Bronson Koenig honors his heritage
Badgers point guard embraces a leadership role...
Bronson Koenig knows what it’s like to step into a role that needs to be filled.
When the University of Wisconsin’s veteran point guard Traevon Jackson broke his foot halfway through Big Ten conference play in the 2014-15 season, it was Koenig who stepped up. A sophomore, Koenig led the team as starting point guard through the last twenty-four games of the season, which ended with a NCAA championship game appearance–the first since 1941.
But there was another role he filled, one less obvious than the vacant starting spot on the court. A member of the Ho-Chunk Nation of Wisconsin, Koenig had become a role model in the Native American community. He’s a meaningful symbol of success for Native Americans, some of whom live on reservations amid high rates of poverty and drug abuse, and others who might only be a few years behind Koenig–young kids who need a positive face to look up to.
Koenig has embraced both roles, becoming the leader who was needed. He’s helped lead his team to back-to-back appearances in the Final Four, finishing the season with an 8.7 point average while leading the Big Ten with a 3.0 assist-to-turnover ratio (ninety-eight assists, thirty-three turnovers) among players with at least ninety assists. As a Native American with a positive image in mainstream media, Koenig has become a role model simply by being on the court in a Division 1 conference that had only fourteen men identify as American Indian/Alaskan Native out of about 5,445 student-athletes in the 2013-14 season. This season, the Badgers’ roster includes two members of the Ho-Chunk Nation; in October 2015 the team announced the addition of walk-on Will Decorah, a Waunakee native.
Koenig’s gone the extra mile in representing his Ho-Chunk people, particularly by meeting with young groups and athletes to give motivational speeches.
“There is a parallel there between how he leads our basketball team and some of the work he’s doing as a leader in the Native American community,” former Badgers head coach Bo Ryan says.
Koenig grew up in La Crosse, Wisconsin, about fifty miles southwest of Black River Falls, headquarters of the Ho-Chunk Nation. Black River Falls is also where Koenig’s mother Ethel Funmaker grew up and currently works. She’s Native American while Koenig’s father Paul Koenig is white. Koenig remembers driving up to Black River Falls when he was younger to visit family and attend powwows.
“That was something that was pretty fun, just kind of learning about my culture,” he says. “The school system didn’t really teach all that much about Native Americans, in particular the Ho-Chunk Nation, so it was nice to go up there and spend time with family I don’t see very often and learn about my heritage.”
He was a standout high school player at La Crosse Aquinas, where he led the team to two WIAA Division 3 state championships. Racking up impressive high school career numbers and accolades, including the title of Wisconsin Player of the Year by the Associated Press, Koenig had options when it came to choosing a college.
He chose UW, a decision made partly to keep close to his roots.
“One of the contributing factors when I was making my college choice was that Native Americans in my tribe and in the state could come watch me play,” Koenig says.
He’s always felt the support of his tribe throughout his life. “I know no matter what happens, Indian country always has my back,” he says.
Now the support goes both ways. Koenig is playing an important role by being one of few Native American faces in the sports world.
His contributions are simple things, like talking to youth groups and teams for twenty minutes, or donning a feather-design haircut as a nod to his heritage.
“No one needs to tell him that he’s a role model; he already knows it and he’s doing positive things,” says Ryan.
That can mean so much to the Native American community, especially teens, who face epidemic levels of suicide, drug abuse, the highest rate of diabetes in any racial group and further declining graduation rates.
“Native Americans don’t have many role models, especially on the reservation. I just feel like the message I want to send is that if they just believe in themselves and believe in their abilities, there’s no reason they can’t do something,” Koenig says.
One group of kids who looks up to Koenig is the Winnebago High School boys basketball team, representing the Winnebago Tribe of Nebraska. They met Koenig before Wisconsin played Nebraska in the final game of the 2013-14 regular season. He spoke to the twenty-person team that had driven two hours to meet him. He told them about the importance of succeeding in the classroom and working hard for what you want. Many of the kids even discovered family connections to Koenig. He then took pictures with the group and signed autographs. His time with them was short and the message was uncomplicated, but he knew what the impact could be.
“Just knowing you can change a person’s life just by doing something as simple as telling them about yourself and asking questions and giving them advice, that’s really cool,” Koenig says.
And it seems the team took his advice to heart, as just a few months later, the team won its first state championship in seventy-five years.
“All those kids who were a part of that state championship team were in that meeting with Bronson. So I definitely think that was huge. I think it opened their eyes that a little kid from Winnebago could make it there someday,” says Adam James, Winnebago’s athletic director.
The Winnebago players, as sportsmanlike as they are talented, had found success that was “almost emblematic of the rise of the tribe as a whole,” president and CEO of Ho-Chunk, Inc., Lance Morgan told Dirk Chatelain of the Omaha World-Herald.
Before long the players were signing autographs, just as Koenig had signed autographs for them. Both were now symbols of progress.
“To the community itself, it’s hope for everybody,” says James.
Editor’s note: UW men’s basketball head coach Bo Ryan announced his retirement on Dec. 15, after this story went to print in the January issue.