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.”
Just to congratulate you & all the supportive people around you. You have made all of us proud of you. YOU truely are an inspiration to your Native People. I can imagine how your parents feel, good job Tim & Sara.
I love reading about Tahnee! I too can recall her youth as she traveled with her Mother Sara to the rez tournaments, and attend the leagues. It is a true wonderful blessing knowing hard work pays off, and dreams do come true! I have wished for a long time that someone (native american), would break the stone wall down to live & prove to kids, dreams to play in the WNBA can be real. She show everyone it is POSSIBLE!! Tahnee will always have my respect!
I am so happy and so proud of Tahnee. She has worked extremely hard to overcome a number of obstacles. She is a role model to youth around the nation. Her parents are the most supportive, loving and hard-working people I know. I am happy and proud for all of them. @Saddened-Julieus is in a loving, supportive, caring, positive, safe and healthy environment. He is learning about his culture and his roots. That is far better then being at a daycare center with people who don’t know or understand him while his mother attends college to better her life. You should really understand the issue before you comment.
Having been a team mate and an opponent, Tahnee’s an inspiration and amazing motivator on and off the basketball floor. We are all very proud of you Tahnee, keep playing tough!! Your living the dream for all of us!!! 🙂
Great story. I agree that these types of stories make your day! And Tahnee…….we all are looking forward to watching a great professional career.
Really nice reporting and article Jordan. Thank you WyoFile for making storys like this possible. Tahnee’s success appears to me to be largely because of the support and encouragement she received from her parents. Support and encourgement is so important for all children to succered in life and to go on and help others. Tahnee’s hard work and success will provide this encouragement and help for many Native Americans.
Awesome article Jordan!! Like her mom said she is a Strong woman, and she set a goal and she achieved it!!..Saddened its obvious that you have never looked outside the box, theres a whole lot of life outside the reservation walls its just SADDENED that you probably never had the chance to experience whats out there!!! WIND RIVER INDIAN RESERVATION IS PROUD OF YOU TAHNEE!! excluding SADDENED poor poor soul!! DO WHAT YOU GOTTA GO, AND FLY ABOVE THE HATERS AND SCORE ALL YOU CAN ON THEM!!
To Saddened: Here is what i think about your comment toward my little sister. Because you want to judge her because she is trying to give her son a better life. You are saying that all people that dont have their children right now are in the wrong. Then you are saying that when a soldier has to go off to war, that she is a bad mother, or if a mother has a illness and cant take care of her children, then she is a bad mother. Or that in a custody battle, she is a bad mother. My little sister is living the dream that no one else was brave enough to try for. She is a talented young lady that has given her all, and opened doors for all others. She is a great person, and i guess you shouldnt speak, if you do not know her the way we all do. Thank you for your input on the negative, but here is what i have to say about all this “GO TAHNEE!!!!”
What a story, that had me from the very first sentence! Best wishes to you Tahnee, you have fullfilled your dreams! You are a beautiful, talented, and strong young lady. You really give the younger generations something to look forward to weather is be the WNBA or NBA. My son is only six years old and is already talking about, “Mom when I get big, i’m going to be like Billups.” LOL i not sure if i spelled that right, but we all enjoyed watching you play on ESPN. Take care, god bless and keep up the good work lady!!!!
@ saddened, sorry you feel that way but I know that this family is outstanding and hard working people who support their children in reaching their goals and achievements. I’m sure that when her son is older he will understand all the obstacles and sacrifices that his mom made to provide a better life and proving that anything is possible. The fact that he has loving grandparents caring for him shows the strong family support and love they have for each other. Tawnee is a great role model for all young mothers and I wish her nothing but the best and yes Sara was an outstanding baller.
Wonderful article, Jordan! Tahnee, Best of luck. We are rooting for you in the Midwest!
Wonderful story, Jordan! Congratulations to Tahnee and her family and best of luck!
Good story, Jordan, awesome job! Tahnee, you have sacrificed and in return you have earned your education and a career. You are a strong Native woman and I am proud of you.
Thanks for this outstanding story. I remember when Tahnee came back to play UW several years ago with Nevada and I was doing the PA in the arena-auditorium. She didn’t have the best game but it was fun watching her play and now to be drafted, what a great story. Thanks to Bill Sniffin for pointing out her mother’s talents as well.
CONGRATULATIONS TAHNEE!!! you are a true inspiration for everyone! Your son will also be VERY proud of you as he gets older and understands. Bless you both on your new journey!!
Nice job of reporting, Jordan!
AWESOME ARICLE JORDAN!!! Tahnee! Way to GO!! Keep it up! Dont mind the negative people, they’ll always be there….’sad’…its too bad. YOUR DOIN A GREAT JOB, Were all rootin for you!
Might know there has to be some HATER oh well saddened I pray for your jealousy because like I said you know NOTHING about my family!!!!
Tahnee is no inspiration to me! Her first priority should have been her son, so good luck with the basketball she has chosen over him.
AWESOME STORY JORDAN!!! TAHNEE IS AN INSPIRATION TO ALL!!! & SADDENED YOU KNOW NOTHING BOUT MY NIECE & MY GRANDSON & SHE WONT BE AWAY FROM HIM ALL HIS LIFE & THEY HAVE A BOND!!!
In response to “Saddened”. I raised my grandson for 12 years he is now 14 years old and has recently moved back with his mother. There’s a special bond
between us and we kept the bond going with his mother. I kept his mother informed of when he was sick, excelling in school etc., she was also going to school at the time and earned two degrees. With the pictures, phone calls, visits, etc., I don’t feel he was deprived of his mother’s love and Tahnee’s son isn’t either. He keeps in close contact with his mother. A grandmother can never take the place of a mother. So proud of you Tahnee!!
Beautiful success story and great article! Just shows you should never give up, which she could have easily done. Always keep striving! I played basketball with Tahnee’s mother who was an exceptional athlete and also the MVP of the Indian National Basketball Finals back in her day. Tahnee comes from a great family. I am so proud of her!
It’s sad that Tahnee has chosen not to raise her son. Kids grow up too fast and they don’t wait. By the time her Mom is ready to give her son back to her it’s too late! His young impressionable years are gone.
This is a wonderfully written and informative article. The subject is fascinating and Jordan has done a wonderful job telling us about her. The photos really add to the article, too.
excellent inspirational Wyoming success story. Jordan Dresser has hit all net from beyond the arc on his account of young Tahnee Robinson
GREAT ARTICLE JORDAN!
correction!!! Tahnee!! sorry folks
Awesome job Jordan!! Congratulations to Tawnee and I believe she will go very far!!
Great story about a talented woman, written by a talented writer. Awesome!
Good Job Jordan! Story had my attention through out the entire article. I like how you covered her whole life, and not just the draft. *high five*
One other tidbit – when Tahnee’s mother Sara graduated from Lander High School, I think she was the all-time leading scorer in the school’s history. Sara was probably considered the best girls basketball player in the state. Tahnee has some great basketball genes!
GREAT JOB JORDAN DRESSER. THIS IS THE TYPE OF ARTICLES THAT JUST MAKES YOUR DAY. WAY TO GO TAHNEE!
Great story, well written Jordan!!
I enjoyed this story, well written and well researched.