The Legend of Elvis Old Bull

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The Legend of Elvis Old Bull

The Magic Johnson of Montana rezball died last month in a car accident, but the stories of his greatness will endure.
October 30, 2014, 1:50pm

In Crow Indian mythology, there's a story of how the world came to be. In the beginning, when there was nothing but water, Old Man Coyote was lonely and craved companionship. He met two ducks, one of which dived deep into the water, returning with root, and then a lump of soft earth. Old Man Coyote blew on the earth, which grew and spread, and he planted the root, which blossomed to grasses, plants, trees, and food of all kind. From the mud, he carved bears, wolves, deer, antelopes, prairie chickens, and, in-thanks, female ducks. Old Man Coyote made people, and crafted them bows and arrows to hunt, tools to build, teepees for shelter, fire to cook, drums to dance, and wars so young men could prove their mettle on the battlefield and rise to become Chiefs.

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The Old Man Coyote tale is one of many passed down through the oral tradition, the stories handed down from generation-to-generation, keeping the Crow Indian tradition alive. It is, of course, the Creation myth, the explanation of how something beautiful can arise from nothing at all.

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"In our junior year, at home, we were down 10 to Hardin with 57 seconds left. Our gym had been packed to the core, people all the way up to the top of the balcony, but it emptied out. The next day, people in town were shocked to find out we came back and won," says Gordon Real Bird Jr., a guard for the Lodge Grass Indians from 1988-90.

"Elvis couldn't miss, he scored nine points in just a few seconds, a couple of threes and a three-point-play, but Hardin also made a couple of free throws. It came down to there was two seconds left and it was Hardin's ball under our basket. They went for the home run play, but they threw the ball so hard it sailed all the way and hit the wall on the other side of the court. Lodge Grass ball. Elvis tied it at the buzzer. We won in overtime.

That game, more than any other, showed the incredible things Elvis Old Bull could do on a basketball court."

Photo via KPAX-Missoula

On September 30, at 11:30 a.m., Elvis Old Bull and two other people died in a single-car rollover crash on I-90 east of Billings, Montana. He was ejected from an SUV after it attempted to pass a tractor trailer and drifted off the road.

Old Bull's death reverberated throughout Montana. Tributes poured in from Kalispell to Billings and all spots in between, each one further burnishing the legend of a man who, if he wasn't the greatest boy's high school basketball player ever, at least makes the starting five. In 1999,Sports Illustrated named Old Bull one of Montana's 50 greatest athletes, the only one selected based solely on a high school career.

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Never the fastest, or most athletic, or even the best shooter, Old Bull played a well-rounded whatever-you-need-today game. The diversity in his game explains how he holds the state record for free throws attempted in a single season with 329, is eighth on the all-time assist list with 484—including a single-game Montana record 22 assists—and once drilled nine threes in a game for good measure. He scored 1,984 points in his career, averaging nearly 20 a game. And yet, the stat sheets and record books don't take into account Old Bull's most impressive legacy.

"I guess it depends on what era you're talking about, but to me, Elvis is the best," says Real Bird. "To win three state titles and three consecutive tournament MVPs? That is what separates Elvis from the rest."

In Old Bull's sophomore season, the Lodge Grass Indians came out of nowhere to win the Class B title in Missoula, and he exploded onto the state basketball scene, long before the advent of YouTube or MaxPreps, back when a 20-second clip on Chris Byers KULR sports wrap-up was all the footage hoop fans were going to get. He played for a small school (107 kids this year), in a small division (Class B is for schools of roughly 100-350 students), from a small town (430 residents, give or take), on a Crow Indian reservation that shrunk from 33 million acres in 1851 to two million today.

It wasn't easy to see Old Bull play, so his basketball exploits became the stuff of legend, a larger-than-life rezball wiz with a devoted following that would blaze through the Montana winter to pack whatever gym on whatever night. Reporters started riding the bus, documenting Old Bull's every move, rock-star style.

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"Elvis is ALIVE and living in Lodge Grass, Montana! That was always my favorite," says Don Wetzel Jr.. 41, who watched Old Bull play in high school, and later played with him in Indian tournaments. "He had this mystique, when he showed up, 'Elvis is here! Elvis is here!' He was Magic Johnson, three or four steps ahead of everybody else and so clutch when he needed to be."

Rezball is the colloquial term for a style of play typical on reservations. Wetzel calls it "controlled chaos," relentless full-court pressure, constant trapping, and forcing your opponent into turnovers to get out and run. "And run, run, run, run," says Wetzel, who is the American Indian youth development coordinator for Montana. "And not one guy, but five guys out on the break, over and over again. If the opponents can't handle the ball, they fall apart. Any time you can get a Rez team to put in that effort on defense and manage the game a little bit, I guarantee they'll win a state title."

To play that way for entire games is harder than it looks, as Real Bird points out. "I've heard coaches say it's undisciplined. Our practices were tough, my dad was coach and he really worked us. We had schemes to get the other team to play our run-and-gun style. It takes a lot of discipline for guys to know their position on the court. We mastered that style." In 1990, the Lodge Grass Indians averaged 95.2 points a game, third-highest in Montana history.

