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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

‘My life was chaos’: Hooptown HoF inductee Tammy Tibbles, a former Gonzaga and Creston star, used basketball as a great escape

Tammy Tibbles knows best because she lived it.

The one-time state of Washington girls prep basketball scoring leader regardless of classification and one-time Gonzaga University all-time scoring leader says it matter of factly. Basketball saved her life.

Listen for a few minutes and watch her catch her breath – now some 40 years removed from her days at Creston High School – as she tries to explain, and it’s easy to understand what she means.

“I didn’t think I’d get emotional,” said Tibbles, now 57 and retired from a 24-year career with the Spokane Fire Department.

Her thoughts raced back to a rough upbringing in a religious home – living in what she called a “religious cult.”

Tibbles doesn’t know where she would be had basketball not intervened.

On Wednesday, Tibbles will be inducted into the Hoopfest Hall of the Fame, the third class.

When she finished her career at Creston after capturing two state championships in three straight years of facing Bi-County rival Reardan in the title game, Tibbles was the all-time leading scorer in the state with 2,568 points. She still ranks in the top 10, but trails the leader by more than 400 points.

Tammy Tibbles starred for Creston High School in the early 1980s.  (The Spokesman-Review photo archive)
Tammy Tibbles starred for Creston High School in the early 1980s. (The Spokesman-Review photo archive)

The 5-foot-9 shooting guard could have gone anywhere to play in college. Louisville, Tennessee and Washington were among the teams recruiting her, but she chose Gonzaga so she could stay close to friends.

She had an immediate impact at Gonzaga and was a four-year starter. She helped lead the Zags to the school’s first West Coast Athletic Conference (now WCC) championship.

For 22 years she ranked as Gonzaga’s all-time leading scorer with 2,011 points. Tibbles was in McCarthey Athletic Center on Jan. 30, 2010, when Heather Bowman overtook her as Gonzaga’s all-time scorer. Tibbles was bumped to third the following year by Courtney Vandersloot.

Tibbles played at a time when girls and women were trying to find traction. Following college the only option to continue playing was to go overseas.

Now there’s the WNBA. Now there’s Caitlin Clark.

And Tibbles loves watching Clark play. Tibbles, in some ways, may have been an early Clark.

“I have a hard time finding women players that I like, but Caitlin Clark is going to change women’s basketball,” Tibbles said. “I’m not talking about through the eyes of the spectator. Her vision on the floor is incredible. She’s going to gel with her teammates. It’s going to take some time, but she’s going to get used to the pace and then look out.”

Tibbles fondly recalls her final home game at Gonzaga.

“I can’t remember who we were playing but I scored the first 24 points of the game because the defense wouldn’t come out and guard me,” Tibbles said.

It was the first year of the 3-point basket. Her career totals in high school and college undoubtedly would have been much higher because she said her range was 25 feet. In the Clark range.

Tibbles said she would have enjoyed playing with the Zags who started the recent run of success.

“I really liked watching Vandersloot. She had the court vision,” Tibbles said.

Tibbles had what one writer described as a no-hesitation stroke.

How it started

Her earliest basketball memory is when she would shoot in the rain in her neighbor’s driveway in Carnation, a Seattle suburb. That’s where the Tibbles lived until moving to Creston as Tammy was going into high school.

Before she started playing organized basketball she would take every opportunity to shoot baskets in the combined middle school/high school gym at Carnation. She skipped her band class one day so she could go to the gym. A P.E. class was nearby and Tibbles challenged a taller girl to a game of one-on-one.

“I beat her three games in a row,” Tibbles said. “The teacher came over to me and was like ‘do you know who that is?’ I didn’t. ‘She’s our best player’. She was a senior and was getting a full-ride scholarship to play in college.”

Tibbles said the happenstance matchup began marinating in her mind.

Painful family life

Her family moved to Creston shortly thereafter and she would shoot baskets in the gym anytime she had a chance. People asked her if she was going to play for the school.

Her dad had never let her do anything like that.

“My life was chaos,” she said. “I’m emotional right now because I just realized that basketball empowered me. I had no power. None of my siblings did either. I knew I was different. I’m part of the LBGTQ community and there I was being raised in a right-wing religious family.”

