LANDER — As the Women’s National Basketball Association player draft began April 11 in Connecticut, Sara Robinson was sitting 2,000 miles away in her office, trying to keep busy.
Robinson works as an assistant public defender in Lander, five miles from the Wind River Indian Reservation, home to the Eastern Shoshone and Northern Arapaho tribes.
Just down the road is Lander Valley High School, where her daughter, Tahnee, had been a standout basketball player. As a senior, Tahnee was named Gatorade Player of the Year for Wyoming and led her team to the division 3A state championship in 2006.
After playing two years at Sheridan College, where she earned National Junior College Athletic Association All-American honors, Tahnee transferred to the University of Nevada, Reno, becoming a breakout star during the 2010-11 season. There, the 5-foot 9-inch guard was one of the top scorers in the nation, averaging 22.2 points per game. In April, she was named one of five finalists for the Sullivan Award, which is given to the nation’s top amateur athlete.
On the Monday afternoon of the draft, Sara wasn’t watching on television or checking online, even though she knew Tahnee had a good shot at being chosen.
“I have always believed in her ability and what she is capable of doing,” Sara said of her daughter. “I know that she is capable of playing in the WNBA. I knew that there was a possibility that she could be drafted, but I also knew that there was a whole bunch of other girls that was in her same boat and I just didn’t…want to get my hopes up.”
Sara’s brother Owen kept calling with updates, but she didn’t want to hear them. She knew that no matter what, Tahnee would phone her.
Finally, the call came.
“She said, ‘Mom, I got drafted,’” Sara said. “I just started crying on the phone with her and she was crying because I know that was her dream.”
Tahnee was a third-round pick by the Phoenix Mercury, which traded her to the Connecticut Sun, a team owned by the Mohegan Tribe. The Fort Washakie resident was the first Wyoming-born player drafted into the WNBA, and the first American Indian. She is enrolled with the Northern Cheyenne Tribe in Montana and is also Eastern Shoshone, Pawnee and Sioux.
After getting the phone call that she had been drafted, Tahnee stood outside the locker room in Reno and tried to digest the flood of emotions she was feeling.
“I really couldn’t feel anything,” she said.
But reality soon set in and she knew the race was on for her to earn a spot on the team.
“My ultimate goal is to eventually play a big role on my team,” she said. “Being drafted is only half the challenge.”
Growing up, Tahnee loved playing basketball.
Once Tahnee started to get serious, her father, Tim Robinson, built an outdoor concrete court so she didn’t have to play on the dirt anymore, Sara said.
In the mornings, Sara would wake Tahnee and have her practice dribbling while Sara took her morning walk.
Early on, Sara said, she saw a drive in Tahnee that most nine-year-olds don’t have.
“She’s not a quitter,” she said. “Even when she was little and she got knocked down, she would get back up and she would go again. That’s what made me believe in her.”
For Tahnee, the love of playing basketball has always been her motivation.
“I just love to play…being in the gym actually makes me really happy. I would be there all the time if I could,” she said.
Like the dirt court she used to practice on when she was little, Tahnee’s journey has been a bumpy one.
In 2006, she signed on to play basketball for the University of Wyoming in Laramie. But just a few months into the fall semester, Tahnee learned she was pregnant, and decided to withdraw from school and return home to Fort Washakie. Sara remembers this as a difficult time, with Tahnee telling her that basketball was no longer fun and she didn’t want to play anymore.
“Even though she said those words…I felt that she just needed some time to sort things out, calm things down and to find herself again,” Sara said. “Her life wasn’t even over. It was just beginning. The world was still open to her to do whatever it is she wanted to do.”
With the encouragement of her family, Tahnee enrolled at Sheridan College while Sara and her husband Tim took care of Tahnee’s son, Julius.
It was in Sheridan when Tahnee first met Nevada coach Jane Albright, who flew out to watch her practice. From the moment Albright watched her play, she knew that Tahnee’s passion for basketball was still alive.
“She looked like she was at a circus or it was Christmas day….She was just a kid out there, so happy,” Albright said.
After transferring to Nevada in 2009, Tahnee became the team’s captain during her senior year and became the team’s breakout star. She helped lead the Wolf Pack to a 22-11 record and also earned herself All-Western Athletic Conference honors for the second consecutive year. In April, she was edged out for the Sullivan Award by figure skater Evan Lysacek.
Late last year, Tahnee experienced another personal setback when her grandfather Darwin St. Clair Sr. passed away.
During difficult times, Sara has always been the strong one. But during her father’s services, Tahnee was now a source of strength for her, she said.
“She was the stable, supportive person that I know that I really relied on during that time,” she said. “That’s when I just really noticed how grown up she had become.”
With an upcoming televised game looming shortly after her grandfather died, Sara and her family urged Tahnee to return to Reno. But instead, she choose not to go back and stayed with her family. On the day of the game, she flew back to Nevada at 6 a.m., stepped up and led her team out on the court. While they lost, Sara said it showed her that Tahnee was no longer a little girl.
“She made the choice to stand up and take care of her responsibilities…That’s when I just realized that she was a woman,” Sara said.
In Nevada, Tahnee built a devoted following among the local American Indian tribes. Game attendance was often double its usual level thanks to the influx of Native fans, and tribal members invited her to their homes, cooked community feasts and embraced Tahnee and her whole team as a part of their communities.
“They’ve been amazing,” she said. “They’re kind of like a family away from home.”
Tribal members from all over the country have also flooded her Facebook page with words of encouragement.
“Congrats on your new journey!”
“You’re an inspiration to all us Natives.”
“You’re my hero.”
Albright said Tahnee lights a spark in the eyes of young American Indians who eagerly wait to meet her and get an autograph after a game. It makes Albright believe that Tahnee is a role model who can help inspire a community.
“I think Tahnee will change a culture,” she said. “She has hope written across her forehead.”
Just days after getting drafted, Tahnee signed a two-year deal with Nike to promote their N7 collection, which is geared toward Native and aboriginal audiences.
The visit to the Nike headquarters in Oregon was the first time Sara and Tahnee saw each other since the draft. Watching mother and daughter embrace in a teary hug made Albright think about the first time she met Tahnee in Sheridan, when the two had dinner and Tahnee shared her rocky story of leaving UW.
Looking around the Nike conference room, Albright reminisced about Tahnee’s journey from a young girl excited to get a second chance to play ball in Sheridan to a newly drafted WNBA player with a Nike contract.
“She broke a barrier. That was my moment of just joy,” Albright said. “I just went out in the hall and just cried.”
Next, Tahnee will have to focus on training camp, which begins May 15 in Uncasville, Conn., where she will compete for a spot on the team’s roster.
“She has an honest shot at making it, and that’s not always the case when you get drafted,” Albright said.
For now, Tahnee spends her days training at 6 a.m., attending classes and calling her son for their nightly chat. One day, when he is a teenager, Sara said, she will give Julius back to Tahnee so that she can finish raising him.
“There will come that point where they will be together,” she said.
When Sara takes a drive through the reservation and sees all the basketball courts outside the homes, it reminds her of how Tahnee’s journey started.
“I think that’s what makes this really special,” she said. “Tahnee is just a little Indian girl from just a little reservation in Wyoming…it just started from that little cement court.”