Storytelling is one of the most important elements of Native American culture. It’s a way to pass down history, heritage and customs. It’s a way to preserve a culture that was forced to relocate numerous times.
Mary Rajotte wrote for brighthubeducation.com that Native Americans “use storytelling to pass myths down to future generations.”
One of those myths was that of Elvis Old Bull. The only thing was, he wasn’t a myth — it just seemed that way.
Elvis was a celebrity; he was an innovator who inspired plenty of young fans. He died far too young — age 42— and his death struck a chord with his beloved fans across the country. No, not that Elvis.
While he may share some traits with Elvis Presley, Elvis Old Bull’s hip movements came in smooth bursts on hardwood courts across Montana. Old Bull was a basketball legend in the state. Actually, he is a legend, even long after his untimely death in 2014.
“Mythic status by age 18, and a singular talent,” Bozeman native and Minnesota Twins broadcaster Kris Atteberry tweeted after Old Bull’s death.
Old Bull played in an era when sports reporters weren’t tweeting live updates at Lodge Grass High School games. There weren’t Youtube packages of Old Bull slinging behind-the-back passes or photo galleries filled with the gunner pulling up for shots from Steph Curry range.
His legend was driven by storytelling. Well, that and his actual play on the court. The kid could ball.
Old Bull led Lodge Grass to three–straight state championships from 1988-1990. He was named MVP in all three title games. He averaged nearly 20 points per game and finished with 1,984 points for his career. He even holds Montana’s state record with 22 assists in a single game.
Sports Illustrated ranked Old Bull 50th on its list of the 50 greatest athletes in Montana history in 1999 — based solely on his high school career. This summer, montanasports.com ranked him the fifth best boys basketball player in Montana history.
He was well worth the price of admission. And that was the only way to solidify the stories as true.
“The stories of Elvis were everywhere, but the only way to experience it was to go see him for yourself,” Patrick Sauer said in email with The Sheridan Press. Sauer wrote “The Legend of Elvis Old Bull” for VICE Sports. “There was an excitement around him, and the Lodge Grass team, that took on a life of its own.”
Atteberry remembers the stories making their way across Montana before everybody knew who Old Bull was and seeking out any and all truth to those stories.
“You’d hear about him, and the tales would spread,” Atteberry said. “There was no social media or anything. It was through box scores and word of mouth.”
And while everybody wishes for a storybook ending, that’s not always the case.
The legend of Elvis Old Bull faded just as it got going, and those stories from three championship seasons were all basketball fans had to cling to.
Sauers points out in his piece for VICE that Old Bull had his demons.
“It was well known that Old Bull struggled with addiction, an all-too-common story of reservation life,” Sauers wrote.
Old Bull dropped out of school after the state tournament ended. There was no college career or beyond. His legend didn’t make it too far out of Montana, unfortunately.
“My motivation for writing an appreciation was simple, he was an incredible basketball player that few outside of Montana ever heard of,” Sauers said. “Unfortunately, he lived a hard life and died far too young, but that doesn’t change what he did on the court. When Elvis was in the building, it was quite a show. I wanted to acknowledge his greatness.”
Old Bull played in recreational leagues and tournaments, breaking noses with passes “only he could envision” as Atteberry put it.
But he died in a car crash at the age of 42.
He remains a legend, but also a myth. “What could have been?” Montana basketball fans often wonder.
It’s the first part, though, that legend, that means so much to the sport of basketball — even more so to the sport of basketball amongst Native Americans.
“I don’t know if American basketball fans are aware of how important the game is in many Native American communities,” Sauers said.
And while addiction, crime and poverty creep into reservations across the state — and even into one-time heroes like Old Bull — the legend’s ability on the basketball court was a release from all that.
“Rezball is a source of pride,” Sauers added.
That’s where Old Bull’s legend lives on amongst Native American basketball players. Not only his style of play — run-and-gun, high-octane basketball — but also his success, has been transmitted to the current state of the game.
“It was almost like he was some sort of celebrity,” KTVQ sports director Scott Breen recalled of Old Bull. “Little kids, junior high kids, elementary kids, instead of coming over and talking to some of the better players at Shepherd or wherever he was, when he walked into the building, they’d just kind of glom around him like he was Elvis Presley.
“A lot of us wanted to be Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, Michael Jordan,” Breen continued. “Well, on the reservation, maybe they step back and are like, ‘Alright, I’m Elvis Old Bull. Three, two, one, half court, yeah!’ So much on the reservation centers on basketball, and to be an icon like that, he fits in.”
Any basketball fan who grew up in Montana in the 1980s and ‘90s seems to be eager to talk about Elvis Old Bull. Sauers, Atteberry and Breen all acknowledged recognizing Old Bull for what he did on the court rather than focusing on his struggles off it.
He was a special player and an important player in basketball history.
“Even in death, people talk about Elvis as if he just played last weekend,” Sauers said. “It reminds me a lot of how people in New York City, where I’ve lived for two decades, still talk about playground legends from the 1970s.”
Old Bull isn’t from New York, far from it. He’s from a reservation in Montana.
But he’s still a legend.