‘I Am A Role Model’: The inspiration behind Bronson Koenig’s Native American activism

The Players Tribune
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Bronson Koenig does not have any Sioux blood running through his veins, but the star point guard for the Wisconsin Badgers drove 13 hours to stand with protestors in opposition to an oil pipeline in Fort Yates, North Dakota, this past weekend because his people have dealt with the same injustices currently facing the Standing Rock Sioux.

Koenig’s mother is full-blood Ho-Chunk, which, as Koenig explains, is the same thing as the Winnebago Tribe in Nebraska. They’re the same people. They come from the same ancestors. They were the same tribe, except the Ho-Chunk are the people that opted to remain in Wisconsin when, roughly 150 years ago, the federal government came in and forcibly removed the tribe from their land. The Winnebago first were given a reservation in Minnesota before that, too, was taken, and the tribe was sent to a plot of land on the Nebraska-Iowa border.

This fight is personal for Koenig, even if he didn’t know any Standing Rock Sioux personally.

He’s embraced his place as a role model in the Native American community, where basketball is a massively popular sport. He understands that kids living on these reservations look up to him. As Clint Parks, a trainer that flew from Wyoming to Madison just to join the 1,500-mile round-trip drive, tells it, those kids see Koenig the way the rest of America sees LeBron James.

“My mom has always told me that I’m a role model whether I like it or not, and she’s always pushed me to be the best role model I can be for our youth,” Koenig says. He knows that he has a national platform right now, one that may not last beyond his senior season in Madison, which is why he has spent the last month doing everything he can to raise awareness for a fight he believes he was born into.

The protest centers around the Dakota Access Pipeline, a $3.8 billion project that is being built to carry 470,000 gallons of crude oil a day from North Dakota to Illinois. The path of the pipeline does not cut across the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation, but the current plans would destroy sacred cultural sites and burial ground in addition to potentially contaminating the water the tribe gets from the Missouri River. On Monday, a D.C. circuit court officially halted construction on the pipeline until a decision can be made.

Since the protests began roughly a month ago, Koenig’s Twitter and Instagram pages have been littered with updates about the protests, a push for national news recognition he feels this issue requires.

That’s no different than any activist with a platform and an opinion, but to truly comprehend the importance of this trip and the value that the accessibility of an icon brings, you need to understand what life is like on that reservation.

Koenig hosted a basketball clinic at the local high school, photo courtesy Clint Parks
Koenig hosted a basketball clinic at the local high school, photo courtesy Clint Parks

The Standing Rock Reservation is a 3,571-square mile plot of land that overlaps the border between North and South Dakota. Bordered on the east by the Missouri River, the reservation is one of the poorest areas in the United States.

The unemployment rate on the reservation is a stunning 79% percent, according to a report from MSNBC in 2014, a number that is even more striking in comparison to the state of North Dakota, where an oil boom has lowered the state’s unemployment rate to 3.1%. Many of the jobs created as a result of this boom are in the construction industry, where infrastructure like the Dakota Access Pipeline is needed to transport the oil and natural gas pulled from the earth to the rest of the country.

The poverty rate in Standing Rock is 43%, more than triple the national average, and the two counties that make up the reservation — Sioux County in North Dakota and Corson County in South Dakota — are two of the ten poorest counties in the country.

“Crumbling homes and boarded up, graffiti-scarred buildings dot this forlorn place, where the great needs of families are etched in the faces of many who live here,” that report from MSNBC read. “There’s a crippling Third World-ness to many parts of the reservation, with life expectancy and quality of life rates among the lowest in the Western Hemisphere.”

“There is little economic activity to speak of and childhood mortality, suicide and dropout rates are among the highest in the nation. Food insecurity is vast. Access to quality healthcare and education is lacking. Far too many go without electricity or running water. These conditions are made worse by political and economic red tape that stymie growth and development.”

The camp Koenig stayed at while in North Dakota, via @ThePlayersTribune
The camp Koenig stayed at while in North Dakota, via @ThePlayersTribune

Koenig knew what he was going to see in Standing Rock when he arrived. He knew the numbers and he’s heard the stories, which is why the most tangible effect of Koenig’s trip was charity.

