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For Montana hoops star, college ball is faraway goal

Mya Fourstar, 15, of the Frazer Lady Bearcubs drives to the basket during action against the Froid Medicine Lake Redhawks defender Haley Labatte. All photos: Jonathan Newton / Washington Post1 / 2
Mya Fourstar, 15, drives to the basket after splitting defenders during action against the Froid Medicine Lake Redhawks. Washington Post photo by Jonathan Newton2 / 2

FRAZER, Mont. - The laughter of children playing basketball, all crowded around the hoop as the ball spilled over the rim, carried out of the school playground and into an otherwise silent Saturday afternoon in mid-December. Three stray dogs, looking for food or shelter or anything to do, walked along the sidewalk. A biting wind whipped off the prairie and inside the second-to-last house on the last street on the western edge of town sat Mya Fourstar, running three fingers through her straightened brown hair, squinting into the dining room table.

"I hope I play better than last night," she said at her grandmother's, where she lives with her kid sister and four younger cousins. "I really hope."

Mya hates the day after off games, when time drips by and all she can think about is a lopsided loss and missed shots and missed opportunity. Basketball is an escape from the troubles surrounding her, a core part of her American Indian identity, and the heartbeat of Frazer, where the sport is a lifeline and high school stars are often divisive symbols of hope. But basketball also makes Mya put more pressure on herself, to be found where college basketball players aren't often recruited, to stand out on these pale-yellow plains and leave the Fort Peck Indian Reservation, the only home she has ever known.

She starts to hear the whispered doubts on days such as this. The night before, as Frazer School slipped further and further behind Froid/Medicine Lake, a dad in the opponent's stands said, "That girl can't play against tough competition like this." Others say she can't match those 40-point games of two years ago, the ones that attracted college coaches and made that 13-year-old from Frazer course into conversations throughout northeast Montana. Or can't reach her dream of becoming the first Division I basketball player to come out of Frazer, where teenagers often stay put after high school.

But those people are wrong, the 15-year-old sophomore tells herself, just as she has since she started filling stat sheets as an eighth-grader. Mya soon walked through the kitchen and past her mother, who was asleep on a bed in the living room as 2 p.m. neared, before tossing her backpack over a tan blazer and gold-sequined shirt. Then she climbed into her Aunt Sasha's white Lincoln and started toward another game that, like all the rest of them, has the chance to take her somewhere else.

"Anywhere but here," Mya said. "Anywhere but here."

Mya Fourstar, 15, drives to the basket after splitting defenders during action against the Froid Medicine Lake Redhawks.

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Frazer is a highway-side town at the southern end of the Fort Peck Indian Reservation, 80 miles from the Canadian border and four-plus-hour drives from Billings to the southwest and Bismarck, N.D., to the east. The reservation is home to the Fort Peck Sioux and Assiniboine tribes. Frazer is home to about 400 people and no stoplights and is marked by two water towers that bear its name. There is a single gas pump that hasn't offered fuel for two years. There is a post office, a box-shaped general store, the Beer Mug for carryout and sit-down drinks, a three-room preschool and a high school that has 37 students this year. The nearest groceries are 19 miles away in Wolf Point. The nearest fire truck is 14 miles in the other direction.

There are hints of the religious groups that tried, and failed, to influence the natives: a boarded-up, single-room Baptist mission, a Catholic church closed because of mold in the basement, a burnt-down Mormon church a few hundred feet down the road, with only the five front steps and a few piles of concrete left at the foot of an endless prairie.

The rest of the tiny town is filled with short houses and basketball hoops. The sport is a constant in modern American Indian history, which is often rife with stories of addiction and heartache. There are rims along the Frazer sidewalks, in driveways, at the end of gravel roads, some tipped over and others standing tall. When driving into the east end of town off U.S. 2, Frazer's first offering is a hoop nailed to an old telephone pole, the backboard browned by the Montana winters, the net frayed, the rim barely hanging on.

"For a lot of kids, basketball is the only thing to do here," said Sasha Fourstar, Mya's 40-year-old aunt who played for the Frazer Lady Bearcubs in the 1990s. "When I was growing up, alcoholism was the problem. Now it's drugs, meth. Basketball can keep you out of the addiction cycle and maybe get you out of here."

