Badgers’ Koenig embraces being role model for Native American community

Badgers guard Bronson Koenig has an assists-to-turnovers ratio of 43 to 10, which ranks second in the country.

Jeff Hanisch/Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

MADISON, Wis. — A group of about 20 boys sat across three rows of chairs inside a small conference room at a Nebraska Holiday Inn last March, rapt by the words coming from the man up front wearing his white Wisconsin Badgers warmup shirt. He was just a few years older, still a baby-face with a buzz cut, and yet he was worlds away on a path many seated there could only dream about.

Bronson Koenig had agreed to this meeting hours before Wisconsin’s regular-season finale against Nebraska for a couple of reasons. First, he’d begun to recognize the symbolism of his accomplishments, that he was now tangible proof of what was possible for his people, the latest to provide a face to basketball success as a freshman point guard at the University of Wisconsin. Second, he believed he owed it to himself to give back to those who had supported him for so long.

"I didn’t really have anything planned out," Koenig says. "I kind of just went off the top of my head, and I pretty much told them my life story, basically. When I started playing basketball. I just gave them some advice, too. I let them ask me any questions they wanted. Hopefully I was able to help them out."

The group of players and coaches from the Winnebago (Neb.) boys basketball team had made the two-hour trek in a pair of school-owned vans to listen to Koenig’s 20-minute speech. And several, it turned out, were related to Koenig in some way, distant cousins as members of the same Native American tribe in a different state.

They represented the Winnebago Tribe of Nebraska; he represented the Ho-Chunk Nation of Wisconsin. The two tribes originated in the same area of the Great Lakes in Wisconsin, but some members were forced to move by the United States government after treaties established in 1865 and 1874, and those descendants now live in Nebraska.

Koenig discussed his relationship to the Winnebago Tribe and the special kinship he felt in that room. He broke down his family tree and talked of how much he appreciated support from Native Americans everywhere and a desire to better embrace his heritage. And then he spoke from the heart about his unyielding love for basketball, of the personal sacrifices he made in order to reach this point. They were basic tenets about dieting and exercising, working hard, maintaining self-discipline, surrounding oneself with the right groups of people. But in this room, his comments especially resonated.

"He was teaching us how to stay smart, keep good grades and all that stuff," says Matthew Wingett, a senior on the Winnebago basketball team. "Everyone else says it, but it means a lot more coming from him."

"There’s not that many Natives that play D-I or play in the pros," says Jeff Berridge, the Winnebago boys basketball coach. "So actually knowing this kid comes from your same people, it just meant a whole lot to the kids."

Bronson Koenig speaking to the Winnebago (Neb.) boys basketball team in Lincoln, Neb.

Koenig has been dazzling on the court with a blend of intelligence, athleticism and natural instincts. His maturity and talent level as a sophomore this season will be a key to Wisconsin’s national championship hopes because he has taken over as the starting point guard for Traevon Jackson, who sustained a broken right foot two weeks ago. Starting has created a feeling of joy and freedom Koenig has desired since he committed to the school.

But Koenig also has provided a different feeling for a large faction of Native American fans: a feeling of hope.

"I tell him, ‘You’re a role model whether you know it or not or whether you like it or not,’" says Ethel Funmaker, Bronson’s mom. "I said these little kids are looking up to you. You’ve got to be sure you make the right choices and they have somebody to look up to because there are not a lot of Native American role models right now for the kids to look up to."

As with child prodigies in other endeavors, there were certain innate qualities that separated Koenig from his peers on the basketball court at a young age. During the Happy Hoops basketball league in second grade at the YMCA in La Crosse, Wis., where Koenig grew up, his father, Paul, noticed those traits immediately.

"We could see there was something about this kid," Paul Koenig says. "He was making passes and all kinds of weird stuff like he’d already been playing this game for a while. No-look passes in the second grade. It was just weird. Even though he was good at baseball and everything else he did, it’s like he was made for basketball."

Bronson went on win the "Best Passer" award in second grade. In third grade, he played up on a fifth-grade team, and by middle school, his passion and maniacal work ethic made him a regular at the YMCA, even though he had a driveway hoop, where he and his older brother, Miles, would play H-O-R-S-E against their father. Bronson says he would stay at the YMCA for six hours some days, working on individual ballhandling drills, shooting alone or playing with friends who would join him. He would wake up early on Sundays and grow beside himself that he couldn’t go until the building opened at 9 a.m.

"I pretty much lived in the Y," says Bronson, who studied Pete Maravich and Michael Jordan videos when he was at home. "People would come to the Y who didn’t even really know me like, ‘You’re still here? You got a bed in the back?’ I was a really big gym rat back then."

Paul remembers having to beg his son to come home on occasion. He would drop by and provide Bronson with sandwiches and watermelon slices, then return home without him.

"Even as a young kid, if nobody was at the Y, he didn’t care," Paul says. "He would actually do drill work on his own for hours. I’d say, ‘It’s time to go home now.’ He’d go, ‘Give me another hour. I’m going to do this one drill.’

"It was nuts. It was like an obsession. It wasn’t like I had to push, in other words. He pushed me away to stay. It sounds funny."

