For someone with a knack for making basketball games unforgettable, Tyra Buss might have preferred to erase any memory of the particular proceedings when she returned to the court after a timeout during a recent Indiana University home game. It had been one of those nights for Buss, one in which the rim seemed borrowed from a carnival midway and cuts, drives and look-ahead passes, like a grade school orchestra recital, too often fell half a beat off-rhythm. Not a nightmare game, just not quite right.
For a freshman, any freshman, such frustration comes with the territory.
Sophomore Taylor Agler offered her teammate a few words of private counsel before play resumed.
"I just kind of reminded her who she is," Agler said. "She's one of the best scorers in the nation, a prolific high school player. I just told her, 'You have to remember, you're Tyra Buss.'"
Understanding exactly what Agler meant and why that could change the fortunes of women's basketball at Indiana -- where Buss currently leads the Hoosiers in points and steals and is second in assists -- means understanding how a diminutive 5-foot-7 guard toting a Bunyanesque mythology arrived in Bloomington from Mt. Carmel, Illinois.
It also means understanding a connection with Archie Dees -- a Mt. Carmel High School and Indiana University alum whose own legend might have faded beyond a pocket of the Midwest but who six decades ago became the first two-time MVP in the history of Big Ten basketball -- that goes beyond their shared propensity for scoring points. Lots of points.
"I told her I didn't appreciate her breaking all my records," Dees, 78, said of their first meeting this past summer.
More than a few people have similar grievances. Gym records, school records, state records, Buss spared no one their glory during her high school career. The deeds were impressive; the stories spawned are frankly even better.
A veteran of three decades coaching high school basketball in Indiana before he stepped down in 2008, Charles Mair was therefore just a basketball fan when he first heard what sounded like tall tales about a little girl from Mt. Carmel, a town of not quite 8,000 people on the Illinois side of the Wabash River whose meandering bends mark the border for a stretch between that state and Indiana. He decided he needed to see for himself what all the talk was about. His recollection was that Buss, then only a freshman, scored more than 40 points that game. He said he told his wife as they walked out of the gym that night that she had just seen the female high school equivalent of Pete Maravich as a scorer and Meadowlark Lemon as a ball handler.
"The difference I saw between her and Pistol Pete, I just thought Tyra had greater range," Mair said.
Buss scored 4,897 points in four seasons at Mt. Carmel High School, more than all but two players in the history of girls' high school basketball: Adrian McGowen, who played for a time at Texas A&M, and current Mississippi State freshman Victoria Vivians. (The National Federation of State High School Associations officially recognizes only those points scored by a player while in high school, regardless of when he or she began competing at a varsity level.)
"The difference I saw between her and Pistol Pete, I just thought Tyra had greater range." Charles Mair, who likened Buss to the female high school equivalent of Pete Maravich as a scorer and Meadowlark Lemon as a ball handler
Buss averaged 45.8 points per game as a senior and became the first back-to-back Miss Basketball winner in Illinois since Candace Parker.
Mair wasn't merely an interested observer for long. The year after he saw Buss play for the first time he was hired to coach Princeton Community High School, which sits on the Indiana side of the Wabash around 13 miles from Mt. Carmel. When his team first faced Buss, Mair deployed a triangle-and-two defense, with both of the two man-to-man defenders devoted to Buss, with additional instructions for one player to locate her as soon as Princeton put up a shot, and there was even the possibility of Mt. Carmel getting the ball. Princeton held, in his words, the sophomore to 20-plus points.
Proximity made for some rivalry between the two conference peers (Mt. Carmel competes in a conference otherwise composed of Indiana schools), but so, too, did the presence of Jackie Young, the Princeton star who is two years younger than Buss and verbally committed to Notre Dame this fall. The games between Buss and Young the past two seasons became local events. There is a photo from one of the encounters in Mt. Carmel that shows Buss rising off the floor for a jump shot, but what catches the eye is the crowd visible at the far end of the court. It isn't just that a few people stand next to already full bleachers; they stand two and three deep back there.
Not since Indiana coach Branch McCracken came through Mt. Carmel to talk Dees into joining his budding postwar dynasty had a town that derives its greatest athletic glory from high school football seen such buzz about basketball.
When Princeton and Mt. Carmel met last season in the championship game of an in-season tournament, Mair and Young escaped with an 84-82 overtime win. But Buss scored 66 points, her second game in a row with at least 60, to break the school single-game scoring record and the state career scoring record.
So much for the triangle-and-two.
"If we're playing at Mt. Carmel, when we get off the bus and go in the gym, I am hoping she gets locked in the locker room," Mair said of the only way to stop her. "And if Mt. Carmel is coming to play at Princeton, I hope she misses the bus."
A current college assistant coach who saw Buss play in person on a number of occasions during the recruiting process marveled at the pounding she took on the court, almost always without complaint and often without the benefit of the free throws she was due. Like a post player so much bigger and stronger than opponents that referees are left to either call a foul on every possession or let some calls go, Buss was so good off the dribble and so tireless that she could have drawn a foul most times she touched the ball.
No matter how physical opponents got, the points still rolled off her fingers. She knew how to deal with some hard fouls. A decade Tyra's senior, older brother Tyler is now the varsity boys' basketball coach at Mt. Carmel High School. Kyle, 6 years older than his sister, is Tyler's assistant coach.
"They were always roughing me up playing basketball, and they always told me I could never cry," Tyra said. "That's why I am who I am today. That's why I'm tough is because of them."
