MIAMI — When he was a freshman in high school – with a frame of about 6-foot-5 – Nate Brown Bull received his first introduction to the Seminole Tribe of Florida on a basketball court. During the All West Native American Basketball Classic in Denver, Brown Bull’s team faced a Seminole squad that included Trewston Pierce.
“I think the first time I played against him, he ended up dunking on me. I came off the floor and my coach told me I should have just let him go,” Brown Bull recalled.
The game was about four years and 8 inches ago for Brown Bull, who began his college career this fall at Florida International University as a 7-foot-1 center.
Since their initial encounter, Brown Bull and Pierce have become good friends. After starring for Fort Lauderdale High School as a senior last season, Pierce is prepping for college ball with IMG Academy’s national team in Bradenton.
“He’s a great player,” Brown Bull said. “I almost went to IMG with him.”
Instead, Brown Bull, an Oglala Sioux from the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota, landed in Miami where he is determined to be known for more than just a tall college basketball player. He wants kids in his Tribe to look up to him for reasons other than to tilt their heads way back.
“I’m one of the first [Division I] athletes to play basketball; we have another guy that plays for Southern Utah,” Brown Bull, 19, said. “I want to set the bar now and set a really good example for everyone back home. It’s possible; you can do it.”
Home for Brown Bull is Kyle, South Dakota, where he grew up and attended Little Wound School, a K-12 school named after his great-great-great-grandfather Chief Little Wound.
Basketball is in Nate’s genes. His mother, Norma Brown Bull, scored more than 50 points in a high school game, an accomplishment that places her near the top of the South Dakota state record book. Norma later played basketball for Huron University College in Ontario. Nate said his father, Darrell Brown Bull Sr., opted to join the Marine Corps rather than pursue basketball.
Kyle is located in Oglala Lakota County (formerly Shannon County), which borders Nebraska in southwest South Dakota.
“It’s nice out there, but there’s a lot of poverty,” Brown Bull said. “We were the poorest county in the United States for a long time. A lot of people depend on the month-to-month government welfare checks and stuff like that.”
As far as athletics, basketball is king on the reservation.
“There’s football and other sports,” Brown Bull said, “but basketball is life there.”
Before he arrived at FIU for an afternoon practice on Veterans Day, Brown Bull visited the Seminoles’ Hollywood Reservation for the first time. Jesse Heart, an Oglala Sioux who coached Brown Bull in high school and recently moved to the Hollywood Reservation, gave the FIU freshman a tour of the new Howard Tiger Recreation Center and its basketball gym.
“It was great. I really like it. I wish our Tribe had stuff like that,” Brown Bull said.
As a senior, Brown Bull helped Little Wound reach the state tournament for the first time in eight years.
When he wasn’t dunking and blocking shots, Brown Bull was hauling in touchdown passes as a towering wide receiver on the school’s football team.
“My quarterback used to just throw it up there and let me go after it. The cornerbacks were little guys and they’d wait for me to catch it and then try to tackle me from there,” said Brown Bull, who also played safety and caught six passes for 112 yards in a state playoff game as a senior.
His football days are likely over, but his college hoops career has just begun. After signing his letter of intent in July to play at FIU, Brown Bull arrived on campus in August to begin workouts with the Panthers.
So far, it’s been a smooth transition.
“He’s handled it pretty well,” said FIU coach Anthony Evans. “He’s a pretty mature young man. That’s one of the things we noticed about him when we first met him. He has a great sense of humor. I think he was ready for a new challenge, a new environment. He’s done well.”
Brown Bull suffered a knee injury in practice that was initially thought to be a torn ACL, but Evans said he was relieved when it was diagnosed as only a deep muscle bruise. Still, the setback kept Brown Bull on the sideline for about three weeks prior to the team’s season opener in mid-November.
Before the injury, Brown Bull was going up against Adrian Diaz, a 6-foot-11, 230-pound senior who was among the NCAA’s leading shot blockers last season and is the team’s leading returning scorer.
“In practice in the beginning, you could see that Nate was bothering Adrian on the shots, and that’s good because [Adrian] is only going to get better; he’s going to be able to adjust to players who are bigger than him,” Evans said.
As for Brown Bull, Evans has stressed defense in the early going.
“The defensive side of the floor is where I think he will make the most contributions because he can rebound the ball, he’s 7-feet tall, he can block shots and he runs the floor pretty well,” Evans said. “I think those things will be what we build off of. The offensive side will come, but the defensive side is where I’ve made my emphasis to him.”
Early impressions of Brown Bull from Diaz, a Miami native who started his college career at Kansas State, have been favorable.
“He’s doing pretty good,” Diaz said. “He has a lot of potential. He has a lot of nice raw talent. He’s very skilled for a young big man.”
Diaz weighed about 200 pounds as a freshman. Since then, he’s beefed up with an additional 30 pounds to become an inside force. That’s a similar route Brown Bull is following in the weight room. He’s about 15 pounds heavier than a year ago.
“I had a little more body fat when I first got here,” he said. “I was about 220, just all like fat, then lost all that, then got back up to 220, all muscle, and now I just put on 5 more pounds recently, all muscle.”
As for additional height, Brown Bull said he isn’t sure if his growing has stopped.
“I still get growing pains,” he said.