Koenig’s older brother, Miles, coordinated with the Three Rivers House — where he is a community outreach organizer — and the Hunger Task Force, among other charities, to stock an 18-foot trailer to the ceiling with supplies. Not just food and water, but things seemingly as fundamental as shoes and winter coats, two things will be vital for protesters and tribe members as fall turns to winter. The brothers, along with Parks, also lugged up a pair of generators, which will be useful on the reservation in the long-term but will be immediately useful for the thousands of protesters that are currently occupying four camps in and around the construction site.

It doesn’t take a Rhodes Scholar to figure out that people needing shoes and coats with a North Dakota winter bearing down are struggling.

But knowing and being prepared to see it all up close are two different things.

“Just seeing the reservation and the condition that they live in,” Koenig said, trailing off. “It was pretty eye-opening and made me appreciate everything that I have. Seeing the kids walking around, the conditions that they live in, in the middle of nowhere? You don’t really have much to look forward to.”

“That place,” Parks said, “was given hope with Bronson showing up.”

The trailer, courtesy Clint Parks
The trailer, courtesy Clint Parks

There-in lies the importance of Koenig’s trip, the value that comes with embracing one’s status as the pillar of a community. It’s not just that he’s giving these people supplies that they need, supplies that will undoubtedly help them get by in what is always a long, dark, cold winter. It’s not that he’s hosting basketball clinics and allowing these children a chance to rub elbows and take pictures with their hero. And it’s not just that he’s shining a spotlight on a cause that has been totally overlooked as we argue over whether or not Colin Kaepernick disrespected the flag.

If we, as Americans, ignore a cause — one supporting our nation’s largest minority group — championed by an NFL quarterback because we can’t get past his method of protest, is it any wonder the DAPL protests struggle to make headlines?

So yes, the work Koenig is doing promoting the cause is invaluable, but it’s not as important as the self-confidence he gives Native American children around the country, the belief that they can make it out, they can be successful in life, they can put themselves into a position where they can give back to a community the same way that Koenig has.

And, quite frankly, it’s a chance to provide a simple distraction to everything else going on in their world.

“[We went] there to bring joy to their lives, take their minds off the issue with the tension that’s been growing there over the last month,” Koenig said. “Show them that I’m 100% supportive of them because they’ve been 100% supportive of me whether I have a great game or play awful.” It’s great to have the support of a community, to have an entire nation of people behind you.

And it was time for Koenig to show his people that he is behind them, that he’s in this fight with them. He was there because a retweet is fleeting. The only way to truly support a cause is by going all-in.

“It was a life-changing experience,” Koenig said. “I’ll remember it forever.”

via The Players Tribune
Bronson Koenig with children of the Standing Rock Sioux, via The Players Tribune

Houston reaches No. 1 in AP poll for first time since 1983

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Make some room, Phi Slama Jama. Another Houston team has reached the top of men’s college basketball.

Nearly four decades after Clyde Drexler and Akeem Olajuwon took the Cougars to No. 1, the latest bunch led by Marcus Sasser and star freshman Jarace Walker took over the top spot in the AP Top 25. They received 45 of 63 first-place votes from the national media panel, easily outdistancing second-place Texas and third-place Virginia.

“It’s not like we went online and applied for it and waited for a response back. We’ve been working for this,” said Houston coach Kelvin Sampson, whose team is coming off a Final Four and Elite Eight trip the past two seasons. “But remember, it’s a rental. You don’t own it. You’re just renting it because someday somebody else is going to be No. 1.”

North Carolina had been No. 1 all season, but the Tar Heels lost to Iowa State and in a four-overtime thriller to Alabama at the Phil Knight Invitational to cede the top spot to Houston, which beat Kent State in its only game last week.

The last time the Cougars ascended to No. 1 was the final poll of the 1982-83 season, when “The Glide” and “The Dream” along with coach Guy Lewis were the favorites to win it all. They rolled through the NCAA Tournament before falling to Jim Valvano and North Carolina State in an iconic championship game in Albuquerque, New Mexico.

