Bronson Koenig becomes Native American role model he never had

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MADISON, Wis. — Google Maps told the Koenig brothers the trip to Standing Rock would take nine hours. But Google didn’t know how how many donated items — warm clothing, camping supplies and dry food — filled the 18-foot trailer they drove, slowing them down for all the right reasons. They put a flag for their Ho-Chunk tribe on the trailer, so it could fly alongside them as they drove.

It took the brothers 14 hours on that September weekend to get from Madison to the camp in North Dakota, to the Standing Rock Sioux reservation that had filled with Native Americans from more than 300 tribes in RVs, tents and teepees who had come together to protest the building of the Dakota Access Pipeline. The tribe and supporters say the $3.7 billion pipeline will destroy Native American burial grounds and could contaminate the reservation’s water supply.

Bronson Koenig, the University of Wisconsin basketball star, and his brother Miles joined the protest.

Their visit that weekend was short but overwhelming in its impact. Koenig had planned to put on a basketball camp for kids at the local high school, but there were so many others who couldn’t afford to come or couldn’t get rides to the school, Miles said, that Bronson ended up hosting a smaller informal clinic first — for about 50 kids, at the outdoor hoop.

As he watched his younger brother put on these free camps and saw so many Native children asking questions, hoping to be like him when they were older, Miles became overwhelmed by emotion.

“I saw them all just in awe of him,” Miles said. “It hit me then. It made me tear up.”

Bronson was not just an inspiration to the hundreds of kids he spoke to at Standing Rock. He was a role model for all Native Americans, someone to look up to in a community that has lacked people to emulate.

“I didn’t expect he would ever be like that, but he is, and I don’t really know how to explain it, but it’s really cool,” Miles said. “I’m really proud of him.”

Though basketball itself seems to pale in comparison to a fight that continues against the construction of a pipeline — President Trump this week signed an executive order aimed to clear the path for the controversial oil pipeline’s completion — the sport has actually has benefited from it. As Koenig, 22, has grown into an activist and role model that those around him couldn’t have foreseen years ago, he also has grown into arguably Wisconsin’s most important player.

Three and a half years ago, just a couple of days into his freshman year at Wisconsin, Koenig was approached by a professor in a hallway. All Don Stanley knew about Koenig was that a he was Ho-Chunk. Stanley asked him about the Ho-Chunk wellness center near La Crosse, Wis., Koenig’s hometown, a conversation starter that would lead to a friendship.

“I don’t think we’ve ever talked basketball actually,” said Stanley, who teaches design and digital marketing. “I’m a sports fan, of course, but I’m more of a fan of each of my students as people and getting to know them.”

Stanley had become active in Native communities, first educating himself on the past and then figuring out ways to help. Education is always the starting point. Even Koenig needed to begin there, with the history of his own tribe being forcibly relocated in the 19th century.

Koenig’s mother, Ethel Funmaker, is 100% Ho-Chunk; his father is white. Koenig is a light-skinned Native American who grew up in a city and took occasional visits to Black River Falls, the tribe’s headquarters. Taken together, as he put it to Stanley once the two grew close, he felt “like a minority within a minority.” Koenig didn’t know where he fit in.

“It took a lot of bravery to talk about that, and him struggling with a sense of ‘Who am I?’ ” Stanley said. “You get that with a lot of Native people who don’t grow up on reservations. Suicide rates, alcoholism and substance abuse rates are really, really high, and I think a lot of it stems from that sense of struggle with identity.”

It’s a struggle Koenig openly discusses now, and it’s a feeling that may always resonate on some level. But Koenig continued to learn, signing up and taking American Indian Studies courses at Wisconsin. He asked his mother questions he hadn’t asked before. “She’s more laid-back, really quiet, more reserved,” he said. These topics hadn’t come up this way before, even though she works for the tribe in the executive building. “I’ve always wanted to know more,” Koenig said.

But that didn’t necessarily mean he planned on becoming the face of the Native American community, even with his mother’s involvement. She took him to speak to Native schools, even when he hated public speaking. She helped him realize he could be the role model he never had as a kid. When asked who he looked up to as a Native American kid, he paused.

“There wasn’t really any,” Koenig said. “Jim Thorpe, I guess, but he was so long ago. And I play basketball.”

Far more common than role models were cautionary tales, of promising Native athletes waylaid by alcohol or depression. But maybe that’s changing. When Koenig stood up in front of all those kids in Standing Rock, he felt their eyeballs on him. He felt their hope. He felt their future.

