Tommy Bruner leads the nation in scoring and field-goals made. He ranks right up there in making kids happy, too, by handing out toys.
The fifth-year senior point guard for the Denver Pioneers spends his time away from the court as the CEO and founder of a nonprofit organization he named “Be Different.” It’s a nod to a slogan he once used on T-shirts in high school to encourage kids to stand out. His charity delivered presents to more than 100 children for Christmas and recently began renovation plans for a local park.
On the court, he's delivering just as big. His circuitous journey has led him from USC Upstate to Jacksonville and finally to the Pioneers, where he's coming off a 49-point effort Thursday night in a 111-110 in double overtime win over South Dakota to bump his NCAA-Division I leading scoring average to 26.3 points.
“The most impressive thing about the guy who’s leading the country in scoring is what he’s doing off the court,” said Denver coach Jeff Wulbrun, whose team is tied for second in the Summit League standings as the Pioneers (13-8) try to earn their first Division I trip to the NCAA Tournament. “How he finds time to do all of this with the rigors of an academic schedule, the rigors of the travel schedule, through a college basketball season, is so admirable. It just says so much about him.”
Bruner breaks it down like this: Three hours dedicated each day for practice. A few more devoted to schoolwork and class. Then, the rest of the day belongs to making a difference in the community.
Take the other day, for instance, when the Pioneer players had an off day. Bruner went out to a suburb of Denver to inspect a parcel of land where his charity was refurbishing a park. The renovations include updated playground equipment, mini-soccer field and remodeling a basketball court.
That’s his idea of downtime.
His long-range plan for his charity centers around funding preschools to establish an encouraging base for kids.
“We’re going to give kids who have a 0% chance of going to college, a 100% chance of going to college,” Bruner said.
Over holiday break, he stayed in Denver instead of heading home to South Carolina so he could see the joy as he handed out more than 800 toys to kids in need. Wulbrun showed up to help. So did teammates like Keean Lloyd and Josh Lee, along with women’s basketball forward Makayla Minett.
Those smiles from kids, Bruner said, meant more than any 30-point game.
“Because when you score 30 everyone’s not happy about that,” Bruner said. “But when you give a kid a present, everyone’s happy about that.”
His charity started almost by accident as a sophomore in high school. He was designing logos when he hit on “Be Different.” He began plastering it on everything from shirts to shorts to hooded sweatshirts. Different color schemes, too.
His friends liked the design so much, they ordered merchandise.
“It was just a clothing brand, but it had a deeper meaning,” the 6-foot-1 Bruner said. “People didn’t realize the meaning but they saw, ‘Be Different,’ and liked the name. Now what you’re seeing is the meaning coming to life.”
When he was entering the college scene, name, image and likeness (NIL) hadn't taken off like it has today. So Bruner hit pause on selling merchandise to make sure he didn't run afoul of NCAA rules. But he recently launched his nonprofit organization after a visit to the bank to learn how to set it up to fund a basketball camp for kids.
“Just trying to help,” said Bruner, who hopes to branch out to South Carolina, Florida and Oklahoma with his charitable work.
Tommy Bruner began his college career at USC Upstate, where he set the school’s freshman scoring mark that was held by NBA forward Torrey Craig. Bruner transferred to Jacksonville and averaged 8.8 points in a season interrupted by an injury.
Next stop, Denver, a place that instantly felt like home.
“It was such a family vibe, Bruner said. "That’s when I really knew I was in the right place.”
Last season, he started all 32 games for the Pioneers and averaged 15.9 points. He was named to the conference's all-newcomer squad.
Simply a preview of things to come.
This season, he’s taken his scoring to another level. He’s erupted for 30 or more points seven times, including his 49 points in Thursday's thriller. He went 15 of 34 from the field, including five 3-pointers. He also was 14 of 15 from the free throw line. But it was his steal that made the different. It led toIsaiah Addo-Ankrah ’s game-winning 3-pointer at the buzzer in the second overtime.
FYI: Bruner never really knows how many points he's had in a game until he receives the total in a text from his sister.
Bruner’s not just a prolific scorer, either. He’s leading the conference in assists, too.
“This kid has grown as a player — grown by leaps and bounds in his approach,” Wulbrun said. “He’s made the same growth as a person.”
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