people looked at her like she was a friend or maybe a groupie. People handed her their phones and asked Buss if she would actually take the pictures. She smiled on cue.
Four years later, things have changed. Given that same scenario, Buss got as many — if not more — photo and autograph requests.
Winning the recent WNIT championship has helped. Playing the championship game before the largest women’s crowd in Assembly Hall history of more than 13,000 fans didn’t hurt, either. Add to that the fact she has become the face of women’s basketball at Indiana and it has made for an epic legacy.
What she has done on the court in four years is staggering. The 5-foot-8 senior point guard leaves Indiana as the all-time leader in seven categories, second in an eighth and third in a ninth. Three of those school record categories include points (2,364), assists (574) and steals (293).
Only two men’s players have scored more points in their IU careers than Buss — Calbert Cheaney and Steve Alford.
But what the pride of Mount Carmel, Illinois, has accomplished off of the court may be even bigger. She has helped a generation of young girls to dream. Buss said she always hoped her legacy would be so much more than what she was able to do with a basketball.
“I’ve always said that I didn’t want my legacy to be about what I’ve done here at IU but about what I’ve inspired others to do,’’ she said. “They can look at my story and I’m obviously not the biggest person. I’m not the tallest, I don’t weigh the most and I’m not the most athletic. But what I have is a competitiveness, a fire in me, the will to win and just the size of my heart during the games.
“I know a lot of people look at me and say, ‘Wait, you play basketball and you’re one of the best players, what?’ But then they see how I play and they see the fire and the passion and the energy I play with. That’s what I’ve always tried to do, and that’s just have fun playing the game that I love. That’s what has always been most important.’’
IU athletics director Fred Glass shakes his head and smiles when he replays those words in his head.
“She said that on Senior Night, too, that she didn’t want to be remembered for what she accomplished individually but for the impact she had on other people to accomplish their dreams,’’ Glass said. “And to hear something that mature and profound from a 21-year-old kid is pretty exceptional.’’
There’s no arguing the fact fans young and old flocked to Assembly Hall this year to watch Buss having fun playing the game she loves. Four of the top nine crowds in IU women’s basketball history saw games in a 10-day span in the month of March alone.
And the love affair with Buss was evident.
In IU’s final few games of the WNIT, fans formed a line from one baseline to the other for the chance to get a picture or an autograph with Buss. She often stayed for 90 minutes or more until every wish was granted.
“It’s something I take a lot of pride in, and it just makes you feel really special,’’ Buss said. “Especially with the kids. They’ll tell you that we’re their role models, and they want to be like us one day. They want to play at this level or come to IU. I hear it a lot from their parents.
“They say their children really look up to me, and so I try to be the best role model I can be both on and off the court.’’
And so Buss signed every shirt, poster or hat that was handed to her. She also signed phones and shoes. She said her most unusual request was signing the foreheads of children with a Sharpie.
But the responsibility of the moment was not lost on her, either. She said she often thinks about the way she is viewed in the community and how it could all change very quickly if she made a wrong choice along the way.
“I just have a lot of trust in myself, and I know my parents raised me right,’’ Buss said. “I’ve always taken the mentality that someone is watching me, even though I may not realize it in the moment. And so every decision I make I’m always thinking what could happen if I made the wrong decision. Like I said, I was raised really well by my parents, and they’ve taught me right from wrong.’’
Tyra’s dad, Tim Buss, is obviously proud of the young woman his daughter has become. What he likes most is her humbleness.
“She doesn’t like to talk about herself,’’ Tim Buss said. “She doesn’t like to talk about her accomplishments on the floor. But she’ll talk about how she wants to make a difference in kids. She said from the get-go that she loved the way that Indiana came out at the end of the game and started that tradition of signing autographs win or lose. And she has had some tough games where she has had to come out and face a lot of these younger boys and girls because she knows this could be a once-in-a-lifetime chance for a young, inspiring basketball player and she wants to be there for them.’’
But the proudest moment for her parents, including mother Kelly, came March 31 when Indiana beat Virginia Tech to win the WNIT. On that day, Tyra finally accomplished her ultimate goal when going to Indiana to play college basketball.
“She’s proud of the individual accomplishments she has had, but she has always said she would trade it all for a championship,’’ Tim Buss said. “So for her to win that WNIT championship was just unbelievable because she wanted that championship so bad.’’
IU women’s coach Teri Moren said the same thing throughout IU’s WNIT run, which had the Hoosiers winning six games to capture the first WNIT title for the school.
“The individual stuff was fine, but it was always just a piece of something greater for Tyra,’’ Moren said. “No one wants to put her team above herself any more than Tyra Buss.’’
Family is something that’s really important to Buss, too. She gives a lot of credit to her parents as well as her two older brothers for helping to shape her into the young woman she has become.
Everyone in her family is an educator. Tim Buss is retiring in June as the superintendent of schools at Wabash Community Unit District. Kelly Buss teaches physical education and is the track coach at Mount Carmel High School. Her older brother (by 10 years) Tyler teaches health, drivers education and physical education at the same high school, and her other older brother (by six years) Kyle is a physical education teacher at Allendale Middle School, a K-8 school about 10 miles from her hometown.
Tyra, unsurprisingly, got her degree at IU in physical education.
She will likely pursue that career tract at some point. Right now, she wants to keep playing basketball.
Buss went undrafted by the WNBA in its 36-player, three-round draft. She hopes to land a shot with a team or to play overseas.
At the beginning of her Indiana career, Buss was “the girl” hanging out with the men’s players as they were mobbed for pictures and autographs. In her final collegiate game, however, when Indiana beat Virginia Tech 65-57, the current members of the IU men’s team were gathered front and center to cheer on the women.
“A big memory for me was at the finals of the WNIT where all the men’s basketball players, led by Juwan Morgan our biggest star, were all there cheering Tyra on,’’ Glass said. “They were there supporting the women’s team, which was selfishly what we want to be about. Twenty-four sports, one team.
“But it was her excellence and the excellence of her team that really had driven that.’’
Morgan said watching Buss’ growth and development at IU was inspiring.
“Watching her through the years and seeing the work she puts in was just amazing to watch,’’ Morgan said. “It was an inspiration to me. And the other thing is just how humble she is about everything. It just gives you a good feeling when you watch someone like that play.’’