CHEYENNE – The COVID-19 pandemic has kept Ky Buell out of the gym for the past few weeks.
Schools being closed has given the Cheyenne East senior a chance to spend time with her parents and four siblings. She has enjoyed that time, because she knows she won’t see much of them when she heads to college this fall.
But Buell misses working on her basketball skills in the confines of East’s Thunderdome.
“I am able to shoot in the driveway, do some running and things like that,” Buell said. “I don’t think I’ve ever been out of a gym this long. It’s pretty tough.”
The hoop outside her house just doesn’t cut it for someone who grew up in a gym, had access to East’s gym at all hours of the day, and used that access to become one of the best high school girls basketball players in Wyoming ever.
The 5-foot-6 guard scored 1,978 points during her four-year career, which ranks fourth in state history, according to records compiled by former Lander coaches Mike Ragan and Spike Robinson and shared on Wyoming -Basketball.com. Buell’s name appears on the lists the longtime coaches assembled 18 times.
Buell also is tied for fifth on the all-time assists list (379), and also ranks in the top 20 in career steals (368). She is tops in career 3-pointers (284), has three of the top-15 single-season 3-pointer records and is ninth in career free throws made (420).
Buell is taking her talents to Western Nebraska Community College in Scottsbluff, Nebraska. The Cougars went 28-2 this past season and were the No. 7 seed for the National Junior College Athletic Association Tournament, which was canceled because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Born to ball
Jamie Nichols and Jason Buell met at Montana Tech in Butte, Montana. Both had started their college careers elsewhere. Nichols threw javelin at Montana State in Bozeman, and Buell was part of the College of Southern Idaho’s powerhouse junior college program.
The pair married and left their basketball careers behind to start a family. They were coaching basketball when then-Montana Western coach Mark Durham reached out to Jason to see if he wanted to use his final season of college eligibility.
Jason jumped at the chance, but Jamie needed to be convinced she could handle the demands of school, basketball and motherhood, according to a 2004 story in the Montana Standard.
“I was like, ‘I have two kids, I can’t play,” Jamie told the Butte, Montana, newspaper. “(Jason) was like, ‘Yes, you can.’ He always has confidence in me. He always wants me playing. He finally talked me into it.”
So the Buells packed up Ky and younger brother Graedyn and moved to Dillon, Montana, for one last crack at college basketball.
Jason led the Frontier Conference in 3-point shooting during the regular season, knocking down 112 shots from behind the arc. He was the league’s third-leading scorer at 16.3 points per game.
Jamie averaged more than 10 points per game and ranked in the top 12 in the conference in steals, assists and free throw shooting. The Bulldogs women won the Frontier Conference tournament and earned a spot in the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics national tournament that season.
Jamie’s parents helped keep an eye on 3-year-old Ky and nearly 2-year-old Graedyn, but they also spent a lot of time on the sidelines.
“When I say me and Graedyn grew up in a gym, I mean it literally,” Ky said with a laugh. “There would be times my dad would be practicing or scrimmaging or whatever, and we’d be sleeping in the bleachers, or one of their teammates would be holding us or something.
“Even after having two kids, my mom went back and was a stud. Their story is so fun. They really love basketball. That’s where my love for the game started.”
With college in the rearview, Jason eventually became a head coach in Rigby, Idaho, and Jamie’s hometown of Anaconda, Montana.
When he wasn’t coaching high-schoolers, Jason was coaching Ky and Graedyn on the same traveling team. Playing with boys taught Ky how to push the pace, not back down from a challenge, and how to succeed against players who may have been bigger, stronger or faster.
Playing for Jason helped Ky learn to see the game in ways other players her age didn’t. She learned to play steps ahead of her peers. Ky was light years ahead of her classmates by the time Jamie formed a girls traveling team in seventh grade.
“I learned to always work hard, think about what I could do better and do whatever my team needed,” Ky said.
It’s also where she developed an insatiable appetite for hoisting hundreds of shots per day. Some of the shots in those two- to three-hour sessions came from catching and shooting in specific spots, but most were attempts made from game-like moves or under game-like conditions.
“Getting better is always the goal, but I also do it because I love it,” Ky said. “Playing basketball is a lot of fun for me. If I’m having a bad day, or something in life just isn’t going right, then I want to get into the gym.
“It’s kind of a safe haven. I can go into the gym and just get my mind off everything.
Having a brother so close in age to her also meant Ky had someone to compete with and against whenever she wanted. The pair went head to head in nearly every sport imaginable. They continue to be frequent foes in one-on-one basketball games.
“As we grew up and he started becoming taller and stronger than me, I’m not sure he benefitted from it as much as I did,” Ky said. “I’m shorter and have a little quicker hands, so I could get some steals from him and helped him learn to take care of the ball better.
“I definitely benefit from it because I learned how to get shots off and defend against bigger, stronger people.”
Ky views herself as her harshest critic. Graedyn might be a close second, she said. She often hears his voice in her head during games.
“I can hear him saying, ‘Ky, you need to do this at this time,’ or ‘You should have done this differently,’” she said. “He has had an enormous influence on me, and he is the reason I compete the way I do.”
Even if Ky couldn’t hear Graedyn’s voice in the back of her head, she would hear it coming from the sidelines. He is a fixture in the first few rows of bleachers across from the team benches at every Lady Thunderbirds game. He loudly encourages the team and gives Ky various reminders.