Mya first looked beyond Frazer when she was 12 years old, quick with the ball in her hands, a good shooter growing into her 5-foot-8 frame. She already saw older kids trying drugs, drinking, starting families in high school, not even considering college as a possibility. She wanted more. She scored 50 points against Dodson as an eighth-grader, and her name spread. The University of Montana soon sent a recruiting letter, Montana State showed interest, too, and doubt and jealousy followed. Mya, slender and soft-spoken, set a goal of playing for Gonzaga in Spokane, Washington. But many Frazer natives describe the reservation as having the characteristics of a crab bucket, where people want to drag down whoever is closest to the top.

Outside of that 50-point game, a school record, Mya netted at least 40 points three more times as an eighth-grader. She was told it wouldn't last. She averaged 30.5 points per game as a freshman. Some called her a ball hog. She scored a combined 56 points in Frazer's two wins at the Wolf Point Tip Off earlier this season. She heard the competition isn't tough enough in Class C, made up of Montana's smallest public schools.

As Mya inches further into her sophomore year, there are people who want her to succeed, fail, leave Frazer, stay put, be a leader, a follower, a dominant scorer, a teammate who shares the ball more. But some days, in an era and sport that overexpose successful young athletes, it seems like her biggest worry is not being seen at all.

"It's really hard for anyone to get off the reservation. You don't see it happen a lot," Mya said. "I think about my future a lot more than you could imagine. I think about it all the time."

That Saturday evening, inside Scobey's bright gymnasium, it was happening again.

The court felt small. The rim did, too. Mya was double-teamed whenever she started to drive, and, despite hitting a floater and a three-point shot in the first few minutes, she had just five points as halftime neared. In a loss to Froid/Medicine Lake the night before, she had finished with seven points and five assists as the Redhawks bothered her with three girls standing 6 feet or taller. After that game, Mya wore a Gonzaga shirt and, with her hair still damp from a shower, leaned into her aunt's arms.

"You played well," Sasha said, wrapping Mya in a bear hug.

"I don't know," muttered Mya, lifting her long, lean arms to hug back. "Not well enough."

Mya Fourstar gets a hug from hear Aunt Sasha Fourstar after a loss to the Froid Medicine Lake Redhawks.

Mya has never scored fewer than 10 points in back-to-back games. Now here she was, fearing that could happen, her name echoing all around the Scobey gym.

"You got this, Mya!" shouted Frazer superintendent Melanie Blount-Cole from behind the scorer's table.

"Get up on Mya!" yelled the Scobey coach, crouching into a defensive stance himself as Mya caught the ball behind the three-point line.

"Go Mya, go, go," urged her Aunt Sasha after Mya grabbed a defensive rebound. "Go, go, go. Come on."

In between plays, Mya glanced at the scoreboard before her eyes trailed to behind the baseline. That is where Sasha and Jewel Ackerman-Fourstar, Mya's grandmother, sat as Mya looked to them for some sign that she was doing OK. Mya's ponytail bounced against the back of her neck, her mouth seemed stuck in a straight line, her eyes boiled in frustration. June and Sasha smiled at her, offered a few claps of encouragement, and pointed her attention back to the game.

"The high school players on the reservation put a ton of pressure on themselves," said Kenny Smoker, a basketball star in Poplar, Montana, in the mid-1970s who is now part of the tribal government on the Fort Peck Indian Reservation. "A lot is expected of them from a lot of people. They need someone in their lives, a positive influence, to remind them that they can be kids."

Mya's parents split up when she was a baby, and Jewel, who was raised by her grandmother, didn't want Mya bouncing between homes. So Mya moved in when she was 7 years old and has since lived with her grandmother, who takes care of six grandchildren during the week and eight on the weekends. Mya sees her mom from time to time and will visit her dad in nearby Wolf Point on weekends when she doesn't have games.

Jewel, who is Mya's primary guardian, has been Frazer's Head Start preschool teacher for 34 years and has watched the town cycle through addictions that have gripped her family and neighbors. She shields the kids from this as best she can, steering their attention to school work and keeping them inside after night falls. She tells the young ones to be like Mya, with her straight A's and college plans. According to the 2010 U.S. Census report, 9.8 percent of Frazer's population was college educated and 32.8 percent was unemployed. Residents who work are often employed by the school, construction companies or the tribal government.

"We live in poverty," Jewel said. "I spoil some of the grandkids because I think they deserve it. They don't have anybody else. But Mya works so hard for everything she gets. She always has."

A lot of that work is with Sasha, who was once, like Mya, a teenager looking to get out. Sasha enlisted in the U.S. Army after high school, served in Iraq for a time before she was medically discharged in 2004 and came back to Frazer to help other kids see more of the world. She is the town mayor - "I went to the meeting for the free food a few years back and walked out the mayor," she says - and was the Frazer girls' varsity basketball coach for two years before she was replaced before this season.

