Wisconsin basketball: Bronson Koenig becoming role model for Native American community
It was another entry for Bronson Koenig's photo album already brimming with basketball-related moments, none more memorable than his buzzer-beater against Xavier in the NCAA tournament.
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"I saw that (photo)," he acknowledged. "I thought that was really inspiring."
Koenig was pictured front and center — surrounded by Native American children. He was wearing a Stand for Standing Rock T-shirt, the same one most of the boys and girls had on.
Draped over his shoulder was a Standing Rock Indian Reservation flag representing the Yanktonai Dakota in North Dakota and the Hunkpapa Lakota in South Dakota.
"I'm really glad I went there and I was able to bring some joy to those kids' lives," he said. "Maybe it was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity they will remember for the rest of their lives.
"I'm just now starting to realize the impact that I can really have on those kids."
As he spoke Monday from just outside the UW locker room in the Kohl Center, he also realized, "It was definitely a life-changing experience that I'll remember for the rest of my life, too."
Koenig talked about wanting to bring attention to the issues by standing in solidarity with the Dakota Access pipeline protestors. And he retraced the steps that led him to the front lines of the fight.
When his older brother, Miles Koenig, 26, first asked him to make the trip, he wasn't sure that he would be able to free up the time because of his schedule. But everything fell into place last weekend.
Before leaving, Koenig did his homework on the pipeline. He spoke to a lot of different people, including a prominent Native American lawyer to learn about the legalities.
"I definitely educated myself on the issue," he said.
Late last week, Koenig drove to La Crosse, Wisconsin, where his brother is living and working for the branch office of the Ho Chunk Nation. From there, they made the long trek west.
"It took a little over 14 hours to get there (North Dakota) because we were pulling an 18-foot trailer that was stacked high to the ceiling with donations," he said, crediting his brother for working with charitable organizations like the Hunger Task Force. "We had food, clothes for the winter, boots."
On the road, they listened to music and discussed just about everything, though basketball, naturally, was a popular topic. Once they got to the reservation, Koenig was in for a culture shock.
"It really is in the middle of nowhere," he said, also expressing his surprise at the living conditions. "I went without my phone for three days, which is different, obviously, being my age. I woke up that first morning with a little anxiety not knowing how anyone was going to text me. That was the first time that happened. But it was good for me."
Cell connections, of course, were trivial, Koenig noted, to what was really important. And that really sunk in when many assured him "they'd rather die than to have this pipeline being built."
At the core of the protest is the pipeline cutting through the Standing Rock reservation and not only intruding upon sacred burial sites but potentially compromising its water supply.
Koenig pointed out that the water concerns extend beyond tribal land to "millions of people upstream or downstream" of the Missouri River.
"Some people might think it's just Native Americans being selfish," he said, completely rejecting that suggestion. "It's their way of life, their way of living; it's all of us, not just Native Americans."
Walking through the campsites, Koenig was overwhelmed.
"It was just the sense of unity I saw when I got there," he said. "Over 200 tribes from all across the country. And there were also Polynesians, Hawaiians and Aztecs. There were people from all over the world that came to support the cause because they know how important it is.
"The indigenous people from all of these different countries have this connection with Mother Earth and they know how important it is to take care of it."
As it related to his brief stay in North Dakota, Koenig understood that his role was to "try to bring a little joy at the time of tension with the pipeline" in addition to showing his support for Standing Rock.
The joy was almost all Koenig's while in the company of the children.
"Every kid I talked to was unique in their own sense," he said.
There was another unexpected development on a personal level.
"It was kind of cool to see how many people actually know me," he said.
And he was truly grateful to have the platform and their support. In turn, he made sure everybody knew "I'm behind them 100 percent."
Since returning to Madison, he said, "I've gotten a lot of positive feedback like I always have from Indian country. They were thankful for me being there and being there for the kids."
His impact was not limited to sharing his basketball acumen. Koenig was committed to "promoting health and wellness," which has become a priority in his life.
Koenig admitted to being in a different place today "with my body and my mindset."
You can tell by looking at him that he has been on a diet plan.
"It's kind of weird because my whole career here I haven't really been in shape like I should have been in shape," he confessed. "I was letting distractions get in the way of my goals and dreams.
"My body just feels so much different. I'm way leaner."
All in all, the last few months have been kind of a whirlwind.
"It has definitely been an eventful summer where I learned a lot on and off the court," he said. "It was also easily the hardest-working summer I've spent on the court and in the weight room.
"I'm really excited for this year because I'm going to be a whole different player."
Koenig has already made a difference with all of those kids on the Standing Rock reservation.
"I will definitely stay in touch," he promised. And they won't soon forget about him, either.