Sure, Nikiski is a hotbed for girls high school basketball, but how about Okinawa, Japan?
"We don't have seasons, so we play basketball all year," said Hisa Miyara of how they do things where she comes from. "I play almost every day. Sometimes I get tired, but I like playing basketball."
Miyara, a senior foreign exchange student at Nikiski High School this year, proved that love of the game transcends barriers -- both of geography and language -- helping the Bulldogs girls basketball team to their second straight Alaska School Activities Association state 3A championship, the program's seventh state title in the past 12 years.
Miyara, who stands 5-foot-4, made an immediate impact with the Bulldogs this year. In the season opener at Skyview High School with the score tied and seconds on the clock, Miyara drove the lane to gracefully deposit the game-winning basket. She finished the game with 19 points and four assists.
Miyara considers the game the highlight of her season, though her contributions to Nikiski basketball since then have been just as significant.
Miyara said her season with the Bulldogs has been great. Not only did they win a championship, they also bonded as a team. Miyara's teammates made sure to immerse her in American culture, introducing her to everything from the lyrics of rapper 50 Cent to the high school locker room tradition of the wedgie.
Of course, Miyara already had the basketball side of things down pat. She said she started playing in fifth grade, following in the footsteps of her older brother.
"We used to play one-on-one when I was in middle school," Miyara said.
Those skills have translated well in Alaska, and Miyara set the single-game Nikiski girls record for assists with 11 against Soldotna. For her efforts, Miyara was voted to the all-state 3A first team.
"All the points she scores is because we're not looking when she wants to pass," said teammate Katie Floyd. "She's really fun to play with. If you think you're open, she'll know."
Floyd said she knew when Miyara was arriving in Nikiski and met her for open gym sessions. The game, with the help of some basic hand signals, broke down the initial language barrier, and as Miyara became more comfortable with her teammates, she also became more assertive from her point guard position.
"At the beginning, she followed whatever we did," said teammate Anjani Salonen. "Toward the end, you would hear her yell your name."
"In the beginning, she didn't think she was good," added Floyd.
For all her skills, Miyara also has endeared herself to her teammates as a person. Teammates refer to Miyara as their "Little Yao," though Miyara is quick to point out that Yao Ming of the NBA's Houston Rockets is from China, not Japan.
"She's fun to joke around with," Floyd said. "It's been real fun to have her on the team. It's been a real blessing."
Miyara said when she decided to study abroad for a year, she just chose America, then was matched up with a host family, Phil and Peggy Nash of Nikiski.
"I was a little bit nervous (about coming to Alaska), but I'm glad to come to Nikiski," Miyara said. "People here are nice."
Miyara said classroom dynamics here are a little different than in Japan.
"It's more fun. Teachers are nice and it's interesting talking" in class, Miyara said. "In Japan, it's just the teacher talking while we are taking notes and not as much discussion. I like the American style better."
Miyara has been holding her own in the classroom, though she said she did have trouble on a quiz last week. However, Floyd said she always asks Miyara for help with coursework.
"She's really smart," Floyd said. "I always ask her for help in physics.
"It's just amazing. The language barrier doesn't stop her at all. She's always smiling, and she's really fun to be around."
Miyara has had the chance to do some of the quintessential Alaska activities, like fishing for salmon on the Kenai River, but the odd winter weather has left one goal unfulfilled.
"I wanted to make a snowman, but the snow is gone already," Miyara said.
Miyara will return to Japan in July and plans to enjoy her time on the peninsula between now and then. She's even going out for soccer, though she said she's never played the game.
"It's going to be very hard when she leaves because of the type of person she is," Salonen said. "I hope she goes really far. She's the type of person you want success for more than she wants it for herself."
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