Unteachable spirit: Tyrese Haliburton’s role as a leader long before Iowa State

Tyrese Haliburton Centerpiece

Matt Belinson

The tears flowed from John Haliburton’s eyes, but the cries of help were nothing new.

After years of taking care of nieces and nephews, John wanted to have kids of his own.

He would constantly pray to God, asking him to bless his life with a child that he could call his own. Night after night, he would begin crying out to God for a sign.

After years of asking for a sign, God came with an answer. 

One night, while John was fast asleep, he said God came to him and spoke to him in his sleep.

God told John he would have two sons who would both be successful one day, but he was not told what success would mean for them. 

For John, his prayers had been answered and he could finally have something to hold on to in his long wait for a child. 

“I held onto that dream all my life, and then I finally met Tyrese’s mom, and now we have two amazing sons,” John said. 

And now, at the age of 19, Tyrese Haliburton has helped that dream to come full circle.

The sophomore guard from Oshkosh, Wisconsin, may be in just his second season for the Cyclones — but his role is far from being a new challenge for him.

Haliburton took a back seat a year ago for Iowa State as prolific scorers like Talen Horton-Tucker, Marial Shayok and Lindell Wigginton led the Cyclones in minutes and scoring for a majority of the season.

Now, with all three of those players gone to the professional ranks, Haliburton is tasked with being a leader — a young leader, at that — on a team that has multiple players still trying to find and fit into their new roles.

Head Coach Steve Prohm knows the learning curves will come often for both him and Haliburton as the Cyclones continue their season. The key for Haliburton to get past the learning curves starts and ends with communication, according to Prohm.

Prohm knows the loss of three major pieces in the roster will shine a brighter light on Haliburton — but the spotlight won’t require Haliburton to change, according to Prohm.

For Prohm, Haliburton just needs to remember who he is.

“I don’t think it’s about taking the next step; it’s remembering who he is because his biggest strength is his spirit,” Prohm said. 

For John, that unteachable spirit in Tyrese and his ability to lead others won’t be something he needs to remember how to do as the year goes on, as it has been with him long before he stepped on the court for the Cyclones. Even when he was 3-4 years old, John said he always knew Tyrese was special. He went with him to basketball practice when John was a coach, always wanting to touch the ball.

“He always needed his hands on a ball; you couldn’t get him to let it go,” John said.

John said Tyrese has never been a follower but always a leader to those in his life. Whether it be elementary, middle school or high school, Tyrese led others around him to success.

In high school, his leadership was on full display any time he was around his teammates, on and off the court.

“His team would not lose for him,” John said. 

On multiple occasions, John would either drive Tyrese or find that he drove himself to the school’s gymnasium at three in the morning, shooting with teammates.

John said Tyrese has God-given talent and that faith in God has made Tyrese what he is.

“He was born to be a leader,” John said. “…That can only happen when you have the blessing of the lord.” 

This year, his role as a leader has taken clear shape, leading Iowa State with 15.7 points per game and seven assists per game.

Haliburton was tasked with knowing the point for most of last season, but now — less than a full season later — Haliburton must be able to play the 1-5 position on the floor at all times and be able to switch at any given moment.

Will all the pressure and now-rising NBA draft stock affect his game? If you ask him, pressure comes easy.

“I probably put more pressure on myself than anybody else does, whether that be the media, family or fans,” Haliburton said. “Pressure ain’t really nothing for me.”

For Haliburton, bringing a positive attitude to the court and in the gym will cast aside any pressure he may receive.

Study harder, lift more, practice longer than anyone — that mindset has been with Haliburton since his freshman year with the Cyclones. Now continuing his leadership role, that attitude won’t fall off, especially with the Cyclones leaning on him through the many ups and downs of their season so far. 

Iowa State now carries a roster of mostly underclassmen, with seniors Michael Jacobson and Prentiss Nixon and junior Solomon Young being the main upperclassmen pieces who see the floor. With such a young core around him, Haliburton knows leading will not always be a straight and narrow path, making the expectations he places on himself even tougher to block out.

“I think I’m just putting a lot of pressure on myself, which I shouldn’t be doing, but I just want to be as good as I can and want this team to succeed,” Haliburton said. “I’m obsessed with winning, but I just gotta keep a level head and it’ll help us go a long way.”

A new addition to this year’s roster is fellow sophomore guard Rasir Bolton. Bolton was granted a transfer from Penn State and was seen as another top scoring option alongside Haliburton before the season began.

Through 17 games, Bolton has been one of Iowa State’s biggest scoring threats, averaging 14.3 points per game.

Bolton was seen as one of the best transfers in the country before the season began, but even with the hype surrounding his transfer, he knew he would play second fiddle to Haliburton. 

“He’s our leader; he’s the face,” Bolton said. “You can’t just come here and say, ‘I’m gonna push Tyrese to the side,’ it’s not gonna happen. If you learn to play with him, it makes life a lot easier.”

Like her husband, Brenda Haliburton knew Tyrese was meant to play basketball and lead others from a young age.

She first saw the potential in him around third grade, when Tyrese was playing on the fourth grade team. His court vision took Brenda by surprise and made her realize her son might have a future one day in basketball.

Tyrese expressed to Brenda in fourth and fifth grade that his dream was to make it to the NBA one day, and Brenda put real stock into the dream.

Brenda said most kids that age say things like that but eventually forget about the dream or become lazy on their way to get there, but not Tyrese.

Brenda sees the time he puts in the gym, Tyrese constantly working to perfect his craft to make his team better. It’s the dedication Tyrese plays with that makes Brenda confident in his leadership ability and his potential in the NBA.

“That was never an option for my children; they never stopped, they finished,” Brenda said. 

Since Tyrese chose to come to Iowa State, Brenda has never missed a game. Driving the six hours from Oshkosh for every home game, she still feels grateful for what Iowa State has done for Tyrese as a man and basketball player.

“I feel absolutely he picked the perfect fit for him, I don’t think he would have near the success anywhere else,” Brenda said. 

Brenda recalled a prime example of Tyrese’s unteachable ability to lead others from back when Tyrese was still in high school, between his sophomore and junior year.

One day after school, Tyrese got a text from someone from his school, but he didn’t know who it was.

His name was Isaiah Kelly, a fellow Oshkosh native who had dreams of playing college basketball just like Tyrese, but needed help making the high school team and getting his grades up in order to graduate. 

He knew Tyrese’s reputation of leadership and wanted to see if he could help out.

Kelly wanted to be around Tyrese so bad, he had his mom eventually sign rights over to Brenda for his schooling needs, allowing Kelly to live with the Haliburtons for the school year.

With just three high school credits to his name, Kelly worked with Tyrese and school administrators and was able to graduate within the following year. 

Tyrese invited Kelly to open gyms in the summer, got him talking to the coaches for Oshkosh and, eventually, Kelly made the team.

Brenda said Kelly intended to play basketball at Iowa Central Community College but ended up leaving the program and is back in Oshkosh.

Leadership has been a part of Haliburton’s life long before Iowa State, and he hopes to create a lasting impact at the school, adding his name to the long list of former Cyclones who left the program in a better place.

“I’m just trying to win as many games as I can here and make a legacy for myself at Iowa State,” Haliburton said.

Editor’s Note: This story previously incorrectly stated Isaiah Kelly had not made the team. The article has been updated. The Daily regrets this error.