BOX ELDER – Picture this: On a dirt driveway in the foothills of northern Montana's Bears Paw Mountains, a single yard light illuminates a solitary basketball hoop amid the vast summer darkness.
It’s 2 a.m. on the Rocky Boy Indian Reservation, and a tireless 8-year-old named Lilly Gopher is going at her father, Jerome, in a game of one-on-one, as many as eight hours after the first shots are fired.
Every so often, dad asks if daughter has finally had enough. No, is always the reply, until Jerome, partly out of self-preservation, points out that even basketball stars need their sleep.
“I’m like, ‘We’ll try again tomorrow',“ Jerome Gopher remembers. “We would play to the point I would get tired, and she still wanted to play. And she was going to beat you. Ever since she was little she had that in her.”
Fast forward nearly a decade, and little has changed for Lillian Dawn-Gopher, the brightest of many girls stars for Box Elder, a Class C school in a table-flat cottonwood oasis sandwiching U.S. Highway 87 off Rocky Boy's western edge.
Sure, the dirt driveway is a concrete slab, and the diminutive Chippewa-Cree third-grader who launched two-handed set shots is now a multi-skilled 5-foot-10 junior point guard on an overpowering team.
But Gopher remains equally laser-focused on her twin passions: Basketball and academics. If all goes as scripted, both will take her to college, preferably to Gonzaga University and a degree in physical therapy or related medical field.
“My coaches, my grandparents, my dad … they all told me if I want to get to that level, if you work hard it will pay off,” she said. “If you do well in school and sports, something good will happen.”
To those who know Lilly best, there is no doubt something good will happen.
They see the physical gifts for NCAA Division I basketball, the intelligence to flourish academically, and a sense of purpose belying her age. She has always been a vocal leader even as the youngest player on her teams, and she recently conversed with a reporter as if interviews, like dribbling and shooting, are second nature.
“She is one of the most competitive female basketball players I’ve ever met, and that transfers over to her personal life,” said Box Elder coach Joel Rosette, whose Lilly-led team is 13-0, second only to arch-nemesis Belt in the 406mtsports.com rankings, and has yet to allow an opponent within 21 points.
“It seems like she’s competitive in everything she does.”
Basketball? Even when Lilly isn’t launching 500 3-pointers in the gym, dribbling for hours on that concrete slab or playing in impromptu tournaments at Stone Child College, she’s home studying defenses on YouTube or watching college games.
Academics? Already No. 2 in her class, Lilly is determined to be valedictorian and is quick to show her family report cards laced with 'A's. She routinely finishes her assignments by the end of school and thus rarely has homework. Oh, and she was Senior Princess at the Chippewa-Cree Tribe's annual powwow this summer.
As such, nobody worries about Lilly's whereabouts after school and practice. The disheartening temptations and perils of Indian Country – alcohol, drugs, teen pregnancy, just to name a few – are kept at arm’s length by her tunnel vision and a safety net comprised of the school, teammates, coaches, parents and the grandparents who have provided her with a home for all but the summer of her eighth-grade year.
Indeed, it is one of the minefields of reservation life that drives her: Diabetes. The disease impacts nearly every Rocky Boy family to some degree, including hers, and she imagines one day working with afflicted patients for Indian Health Services at nearby Rocky Boy Agency, in the Bears Paw's piney foothills.
“Something in the medical field,” she said, adding sports medicine or becoming a surgeon as other possibilities.
Lilly's inner circle says her devotion comes mostly from within. She credits her soft-spoken father — a second-year girls assistant at Box Elder — for pushing her in basketball. She salutes her maternal grandparents, Daryl and Elinor Nault Wright, for her dedication to schoolwork and all other life pursuits.
Daryl and Elinor raised her from birth at their home 13 miles from Box Elder and are now her legal guardians. Along with her biological parents, Jerome and Autumn Wright, Lilly also refers to them as "Dad' and "Mom"; both have college degrees from state universities and have made a point of giving Lilly cultural experiences on and off the reservation. She is a poster child for the yellow-and-black "Graduation Matters" sign that stretches across a tall chain-link fence outside the school's playground and basketball courts.
