Oct. 20, 2012
Shanae Gilham has always been playing up. It started when Blackfeet Boarding Dorm coach Daryl "Poorboy" Croff allowed Gilham to play on his fourth- and fifth-grade teams when Gilham was just a first grader. Even then Gilham's beyond-her-years talent was evident.
A dozen years later Gilham is a freshman on the Lady Griz basketball team and is expected to play up again. Despite Montana's veteran makeup -- five returning starters, nine returning letterwinners -- Gilham is one of coach Robin Selvig's five freshmen who is not expected to redshirt this season. That oversized talent is still evident.
No one can pin down the exact moment when Shanae Gilham's journey to becoming a Lady Griz began.
Perhaps the day Gilham, a native of Browning, Mont., and a member of the Blackfeet Nation, started dreaming in the fifth grade of playing college basketball. More specifically playing for Montana.
Or maybe it was when Gilham, who was playing at a youth tournament in Kalispell, "dropped 40 on Trae's team," recalls Lady Griz assistant coach Annette Rocheleau, the mother of Trae, who witnessed Gilham's performance that day and still shakes her head at the memory. "We've had our eye on Shanae ever since."
Or maybe it was the day her family's new home in Browning was completed, then christened with a new backboard and basket right against the house, just inches of drywall and studs from Gerald and Jackie Gilham's bedroom. Trust them and anyone else who happened to be visiting over the years. Their daughter practicing herself into a Division I player was LOUD.
Or maybe the day when Shanae was a seventh grader and her grandpa and dad, who was recruited to play football at Carroll, decided to turn that well-worn patch of dirt beneath the basket into a kid's court of dreams: Level concrete!
Gilham has always provided the passion, and it was Browning that supplied the only sport in town. She started playing games as early as preschool in a town where visitors "better have a tolerance for basketball. It's a pretty big deal," Gilham says.
The first sign that Gerald and Jackie didn't have just another basketball player on their family roster was when Croff allowed their daughter to play four grades above her age for the Blackfeet Boarding Dorm, a facility located seven miles outside of town.
Gilham would play for Boarding Dorm teams all throughout her elementary and junior high years, even though it was a rival of the Browning public school in the Northern Middle Schools Athletic Association.
"Poorboy allowed me to play up, and he was a great coach, so I stuck with him," Gilham says.
Gilham, a cousin of former Lady Griz and fellow Browning native Malia Kipp (1992-96), and her Boarding Dorm teammates would win fifth-, sixth-, seventh- and eighth-grade NMSAA titles while playing against teams from Browning, Choteau, Conrad, Cut Bank, De La Salle, East Glacier, Fairfield, Shelby and Valier.
Because they had always been playing for second place, caravans of players and coaches from those towns gladly would have driven to Browning when the news broke: Gerald, Jackie, Shanae and her younger sisters Tiara and Kendal were packing up after Shanae's freshman year at Browning High and moving to Bozeman, where Jackie was going to begin classes at Montana State in her pursuit of becoming a dietician.
Bozeman High would have been good without adding Gilham to the Hawks' roster. With her, they were almost unbeatable, finishing with a three-year record of 65-5.
Gilham teamed up with UM redshirt sophomore Kellie Cole on BHS's 2010 Class AA state title team. Bozeman placed third in 2011 and was runner-up last spring, losing the state title game to Lady Griz freshman DJ Reinhardt and Sentinel High in overtime.
"It was a great opportunity for me to play at a more competitive level," Gilham says about the move from Browning to Bozeman. "I don't think I'd be nearly as ready to play at this level if we hadn't moved and I didn't have chance to play at (Class) AA."
The .929 winning percentage and all-state honors as a junior and senior aside, it wasn't all easy for Gilham. She tore her right ACL in the state semifinals her junior year. And though she was back in time for her senior season, she is one of the unlucky 10 percent who go through ACL surgery and are left with chronic patella tendonitis.
She tore her left ACL the first day of practice as an eighth grader and still has lingering meniscus issues. And her left thumb, which is prone to dislocating at the very thought of catching a hard-thrown pass, floats in its socket like it's rooted in jell-o and requires a special molded-plastic-and-tape job every time she practices, plays or lifts weights.
Yet no matter the challenges she ends up facing -- whether they be physical, academic or just loneliness for her family, which she calls "the backbone that I depend on" -- she'll never give in and retreat prematurely back to the safety net of Browning. It's an oft-repeated story she does not to be reminded of.
Too many other great athletes, she says, have come out of her hometown before and made the same unfamiliar journey to college, only to be overwhelmed by the academic demands and the distance from home, a gulf longer than the four-hour drive from Missoula to Browning, a place where the notion of family goes beyond just parents and siblings, beyond grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins.
"Everyone in Browning is like a huge family," Gilham says. "The support that you're used to having suddenly isn't there anymore (when you get to college), and that has a lot to do with why people go back home (before their college careers ever really get going). It's sad, but it happens."
Gilham has a pair of advantages that should allow her to avoid a similar fate and both play out her career and earn a degree in health and human performance, with an emphasis on health enhancement.
First, she points to the move from Browning to Bozeman as a mini-step in becoming comfortable outside of the element of her youth. She was for the first time away from the support of Browning, but she still had her immediate family.
She's now without that family, but she has found a new one in Selvig's Lady Griz program, a team that has more of a family vibe to it than 99 percent of the nation's collegiate athletic programs.
Second, she doesn't downplay or ignore the issue. Instead she acknowledges the challenges she knows are ahead of her. They are hurdles she intends to face head-on.
Why? Because she wants to play out her career and take her experiences and degree back to Browning, where her parents are set to return later this month from Bozeman, and make a difference as a coach herself for the next class of great athletes who might otherwise think their opportunities have ended once the final horn on their final game at Browning High has sounded.
She wants to be an example of what's possible. "There's so much talent that comes out of Browning," she says. "And not enough of it gets noticed."
One thing is certain. If her body holds up, Gilham has the talent that Selvig believes can help his experienced team in Gilham's very first season this winter. If that's the case, there will be at least one athlete, perhaps the first of a Gilham-inspired pipeline, who is getting noticed.
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