By the time Bronson Koenig reached high school at La Crosse Aquinas, the buzz surrounding his ability permeated the state. His middle school teams had won two state championships, and he earned the starting point guard spot as a freshman. His coach, Rick Schneider, recalls Koenig’s first varsity game against perennial Minnesota power Saint Paul Johnson as the moment he knew Koenig would be special.

In that game, Saint Paul Johnson "threw the kitchen sink" at Koenig to rattle him.

I hope I am an inspiration for (Native Americans) to do well in school and get off that reservation and go make a life for themselves.

Bronson Koenig

"They played every type of zone defense, full-court traps, half-court traps, man-to-man. It didn’t matter," Schneider says. "He handled that, and I sat there and watched that and went, ‘You’ve got to be kidding me. This kid’s a freshman?’ Most kids can’t handle it as seniors, and he’s in there as a freshman and kept his composure, never got frustrated and was the floor general. He controlled it."

Koenig’s team would lose that game. But Koenig went on to lead Aquinas in scoring that season, averaging 14.8 points, which earned him his first scholarship offer, from Wisconsin-Green Bay. What followed was a deluge of offers from the likes of Wisconsin, Duke, North Carolina and Kansas, among others, during a career in which he won two more state championships and was the state player of the year as a senior.

The 6-foot-4, 190-pound Koenig ultimately picked Wisconsin. And as he mulled his decision, the thought of playing in the same state as his Ho-Chunk Nation brethren tugged at him. His mother, who works for the Ho-Chunks in their information technology department, made sure Koenig grew up understanding the importance of his heritage, and he would occasionally stay with his grandparents, Choka and Gaga, on the land.

Koenig, who is half Native American and half Caucasian, certainly was enamored of Badgers head coach Bo Ryan’s program. But selecting Wisconsin also represented one way to show respect to his fellow Native Americans, who could still watch him play. And the support he’s received in return since arriving on campus, he says, has been overwhelming.

"I’d always get random Facebook messages, tweets, stuff like that just from people I don’t even know," he says. "Some people I do know. Some people that claim to be my family. Because in the Native American way with family, I can’t tell you how many people have come up to me like, ‘Hey, I’m your brother, I’m your sister.’ They’ll be my cousins, but in the Native American way they’re my brothers and sisters. That’s how tribes are. They take care of everyone. Like one big family."

A 2011 documentary Koenig often cites entitled "Off the Rez" chronicles the story of basketball standout Shoni Schimmel and her family, of their desire to make a life for themselves away from the Umatilla Indian Reservation in Oregon. In the film, Schimmel and her family struggle to cope with two separate lives — one life that takes them to Portland, where Schimmel can shine at a public school and attract major Division I scholarship offers and another life that is comfortable and easy three hours away on the reservation.

Schimmel, who would go on to star at Louisville and play for the WNBA’s Atlanta Dream, was attempting to become the first in her tribe to earn a college basketball scholarship. And history, the film notes, was against her.

One of the most telling scenes in the documentary features Billy Quaempts, among the finest basketball players to ever play at the Umatilla Indian Reservation in the early 1970s. He received interest from several colleges and says recruiters at Army in West Point, N.Y., told him that if he maintained his good grades, he could play basketball there. But Quaempts never made it off the reservation. He resorted to alcohol and felt the pull to stay — a regret he’s lived with every day since.

"It’s almost like a ghetto, getting out of the ghetto. It’s hard," Koenig says. "It’s a reservation. You’ve got alcohol, suicide and all that kind of stuff. Just really poor. School is not really an area of focus for them all the time. I’m sure it is hard for them to kind of leave the res and leave everything because that’s all they really know, too."

Koenig did not live on a reservation and doesn’t claim to share the same difficult situation as others. La Crosse is located on the Wisconsin-Minnesota border, about 50 miles southwest of Black River Falls, where the Ho-Chunk Nation is situated. Ho-Chunk, which consists of more than 7,500 enrolled members, has no official reservation, though it does have parcels of land as part of the Indian Trust Land settlement with the federal government. But Koenig still is acutely aware of the plight of many Native Americans, who have faced centuries of hardships.

Chad Kills Crow is the men’s basketball coach at Haskell Indian Nations University in Lawrence, Kan. — the only four-year American Indian tribal university in the country. He has seen how reservation life impacts young people, including athletes. It is a place, he says, where education generally is not emphasized. It is a place where trying to provide for family members and survive on a daily basis is paramount. Finding the motivation to leave, then, becomes that much more difficult.

According to the website College Horizons, a non-profit organization that supports the higher education of Native American students, roughly 5 percent of Native American high school graduates go directly to four-year colleges, and only 10 percent of those students graduate in four years. American Indians living on reservations are only half as likely as white students to obtain a bachelor’s degree.

Bronson Koenig posing with the Winnebago (Neb.) boys basketball team before Wisconsin’s game against Nebraska.

A report released by Education Week showed that, though Class of 2010 public school graduation rates had risen to 74.7 percent nationally, Native American graduation rates had dropped to 51 percent.