“I’ve never been ranked No. 1,” said Sampson, now in his 34th season as a college basketball coach. “We were ranked all 12 years at Oklahoma. I’m sure we were ranked at Indiana. Then we’ve been ranked five or six straight years. We’re used to having a high level of success.”

Texas received eight first-place votes and Virginia received two. Arizona climbed from 14th to fourth after emerging from a stacked field to win the Maui Invitational. Purdue jumped from 24th all the way to fifth and scooped up eight first-place votes after beating West Virginia, Gonzaga and Duke at the Phil Knight Legacy tourney.

“Our guys are competitive. They’re fun to coach. They get along. They’re out there playing with purpose and that’s what you have to have,” said Boilermakers coach Matt Painter, whose team was briefly No. 1 about this time last season.

“Early in the season, very few teams play with the purpose collectively,” he said. “I thought our guys played with a purpose.”

Baylor was sixth, Creighton seventh and U Conn climbed from 20th to eighth after beating Oregon, Alabama and Iowa State to win the Phil Knight Invitational. Kansas fell from third to ninth after losing to Tennessee in the championship game of the Battle 4 Atlantis, while Indiana rounded out the top 10.

There was a tie for 11th between SEC rivals Alabama and Arkansas with the Volunteers, another conference foe, right behind them. Gonzaga dropped from sixth to 14th, its first time outside the top 10 since Feb. 5, 2018, and Auburn was 15th.

Illinois was next followed by Duke and North Carolina in a tough week for Tobacco Road. The Blue Devils fell from eighth after their 75-56 loss to the Boilermakers.

Kentucky and Michigan State joined UCLA, Maryland, Iowa State, San Diego State and Ohio State in rounding out the poll.

RISING AND FALLING

Purdue made a rare 19-spot jump as the poll underwent a massive shakeup. UConn climbed 12 spots, Arizona moved up 10, Tennessee climbed nine and Alabama seven. On the flip side, the Tar Heels tumbled 17 spots, Duke dropped nine, Gonzaga fell eight and San Diego State fell seven.

IN AND OUT

Despite all the movement, Iowa State was the only newcomer this week, checking in at No. 23 after beating Villanova and North Carolina before falling to UConn. The Cyclones replaced Iowa, which dropped out after a one-week stay following its loss to TCU in the title game of the Emerald Coast Classic.

CONFERENCE WATCH

There are six difference conferences represented in the first seven teams in the poll. The Big Ten leads the way with six in the Top 25 while the SEC has five and the Big 12 has four, though three of them are in the top 10.

South Carolina tops women’s AP Top 25; Stanford, UConn next

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South Carolina remained the unanimous No. 1 choice in The Associated Press women’s poll, as the Gamecocks keep close watch on the foot injury of reigning Player of the Year Aliyah Boston.

The Gamecocks received all 29 first-place votes in the poll, a day after Boston left a game with her injury. Coach Dawn Staley said Boston was “questionable” going forward but added that the “team doctor wasn’t too, too concerned.”

South Carolina’s next game is at home against No. 15 UCLA.

Stanford remained No. 2 after cruising through a tournament in Hawaii. It’s the 618th appearance for Cardinal coach Tara VanDerveer, tying the late Pat Summitt for most all-time. Summitt’s teams only missed being in the poll 14 times during her Hall of Fame career at Tennessee.

UConn, Ohio State and Indiana rounded out the top five.

The Huskies are one of four Big East teams to be ranked this week as Marquette entered the poll at No. 24. It’s the first time the Big East has four ranked teams since the conference realigned in 2014. The league is 56-14 so far this season, including going 8-2 against ranked teams.

“We’ve been trying to earn a little more respect,” Marquette coach Megan Duffy said of the Big East. “Tried to schedule tougher non-conference (games). ‘Nova’s playing people. Us going to the Bahamas was great. Creighton’s doing what they’ve been doing since last season. Getting some of those quality wins is everything.”

