Reprinted with permission
Furniture shifted as the Buell family prepared for a friendly game of Pictionary. Jamie and Jason, heads of the household, divvied up the teams with six others ready to play. There was first-born child Makylee and her boyfriend. There was Graedyn, first-born son and largest of the Buell children, and the trifecta of budding siblings Khoy, Beaudy and Piper.
With the benefit of hindsight, Jamie and Jason should have known better than to have let Makylee — known to most as Ky — and Graedyn be on the same team. Ky and Graedyn were born 14 months apart and raised together. Throughout adolescence they’d entertain themselves by pretending to be twins around strangers. They were convincing. They’d grown up together and understood each other on a nearly subconscious level. Nearly 18 years after Ky met her brother for the first time they united in game based on deciphering each other’s scribbles. The other teams didn’t stand a chance.
Ky silently read her instructions and squared to the blank sheet with marker in hand. On cue she plotted one line. She pulled the marker back and duplicated a parallel mark. Then came a nearby squiggle, indecipherable to all but one. Graedyn shouted the right answer. The rest groaned.
“And they’d just laugh about it,” Jamie remembered, almost still in disbelief of the memory. “They’ve always been like that.”
Throughout a sibling rivalry that’s lasted through countless bruises, broken windows and hours in empty gyms, Ky and Graedyn Buell emerged as not only two record-setting athletes but also best friends.
They’ve navigated each other’s definitive adolescent moments with support and understanding. With Ky on the cusp of graduating, her senior year thrown into the unknown of the novel coronavirus pandemic, they’ve taken time to appreciate their accomplishments — side by side.
They’ve always been like that because they were born into it.
Jason and Jamie started their family in Idaho Falls, Idaho, on a hard-court hiatus. Jamie was a javelin thrower at Montana State while Jason played basketball at the College of Southern Idaho before they met at Montana Tech in Butte. Jason got dismissed from the Tech basketball team for cutting class and returned to his hometown to settle down with Jamie, who was originally from Anaconda, Montana.
They both coached sub-varsity basketball. Then Jamie gave birth to Ky and Graedyn. That gave them both some hesitation about re-joining the college basketball ranks. Paternal support, however, and a few answered prayers paved way for their careers at the University of Montana-Western. Supportive 2-year old Ky and 8-month-old Graedyn cheered on their parents. They were heroes.
After college Jason founded a flag football league. Graedyn wasn’t old enough to play, although he would play all-time center if teams were uneven. Jason also started a kindergarten-to-third-grade basketball league in Idaho Falls. The kids spent every Saturday playing full court running sideways. Of course, when a team lacked the necessary amount of players, Ky and Graedyn took turns filling in the gaps. They spent their Saturdays playing in over a dozen games each. Then they’d return home and order food.
Once Graedyn was old enough to play football, he played quarterback. At least until he returned from one practice and refused. He moved to receiver and Ky became quarterback. By then she’d proven herself in one-on-one games against Graedyn with Jason playing quarterback.
“Having someone to bring that competitive nature out by your side, it’s made me who I am today,” Ky stated. “It comes from competing with him. We used to get mean with each other, too. It wasn’t like a sibling thing, when we played football it was full tackle.”
Their competitive natures elevated each other. One-on-one games started with endearing trash talk after a jumper, escalated into hand-checks throughout dribbles and devolved into full-contact drives to the rim. Jamie and Jason implemented a rule banning the two from guarding each other.
They became so competitive that they started inventing games that only they knew the rules to. They’d play “dunk ball” for hours on end after fashioning a hoop to their trampoline. Those games escalated and the Buells moved lights out onto the yard — bringing dunk ball center stage in their own athletic world.
Of course, their competitive nature was inherited and not created. Before a baseball tournament in Las Vegas, Jason wanted to teach Graedyn how to wear a pitch. Jason used a tennis ball to soften the blow. He intentionally threw the ball at his son. Graedyn stepped back and swung — hitting the ball clean through the kitchen window. A few months later Ky sent a ball sailing through the same window, Jason remembered.
