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Former shooting guard hoping to cash big as ‘Last Cowboy’

On Thursday in a saloon above the South Point Equestrian Center, a horse whisperer and former high school basketball shooting guard born and raised in Long Beach, California, was talking about making horses spin like tops and stop on dimes. And a million dollars.

The dimes are figurative. The million dollars are literal. It’s the purse for the horse whisperers appearing in a reality TV show dreamed up by a hotshot Hollywood screenwriter.

The whisperer, Matt Mills, traced a scar near his upper lip. It was given to him by a bucking bronc named Milton Bradley, the former major league ballplayer, when the two were 10-year-olds traversing the same streets as Snoop Dogg and Cameron Diaz.

“He had a history with anger, and we got into a scuffle,” Mills said.

The hotshot Hollywood screenwriter is Taylor Sheridan. He wrote “Sicario” and “Wind River” and “Hell or High Water,” which was nominated for four Oscars, including best picture of 2016. Sheridan also co-created the popular series “Yellowstone” that is concluding its second season on the Paramount Network.

Mills and others with more traditional Western backgrounds are competing on “The Last Cowboy” reality show (also airing on Paramount). It was spawned by Sheridan’s interest in a ranching pastime called reining, in which riders guide horses through a pattern of circles and spins and stops. It’s sort of Montana’s answer to Olympic figure skating — only there is no controversial French judge to mess up the scores.

Million reasons to ride

There’s a professional circuit for reining, and a futurity in Oklahoma City that pays $150,000 to win. But now — much as when the National Finals Rodeo moved from Oklahoma City to Las Vegas during the 1980s — there’s something bigger.

“That was our Super Bowl, and everything revolved around that — until now,” Mills, 40, said of Saturday’s The Run for a Million at South Point.

Mills is the son of an African-American father (Henry) and Caucasian mother (Debbie) and spouse of a former hairdresser from the San Francisco Bay Area (Karen). He was the only kid in his neighborhood who favored Tony Lamas over Air Jordans.

“Basketball and horses,” he said of playing shooting guard for Millikan High in Long Beach, whose alums include former San Diego Chargers wide receiver Gary Garrison, ex-Golden State Warriors and California and Stanford basketball coach Mike Montgomery and baseball pitcher Craig Swan — but very few pardners who watched “Bonanza” reruns with their fathers.

“My mom got me into horses when I was kid. It started with pony rides. It progressed with (riding) lessons and begging every Christmas for a horse — and not getting one — until finally I wore my parents down.”

Horse course

Mills said his ability to sink a jump shot wasn’t nearly as impressive as his ability to ride a horse.

“I’d keep my (Western) clothes in a backpack, and when I finished school, I’d catch a bus out to the stables (in nearby Lakewood, California). I had separate worlds,” he said. “My friends thought (riding horses) was dumb, but now I’m getting messages since the TV show.”

Make that TV shows. Mills parlayed a prior relationship with Sheridan, an amateur reiner, into a cameo on “Yellowstone.” He had speaking lines in the episode in which hapless Jimmy Hurdstram (portrayed by Jefferson White) receives a brutal indoctrination to the extreme sport of Mexican horse sliding.

“I’m on a horse drinking a beer. It’s all natural,” Mills said of going on location in Big Sky country.

“John Dutton (Kevin Costner’s character) wasn’t there, but Rip (Wheeler, a rugged ranch hand played by Cole Hauser) was, and we gave him a hard time. He was going to let the double do his stunt. We said, ‘If you’re gonna be a cowboy, you’ve got to ride the horse.’ He did, and he did it well.”

But Mills said when it comes to televised cliffhangers, look no further than a bunch of real-life horse whisperers chasing $1 million in Las Vegas.

“It’s a crazy little world we live in,” he said of making the transition from high school shooting guard to accomplished horseman to reality TV star. “You don’t have to act or create anything. There’s already plenty of drama.”

With first place paying $500,000, Mills said this is one season finale in which shooting J.R. would be redundant.

Contact Ron Kantowski at rkantowski@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0352. Follow @ronkantowski on Twitter.

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