North Carolina moved up two spots to No. 6 after rallying to beat then-No. 5 Iowa State in the Phil Knight tournament. The Cyclones fell to eighth.

The Tar Heels visit the Hoosiers on Tuesday in the ACC-Big Ten Challenge. Indiana returns home after winning two games in Las Vegas at a subpar venue that lacked basic necessities.

Notre Dame remained No. 7 while Virginia Tech and Iowa finished off the top 10. At No. 9, Virginia Tech has matched its best ranking ever and is in the top 10 for the first time since 1999.

Tennessee fell out of the poll this week marking the 56th time in the 827-week history of the poll that the Lady Vols weren’t ranked. Kansas State also fell out with Gonzaga moving in at No. 23.

FALLING CARDINALS

Louisville dropped to 18th in the poll this week after falling to South Dakota State in the fifth place game at the Battle 4 Atlantis last week. It’s the Cardinals lowest ranking since Jan. 11, 2016.

Louisville entered the top 10 in the preseason poll in 2017 and hadn’t been out since, a span of 98 consecutive weeks. It was the longest active streak.

“It’s a compliment to the consistency that we built here,” Louisville coach Jeff Walz said of being ranked in the top 10 for so long. “Obviously are goal would have been to stay in the top 10, but it’s a new team and growing.”

Edey scores 21 as No. 24 Purdue beats No. 8 Duke 75-56

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PORTLAND, Ore. – Zach Edey and No. 24 Purdue shook off a slow start. When No. 8 Duke tried to rally in the second half, the Boilermakers finished strong.

Edey had 21 points and 12 rebounds, and Purdue beat Duke 75-56 on Sunday in the championship game of the Phil Knight Legacy men’s tournament.

Fletcher Loyer scored 18 points for Purdue (6-0), and reserve Caleb Furst finished with 11 points and 10 rebounds.

“I feel like we weren’t getting the looks we wanted early. As we settled into the game, we kept our poise and kept getting the shots that we wanted,” Edey said. “They were making some tough twos at the beginning of the game, shots we’re OK with all season.”

The 7-foot-4 Edey was 7 for 13 from the field and 7 for 8 at the line. He was named tournament MVP.

“They have the most unique player in the country,” Duke coach Jon Scheyer said of Edey. “He’s a hard guy to prepare for because there’s nobody else like him.”

Duke (6-2) shot 36.2% (21 for 58) from the field. Tyres Proctor scored 16 points for the Blue Devils. Kyle Filipowski and Jeremy Roach each had 14.

Ethan Morton had a steal and a dunk to help Purdue open a 58-41 lead with 15:37 left in the second half.

Duke countered with an 8-0 run, capped by two foul shots by Dariq Whitehead. But Furst made a layup and a jumper to help hold off the Blue Devils.

A hook by Edey and a 3-pointer by Loyer made it 68-56 with 5:03 remaining.

Duke got off to a 14-7 start before Purdue worked its way back into the game.

“I don’t feel like we came out bad today, but they matched our energy,” Edey said.

A 3-pointer by Brandon Newman pushed the Purdue lead to 46-28. A late run by Duke cut the Boilermakers’ lead to 46-35 at halftime.

BIG PICTURE

Duke: It looked as if Roach had an issue with his left foot at one point, but he went back into the game. Scheyer said Roach had hurt his toe.

Purdue: Although neither team had great offensive games, Purdue was the better team from range. Purdue made seven 3-pointers to just two for Duke.

UP NEXT

Duke: Hosts Ohio State on Wednesday.

Purdue: Visits Florida State on Wednesday.

No. 18 Alabama beats No. 1 North Carolina 103-101 in 4 OTs

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PORTLAND, Ore. – Mark Sears had 24 points, five rebounds and five assists, and No. 18 Alabama sent top-ranked North Carolina to a second straight loss with a 103-101 victory in a quadruple-overtime thriller on Sunday in the third-place game of the Phil Knight Invitational tournament.

Jahvon Quinerly added 21 points off the bench for the Crimson Tide (6-1), who knocked off the top-ranked team for the first time since upsetting Stanford in the 2004 NCAA Tournament.

