LINCOLN PARK — It's easy to understand why Tanisha McTiller built walls around her.
She grew up in a Cabrini-Green high-rise. Her father was never in her life. She saw drug deals and said she witnessed a man being shot and killed.
Her escape was always basketball, first on the courts near the housing project, then at Schiller Elementary and Lincoln Park High School, and now Towson University, where the senior guard easily leads her team in scoring and has a good shot to play professionally.
But though she constructed barriers around her to keep her safe, McTiller occasionally would let a lucky few folks into her world. It would usually take months for them to break through, but those closest to McTiller said the wait was worth it.
"She had a really s----- life, and we all knew it, and she knew it," said Megan Dyer, her basketball coach at Schiller. "She has a really strong sense of justice, and she felt the hand she had been dealt was not fair.
"But she's also very smart, and we knew that this girl really could make it."
'Kept Drawing Me Back In'
McTiller, who is now 21, had a nightmare childhood.
Her mother, Hazel Walker, worked several part-time jobs during odd shifts, and when she wasn't home, McTiller and her two sisters and brother never left the house.
"I used to make them stay in because I didn't want anything to happen to them," said Walker, now a North Lawndale resident. "You didn't know when [people] were going to start shooting."
McTiller said drug deals were "a big part of everything that happened where I lived." A deal that she observed as a teen ended with a man shot in his chest, she said. McTiller said he "died instantly."
"I just stood there," McTiller said. "There was arguing, and then it just happened. I was just surprised and shocked."
Walker said McTiller rarely played with other children. Her outlet was the nearby basketball courts. She shot jumpers and practiced cross-over dribbles in isolation.
"When we were in the projects, that's all she used to do, was play ball," said her older sister, Tymeisha McTiller, of North Lawndale.
By sixth grade, McTiller was the best female player at Schiller, but the school didn't have a team. So Dyer, who was the second-grade teacher of McTiller's brother and a former hoops player, decided to start one.
"She stood out right away, but she had a horrible attitude at that point," Dyer said. "It was a lot of work to be around her and have her on the team, but there was something about her that kept drawing me back in.
"She would drive you to the point of insanity, and then there would be a little tiny victory, and I wouldn't give up on her."
Dyer became more than a coach. She helped fund trips for McTiller to attend the prestigious WCSS girls basketball camp at Concordia University in Wisconsin in seventh and eighth grades.
The camp was a turning point for McTiller, Dyer said, because she was with middle-class suburban girls "who didn't act the way she did."
"Because of that, she didn't act like such a pain in the a--," Dyer said.
When McTiller entered Lincoln Park High School, she played for Lions head coach Larry Washington. The Lions coach said because she had no male role model, it took forever before McTiller trusted him.
"I believe it's because her father wasn't in her life," said Washington, of Belmont Cragin. "She had dealt with mostly women, so she wanted to find out if a man would stay in her life."
Washington did just that, and — after McTiller had played four stellar varsity seasons, including two in which she earned all-city honors — he became in charge of finding her a college at which to play.
He sent out 25 highlight tapes to various Division I schools that were graduating several seniors and needed a guard.
Towson University, near Baltimore, was the one school to respond.
"I never recruit off video, but her tape interested me," said former Towson head coach Joe Mathews. "She was an extremely athletic and competitive kid running around the floor and doing a lot of things.
"And when I got her transcripts, she had excellent grades. I spoke to a lot of people around her high school, and they just painted a picture of a kid who had a lot of challenges and obstacles, and yet she was succeeding academically."
McTiller's official visit to Towson was her first trip ever on a plane. Mathews said he was in constant communication with Washington to make sure she boarded the plane.
After McTiller returned home, Mathews offered her a full-ride scholarship, even though he said she "didn't say two words" to him during her entire recruiting visit.
When McTiller told her mother the good news, Walker gave her a huge hug but not a present because she said she had no money.
"Thank God she got that scholarship to help her out," Walker said. "Because she knew I was never going to be able to afford for her to go to college."
Said McTiller: "It was just a blessing."
'She'll Open Up Like A Book'
Mathews, who left Towson after the end of last season, said McTiller represents "one of the best stories I've had in my 25 years of coaching."
Like Dyer, Mathews said there were many days when he, his assistants and other Towson players wanted McTiller off the team, in large part because she refused to even acknowledge them.
"She became almost uncoachable," Mathews said. "I couldn't get what I wanted out of her."
But she was an incredibly hard worker, showing up early to practices and staying late. So at one point during her freshman year, Mathews called Washington because he didn't know what else to do.
"He told me that she won't talk to you one-on-one, but if you text her, she'll open up like a book," Mathews said.
The strategy worked, and McTiller became one of the Tigers' top players. She averaged 5 points as a freshman, 11 as a sophomore and nearly 19 per game last year, when she was second team all-Colonial Athletic Association.
"Coach Mathews actually took the time to understand where I was coming from, why I did certain things," McTiller said. "Coming where I came from, it was hard for me to open up and tell them my business. He took me under his wing and took the time to get to know me."
This year, the 5-foot-6 guard is averaging 17.7 points per game for the 2-5 Tigers and is a potential conference player of the year.
Mathews said he wouldn't be surprised if McTiller suits up at the next level, either in the WNBA or Europe.
If pro hoops don't work out for her, McTiller should be just fine. She has a 3.2 grade point average and is graduating in May with a degree in criminal justice. While stuck inside her childhood home, one of McTiller's favorite activities was watching TV shows like "Criminal Minds" and "The First 48." She hopes to become a crime scene investigator.
"I like investigating a crime scene, trying to get leads, see who was watching, where all the shell cases are, all that type of thing," McTiller said.
Regardless of her future career, she'll have a robust fan club.
McTiller's become so close to Mathews that she baby-sits his daughters, 8 and 5. She also frequently talks to Washington and was in Dyer's wedding party last summer.
"We're so proud of everything she's done, and you feel kind of validated," Dyer said. "She was such a pain in the a--, so it's nice to see the effort we put into her is ending on such a positive note."