“He’s still trying to gain clarity in his own life, but to see that those kids weren’t judging him, they were just seeing him as somebody they can aspire to be like,” Stanley said. “As he continues to get more familiar and more comfortable with who he is, both with his European heritage as well as his Ho-Chunk heritage, I think he’ll start to shine even more. That’s a process and I think all of us go through that. Who are we? What are we about? Why are we here? I think Native people tend to go on a deeper struggle because of some of the history.

“I’m sure he doesn’t feel like a role model. That can be a burden for some people, but if you have the right support, which I think he’s putting into place around him, it won’t be a burden. It’ll be a positive weight to carry. It’ll be something that drives him to do better and be better in all areas of what he does.”

That includes basketball.

As Koenig has grasped a better understanding of his heritage, his activism and his sense of self, his basketball has flourished. His focus has narrowed in all areas of his life, as he’s figured out what he wants to prioritize.

To achieve the goals he’s set for himself in basketball this, his senior year, and beyond, he knew he needed to get himself into better shape, and he needed to eat better.

This past summer, he hired celebrity trainer Corey Calliet — he’s the one who whipped Michael B. Jordaninto shape for Creed — to work with him in Los Angeles for two months. Calliet also sent Koenig a meal plan to follow. He started making sure he got enough rest as well.

By the time Koenig attended the Under Armour All-America camp in July, he’d noticeably leaned out. A referee complimented him on his more chiseled physique, an outward manifestation of the change he felt inside, too.

“I could feel it 100%, just everything,” Koenig said. “When you eat healthy, you just feel better. Your mindset, everything, feels better. That’s kind of how I felt. I didn’t really get tired on the court. I was quicker, more explosive, jumping way higher.”

It helped, too, that Koenig had time to recover from a knee bruise sustained last season that turned into tendinitis and didn’t fully heal until this fall. Head coach Greg Gard said he believes the sense of urgency that comes along with a player heading into his final season contributes, too — in a good way.

“Like, ‘What else can I do to make myself have the best senior year possible?’ ” Gard said. “They can see the light at the end of the tunnel. It’s coming to an end sooner rather than later. … For older players, it’s part of a growth and maturity process.”

Said senior forward Nigel Hayes: “This is the biggest jump in skill level I’ve seen Bronson make in our four years here together. He took this offseason 100 times more seriously than he has other previous offseasons. You can see it in his work ethic now. … He’s not letting other people distract him from basketball now. Some of that could be attributed to knowing it’s his senior year so this is it, but I think it’s got a lot to do with his awakening as far as, not only with his Native American history but him wanting to reach his goals.

“He’s finally hitting that maturity level that he needs in order to accomplish his goals and things he wants.”

Perhaps more than any other college basketball coach in the nation, Gard has been willing to allow his players to grow both on and off the court. Hayes, too, uses his platform as a well-known college basketball star to advocate for change both with social justice issues, like the treatment of African-Americans by police, and within the NCAA system regarding unpaid student-athletes.

Gard has supported both of his stars as they’ve taken on their roles as activists. He met with Koenig before Koenig drove to Standing Rock to talk about why he was going, and what he would do to keep himself safe if the peaceful protest took a turn toward violence. Koenig had thought everything through, and he wanted to go make a difference. So he did.

“Everybody can point at what the problem is,” Gard said, “but not everybody is taking a step toward being part of the solution.”

March is little more than a month away, and the Badgers are 17-3 (6-1 in Big Ten play), tied atop the league’s standings. Koenig leads the team in scoring at 14.6 points a game. He’s shooting better — 45.6% from the field, 41.3% from beyond the arc — than he has at any point in his college career.

Badgers sophomore forward Ethan Happ, who averages nearly a double-double, has emerged as a candidate for national player of the year and this week was named to the midseason watch list for the Oscar Robertson Trophy. But Koenig quietly has been the straw that stirs the Badgers, much like he has in the past. He’s a player who has played as integral a part in elevating this program to the nation’s elite as anyone. He’s been to two Final Fours, and he’d like to get to another.

It would feel a little different, though, if Koenig were able to reach the sport’s biggest stage once again. No longer a reluctant role model, he would feel comfortable — well, as comfortable as he can be — in the spotlight, knowing what it means for Native American kids all over the country to see him there and knowing why that matters.

He needs only to look down for a reminder. On his right pectoral muscle is a tattoo that reminds him that Ho-Chunks are fierce warriors. The intricate details of the headdress, the red war paint — the whole process took three hours. He got that tattoo last summer, and his other, a dreamcatcher along the side of his left rib cage, the summer before.

And two years, two tattoos and one trip to Standing Rock later, he’s a different Bronson Koenig — but he’s finally a Bronson Koenig he’s starting to truly understand.

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