BOZEMAN -- It’s fitting that Kola Bad Bear nearly learned to walk while spending long hours in the gym at the young age of 1. With two older sisters, Naomi and Courtney, already competing heavily in sports, she wasn’t about to be left out of the action.
At the age of 5, Kola was already getting a taste of what it was like to play sports on a competitive level. Whether it was softball, basketball or volleyball, Kola’s dad, Curtis, pushed all three of them to simply be the best in whatever they were doing.
“My dad had my sisters and I in the gym all the time. He taught us what we needed to do to improve and was always rebounding for us,” Kola recalled.
Growing up in the small town of Pryor on the Crow Reservation, Kola is well aware of the importance of basketball and just how much it means to the Crow people. It isn’t just a sport that’s played during the season, it’s a way of life and a way out.
“It’s everything, it’s all you hear about on the reservation -- basketball and cross country,” she said.
Kola and her family took part in many of the traditional ways on the Crow Reservation such as dancing in powwows. But it wasn't long before the family found itself in Billings more than it was at home.
“We were constantly driving to Billings for AAU tournaments and activities. It just made sense to move,” Kola said.
Kola left St. Charles Mission School and began her freshman year at Billings Senior High School. Her sisters, already making their mark on the court for the Broncs, helped ease the transition.
Kola had no problem adjusting to the higher level of play in Class AA, ending her junior basketball season as the leading scorer in Class AA with 16.8 points per game and ranking fourth in rebounds at 4.8 per game. As for volleyball, she led the class in kills per set midway through her senior volleyball season.
Kola was primed for one of the best senior seasons Montana coaches and fans had seen in both volleyball and basketball. Twelve Division 1 schools were calling her name for basketball, not to mention the numerous offers for volleyball.
Just as every athlete relishes in the feelings of triumph and victory, adversity and loss are seemingly always lurking in the background.
Kola didn’t expect to tear her ACL in the middle of her senior volleyball season on a routine slide she’d executed a million times before. She didn’t expect to have to forego her senior season of basketball and all the goals she had — like winning Gatorade player of the year. She definitely didn’t expect to end her standout career at Billings Senior sitting on the bench in street clothes and crutches watching her team play the rest of the season without her.
But she did expect to come back — stronger and better than before.
Her main motivation to get back on the court on the court was simple.
“The love of the game,” she said, quick and confident.
It never crossed her mind that her sports career was over, and wanting to prove to people that ACL injuries can be overcome only fueled the fire.
Fast forward one year — past the physical and mental pain of enduring a season-ending injury, past the countless hours of physical therapy and the thousands of tears shed on missed opportunities. Kola is picking up right where she left off for the Montana State women's basketball team — a place she chose because of the tight-knit family atmosphere she knew so well growing up in Pryor.
The true freshman is averaging 12.1 minutes, 2.7 points and 2.7 rebounds per game.
Yet of all the awards and accomplishments thus far, Kola’s favorite sports memory has nothing to do with any of them. The memory she cherishes the most is being able to play alongside her older sisters on both the volleyball and basketball courts her freshman year, a true testament to just how much family means to Kola.
There isn’t one word that sums a special young athlete like Kola, but MSU women’s basketball coach Tricia Binford doesn’t hesitate to call her “fearless.”
“Mentally, coming back from the things she’s come back from takes courage,” Binford conintued. “She’s a special kid and an amazing teammate. She’s contagious in a good way. She’s coachable, has a great attitude, works hard and carries those things into her everyday life.”
Her fearless nature is helping to pave the way for the younger generations back home — those dreaming of becoming the next Kola. She was slow to embrace the role model status, but it’s something she’s coming to understand.
“I never really acknowledged it or thought of it like that,” Kola said. “Being in college now and having people reach out to me has really opened my eyes.”
Her advice to young athletes wanting to earn a scholarship is to simply put in the time.
“Go in early in the morning and stay late after practice,” she said. “Work at the school part, too. You can only go so far with just your basketball skills.”
From the young wide-eyed girl running around the court looking up to her sisters, to the young lady who has overcome hurdles to live her Division I dream, the future is wide open and full of possibilities.
One thing is for certain: Kola Bad Bear is ready for whatever life throws her way.