Stepping forward as a leader always came naturally to Kiara Buford. Still, the Gophers guard believed leadership was a skill that could be improved through study and observation, just as she continually worked to upgrade her abilities on the basketball court.
So when Gophers women's basketball coach Pam Borton gave the team some reading material on the subject, Buford eagerly soaked it up.
"I'm a people person, and I have a positive outlook, which is how it started," said Buford, a senior. "Then it became something I worked on. The coaches were very specific in telling me how they needed me to grow in that area, and I wanted to learn all the things that go into being a great leader."
Consider it done. While Buford adapts to a different role on the floor this season, her status as mentor, confidante, coaches' liaison and take-charge captain has become even more solid. For all she gives the Gophers in terms of pure basketball skill, Borton considers those other gifts just as instrumental to the team's fortunes.
The Gophers open their home schedule Saturday and Sunday with the Subway Classic at Williams Arena. Buford, in her second season as captain, wants nothing more than to put the program back on track -- and given the way she has blossomed, Borton is certain she will do everything in her power to make it happen.
"During the recruiting process, we knew she had leadership ability," Borton said. "Kiara is a respected player on the court. She's a role model. She's a person other players can go and talk to, and she's a great communicator who can explain things to younger players.
"She's exceeded my expectations. She was a good leader last year, and she's taken 10 steps forward to become a great leader this year."
Buford has had a close-up view of the Gophers at their peak. She was a ball girl during the Lindsay Whalen-Janel McCarville era, and she was so in awe of the way they rocked Williams Arena that she felt nervous just tossing the ball to them.
At one time, Buford planned to go away to school. But as she led St. Paul Central to a pair of state Class 4A titles in 2007 and 2008, her familiarity with the Gophers program and its coaches led her to stay. Her outgoing personality quickly established her as a guiding light for her team, and a challenging sophomore season taught her to assert herself in hard times as well as good ones.
A 10-5 start turned sour when the Gophers won just three of their last 15 games in 2009-10. Maintaining her optimism, taking charge and being someone her teammates could count on suddenly became much harder for Buford. But she knew her team needed those qualities more than ever, so she became determined not to let them down.
Her development as a leader that season made Buford want to explore her potential even further. In leadership training sessions, the books that the players read and discussed taught her to focus on others, giving her new insight on team dynamics. That has made Buford a stronger and more influential leader, particularly among younger teammates such as freshman guard Rachel Banham.
"I watch everything she does," Banham said. "The way she talks to us, the way she does things in games, she just has a presence. I want to be like her."
With Banham stepping in at point guard, Buford will concentrate more on scoring and defense this season. She leads the Gophers with 14.3 points and 3.3 assists per game, and while she still performs spot duty at the point, she said she is more comfortable in her new role.
As for her other role as captain, Buford plans to keep pushing herself -- and her team -- as far as they can go.
"I want to be remembered as a great leader, a hard worker, someone who could be looked up to," she said. "And I want to get the most out of what we're capable of this season. I want to leave things on a good note."