CHOTEAU – Ask Sayer Patton what he wants you to know about him, and it isn’t that for years he was a “slow as molasses” youngster who earned his basketball chops through hours of repetition – once shooting hundreds of free throws in the glow of headlights in a midnight snowstorm after missing two shots to lose a junior-high game.
It isn’t that he has a 3.89 grade-point average at Choteau High School, or that he’s pretty deft on the drums in the cavernous Patton “man cave” behind their remodeled 1940s farmhouse, or that he’ll help with calving next month on their 1,000-acre Old Agency Ranch ranch on the Rocky Mountain Front north of town even though “I’m not your typical cowboy, you might say”.
It isn’t even that he chose Carroll College and its pre-med program to continue his academic and athletic career this fall largely as a salute to his mother, Nikki, a career nurse who was diagnosed with Advanced Stage IIIB breast cancer when Sayer was 13 months old and given a 20 percent chance of survival.
Sayer, a strapping 6-foot-3 wing who leads the state in scoring at just under 30 points per game, instead mentions a book he’s reading called “Outliers”, by Malcolm Gladwell. Given to him by his father, Blair, whose jack-of-all-trades avocations range from sports medicine to strength/conditioning to construction to lawn care to cattle ranching, “Outliers” is a reminder that success is a result of dedication, yes, but also the many people along the way who’ve opened doors, sometimes literally.
“It kind of opened my eyes to, ‘Geez, all these people helped me succeed that I don’t even realize at first’,” Sayer said. “You get selfish and think, ‘I’m the one who goes and puts in the work and I was the one who always goes and shoots all the time.’ And he (Blair) is like, ‘Who gave you the opportunity to do that?’ “
And that’s when it all clicks.
It's the superintendent, Kevin St. John, who unlocked the Choteau gym early and late and taught Sayer how to shoot. It's the Bell family in Sidney, who opened doors to their own half-court family hoop – the “Bell Dome” – during that wrenching eighth-grade year when the family lived in a camper in Nikki’s home town to comfort her father in his final days battling brain cancer. It's the coaches and the older teammates from back-to-back state-title teams in Choteau, Colin Achenbach and Logan Crabtree in particular, who’d routinely pick him up after the family moved from town to the ranch when Sayer was in sixth grade.
Sayer saves perhaps his most fervent nod for his parents, who recognized his basketball passion early. Their commitment is perhaps epitomized by the “man cave”, which features the drums, a heady collection of Blair’s guitars and a giant World War I American flag on the living half, and a glossy basketball half-court surrounded by tools on the shop half.
It is there you’ll find Sayer – named for former Chicago Bears football great Gale Sayers, a favorite of Blair's -- for several more hours after team practice, honing an ever-evolving game.
“Pretty cool,” he says of the Patton Dome.
Built two years ago, the indoor arena is a reward for persistence from a player who wasn’t particularly athletic early on even as he was learning to ride a bicycle without training wheels before he was 3 and winning state wrestling championships in elementary school.
“It’s all hard work,” Blair said. “He’s not a genetic freak.”
Said Sayer, with a laugh: “I was a little chubby. Growing up shooting the ball was all I could really do. I wasn’t very fast, I couldn’t drive, I didn’t play defense. I was just a spot-up shooter.”
During pickup games well into his sophomore year of high school, he learned that if he ever was to score against the likes of Achenbach and Crabtree he’d have to create his shots. So he worked to compensate with fade-aways and step-back jumpers, for example.
A fond family story is of a district playoff game as a sophomore against rival Fairfield, where he was on his way to scoring well over 20 points by halftime. Fairfield’s coach chastised his guards for their inability to corral him.
“C'mon," the coach implored. "He’s slow!”
“But coach,” came an exasperated reply, “he’s crafty!”
Between Sayer’s sophomore and junior years, aided by a fitness program and more selective diet, crafty merged with athleticism. He has been an unstoppable force ever since.
Sayer has scored more than 30 points in 12 games and it would be more if not for blowouts and a nagging ankle injury suffered Jan. 25 against Fairfield. The outside shot remains, but now he drives, runs the floor, and can be a dunking dervish.