“I was losing track of how many overtimes we were in there at the end,” Crimson Tide coach Nate Oats said. “A lot of credit to our guys. I thought they showed a lot of character when we could have folded.”

Charles Bediako had 14 points, 16 rebounds and three blocks, while Brandon Miller also scored 14 points.

Caleb Love led the Tar Heels (5-2) with 34 points, nine rebounds, four assists and three steals. Armando Bacot contributed 20 points and 10 rebounds, and R.J. Davis had 19 points and nine rebounds in the second four-overtime game in North Carolina history. The other was a victory over Tulane in 1976.

“At the end of the day, Alabama made one more play than we did,” North Carolina coach Hubert Davis said. “I walked in the locker room and a number of the guys had their head down and I told them to pick their head up. I’m just as disappointed (as the players) in terms of the final outcome, but I couldn’t be any more proud about the way they competed.”

Bediako gave the Crimson Tide the lead for good on a layup with 26 seconds remaining in the fourth overtime.

The Tar Heels, who lost to Iowa State in the semifinals, led by as much as eight in the second half before Alabama came back to tie it. The Crimson Tide retook the lead on a pair of free throws from Gurley with 2 minutes remaining, and later tied with another free throw from Sears with 51 seconds remaining in regulation.

Alabama starting forward Noah Clowney took a hard fall on a dunk attempt four minutes into the first half and had to be helped off the court. He did not return.

The Crimson Tide were 16 for 38 (42.1%) from 3-point range, with Sears making seven.

BIG PICTURE

North Carolina: The Tar Heels figure to take a deep drop in the Top 25 poll.

Alabama: The Crimson Tide bounced back nicely following their loss to No. 20 UConn in the semifinals, beating a top-ranked team in the regular season for the first time since a 66-64 victory over eventual national champion Arkansas on Jan. 8, 1994.

UP NEXT:

North Carolina: The Tar Heels travel to Bloomington to face No. 11 Indiana on Wednesday.

Alabama: The Crimson Tide return home to face South Dakota State on Saturday.

Clingan lifts UConn past Iowa State for Phil Knight title

Troy Wayrynen-USA TODAY Sports
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PORTLAND, Ore. – Donovan Clingan had 15 points and 10 rebounds to power No. 20 UConn to a 71-53 win over Iowa State in the championship game of the Phil Knight Invitational on Sunday night.

Tristen Newton scored 13 points for the Huskies (8-0), who went 20 for 25 at the free-throw line. Alex Karaban and Andre Jackson, Jr. each had 10 points.

Osun Osunniyi led Iowa State (5-1) with 14 points. Tamin Lipsey had 12 points and Jaren Holmes finished with 11.

“They were the more aggressive team,” Iowa State coach T.J. Otzelberger said. “We wanted a physical game. We didn’t want a physical game with them getting the rebounds and then also us putting them on the foul line. Lesson that we’ve got to learn is we need to embrace being the aggressor at both ends of the floor at all times.”

The Huskies had more offensive rebounds (20) than the Cyclones had total rebounds (19), and capitalized on that disparity with 20 second-chance points.

“Those guys are tough,” UConn coach Dan Hurley said. “T.J.`s an excellent coach. They grind people up. To outrebound them, it just speaks to how tough we were.”

Clingan, who was named tournament MVP, scored eight points to help UConn to a 38-28 lead at the break.

Iowa State closed to 53-48 on Holmes’ 3-pointer midway through the second half. But Karaban made a 3 and a dunk, and Newton’s jumper made it 60-48 with 7:13 remaining.

BIG PICTURE

UConn: The Huskies couldn’t have asked for a better showing in Portland, winning all three of their games.

Iowa State: The Cyclones picked up nice wins over Villanova and top-ranked North Carolina in the earlier rounds but ended with their first loss of the season.

UP NEXT

UConn: The Huskies return home to face Oklahoma State on Thursday.

Iowa State: The Cyclones return home to face North Dakota on Tuesday.