He knew it was good as soon as it left his hand.
That’s what Bronson Koenig said after the game, anyway, of the fadeaway 3-point buzzer-beater that gave the University of Wisconsin men’s basketball team an unlikely 69-66 victory over second-seeded Xavier University, sending the Badgers to the Sweet 16 for the fifth time in six years.
Nichole Boyd wasn’t watching the game, but she heard about the final play almost immediately after it happened. While the exuberant celebrations spread across Badger Nation, Boyd heard it from Indian Country first.
“My phone started blowing up,” said Boyd, UW’s American Indian Campus and Community Liason. “Indian Country started seeing it right away and that’s when it hit my desk.”
Indian Country responded so strongly because Koenig is one of theirs, a member of the Ho-Chunk Nation, a national hero.
“Basketball is life in Indian Country,” said Boyd. “Basketball players are heroes in Indian Country. To see two young men make it into a Big Ten school to play basketball shows our young people the possibilities,” she adds, referring to Koenig and fellow Ho-Chunk William Decorah, a Waunakee graduate who earned a spot on the Badgers roster after two years as team manager.
Just for one or two of their own to make the team is something special for Koenig’s and Decorah’s Native American brethren. But to become a key player and team leader, and to hit a game-winner in the NCAA tournament, will be something Indian Country will never forget.
But Koenig took one more step, dedicating the win to “all my Natives out there” in a tweet just after midnight, about two hours after the game ended.
That was for all my Natives out there, & my team, & of course the true fans out there!! Thank you.
— Bronson Koenig (@BronsonK_24) March 21, 2016
Boyd did see that tweet at the moment it happened, and wasn’t entirely surprised.
“It wasn’t like, ‘Oh my gosh I can’t believe he did that,’” she said. “It was, ‘I’m proud that he’s carrying on those teachings.’ A lot of our communities teach that selflessness. What we do we do for our people, not for ourselves.”
Koenig himself was understated about the shout-out when asked about it after practice on Tuesday.
“I embrace my role and the platform I have to be a voice for them,” he said, simply.
Assistant Coach Howard Moore was a bit more effusive.
“I think it says a lot. He’s a proud Native American,” said Moore. “I think it is tremendous that a young man from any background can represent people who are underrepresented. The fact that Bronson is on this stage and gave props to the Natives, I think that’s tremendous.”
“I think it’s really great that he recognized us and shouted out,” said Kelly Holmes, a UW junior and president of the Native American student organization Wunk Sheek, herself a member of the Red Cliff Band of Lake Superior Chippewa. “The native population in general has been kind of in the spotlight already. That would definitely help us out and bring more attention to what’s going on on campus. At least I hope it does.”
The Native American population on campus is tiny — just 388 undergraduate and graduate students combined, plus fewer than 20 faculty and staff, according to Boyd — but has been in the spotlight recently for reasons that aren’t positive.
Boyd says that 47 percent of Native American women on campus report being the victims of sexual assault, nearly double the rate of about 25 percent among the general university population. Recently, a Native American elder visited campus to perform a healing ceremony in response to sexual violence, only to be mocked by whooping and “war cry” shouts from a dorm room window.
“Where do people learn that?” Boyd asked, noting that many movies depict Native Americans in a stereotypical fashion but also that Native American sports mascots attached do a great deal of damage as well.
“That mascot reinforces a negative image that our youth are seeing about ourselves,” says Boyd, who is Blackfoot and Camanche. “That multigenerational trauma is what they are carrying with them.”
Boyd says that Native Americans are four times more likely than other groups to commit suicide and have higher rates of diabetes and alcoholism. Further, Native American men are more likely to be shot and killed by police, per capita, than even black men.
All of which makes a positive role model like Koenig so important.
“Anytime anyone is positively in the spotlight speaking about issues that affect us … is essential,” says Boyd. “Any time we can get our issues into the media it does help the community.”
Koenig has been outspoken in the past about the harm done by Native American mascots, and has never shied away from his role as a representative of his heritage and his community.
“What I appreciate about Bronson is that he is aware and conscious of what his accomplishments mean to other native youth,” said Boyd.
“There’s a responsibility that comes with that as well,” said Moore. “You gotta keep that in mind that you’re always representing certain groups and certain people that support you, and you gotta always think about what you do and how you carry yourself.”
It’s a responsibility that most Native American students feel, Boyd said.
“A lot of times you ask students, ‘what do you want to do with your degree?’ And it’s, ‘I want to go back to my community. I want to help my community. I want to help my tribe,’” Boyd said. “I think that’s a good example of a teaching from Indian Country that our youth are still holding on to and practicing.”
Koenig carries that responsibility well, Moore said.
“It’s a badge of honor for him,” said Moore. “He handles it very well. In the state of Wisconsin I think it’s very suitable for him. I’m behind him 100 percent. I think it’s great.”
Koenig, Decorah and their Badger teammates are in Philadelphia today, preparing for a matchup against sixth-seeded Notre Dame tomorrow night with a berth in the Elite Eight on the line.