When the University of Wisconsin men’s basketball team gathered for the start of its eight-week summer session in June, there were three new players on the roster.
But that number may as well have been four, because one of the veterans had undergone a makeover of sorts.
Senior guard Bronson Koenig was still wearing No. 24, still running the point for the Badgers. But he wasn’t the same Bronson Koenig that had left town when the semester ended the previous month.
Off the court, Koenig was a changed person, too. Sophomore forward Ethan Happ noticed it when the two would go out to eat and Koenig was choosing to order healthier meals.
“This Bronson right here,” senior forward Vitto Brown said over the summer, “is a complete 180. He’s headed in the right direction.”
Five months later, as Koenig gets ready to start his final season with the Badgers, there’s every reason to believe he’ll go out with a bang.
“I’m the leanest I’ve ever been. My body fat is the lowest it’s ever been. I’m in the best shape of my life. I don’t really get tired anymore,” Koenig said.
“I’m playing the best ball of my life and I’m going to keep that going. I just have a whole different mindset.”
There are multiple factors that led to Koenig 2.0.
For starters, he had plenty of motivation heading into the offseason based on the way his junior season ended. After lifting the Badgers into the Sweet 16 with a pair of clutch 3-pointers down the stretch against Xavier, including the winner at the buzzer, Koenig missed a shot and turned the ball over in the closing seconds of a 61-56 loss to Notre Dame five days later.
Badgers coach Greg Gard and others speculated a sense of urgency had emerged within Koenig because he knew his time at UW was running out — the sand slowly disappearing from the top of the hourglass.
“I feel like he’s got it in his head like this is his last year, last shot,” Happ said.
Last, but certainly not least, was Koenig could feel his dream of playing in the NBA slipping away.
Koenig, like teammate Nigel Hayes last spring, could have taken advantage of a new rule that gave underclassmen more time to make an informed decision if they chose to enter the draft pool without hiring an agent. Koenig, who knew he wasn’t ready, didn’t even bother going through the process.
Instead, the La Crosse native did everything he could to go out and get ready for a season he hopes will propel to the NBA. “I was in the gym every single day this summer,” Koenig said, “10 times more than all the other summers combined.”
It was a transformation that even Brown, one of his closest friends on the team, didn’t see coming.
“I was hoping it would come, but I never would have put money on it,” Brown said. “I don’t know who got to him, but he’s keeping it up. I’m proud of him.”
Koenig is the first to admit he had help — plenty of it, in fact.
UW strength and conditioning coach Erik Helland has been universally praised by coaches and players since joining the program prior to the 2013-14 season, but there are restrictions on the amount of time he can spend with the players.
Koenig didn’t want to waste a single second of his offseason, so he made plans to train in Los Angeles. It was there he hooked up with Corey Calliet, a personal trainer who helped actor Michael B. Jordan prepare for his role in the movie “Creed.”
Not only did Calliet oversee a rigorous series of basketball-centric workouts every day, he got Koenig started on a diet plan that Koenig continues to use to this day.
Koenig, who sustained a knee injury during a loss at Northwestern last season and said he “got fat and out of shape and relied too much on my shot,” felt like a new player after only a short time under Calliet’s watch.
“He helped me get a lot more athletic, more quick, more pop in my first step,” Koenig said. “My hops are back for the first time since high school, so that’s nice to have.”
Koenig’s swagger is back, too, and for that he credits Clint Parks, a 29-year-old basketball skills trainer who has worked with NBA players Kawhi Leonard and Tony Snell.
The two had never met before last spring, though Parks was aware of Koenig from his high school day and was at the Final Four in 2014 when the Badgers lost a heartbreaker to Kentucky in a national semifinal.
Parks’ greatest strength might be his ability to motivate, and he didn’t sugarcoat anything with Koenig even though the two barely knew each other before they started working out together at the UCLA Men’s Gym basketball courts.
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Before Koenig started his work with Calliet, it was Parks who offered this brutally honest assessment: “I told him, ‘You’re in horrible shape right now. You’re not going to get where you want to get by doing what you’ve done in the past.’ ”
Parks didn’t stop there, bringing up a junior season that fell below Koenig’s individual expectations. There was plenty of blame to go around when diagnosing UW’s offensive struggles at times last season, but Koenig’s inconsistency was at least part of the issue: He shot a combined 29.7 percent from the field in the Badgers’ 13 losses compared to 45.6 percent in the team’s 22 wins.
