MOUNT CARMEL — If you are reading about Tyra Buss for the first time, then be forewarned: You’re not going to believe it.
If only this story were being published five days from now, then readers would anxiously anticipate two words as the perfect ending: “April Fools.”
The problem with such a closing is that Buss’ story is true. Every sentence. Every word. It’s not the creation of someone’s rich imagination or the creative prowess of a master wordsmith.
It’s not fiction. It’s fact.
Making the grade
Tyra Buss is 16 years old, a junior and a straight-A student at Mount Carmel High School. Even before high school, she never received a “B” on her report card. In some accounts the 5-foot-7 blonde has been described as a “Barbie Doll.”
In all accounts, she has been described as an outstanding athlete. She’s not an overnight sensation.
As a 13-year-old, she qualified for the NFL/Pepsi Punt, Pass and Kick national competition.
The same year, she was a national finalist in the Elk’s Hoop Shoot, which tests a competitors’ ability to shoot free throws. (Her best streak is 138 in succession.)
As a high school freshman and sophomore, the slender Buss was a two-sport state qualifier — in the fall, advancing to the finals in both tennis and cross-country.
She is a former middle school state champion in track races ranging from 800 meters (with a state record as an eighth-grader) to 1,600 meters.
In her younger years, she played baseball with the boys — not softball with the girls — and was the shortstop, pitcher and leadoff hitter. She was also on the All-Star team.
Pointing the way
Buss’ success in a wide array of sports — as well as in the classroom — only serves to make her accomplishments in basketball more meaningful. Basketball is not a sport she plays while forsaking all others.
In 2011, she scored more points during the season than any freshman in state history (1,025 points).
As a sophomore, she became the fastest Illinois prep ever to reach the 2,000-point mark, finishing her second season at Mount Carmel with 2,146 career points.
As a junior — in a season that just ended last month — she scored more points in a season than any high schooler ever in the state — girl or boy — amassing 1,285. Her 38.9 per-game scoring average ranked third this year — in the United States among high schoolers.
“She doesn’t get enough credit,” Mount Carmel girls’ coach Tim Willis said, “for other aspects. Her on-ball defense is as good as you’ll ever see. She has such quick hands, it’s unbelievable. Her ball handling is outstanding.”
Buss’ ability to score points is what people notice first and foremost. In 97 high school varsity games she has scored at least 20 points in 96 of the games. In the other contest, she totaled 18 points.
Next year as a senior, she needs 601 points to become the state’s top career scorer, a mark currently held by another girl from southeastern Illinois, Olney’s Brittany Johnson.
Buss is the headliner on the 36th News-Gazette All-State Girls’ Basketball Team as the Player of the Year.
For her, it’s not about the achievements and the recognition.
“I don’t think about it,” she said. “I like playing the game.”
If something prevents her from playing — if only briefly — she’s not a happy camper.
When she scored her 3,000th point this season — the quickest Illinois prep to attain that milestone — the game was halted so she could be presented with the ball.
“She couldn’t figure out what was going on,” Willis said. “She said, ‘We’re in the middle of a game. Let’s go.’ ”
Her father Tim is the superintendent at Mount Carmel and a former collegiate basketball player. Her mother Kelly is a teacher and the girls’ track head coach at the school. One brother (Tyler) is Mount Carmel’s boys’ head coach and another brother (Kyle) is his brother’s assistant.
This isn’t an example of a family that has force-fed a child on sports.
“We never had to push her,” Tim Buss said. “We’ve had to slow her down.”
Tyra Buss verifies the story.
“I don’t like to slow down,” she said. “I’m always asking if they will come and rebound for me. I rarely get any days off. I love doing that, making myself a better person.”
‘Poetry in motion’
The story has only started and not just because there’s a year remaining in the prep career of Tyra Buss, a guard who has already committed to Indiana.
She has an unofficial — and unpaid — public relations agent, family friend Kevin Williams.
“You could tell in peewee ball she was at a different level,” Williams said.
A diehard sports fan who routinely checks the comments on the illinoishighschoolsports.com site, Williams started a discussion line about Buss on Nov. 27, 2010.
She had played four high school games at the time and was still one full game away from setting the school’s single-game scoring record (previously held by Williams’ daughter, Emily).
“People jumped on me for posting about a freshman,” Kevin Williams said. “They said it’s ridiculous to know how good a freshman will be.”
As of Tuesday, the Buss discussion line had 290,633 views making it the most-seen thread at illinoishighschoolsports.com. In all, 3,078 people have made posts, and their comments fill 205 pages. The site averages 1,000 hits per week.
After Buss’ school-record 42-point game as a freshman (a mark that now stands at 54 points), Williams posted this comment: “I should be mad (at his daughter’s record being broken), but I’m not. I like watching poetry in motion.”
Handling the PR
Beyond the comments on illinoishighschoolsports.com, Kevin Williams has started a website for Buss (tyrabuss.com). Truth be told, the promotions were something he was doing prior to Buss’ ascension as an elite athlete. Since Feb. 2, 2012, there have been 23,181 hits on the site, including, Williams said, “all 50 states, the District of Columbia, and 49 countries.”