“That’s how they were raised,” Jamie chuckled. “That was a rite of passage, I guess.”
If they weren’t raised in the yard they were raised in the gym. They spent hours shooting together, sometimes completely alone. They conjured game scenarios before each shot by imaging a deafening crowd and crippling pressures inside the dim vacant gyms.
When one finished to catch their breath, too tired to continue, the other followed. In those moments they confided in each other. They were the other’s only company.
“We’ve had a bond like no other since I can remember,” Graedyn explained. “We loved being in the gym and when you’re there you get close. You just as well sit and talk because you’ve got nothing else to do. I don’t know anyone like her.”
Added Ky: “I never really had time without him. There’s 14 months I don’t even remember without him.”
The makeshift twins became folk heroes. They were 5-foot legends at Rock Springs by the time Ky started high school. All of their previous athletic achievements mattered. High school athletics, however, meant a heightened level of competition and accomplishment. Colleges scouted high school players. The spotlight had never shined brighter. The Buells couldn’t have been more prepared.
Ky’s freshman basketball season couldn’t come soon enough. She eagerly anticipated the season-opening tip-off against Riverton, her first varsity game and her first varsity start. It was showtime.
She was nervous and ready. Both parents’ coaching had conditioned her on what to expect. She had also squared up to her brother for years.
Graedyn couldn’t make the trip because he had a junior-high game that night. His mind drifted away in class knowing his sister’s first varsity game was about to start. He told his teacher that he needed to FaceTime his mother. He watched Ky’s debut from a screen a hundred miles away.
Ky earned all-state honors in her freshman year, averaging 15.6 points and 3.0 assists per game on a Tigers team that won the consolation championship at state. She at least tied the team high in points in 13 of their 21 games. She belonged. Graedyn proudly knew how hard she had worked to get there. He’d done essentially the same thing. The Buell’s time had come.
“As soon as I saw her play I had the feeling that we were both going to do something special,” Graedyn said. “She was a stud and it inspired me to do great.”
Ky’s arrival paved the way for Graedyn’s emergence. He scored 36 in his varsity debut, setting the tone for season averages of 20.5 points, 5.5 assists and 5.4 rebounds. He created his own legacy. And yet Ky out-dueled him during her sophomore season, averaging 21.0 points and 4.3 steals. Together they made Rock Springs’ double-headers impossible to miss — at least until they left.
After accepting new positions in the Laramie County School District, Jamie and Jason moved the family to Cheyenne the following summer. The duo enrolled at Cheyenne East. Ky came into her own in volleyball while Graedyn, comfortable once again under center, started at quarterback. He led a formidable offense through eight games until his first considerable road block. Trying to make a play against his former teammates at Rock Springs, he injured his ankle. He spent the next three months in a walking boot, sidelined for the rest of football and the first two months of the basketball season.
“When Graedyn got hurt we thought, ‘What are we going to do with this kid who never sits down?’” Jamie remembered. “Ky was right there to comfort him.”
They lived vicariously through each other. Graedyn was Ky’s fan, motivator and coach on the sidelines. If she wasn’t attacking with tenacity or finishing her contact layups there was an active voice in the crowd telling her to deliver. It didn’t matter how many points she’d already scored.
“Having him to always push me and to be that voice in the back of my head has helped,” Ky said. “I say I’m my hardest critic but it might be a tie with him. And it goes the same way with me and him.”
Graedyn returned to full health the following fall, throwing for the second-most yards in Wyoming history (2,989) on way to winning Super 25 Offensive Player of the Year. Of course, with the end of football season came basketball season. And he approached this past winter with a chip on his shoulder.
“I had a good football season but I don’t need my ankle as much during football,” he said. “In basketball I wanted to show I wasn’t a one-hit wonder.”
He did just that. As a junior he averaged 12.1 points, 4.9 rebounds and 4.7 steals on a team that was 20-6 going into the state tournament. He commanded the attention of each opponent and proved himself a legitimate threat instead of a one-off freshman star. But as the East boys walked around their Casper hotel the day of their quarterfinal game, Graedyn’s attention turned toward his sister.
