Once, in his native Kyle, South Dakota, Nate Brown Bull was riding his horse, “Peanut,” when it started to buck. Brown Bull, who is 7-1, merely stretched out his long legs and stopped Peanut in its tracks.
But halting a horse is not the only thing Brown Bull has accomplished with his impressive height.
He also earned a basketball scholarship to FIU, where the skinny 215-pounder figures to play a primarily defensive role off the bench as a freshman.
Brown Bull averaged 17 points, 12 rebounds and seven blocks last season at Little Wound High School, where he was coached by Jay Jacobs, who wants to form “watch parties” this season whenever they can get an FIU game on TV or the Internet.
It’s safe to say the 900-or-so people of Kyle — which is located within the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation — are solidly and confidently behind Brown Bull, and that includes his parents.
“There’s no reason why he can’t play with those [college] boys,” said Brown Bull’s father, Darrell, who stands 6-2.
Brown Bull’s mom, Norma, who is 6-1 1/2, once scored 58 points for Little Wound, which was then a state record. She played one year at Huron College, earning All-Conference honors as a freshman.
Norma and Darrell both played basketball until they hit 40, traveling to different reservations around the country while playing with independent teams.
Brown Bull, 19, inherited their love for the game — except he got way more height. He was 6-2 in middle school before sprouting six inches one summer.
He showed up at Little Wound as a 6-8, 160-pound freshman. It wasn’t until he spent the summer of 2014 in Denver with the Colorado Hawks AAU team that he really started to strengthen his body and his game.
“All of a sudden,” Norma said, “you could see muscles on his arms.”
With the Hawks, Brown Bull was coached by former ABA and NBA guard Roland “Fatty” Taylor, now 69.
In high school, maybe a few guys got lucky and blocked my shot from behind. But, straight up, no one blocked me.
This past summer, FIU assistant coach Spencer Wright, who is new to the Panthers’ staff, received a tip about Brown Bull. FIU coach Anthony Evans, who had just one scholarship left, watched video of Brown Bull and invited him and his family to Miami for a recruiting visit in August.
Evans said he had been set on holding that last scholarship until next season because “I didn’t think there was anyone out there [worth the investment].”
But after watching Brown Bull’s video, Evans changed his mind.
“He’s got good hands, he can run the floor, and he can block shots,” Evans said. “His offense needs to improve, but he has potential. He can help our defense.”
At FIU, Brown Bull has been indoctrinated in an informal “Swat School,” learning from the coaches but also from 6-11, 230-pound senior Adrian Diaz, who blocked 99 shots last season, ranking sixth in the NCAA.
Brown Bull, who was the tallest player in South Dakota by at least four inches, didn’t have to deal with anyone like Diaz in high school. But at FIU practices, Diaz has blocked “more than a few” of his shots.
“It’s been a change,” said Brown Bull, who was double- and triple-teamed in high school even when he didn’t have the ball. “I’ve learned that you can’t just go up easy. You have to work, make moves.
“In high school, maybe a few guys got lucky and blocked my shot from behind. But, straight up, no one blocked me.”
Diaz, who weighed just 200 pounds when he got to college, said he sees potential in Brown Bull.
“We push each other,” Diaz said. “Sometimes I get the best of him. But sometimes he gets the best of me. Against Nate, I have to get my shot off higher than [normal].”
Brown Bull, who has been dealing with a bone bruise on his knee, was given a total of just four minutes of playing time in FIU’s first five games in what will likely be a developmental season.
Academically, Brown Bull plans on studying physical education. His mother is a teacher and has a Master’s degree in special education. His father was in the Marines and is in his 26th year working at a rock-crushing quarry in Rapid City, South Dakota, driving 180 miles round trip every day to go to work.
The Brown Bull name was first taken by Nate’s great grandfather. The Brown Bulls are Native American members of the Lakota Nation. Darrell Brown Bull, who is fluent in the Lakota language, said Nate, the fifth-youngest of six children, understands but doesn’t speak the dialect.
“We tell our children we live in two worlds,” Darrell said. “We still practice our traditional ways to a certain extent. We learn about Lakota history. But we also learn about American history, and we have electricity and things that our people long ago did not have.”
Nate, though, seems to be bridging his two worlds just fine. Even though he was raised in a town with no stoplights, he said his transition to Miami has been a lot easier than going up against Diaz in practice.
“I haven’t had any culture shock,” he said. “After moving to Denver last year for AAU ball, this wasn’t too much of a change.”