Indian Legend Could Ends Before It Gets Started
Elvis Old Bull is a legend in Montana basketball circles. By next year, he might be just a memory.
Old Bull, a high school senior on the Crow Indian Reservation in southeastern Montana, scored 1,948 points in four seasons, averaging almost 20 points a game.
“In my 13 years of coaching, there’s been nobody better than Elvis, anywhere,” Lodge Grass basketball coach Gordon Real Bird said. “He’s the best.”
Old Bull holds 16 school records and led Lodge Grass to three consecutive Class B titles. He was named the tournament’s most valuable player each time.
But his teachers say too many missed classes threaten Old Bull’s graduation. Real Bird says he hopes Old Bull might attend college -- but it doesn’t look promising.
And another Indian legend may stop at the high school level.
Edgar Pretty On Top played in Old Bull’s shadow on the reservation, averaging 12 points a game. But Pretty On Top also has a 3.8 grade-point average in the classroom.
“I want to study psychology,” said Pretty On Top, who like Old Bull has a traditional Crow name. “I want to set a good example -- by doing good in classes and playing ball.”
He’s been accepted by Western Montana College in Dillon and is eligible for an academic scholarship.
“There’s not much here for me on the reservation,” Pretty On Top said. “You have to go out and just do it for yourself.”
Indian basketball is an enigma. It often dominates Montana prep basketball; this season, Indian teams won two of four state class titles.
But its star players seldom use the game as a route to an education and a brighter future.
Once the glory days of high school end, the players fade away, most never to be heard from again. A few try college for a time, only to wind up back on the reservation.
Jonathan Takes Enemy, a 1984 Hardin High School graduate, was recruited by virtually every college in Montana. He attended Sheridan Community College in Wyoming, but dropped out.
Tom Yarlott, a 1984 Lodge Grass graduate, went on to the College of Great Falls and later to Miles Community College before dropping out.
They are the rules rather than the exceptions, and coaches and community leaders on and off the reservation admit frustration.
“We’ve isolated the Indian with reservations,” Lodge Grass athletic director Rocky Eggart said. “Once you’re in one, it’s tough to get out.”
The problems of the reservation are well-documented -- poverty, unemployment, alcoholism, drug abuse, teen pregnancy. Still, similar hardships are found in urban inner cities, and players there try to use basketball as a way out.
“The kids in the ghetto, they have a tremendous desire to leave,” Eastern Montana basketball coach Ernie Wheeler said. “But the Indian kids seem to be drawn back to the reservation. In my three years here, not one has made it (out).”
“When we signed Kwesi Coleman from Detroit Cass Tech, it was a situation where a city kid was anxious to get out,” Montana State coach Mick Durham said. “Sometimes you think the Indian kids would be like that, too.”
The last Indian to play at Montana State on a scholarship was Gil Birdinground in 1974, Durham said.
Several Indian players from the high school class of 1990 say they will try to change things.
“You have some of your Indian ballplayers who have great high school years, but after that some have screwed it up for the rest of us,” said Steven Falls Down, a Crow at Billings Central High School who earned a full athletic scholarship to Rocky Mountain College in Billings.
“I had the last name, so I knew I would have to be two times better than the next guy,” Falls Down said. "... There’s always going to be people out there who want to see you fall flat on your face. But I want to prove them wrong. I want the kids to look up to me.”
Junior Real Bird, the son of the coach, says he wants to become a lawyer.
“I’m looking at Dawson Community College (in Glendive),” Real Bird said. “I want to go on to school and do it for myself.”
What sets Falls Down, Pretty On Top and Real Bird apart from the others are their family backgrounds. All three have relatives who graduated from college. Old Bull lacks that background, the coach said.
Old Bull had agreed to an interview about his plans and the problems faced by Indian players, but didn’t keep an appointment with a reporter and subsequently did not return messages left at his home and school.
Coach Real Bird said he fears the example set for reservation youngsters if Old Bull does not go on to college.
“They all look up to Elvis,” Real Bird said. “He’s a hero. I told him to go to college and do what he does best, then these kids will follow him.
“I just hope Elvis makes it.”