Colleges took notice, not only of his basketball skills but also of his academic acumen, another emphasis reinforced by his parents. One of the first college suitors was Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Prescott, Arizona, where one of the coach’s recruiting pitches was that the starting center is an astrophysicist.
He thought about pursuing engineering and decided he preferred a career involving more interpersonal relationships.
Sayer, the youngest of three children, also thought of his mother.
He has little memory of Nikki’s cancer scare and recovery ordeal, other than toddling around at an occasional Relay For Life in Helena or Great Falls. After awhile, he'd notice photos of her without hair, thanks to experimental chemotherapy so potent that her oncologist in Billings feared it would kill her before the cancer did – moving her to seek the aggressive treatment at the University of Washington.
“I wanted to be able to look at my kids and say I did everything I could and did my hardest to be there,” Nikki said of the treatments. “I never wanted to be dying and say, ‘Man, I took the easy way out’.”
Nikki is workout-gym fit and cancer-free today, but the stories and photos made such an impression on Sayer that he envisions a post-basketball career in pediatric oncology.
“After my mom’s Stage IV diagnosis with cancer … after seeing how it affected our family, it’s been a dream to help kids in those times,” he said. “I didn’t know until looking back at scrapbooks of my mom, and then she’d explain it to me and just seeing how emotional she got over it, I know how hard it must have been for her.
“Even though I was only 1-year-old, I still feel like it’s a big part of me.”
Said Blair: “That particular area of medicine can be a real heart-breaker, but the reason he wants to be there is noble. He said, ‘I can see myself as the one that meets with parents and talks to them.’ More power to him. That’s very hard to do.”
Sitting in their cozy kitchen, surrounded by fields that routinely attract grizzly bears and a cottonwood-lined spring creek with brook trout, Nikki Patton’s eyes well with tears as her son talks about his dream.
“He wants to go into medicine and do good," she said. "My heart smiles."
Sayer is aware of the challenges looming at Carroll, his thought-out choice over basketball tossups Montana Tech and Providence because of pre-med. Medicine and athletics are a rigorous combination, though at Carroll he’ll have plenty of company.
“Obviously you’ve got to be right type of kid academically,” first-year Carroll coach Kurt Paulson said. “Once kids get to Carroll, it’s hard; it’s not for everybody. You’ve got to be able to have time-management skills. A kid like him, with a very high GPA, he’s already developed that characteristic. Those are the guys we like. We don’t have to train them on that when they get here.”
The same, Paulson noted, can be said for Sayer’s basketball skills.
Thanks to having to develop his game instead of relying on sheer athleticism, he will arrive as a polished player. The areas for improvement, which will be addressed with diet, in the upstairs man-cave weight room at home, and at Carroll come summer: Bigger, stronger, faster.
“I just like the fact he’s a basketball player first,” Paulson said. “We can get him bigger and stronger. Instead of being an outstanding athlete and trying to make him a basketball player, which usually doesn’t pan out, he’s a basketball player. I just think he’s our type of kid up at Carroll.”
In the meantime, Sayer’s high school career is winding down, beginning with the Northern B divisional this week. The moment isn’t lost on him or his parents.
Nikki Patton is reminded that as she battled cancer she had a survival benchmark with each of her children: Watch oldest son Kade graduate from high school, see daughter Tylee off to prom, and walk Sayer to kindergarten.
Nikki savored all three, though Sayer went off script the first day of kindergarten by grabbing his mini-backpack and whooshing off to class for his next great challenge with little more than a “Bye!” and “Mom, I’ll be OK!” over his shoulder as she valiantly pursued.
Against those long-ago long odds, Nikki was able to make up for the unwitting kindergarten diss two weeks ago at Senior Night, when the threesome was the first to be honored at center court before Choteau's final home game. Though often moved to tears, all she could do then was smile.
“Every game,” she said, “I just take it in.”
Sayer took it in as well, recognizing an ending and a beginning. He thought about all those who've helped make his journey possible, most notably the two people beside him – the parents who’d driven him to all those games and provided an indoor court when he proved his mettle amid those harsh elements outdoors.
So ask him what else he wants you to know as he reflects on his own dedication but also the outliers who’ve helped make his success possible, and he’ll affirm it without equivocation.
“I’m blessed,” he said, more than once, just as if he were shooting free throws on a frigid winter midnight.