"It’s every Indian boy’s dream to play basketball and to play Division I at that level," says Kills Crow, a member of the Oglala Lakota Tribe from Pine Ridge, S.D. "I’ve got a list of names of guys who have that potential to play there. However, academics have held them back. Alcoholism has held them back. Poverty. There are kids out there that are Native that can compete at that level. We just have so many barriers. At this point, I’m trying to teach my classes we’ve got to quit using those barriers as excuses. We’ve got to overcome them and do such as Bronson did. We’ve got to push, and we’ve got to work."

Koenig, of course, cannot change those numbers overnight. But Ho-Chunk Nation president Jon Greendeer believes he can change the perception of what it means to achieve excellence for Native Americans everywhere, particularly when it comes to living a healthy lifestyle. Greendeer says 24 percent of Ho-Chunk Nation tribal members suffer from Type 2 diabetes, which is the result of high sugar levels in the blood due to poor eating habits.

"Some of our greatest things we fight are things that we can win," Greendeer says. "Bronson has a lot to do with being a part of the solution. That means empowering people to make good, healthy choices, to build their days around activity rather than food. To see themselves in a better place and to pass that on to the next generation."

Bronson Koenig is still finding his place in the world and how he fits in as both a basketball player and a Native American. He has not been as actively involved in Ho-Chunk Nation life as he would prefer, in part because basketball takes up so much of his time. He doesn’t have a tribal name but says he’d like to explore it more in depth once the season ends. He still tries to attend Ho-Chunk pow-wows, which are held twice a year over Memorial Day and Labor Day as a celebration of thanks. Those pow-wows provide a time to gather and enjoy drums, dancing and a variety of crafts available from vendors across the country. Koenig last attended one in the Wisconsin Dells this fall.

Koenig is a quiet leader on the basketball floor and rarely discusses his heritage with teammates. But as his connection with the Ho-Chunk Nation and other tribes grows, he hopes his play can continue to galvanize those groups. He cites another scene from "Off the Rez," in which Native Americans from hundreds of miles away drive to see Shoni Schimmel and her sister, Jude, play a game in the high school state playoffs.

"The amount of Native Americans that went to their games is insane," Koenig says. "Thousands of Native Americans. And they would drive from across the country just to see her play. So that was pretty cool to me. I’m hoping that maybe one day they could drive across the country to see me play."

Koenig’s greatest societal impact is representing Native Americans who are rarely seen on such a big stage in the sports world. An NCAA report on race and gender demographics notes that, of the 5,493 men’s Division I basketball players during the 2013-14 season, only 14 were Native American. And of the 4,900 women’s Division I basketball players, 28 were Native American. In the past seven seasons, there have not been more than 15 Native American D-I men’s basketball players in any season. The average during that span is 9.4.

Those numbers make what Koenig has accomplished at Wisconsin even more significant. His name hit the national consciousness last April, when he scored 11 first-half points against Kentucky in the Final Four. And his fame has only swelled with his increased role on the team.

"Having someone like Bronson come out with a post-secondary higher education, that in and of itself is something we can be proud of," Greendeer says. "But to show your talent in Division I, this means more than a lot. You go out in public places and you watch people watching the Badgers, you see Bronson hitting a 3-pointer and everybody yells out his name and you know this guy, like wow.

"Certainly the level of pride, whatever that is that flows through your body when you have that, if somebody could bottle that and sell that, they’d be a millionaire. He really does make his nation proud."

Since cracking the starting lineup two weeks ago, Koenig is averaging 35.5 minutes and 12.3 points per game while making 10 of 19 3-point attempts. And all those natural passing skills he displayed years ago have made him especially menacing on the court, where Koenig has an astounding 43 to 10 assists-to-turnovers ratio, which ranks second in the country.

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Badgers center Frank Kaminsky, a national player of the year candidate, continues to marvel at the ways in which Koenig can thread passes into such small windows and observes that Koenig "sees the game differently than some other people" — a refrain echoed by several teammates.

"He’s just so smooth ever since I’ve watched him play," says Badgers forward Sam Dekker, who played for the Wisconsin Playground Warriors, the same AAU organization as Koenig. "He read the game differently than most people, just had a sense about him that he knew what he wanted to do on the court. He’s pretty dangerous."

Given Koenig’s growth and increased confidence in his new role, it stands to reason he’ll become even more of a household name among college basketball enthusiasts. Koenig wishes to do something meaningful with that platform to affect change on those Native Americans who see his accomplishments as a path that deviates from antiquated norms.

He wants to share his story of success, just as the Schimmel sisters have done since their popularity rose. He wants to provide hope to more than a room of 20 boys basketball players in a Nebraska hotel.

"I’ve been busy my whole life with basketball, so I haven’t had much of a chance to do everything," Koenig says. "I’m kind of looking forward to doing more stuff for the tribe after the basketball season, which I was able to do after last season, like talk to young Native American kids.

"I hope I am an inspiration for them to do well in school and get off that reservation and go make a life for themselves."

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Total number of Division I men’s basketball players and number of Native Americans playing in D-1 over the past seven seasons.*