Sasha trains Mya and fields calls and emails from college coaches. Montana doesn't have the same kind of summer AAU scene that gives exposure to high school players across the country. High-level players in Montana attract college coaches in the state playoffs or at sporadic summer tournaments with travel teams. For Mya, at a school that hasn't made it to the divisional round of the state tournament in almost two decades, the best recruiting tool is word of mouth and individual camps hosted by colleges.

Mya is Frazer's second-tallest player and its main ballhandler, tasked with scoring and setting up the offense. Speaking on the condition of anonymity, a mid-major college coach who has seen Mya play said she is a Division I talent and thinks Mya could be a spot-up shooter who also plays some point guard at the next level.

For all of basketball's importance in American Indian culture, reservation stars in the sport don't often turn into Division I players. Coaches and professors pinpoint low academic standards and a lack of overall exposure as reasons for this, and there are also historic trends of American Indian kids returning home shortly after enrolling in college. Mya is a straight-A student and stresses over each assignment, knowing she will need a near-flawless transcript to attract Division I schools or, should she instead play Division II, qualify for academic scholarships.

The attention on her, compounded by challenges all Frazer teenagers face in trying to move away, leads to constant scrutiny. Sasha remembers one day during Mya's eighth-grade year, after her niece strung together two high-scoring games over a weekend, in which Mya came up to her in tears. An adult in town told Mya she was a ball hog who thought she was too good for Frazer and, as Sasha recalls, "will just end up like everyone else."

"It's really hard for someone to see somebody else succeed," Sasha said of what Mya faces. "I have heard adults bring her down. It happens a lot. I just think they may get so jealous that their life is so stuck in a rut, so it's a, 'If I'm going to be miserable, than you're going to be miserable, too,' type of attitude. It's tough to be in the limelight around here, because then you have a target on your back."

After halftime, Mya found a rhythm. She hit a running floater through a foul, made the free throw, swished a three-pointer a minute later, nailed another floater off a sharp crossover and then dashed behind a defender before catching a pass and scooping the ball through the rim. That totaled 10 points in one quarter, bottling all of Mya's potential into eight minutes of Frazer's second loss of the season.

When Mya looked back at Jewel and Sasha, a heavy breath raising her shoulders up and down, a smile crept across her round face.

"Is that girl a senior?" asked a woman wearing a Scobey shirt.

"No," answered the man sitting next to her in the third row. "That must be Mya Fourstar."

Mya Fourstar, 15, is a promising basketball player for the Frazer Lady Bearcubs on the Fort Peck Indian Reservation in Montana.

The ride back after the game, in a boxy white bus with "Frazer Bearcubs" stripped across the side, cut down the middle of the reservation and through a peaceful night. The temperature dropped into single digits, putting patches of ice on the winding road. An airplane could be heard humming overhead, flying somewhere between the paper-flat plains and stars that looked like nickels on a black tablecloth.

Mya is used to such late-night drives, surrounded by darkness aside from the few passing headlights, as Frazer travels at least an hour for most road games. It is easy for her to plot her entire future on such a blank canvas: break Frazer's all-time scoring record, play college basketball at Gonzaga, move somewhere where she can shop without driving hours to reach her favorite stores, earn a degree in sports medicine and come back to coach the Frazer girls' basketball team when she's older.

The next morning, she will work out with Sasha at the wellness center in Wolf Point, run intervals on the treadmill, lift weights and prepare for her next chance to play so well that college coaches cannot look away. They will later have the family's weekly Sunday dinner, when all her cousins and siblings and aunts pack into Jewel's house to eat "Indian tacos" and dip homemade bread in sweet Juneberry soup. That is when Mya can feel normal, like a teenager without a nagging, distant dream, worried about what she will wear to school Monday morning, collecting sneakers and vinyl records, and counting the days until her pink braces come off in February.

Frazer is still home, however much Mya wants to be somewhere else. The school hallways are full of immediate and extended family members. The creek starts running in the spring, if winter brings enough snow, and she and her friends always take photos of each other along the rocks. Mya has a cozy, quiet room at her grandmother's, with a tapestry hanging from the ceiling, white Christmas lights lining the walls and her plan written on a painting behind a propped-open closet door.

"Don't forget where you came from," the painting reads. "But never lose sight of where you are going."

Author Information: Jesse Dougherty covers high school sports.