Ky set an East single-game scoring record by scoring 40 points during a 75-66 overtime victory over Scottsbluff, Nebraska, on Jan. 17. It was the second 40-point effort of her career. However, she left at least two more points on the rim, and Graedyn was there to point it out.
“I was fouled and missed a layup, and Graedyn came almost halfway out on the court as I was walking to the free-throw line and yelled, ‘You’ve got to make your layups,’” Ky said with a laugh. “Most brothers would see that their sister was scoring 40 points and think, ‘Wow, she’s doing awesome.’
“In Graedyn’s eyes, I needed to make that layup. He was right. He has always been the person to push me, and make sure I’m doing what I need to do when I need to do it, and doing it how it needs to be done.”
Ky took the state by storm during her freshman season at Rock Springs. Her 15.6 points per game were tops in Class 4A. Maggie Justinak was the Tigers’ lone senior that winter, and was second in 4A in scoring at 15.3 points per outing.
Justinak – who is now suiting up for NCAA Division II Metropolitan State University of Denver – also made an impression on Ky. They were fixtures in the gym before and after practice. Ky wanted to win, she wanted to play the best she possibly could, and she didn’t want to disappoint Justinak.
“She would get on my butt and tell me if I wasn’t doing something right,” Ky said. “I’ve never been scared of getting criticized, or yelled at, or that type of thing. I’m not the type of person who’s like, ‘Oh my gosh, you yelled at me on the court, we’re not friends off the court.’
“That’s not how it is. The court is a different place, and everybody knows that.”
Ky also led 4A in scoring as a sophomore, averaging 20.1 points. Defenses schemed to limit her production with limited results.
“We ran a box-and-one against her that season, and she still scored 40 points on us,” Cheyenne Central coach Glen Kirkbride said. “She does so many things well. She can take you off the dribble and get to the basket, she can hit pull-up jumpers, and she can score by letting it fly from five feet behind the 3-point line.
“When you’re preparing for certain kids, they typically have one strength, and one thing they do really, really well. That made her so hard to prepare for.”
East coach Eric Westling was an assistant coach the first time the Lady T-Birds squared off with Ky and Rock Springs. Ky scored 23 in a 55-51 loss, but Westling was impressed by more than just her scoring prowess.
“She was so driven, confident and competitive,” Westling said. “She was doing everything she could to help her team win.”
Ky didn’t get one last opportunity to chase the biggest win of her career – a state championship. The COVID-19 pandemic brought this year’s 4A and 3A state tournaments to an end after just one game each.
East finished the year 22-3 and rode a six-game winning streak into state. Three more solid scoring games would have given the T-Birds as good of a shot at winning a title as any of the other contenders. They also would have lifted Ky over Riverton’s Kristen Newlin (1999-2003) into third place on the all-time scoring list. Newlin – who played at Stanford – scored 2,007 career points.
“It really sucked not being able to play the state tournament,” Ky said. “We knew what we were capable of as a team, and we had had an amazing week of practice. It obviously hurt.
“But our coaches reminded us that we finished the year with a championship because we won regionals the weekend before. We got to celebrate that, and we’ll always have the pictures from after that game. I couldn’t have asked for a better team to play with.”
More than a scorer
Points are the easiest statistic for basketball fans to digest. They’re kept on the scoreboard, in the scorebook and appear in newspaper box scores.
Points overshadow the other contributions of many basketball players, and Ky is no exception.
She ranked in the top 10 in the state for assists and steals in each of her four seasons. Ky also set East’s single-season assists record with 122 as a junior. She was tied for the state lead in assists per game that season (4.1 apg).
Some of her best all-around basketball was played after Jason accepted a special education job within Laramie County School District 1 and moved his family to Cheyenne. Ky was a big part of East’s offense, and was the focal point of opposing defenses. The T-Birds’ other offensive weapons allowed her to put her other skills on display more frequently than she had been able to in Rock Springs.
“I was talking to other coaches during the all-state meeting this year, and I told them that if you put Ky into a combine situation, there’s no measurable where she’s going to standout and wow you,” Westling said. “But when you put her on the basketball court, there’s no better player.
“She hasn’t come close to hitting her ceiling. When she gets to college, she is just going to keep getting better.”
Ky is proud of her assists and steals numbers because they show she is a strong all-around player. They also show she was willing to do whatever it took for her team to win, and quieted criticism about her being a ball-dominant volume shooter.
“I didn’t realize how bad people could be until my freshman year,” she said. “I remember thinking, ‘Wow, these people really hate me.’ It took me a while to come to the realization that they might not hate me, and that I never going to change the mind of everyone who thought I was a ball hog, or that I took bad shots.
“I have the stats to prove otherwise, but those people aren’t worth the time. My coaches and teammates know the type of player I am.”
Ky also won the respect of opposing coaches. Not only did the 4A coaches vote Ky to the all-state team for the fourth time in her career, they also voted her the state’s player of the year.
“There were so many ways she could beat you with the basketball in her hands, but she also could find so many ways to beat you when she didn’t have the ball in her hands,” said Kirkbride, who also has coached at Cheyenne South and Burns. “She is a truly special player, and will always be talked about as one of the greats in this state.”