Tibbles paused before sharing more details.

“My dad was a narcissist, not a nice person. Because of that, every day I would go over to my neighbor’s house and shoot baskets. That’s probably why I was never a good passer,” she said, smiling for a moment. “That was my outlet to get out of the house. When I got home I’d try to be as invisible as I could. I … hated my dad. I used to have dreams about killing him – that’s how much I hated my dad.”

Her parents have long since passed away. She was the fifth youngest of six siblings.

“We’ll talk about once a year and catch up, but we don’t really have relationships,” Tibbles said.

Things began to change when Creston coach Mike Crowell watched Tibbles shoot baskets in the gym. He wanted her to play.

“The gym was the hub of activity and people were noticing me,” Tibbles said. “People were saying I could come live with them. That’s all I needed. I was done with my dad. At one point he had hit me with the back of his hand and his (wedding) ring cut my face. I talked with Mike. Back then they didn’t have all the ‘you’ve got to report’ it procedures.”

So she talked with Crowell. He gave her some advice on how to confront her dad.

“I went home and I put my finger in his face and said ‘don’t you ever put your hand on me again. I’m going to play basketball and you’re never going to touch me again.’ I told him what Mike told me about starting an emancipation process and my dad backed off. His money was everything to him.”

Like a movie

Tibbles started right away as a freshman but missed some games because of church activities.

“I put an end to that my sophomore year,” she said. “I was such a lost kid. When that P.E. teacher came up to me and told me about the girl I had just beat in one-on-one, it was like freedom. I thought, here’s my chance.”

And Tibbles made the most of it. Her sophomore year was the season she enjoyed the most. Creston came out of nowhere to get to state. Had to win a loser-out game just to qualify for district.

“That year it was like ‘Hoosiers.’ Actually it was better than the movie,” Tibbles said. “There were so many times we were down and out and we fought our way back. In the league loser-out game, I think we were playing Sprague, we were down by one with 10 seconds left. (Teammate) Cynthia Rosman was guarding the ball and she was able to tip the ball to me and we were under our basket. I go up to shoot and I was fouled. I make the free throws and we win.”

Tammy Tibbles pictured at Gonzaga in 1988.  (The Spokesman-Review photo archive)
Tammy Tibbles pictured at Gonzaga in 1988. (The Spokesman-Review photo archive)

In a district semifinal, Creston met No. 1-ranked and undefeated Almira.

“We were down like 26 points and we never led until the final buzzer,” Tibbles said. “That was my breakout game. We were down 15 at halftime and we beat them by one. I had something like 33 points. Back then our games were on radio. I’d love to get the radio broadcast of that game.”

Creston lost to Reardan in the district championship game.

“I fouled out and I got a (technical) at the end because I was pissed,” she said.

At state, Creston took on Naselle in a dramatic semifinal that needed three overtimes.

“I scored like 27 points in the first three quarters and they switched defenses and put this little kid on me. She kept hitting the ball out of my hands when I’d go up and shoot. I didn’t score the rest of the game. It taught me a valuable lesson. I had to change some things fundamentally.”

Creston faced Reardan in what would be the first of three straight showdowns in the state final.

“I had a bad game but we won by three,” Tibbles said. “That year – the memories, the angst, the trials and tribulations. It was really amazing.”

Her senior year, Tibbles averaged nearly 37 points a game and was featured in “Faces in the Crowd” in an issue of Sports Illustrated that had Magic Johnson on the cover.


Crowell, 83, spends time between homes in Anacortes and Spokane. He hasn’t seen Tibbles since his wife’s funeral in 2012. Tibbles plans to reach out to her former coach.

“She could have gone anywhere to play. She was that good,” Crowell said. “She was wonderful. She’s still one of the best all-time.”

Tibbles is in the WIAA and Inland Northwest halls of fame. She’s looking forward to the Hooptown USA induction.

“It’s an honor. There was a lot of dedication and hard work that went into my career,” she said. “Just having that recognized is nice. It’s great to be part of something bigger than yourself. Basketball became my identity. It opened up a lot of doorways and different pathways in life that I would have never had had it not been for basketball. I struggled with self worth and confidence and basketball righted it. I lived the best sports movie.”