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Rezball was Old Bull's game and the stories grew right along with the crowds who flocked to see him in the flesh.

"We played against Shepherd in Billings and I think we sold out the Metra," says Real Bird. "Our little school with less than 200 kids filled an arena that seats 10,000."

Hard to imagine? Not for me. I was there. I went to Billings Central Catholic High, which is class A, so I didn't see a lot of Old Bull, but I recall making a trip to our town's main arena to watch Lodge Grass play. What I remember is the confidence, the control, and the mullet. That big of a crowd? It's been 25 years, I was probably soaked in Schmidt tall boys at the time, and it could have been a different game, but sure, why not? Ten thousand. Old Bull's game was fact and legend in equal measure.

Elvis went for 40 last night.

Elvis had 22 dimes yesterday.

Elvis is averaging a triple-double.

Elvis is being scouted by Bobby Knight.

Elvis is staying home, got a full ride to play for the Bobcats.

Elvis had his kids with him on the bench.

Elvis scored nine points in 30 seconds to win state.

Elvis dropped out of school right after the tourney…

Unfortunately, the last one wasn't folklore, it came from Gary Smith's famous 1992 Sports Illustrated piece Shadow of a Nation:

"[Old Bull] leads his team to the third state title, wins his third tournament MVP trophy, then simply stops going to school. He watches his classmates graduate through eyes swollen from a car wreck from another night's drinking. And the sun arcs across the Montana sky, and the eagle wheels, and the circle remains unbroken."

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It was well known that Old Bull struggled with addiction, an all-too-common story of reservation life. There were certainly college opportunities to be had, but education was second to the game. At its best, rezball is a wonder to behold, but it rarely offers a way out.

"You'll hear people say so-and-so didn't go to college, or onto play in the pros, but we're in the country by the mountains, and recruiters don't come, but I still don't think you can take away all of the positive things basketball brings to our area," says Real Bird, who is serving his second-term as a senator with the Crow Nation Tribal Council.

Old Bull had his demons. Enough said. His legacy doesn't need another white dude righteously trying to explain reservation life. This is a celebration, not a funeration, a chance to remember a man who created beautiful things where none existed before. Old Bull created his own mythology.

"I was playing with Elvis in an Indian tournament game and I distinctly remember, he threw me a full-court bounce-pass through three people," says Wetzel. "The bounce hit so perfectly, almost to the bottom of the backboard, where all I had to do was tip it. I wasn't expecting it because he wasn't even looking at me. The way he could see the court… Phenomenal."

Old Bull never played college ball, but his reputation grew thanks to pick-up games and rec leagues throughout Montana. For basketball fans of a Gen-X age in Montana, Elvis sightings inevitably led to the "Magic vs. Bird" question over post-game beers.

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Who was better, Elvis Old Bull or Jonathan Takes Enemy?

Takes Enemy, the subject of Smith's profile, played for Hardin from 1980-84 and is best known for averaging 41 points a game in a state tournament, before the three-point line was added. I was always Team Takes Enemy, but that's because he played for class A Hardin, so I saw him play more. I was also in seventh and eighth grade at the time. When the Central gym was packed, each row of each wooden bench overstuffed with fans, drums banging, the band playing, and Takes Enemy doing his thing, he seemed like a basketball god. And he was one. The poet Shann Ray (himself something of a Montana hoops legend) has his own Takes Enemy memory: he remembers watching him shoot a pure clean half-court jumper that he knew was good without watching the flight of the ball.

The Old Bull vs. Takes Enemy debate will never be decided. The former had the all-encompassing Johnson game with the odd knuckleball set shot, the latter the ability to score anywhere/anytime with both hands and a sweet stroke a la Bird. The latter went on to have a successful post-high school career at Rocky Mountain College, the former has those Lodge Grass titles.

Both men, legends. And even if you were never lucky enough to see them play—and you won't until someone uploads some dusty VHS footage to YouTube—could you at least agree there has never been two better names in the history of basketball?

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At the time of Smith's profile, Takes Enemy was on the brink, but now he lives a quiet life in Spokane with his wife and three children. He still hits the court and has played in renowned writer/basketball junkie Sherman Alexie's HooPalousa tournament at the University of Idaho, which raises funds for the American Indian Graduate Fellowship in Creative Writing.

Old Bull was a 2008 inductee into the Montana Indian Athletic Hall of Fame. And while there may be no game footage available as of yet, his speech is online and it shows what both Wetzel and Real Bird said about their friend. He was humble, positive, and if he had regrets, he'd never let you hear about them. Old Bull is clearly nervous, but he is also utterly sincere:

"My grandfather, who passed away, told me you make the best of what you got in life. And I believe that, you know. Doesn't matter if you're white, black, red… For all people, it's an honor when someone does something good… I'm flattered… Lodge Grass, Baby!"

Old Bull's funeral was held on October 4 on the same Lodge Grass High School floor he made famous.

"Of course the funeral was sad, but I sure was happy to see my brother Elvis pack that gymnasium one last time," says Real Bird.

Elvis Old Bull made something beautiful out of nothing. He was 42.