Not that they necessarily see it that way.
"I've never seen a game where her size has limited her in terms of what she's able to do on the basketball court." Tyler Buss, older brother of 5-foot-7 Indiana freshman Tyra Buss
"She definitely gets anything she wants," Tyler said of the youngest child. "And that's still true to this day."
An older brother is supposed to say that, especially one who used to get in trouble when Tyra would tell on him for picking on Kyle. But Tyler and Kyle were also among the first to see that they were not their sister's equals. She wasn't just a good local athlete.
"I was an average athlete who worked really hard to be OK," Tyler said. "Kyle had a little bit more God-gifted talent and worked really hard to be a really good player. And Tyra has, obviously, more God-given ability than us, but she also worked harder than us. That's why she is the elite athlete that she is."
Yet there seems a question she can't outrun -- which is saying something for an athlete who excelled in everything from the 800 meters to the 100-meter hurdles in high school track and admitted that her sole talent as a tennis player who went 102-7 in singles play was the ability to keep running down the ball until her opponent made a mistake. For all the points she scored, for all the award space she shared with people like Parker, Buss didn't draw a great deal of interest from the elite of women's college basketball.
With the small-town mythology that surrounded her at what was then Southwest Missouri State, notable scorer Jackie Stiles could have gone to Connecticut or Tennessee. Buss chose between Indiana and Wisconsin, programs that have been in the Big Ten cellar for quite some time. Part of that was geography. Bloomington was a reasonably short drive from her parents and brothers, while much of her extended family lived within an easy commute of Madison.
Part of it, too, was that Connecticut and Notre Dame weren't calling. Buss wasn't even listed among the top 100 players in her class by recruiting services, including ESPN HoopGurlz.
Ask her about it and she'll say she doesn't pay much attention to such things and that she's happy at Indiana. The latter seems undoubtedly true. As for the former, well, this is someone who wore her Brett Favre jersey onto the field during an NFL Punt, Pass and Kick competition in St. Louis -- when the Rams were playing the Packers. And she is the one whom family members knew would force them to keep playing board games until she won.
It doesn't exactly sound like someone who wouldn't notice that people looked at 4,897 points and saw only 5 feet, 7 inches.
"I don't know if you would ever even get her to say it, but I would think it would have to [bother her]," Tyler sad. "To do the things she's done and maybe not get some of those top schools to offer, I think that continues to drive her. ... I've never seen a game where her size has limited her in terms of what she's able to do on the basketball court."
Buss put on muscle through summer workouts and the preseason at Indiana. She has, to this point, been as good as advertised. With Dees, who now lives in a Bloomington nursing home, looking on from the front row, she began her college career with 18 points, seven steals and five assists. She was named Big Ten freshman of the week in each of the season's first two weeks. Her defense long overshadowed by her scoring feats, she already has more steals in 10 games than any Indiana player had in any of the past three seasons.
At the same time, while still continuing the rebuilding work under first-year coach Teri Moren that began under Curt Miller, who recruited Buss and backcourt partner Larryn Brooks, Indiana has played one of the nation's softer schedules. Home games against Rutgers and Michigan State at the end of December will drop the Hoosiers in the Big Ten's deep end. It has been nice, Buss noted, to play games in college in which only one defender pays attention to her, but she knows the bodies closing off the lane are about to get bigger, the arms closing out the shot about to get longer.
Dees showed that a player from Mt. Carmel can succeed in the Big Ten, twice leading the conference in scoring at better than 25 points per game, but he was 6-8 at a time when that was anything but commonplace. Buss doesn't have that luxury.
"I know it's going to get tougher for her in the Big Ten, but I think she'll be all right," Dees said. "I've seen the girls play in Big Ten, and they're pretty physical. Tyra, she's 5-7, but she's strong as an ox. So she's got along real well. Coach likes her a lot. She'll do all right wherever she goes."
Buss knew about Dees for as long as she could remember. A town the size of Mt. Carmel doesn't forget one of its own who not only starred at a school like Indiana but also went on to play several seasons in the NBA. Even if he played only his final two high school seasons there, he is theirs. So it was with at least a little of the same sense of wonder in the eyes of the girls who wait for pictures or autographs from her after games that she met Dees in person for the first time this past summer.
But she didn't just pay homage and move on. She went back to the nursing home on her own to visit him again. And again. And again. Her schedule sometimes intervenes, but she tries to visit him before most every home game. And with the help of his daughter, Laurie, Dees watches her games on a computer.
"It's nice to just go in and talk to him and hear his advice he has to give me before games," Tyra said. "I really appreciate him and what he has to say to me about basketball and just the advice he has to give me. I sit with him in his room and we talk basketball, talk life, just anything. He's always there to listen. He's pretty funny, too."
Such as when he highlighted one of the differences between 1954 and 2014.
"The worst thing that could happen to you is to have your record broken," Dees said he joked to Buss. "The second worst thing would be have a girl do it.
"But she's a neat person. I really enjoy talking to her, and the time we spend together is really good."
At the core of every legend is a person, be it a 78-year-old man or an 18-year-old young woman.
So is the Indiana freshman a larger-than-life folk hero who can resurrect a program? Is she too small to survive in the Big Ten?
She's Tyra Buss.
As the man who is now the second-greatest scorer ever to come out of Mt. Carmel can attest, that's about more than points.