"We've just pushed and pushed for college," Elinor said. "When basketball is not fun anymore you don't have to continue to play, but you will go to college. We always said, 'I don't want you to live someone else's dream. I want you to live your dream'."
Agreed Lilly: “They always said, ‘Do well in school and you’ll do well in life’. It’s a good foundation for your whole life, basically.”
Lilly's "Mom" and "Dad" have been in her ear with that message since she can remember. With her parents separated – her father, who she calls "my best friend", living at Rocky Boy, her mother an easy 25-mile drive away in Havre – she's been with them her entire life.
Elinor remembers Lilly as a tiny third-grader who was asked to join a boys team by Box Elder coaching legend Jeremy MacDonald and his son Duncan. They won the tournament and Lilly pushed up a 3-pointer with all her might that fell through the basket.
"Everybody went wild -- crazy wild," Elinor said. "From then on that that seed was planted for her."
Lilly even moved with her grandparents in middle school to Worley, Idaho, where she was chosen to play for the Post Falls Elite AAU squad. It was there she fully realized her basketball potential. She made the AAU all-star team and her coached nicknamed her "The Dominator".
"So many coaches in Idaho and Washington picked her up and worked with her," Elinor said. "They helped her work toward her dream."
Said Lilly: “That’s where I got exposed a lot. When I came back I wanted to work harder.”
Basketball is part of the family DNA on both sides of the family. Her paternal grandfather, Rusty Gopher, a Cree cultural instructor and 21-year member of the Rocky Boy School District Board of Trustees, remembers taking her many years ago to Great Falls' Four Seasons Arena to watch his cousins, Joe and Charles, play in a Northern C divisional. Lilly was in tears after spilling her popcorn, and to cheer her up he bought her another tub and added, "One day you'll be out there playing ball!"
"Awwww, Grandpa," was her reply.
More than a decade later, as a freshman, she was doing just that on the same court, helping Box Elder to a second-place finish to Belt at state.
"I'm very proud of my granddaughter for working hard to reach her goals, as a student and athlete," Rusty Gopher said.
Lilly had returned to Box Elder with her grandparents as a freshman and was all-conference. Last year, as a sophomore, she averaged 15 points and six rebounds a game to earn all-state honors on a dominant team that lost to Belt — who else? — in the divisional semifinals and fell three points short of returning to state.
This year, with Lilly and fellow all-stater Joelnell Momberg joined by Centerville transfer Cecilia Vielle, an imposing all-state post, Box Elder has been untouchable. Other than the 68-47 nail-biter with Fort Benton, no team has come closer than 32 points; the average margin of victory was exactly 50.0 after a 53-point pounding of Chinook on Saturday.
Suffice it to say, Belt, which has won five of the past six state titles, is sporting a bull's-eye.
“Honestly, their coach and their team … they’re great,” Lilly said. “So to finally (beat Belt), to accomplish that, would mean a lot to me and my team. It would make our community proud, and our tribe and our elders would be really proud of us.”
Lilly has two more cracks at a state title. And then?
Both Rosette and first-year boys coach LaVon Myers — formerly an All-American guard for Montana State-Northern — believe Lilly is D-I material. As a 5-10 point, her sturdy frame is a rare combination of height, speed, strength and agility. She can move in the open court, take players off the dribble and finish at the rim. Rosette says she could routinely score 30 points a night if she weren't surrounded by so much talent, so eager to share the ball and spent so much time on the bench during blowouts. A consistent 3-point shot is about all she lacks for a complete repertoire.
“When you’ve got the ability to see the floor and make plays at that size, that’s awesome,” Myers said. “And she’s hungry. That’s going to help her get to the next level.”
Said Rosette: “To me, the sky’s the limit. Whatever she wants, she can do it. She’s got that mentality. She’s not going to be denied.”
If you don't believe it, just ask Lilly. Chances are you'll find her with a basketball under the light on that concrete slab, still wearing out her father until 2 in the morning.