“I have seven or eight (websites) now, for kids that have promise,” Kevin Williams said. “People have asked me about putting ads on there (and making money), but that’s not what it’s about. When you’re in southeastern Illinois, on the river, and the only school in the state in a conference (the Big 8) in another state, we have to make the Division II and III schools aware of our players. They don’t have the (recruiting) budgets.”
Three of Williams’ children were able to use their sites and publicity to defray the costs of college.
“Grant (a sophomore golfer Southern Indiana) has his education paid for,” Kevin Williams said.
While Williams donates his time in constructing — and updating — the various websites, he acknowledges it hasn’t been 100 percent without compensation.
“The other day I was behind Tim (Buss) at a drive-through,” he said. “When I got to the window, he’d bought my lunch.”
So, you’re intrigued by Tyra Buss, an athlete her father says might weigh “120 pounds soaking wet,” and you work for the media? You don’t just call up the family and ask to speak to Tyra.
Step 1 is to contact Ryan Jenkins. He is a former television reporter from Evansville, Ind., (32 miles from Mount Carmel) who first got to know the family when Tyler and Kyle were star athletes at Mount Carmel and little sister Tyra was a frequent tag-along.
He handles all media requests.
“I heard about this phenom who was 10 and doing national competitions,” Jenkins said, “and covered her for the TV station.”
Jenkins is now out of TV and living in Indianapolis, but he serves as the go-between between media and the family, he said, so “they don’t get bombarded.”
The busiest time was the week of Thanksgiving when Tyra Buss gave a verbal commitment to attend Indiana.
“There were probably 50 (media) requests,” Jenkins said. “The decision was made (by the family) not to hold a press conference.
“She was worried about her team, and winning, and there were too many (requests) to go through. We put out a release with a statement from her, her dad, her high school coach and her AAU coach. We gave the press all of the material.”
Keeping the routine
If he weren’t in this role, Jenkins is confident there wouldn’t be more daily contact with Tyra Buss.
“If I wasn’t doing it, there’d be less access,” he said. “They don’t want to interrupt her day-to-day activities.”
Initially, Jenkins viewed his duties as “to get her noticed and get her a college scholarship,” he said.
As dozens of recruiting letters started arriving daily at the Buss residence it became clear she would have her pick of top college programs.
“When we realized how great she’d be and that the media was all over her it was to alleviate (distractions),” he said.
Jenkins also runs a twitter account for Buss. During the season, “I do updates multiple times a day,” he said. “It’s informational, game details, records, milestones. I don’t see it as overexposure. It’s more keeping up with what she’s doing.”
Life has changed for Tim and Kelly Buss during the more than a quarter of a century they’ve lived in Mount Carmel.
“When we moved here, we didn’t know a soul,” Tim Buss said. “We were 11 hours from home. We’d graduated from college (Wisconsin-LaCrosse) and needed a job.
“We sent out hundreds of letters and thought we’d go West or South, where it was warm.”
They settled in Mount Carmel for their first job out of college. The family isn’t still there because of a lack of options.
“We’ve had ample opportunity to move,” said Tim Buss, the Aces’ former baseball coach who is finishing his eighth year as superintendent, “but we fell in love with the Mount Carmel people and the community.”
Tyra Buss is a confident basketball player and fears no one on the court. There is one person, however, whom she won’t challenge.
Levi Laws is a Mount Carmel sophomore and a player on the Aces’ boys’ basketball team. They’ve learned to avoid one-one-one games.
“We are both very competitive,” Tyra Buss said. “One of us will get mad. We’ve been going out for over three years. We rebound for each other.”
Legacy of success
Thirty years ago, Mount Carmel was the largest community in Wabash County. There were almost 10,000 citizens. In the latest available report — July of 2011 — it’s still the largest town, but with a population of 7,216, making Mount Carmel the only community in the county with more than 500 residents.
In the past decade, two area employers (Snap-on Tools and the Wabash Mine) were closed, putting more than 500 persons out of work.
At one time, each of those businesses had more than 700 employees.
While changes have resulted in fewer people in the area, not everything is dwindling.
The local high school’s four-sport female athlete continues to excel.
“There are plenty of talented players out there,” said Scott Mees, from the Carbondale newspaper, The Southern Illinoisan, “but you can just tell which ones are truly special, and that’s Tyra.
“She is blessed with a lot of natural ability, but she has been working on basketball since she was a small child.
“I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a player in person that has a passion for the game quite like Tyra. You can tell when you see some of the girls on other teams that they’re out there to have fun and participate in an extracurricular activity. But Tyra means business every time she steps on the court.”
On a recent Sunday, there were no organized school activities. Tyra Buss coaxed her mom into going to the track for a personalized workout, followed by a stop in the gymnasium to shoot 200 shots.
For each of her three years in high school, Buss has been recognized as one of the state’s top players. She was fourth in the Ms. Basketball voting as a freshman and finished third last year. When the Chicago Tribune released this year’s tabulations Monday night, Buss was the winner, finishing 61 points ahead of runner-up Linnae Harper, from Chicago Young.
Kevin Williams already knows he has been witness to history.
“Records are made to be broken,” he said, “but I’m not sure Tyra’s will ever be broken.”
That is her story. No foolin’.