“Too many games in single figures,” Parks said — and there were 11 to be exact. “That’s because when you just rely on your jump shot, you’re going to have nights like that.”
Parks told Koenig he had to become tougher when it came to winning 50/50 balls. He challenged Koenig to improve his defensive skills so he could hassle the opposing point guard.
To Koenig’s credit, he took Parks’ unfiltered feedback in stride. In fact, it was exactly what Koenig needed to hear.
“He’s been a blessing,” Koenig said. “Just the kind of guy I needed in my life years ago. If I would have had him, I’d already be in the NBA. But better late than never.”
The bond between the two grew so tight over the summer that Koenig, who is part Native American and part Caucasian, invited Parks back to Wisconsin to attend a Ho-Chunk Pow-Wow in Black River Falls over Labor Day weekend.
Later in September, Parks accompanied Koenig and Koenig’s older brother Miles on their 750-mile journey to Standing Rock Indian Reservation in North Dakota, where thousands of Native Americans were protesting construction of an oil pipeline.
In addition to Bronson Koenig and Parks running a basketball clinic that was attended by over 100 Native American youth, Miles Koenig organized a donation truck with provisions for the protesters.
Both trips not only helped Parks get to know Koenig better, it gave him a chance to see the impact Koenig is having on the Native American community.
At the Pow-Wow, Parks watched as a mother walked up to Koenig and thanked him. “This is my son’s dream,” she told him. “He looks at you and he says maybe I can do this. You’re providing hope.”
In North Dakota, a similar conversation occurred. “I’ve seen a big change in my son’s grades after watching you in the NCAA tourney,” the parent said. “Seeing you hit that shot (against Xavier), he’s been a different kid because he realizes if he wants to play ball, he’s got to get good grades.”
Koenig’s role as a key piece of UW’s run to back-to-back Final Fours during his first two seasons on campus raised his profile. He was encouraged by his mother, Ethel Funmaker, a member of the Ho-Chunk Nation tribe, to embrace being a role model to Native American kids.
That was a somewhat daunting task for Koenig at first, but the North Dakota trip was another sign he’s put his arms around being a leader to those who look up to him.
“I hope to show that it is possible for a Native American to accomplish whatever goal they have,” he said.
Added Parks: “I always tell him, ‘It’s 5 million people on your back supporting you. They want you to succeed. All the negative stuff going on right now for Native Americans, when they see you, you’re something positive that they can grab onto.’ ”
Gard, who started recruiting Koenig when he was a freshman at La Crosse Aquinas High School, has pointed out on more than one occasion during the preseason that Koenig has grown into a mature leader.
Even Koenig admits he’s come a long way in that regard.
“I was an awkward teenager — socially awkward and I didn’t know who I was,” Koenig said. “I’ve kind of grown up.”
“I know who I am now,” Koenig said, “and I’m confident in myself.”
Parks is a believer as well, though he’s not afraid to push Koenig’s buttons on occasion.
When Parks picked up a Lindy’s College Basketball preview magazine over the summer and noticed Koenig wasn’t included in a ranking of the top 25 point guards in the nation, he took a picture of the list and attached it in a text message to Koenig.
Parks also teased Koenig that he’d probably return to his bad eating and sleeping habits once the summer ended and school began. “I knew he’d keep at it,” Parks said, “but I would throw that at him to keep him off-balance.”
The progress Koenig made during his time in Los Angeles was evident from the moment he stepped back on the UW campus.
“Like I told him straight up, I’ve never been more proud of a kid,” Parks said. “Everything I told him, he ran with it. He didn’t have an ego. He wasn’t like, ‘I’m Bronson Koenig, I’ve been to two Final Fours, hit a game-winner to go to the Sweet 16.’ It was none of that.
“He was like a sponge. He took it like a man. You could tell the maturity. And that’s what happens with seniors when they get to the end of the road. He realized that he could have done some things different, but it wasn’t too late.”