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Crown is no crutch for Frost when it comes to basketball

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BAYFIELD, Colo. (AP) – Her backyard court is a patch of reddish dirt where each dribble kicks up a wisp of reservation dust. From her 3-point arc, you can see the home of the Sun Dance chief.

A princess plays here. And the princess plays rough.

“Last summer, we had open gym for the girls on my high school team and no one wanted to guard me,” Tyla Frost said with a small grin, standing near her free-throw line – a flat, white pebble. “No one wanted to guard me because [they said] I’m too aggressive and too mean, and they’re all skinny and dainty, and I’m big-boned, and I’m not afraid to push them to get the ball.”

Think that sounds a tad hard-core, coming from the reigning Miss Southern Ute? Think a member of tribal royalty who delivers pow wow speeches in sweet smiles and traditional attire should soften the trash talk?

Think again. Because that rib-rattling style of play is another tradition in these parts.

“It’s rez ball,” Frost said. That’s short for reservation ball – a physical, forceful, don’t-even-bother-calling-a-foul variety of the game often seen when American Indian kids play hoops. “It’s like street ball. We kind of just go with it.”

In July, at the 2006 North American Indigenous Games in Denver, Frost foresees that sort of blissful banging on the court, as Team Colorado’s boys and girls teams clash with other regional squads.

As she says: “Indian kids playing rez ball. That’ll be fun.”

<b>Basketball spans generations </b>

But after a long wait for this moment – years of pick-up games at the local rec center and a career at Bayfield High School – Frost will merely be a loud voice on the bench in Denver. Perhaps partly because of her aggressive play, she developed a chronic ankle injury that required a tendon-tightening operation in May. She will be on crutches or in a boot all summer before returning for her senior prep season.

“When they told me I needed surgery, something definitely hurt inside,” Frost said. “This would have been my first Indigenous Games. But I’ll definitely be going as a [Southern Ute] princess and as a team manager.

“I’m going to be yelling at them like crazy. I’m constantly talking. When I play, I’m the one that won’t shut up. It’s kind of passed down,” she added with a laugh, “from my mom.”

That’s not the only DNA strand at play. Frost hails from a family that’s as rich in basketball lore as it is in Southern Ute heritage. One uncle, Ray Frost, earned high school All-American honors in Bayfield. Two more uncles traded hoops highlights for tribal leadership – Clement Frost is the Southern Ute chairman and Byron Frost serves as the tribe’s Sun Dance chief, living about a half-mile from Tyla. At the Bayfield High School gym, their names are immortalized on banners, along with their brother, Ron Frost.

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“You look around, you can see my uncles’ names here, here and here,” Tyla said. “The way I got to basketball was through my family.”

Her home, high above a two-lane highway that cuts through the reservation, is a testament to that history. The past generation grew up in the house as well. Her mother, Debbie Olguin, has told her tales of those same uncles sharpening their shooting skills by firing basketballs made of rolled-up socks through coat-hanger rims. Above the door of a tool shed, an old backboard still stands – the spot where a cousin named “Choppers” once practiced.

“I like to see that,” Tyla said, standing between the backboard and an old, yellow truck with a bullet-peppered windshield. “It’s just always been a part of us.”

“It’s in the blood,” added her mother, who played high school ball in Kansas and later coached her daughter’s youth team. Teaching basketball to Tyla, she said, was as vital as teaching the tribal language or the origins of the Bear Dance – lessons that helped Tyla earn a one-year reign as Miss Southern Ute.

<b>Sport, a daily staple </b>

Then again, basketball has long been interlaced with American Indian culture. It goes back to the boarding schools. Between 1880 and 1950, federal law mandated Indian children be taught in English, and about two-thirds of the kids were educated at live-in, English-only schools.

“They were sent all over the country,” said Jim Jefferson, a tribal history expert at the Southern Ute headquarters in Ignacio. “The government decided that in order to inculturate the Indian, they needed to separate them from their parents. At the boarding schools, that’s where they picked up basketball.”

When those young people eventually returned to their reservations, many brought the game with them. Just like the Frost family, basketball passed from generation to generation.

It’s happening again in Tyla Frost’s back yard. As she nursed her gimpy ankle all spring, her only opponent has been her 9-year-old sister, Jennifer.

“I lower the hoop for her because I like teaching her what I know,” Frost said. “I can teach her all this stuff, and I can school her – because I’m a foot taller!”

Away from those sibling rivalries, Frost recently worked on her game before the ankle surgery shelved her. As a post player for Bayfield, she does most of her work in the paint. So, before tuning up her 3-point shot – the arc is a red, spray-painted line – Frost always forced herself to make 20 quick, close shots from the right of the rim and 20 from the left. That personal drill, mandatory in her mind, showed her devotion to the game.

But between her bad ankle and her many appearances as Miss Southern Ute, basketball slowly became a perk for Frost instead of a daily staple.

“That really took a toll on me. I missed it so much,” she said. “I felt incomplete without it. There’s just this space in me. I need to be out there.”