HARDIN - There’s always been a rich basketball tradition in Hardin. But that's not the case for 11-year-old Legend Walker Real Bird.
The young man has gown up a rancher and a cowboy, so mom and dad admit it's no surprise that he's not hooked on hoops.
"It’s in his blood,” said Legend's mother, Crystal Fredericks-Real Bird, of the ranching lifestyle.
Gordon Real Bird Jr. reveals one of the reasons his son's early days were filled with ropes and livestock.
"He started on mini ponies and would ride around while I would practice roping," Real Bird, Jr. said.
Crystal and Gordon recall Legend boarding his first horse at age four months. Now, at the ripe age of 11, he can probably teach a course on how to win team roping buckles.
“You need to get a nice, good rope… this is called a hondo," Legend explained while demonstrating with his rope. "If you’re over here, your horse's head is just hitting the steer, basically. So you’ve got to get over here,” he continued, positioning himself on the other side of a roping dummy.
And Legend makes it look easy. He's a team roping heeler, meaning he tries to rope the steer's two hind feet after his partner lassos the head.
The bigger story is that Legend and his partner are saddled up for the Jr. World Finals — their version of the National Finals Rodeo. It's even scheduled in conjunction with the NFR under the same bright lights in Las Vegas during mid-December. Fredericks-Real Bird has created a GoFundMe to help with travel expenses.
“He’ll rope five days straight,” she said.
Even more impressive, the pair had to qualify to get there — and did it as 10-year-olds. Now they’ll stare down and compete against ropers up to age 17.
But Legend isn’t one to back down from a challenge. At one of his first dummy ropings, he asked to climb on a full-size horse bred on the family ranch.
“He rode this guy and just did it," Gordon said pointing to the animal. "I think he was seven years old then.”
“His name is Blue,” Legend says with a chuckle while petting Blue's neck.
He finishes a lot of thoughts with endearing giggles. And why not with such early success. He has a framed column of buckles and is wearing one of his favorites on this particular evening, along with his new cowboy hat.
Of course, rodeo folks travel quite a bit which means Legend has to somehow keep up with his homework.
“He home schools from the state of Montana during the summer months," said Crystal. "During the winter months we send him to a private school and he gets to rope ’til his heart’s content.”
For four years now, the family has traveled to Arizona for a warmer roping climate. But Legend knows where his roots are.
“I love this place, it’s where I grew up,” said the 11-year-old proudly — as if he was 45 — while standing outside his fenced-in horses on the outskirts of Hardin.
Gordon Jr. recalls his proudest moment after Legend had turned nine.
“Two years ago I won a saddle with him, which was probably one of the best days of my life."
Legend's namesake is a tribute to three of his grandfathers.
Pete Fredericks, inducted to multiple halls of fame including the National Cowboy HOF, Pius Real Bird, another multiple hall of famer including the Montana Cowboy Hall of Fame and longtime basketball coach Gordon Real Bird Sr., also enshrined to multiple halls including the Montana Coaches Association Hall of Fame.
“It’s a neat name," Legend says with a smile. "Nobody really has it these days. If you want to have that name, you’ve got to really work hard for it, you know.”
As of now he has that covered, along with some lofty goal on the horizon.
“(I’m) hoping to make the NFR — at least qualify — like, 20 times … maybe 30, you know.”
If that’s the case, this cowboy will tip his hat and ride into a lot of legendary sunsets.