He, like each teammate and the rest of the state, was informed there would be no state tournament due to precautions taken against the coronavirus pandemic. He’d get another chance at a state championship; his sister would not. Just as Ky had been there to comfort Graedyn during his injury woes, he needed to support his sister. He sat in his hotel room and called. Ky answered from the bus. The girls’ team had only made it Douglas before turning around.
“It was definitely heartbreaking,” Ky admitted. “Graedyn’s been my go-to person when I’m angry and sad. He’s the first person I want to tell my good news to. He said that I really did end with a championship and that calmed me down a little bit.”
Added Graedyn: “I was devastated for her. This was Ky’s last shot.”
Without closure, finality or ceremony, Ky’s high school career ended. That was it. She was a team captain who had averaged 21.3 points, 5.4 rebounds, 4.4 assists and 3.1 steals. She was named Wyoming’s best girls basketball player by MaxPreps. She finished with the state record for made 3-pointers in a career. She broke six other school records at East. And she went out on top, as part of the top-ranked team in the state.
Only one of the pretend twins has played in a state championship game. In Ky’s junior year East made it to the spotlight game against Thunder Basin. Graedyn sat with Jason and Jamie in the front rows of the Casper Events Center. They didn’t stay there. Their voices echoed with urgency and nerves with every trip Ky took across the court. Every make was met with equal parts confidence and relief — a miss or mistake sent heads into hands.
The Buells gained attention throughout Wyoming. People knew them. Some took extra pride in beating a Buell. This added pressure wasn’t contained to the court alone.
“With the two of them being so good for so long trying to be the players that other people look to compete against, there’s kind of a target on your kids’ heads from a competitive nature and there’s some stress that parents have,” Jamie said. “They have to come out and do their best and play their best or else there’s always comments. We’ve carried a lot of stress with us the last four years.”
Both parents coached their kids on at least one occasion. Jason coached Graedyn during his freshman year at Rock Springs. He admitted it’s been more difficult to watch as a parent than as a coach. Jamie and Jason have resorted to pacing the walkways and standing against walls. They’d have their headphones in during warmups, nervous to see what kind of a game their child would have. They’ve learned to recognize the quality of their kid’s performance in the first two minutes.
East boys basketball head coach Rusty Horsley recognized them in the stands every time. They couldn’t be ignored. He got to know the family bond and saw the same fire for competition.
“They’re going to support their kids and they’re not going to sugar-coat anything either,” Horsely said. “They’ll hear about it if they didn’t do well.”
Bonded by the same fiery genetics and a sibling rivalry, the two put the state tournament behind them. Ky’s college journey had already come to fruition. One promising recruiting trip went to Oral Roberts. There she was told she could only return to Cheyenne eight days of the year. That’s when she pumped the brakes.
This was the most impactful decision of her life and she couldn’t jump into it lightly knowing all that she’d leave behind.
“Those two make decisions based on being there for the other one,” Jamie said. “They’re as close as any two people can be.”
Instead, Ky committed to playing at Western Nebraska Community College — which finished the regular season as the No. 2 junior college team in the country. She wanted to be close enough to watch Graedyn’s senior year when he’d hopefully earn football scholarships.
Graedyn explained his summer plans of basketball and football camps. The former reluctant rec-league quarterback has put his hopes into playing in college. He’s already had a few junior days canceled due to coronavirus. He mentioned a goal of finally winning a state championship in the fall.
Their trampoline hoop didn’t make the trip to Cheyenne from Rock Springs. They’ve made due. Quarantine’s kept them busy, forcing the family to put a ping pong table in the living room that’s already “seen some miles” as Jason put it.
Ky wanted Graedyn there for her senior photos and Graedyn thanked Ky for being his favorite person at the Super 25 banquet. And whatever came next, they agreed, they’d tackle together.
“It’s always been the two of them against the world,” Jamie said.
Follow CST sports reporter Brady Oltmans on Twitter @BradyOltmans