Tahnee Robinson was sitting in class on April 11, 2011, when her pocket started buzzing. She ignored it for a while, but her phone was blowing up. She finally picked it up to answer a call from her agent. The phone call left her in shock, she had just been drafted to the Women’s National Basketball Association (WNBA).
Living on the Wind River Reservation in Fort Washakie, Wyoming, Robinson was raised in a different world than the rest of her fellow draft class, but a love for basketball has been continuously instilled in her life.
“I always grew up playing basketball,” Robinson said. “My mom played basketball, like my uncles and my cousins, so it’s kinda like a family thing.”
In 2006, she led Lander Valley High School in Lander, Wyoming to a Class 3A state title, as well as being named a McDonald’s High School All-American. She was invited to the Wyoming vs Montana All Star game, where the 10 best high schoolers from the 2 states play against each other. The game was coached by Frank McCarthy, head coach at Sheridan Community College. She had already signed her letter of intent to play for the University of Wyoming, but McCarthy told her something.
“I understand you have higher aspirations,” McCarthy said. “But if it doesn’t work out at Wyoming, I’ve got a scholarship for you at Sheridan.”
Heading into her first year she found out she was pregnant, which put her basketball career on hold. She had to leave Wyoming, and take some time off to take care of her son. She reached out to McCarthy, hoping his offer was still on the table.
“I just told him, we will go to Nationals for the first time,” Robinson said. “I promise you just give me a chance, I’ll do anything.”
Despite her still being pregnant, McCarthy willingly brought her into Sheridan.
“I knew her, and I knew her ability, and I understood her background,” McCarthy said. “But talent like that doesn’t come around very often, so we made sure to take care of her.”
She spent her first year averaging about 18 points per game (PPG) while also juggling school, academics, and taking care of her newborn child.
“Some of the guys on the basketball team would have to babysit for me when I went to practice,” Robinson said. “I had to take him to class with me sometimes because at the time we didn’t have daycare or anything there.”
After the first year at Sheridan, it became apparent that the stress of a newborn baby on top of being a student athlete was going to be too overwhelming. Robinson decided she was going to leave her son on the reservation with her parents, so she could focus on basketball.
“Being from a reservation, it is not uncommon having family members help you raise your children,” Robinson said. “My parents told me my job was to get an education and to better my life for my son.”
The support from her parents was key in her basketball career, but leaving her son was still difficult for her.
“I would see him every weekend, but it was just too much,” Robinson said. “Especially at that time I think I was only 19 so it was a lot.”
She now had more time to focus on basketball, which led to great success for Sheridan. In her last year there she led the Generals, scoring over 40 PPG, and was 1 of 5 players selected as a First Team Junior College All-American. McCarthy admired her leadership on the court.
“She’d bring the girls together” McCarthy said. “And say ‘if we wanna win a championship, we gotta practice better than this.’
Her impact on Sheridan went beyond just the regular season.
“Overall the thing I remember about her” McCarthy said. “The bigger the stage the better she played.”
She carried Sheridan to a Conference Championship, and then on to the Regional Tournament, which consisted of 4 straight games, to earn a Nationals bid.
“She just carried us,” McCarthy said. “She averaged 45 points a game [in the Regional Tournament], and teams could really isolate her because we didn’t have a whole lot to go with her.”
After winning the Region, Sheridan had a chance in the National Tournament, fulfilling Robinson’s promise to McCarthy when he brought her in.
“She was extremely competitive, and she could shoot the lights out, and she could get to the free throw line” McCarthy said. “She was one of those players where you get in certain situations in a game, instead of running a play, we’d just give it to her coming down and let her make a play.”
Robinson began to attract interest from multiple four-year universities, including the University of Nevada, Reno.
“The thing that stuck out to her, is some place where they really care about you,” McCarthy said. “Coach Albright came out to Sheridan, and she spent a lot of time there with the recruitment of Tahnee and her family.”
Jane Albright, Head Coach at Nevada at the time, first heard of Robinson through Jim House, assistant football coach at the time for the Wolf Pack, who grew up in Wyoming, he also played and coached for the University of Wyoming.
“My brother-in-law, Larry Martoglio, coached at Sheridan, and he mentioned to me and said ‘we’ve got a really good girl here,” House said. “He sent me some video, I watched the video, and I contacted Jane and her staff, and they sent some assistant coaches to go check her out.”
Robinson was focused on the Nationals bid, and would not meet with most of the schools reaching out. Finally after waiting for weeks, Coach Albright got a call, it was from Robinson, they had just lost in the National Tournament, and she was ready to talk. Albright rearranged her schedule and got on a plane headed for Wyoming.
“I knew she had a chance to be one of the best players I had ever coached,” Albright said.
Albright and her recruiting team traveled to Wyoming to meet with Robinson and her family. After spending the day together Albright was invited back to the reservation with Robinson and her parents.
“That is when I knew I had a real good chance to bring her here,” Albright said.
And she was right, Robinson agreed to play at Nevada, nearly 950 miles from her reservation. Her grades were in trouble because of the time spent at Wyoming and Sheridan, not to mention the time she took off to take care of her newborn. She had to get eligible in order to play, and it was not going to be easy.
“Tahnee was as bright as anyone you’ve ever known,” Albright said. “She just needed some help getting caught up, and eligible to play.”
Robinson needed a program that believed in her, and would make sure she was getting the proper education. Nevada needed a dynamic player to lead the team. It was a perfect match, that led to great success. After getting all of her classes taken care of Robinson was finally eligible to play. She did not travel to her first game with the team, as she had to wait until she was officially cleared, but finally she was good to go, and ready to play in her first game for the Wolf Pack.
“I felt maybe I was exaggerating a bit after the first game,” Albright said as Robinson struggled in her debut. “She killed in the second game with like 26 points.”
Albright talked to the opposing coaches after the game who were stunned by the Wolf Pack’s new star. Robinson was named co-captain for the rest of her junior year, and finished the season averaging around 16 PPG. Upon conclusion of the season, Robinson began training with a new trainer who took her game to the next level.
Todd Troxel, previous WNBA trainer, who lived in Reno at the time, had trained stars like Diana Taurasi and Sue Bird.
“He worked me out for the whole summer,” Robinson said. “And that’s kinda how I made a bigger leap from my junior to my senior year.”
Her numbers jumped up to 22 PPG as well as shooting over 40% from 3 point range. She led the Wolf Pack to the first 20 win season in program history, and back to back appearances in the Women’s National Invitation Tournament (WNIT). She accomplished this all with a bad back injury that often kept her out of practices throughout the second half of the season.
“If she would have been fully healthy, there would have been no stopping her,” Albright said.
Camille Williams, assistant coach for Washington State, was an assistant for Coach Albright during Robinson’s career at Nevada.
“She was one of the best shooters I’ve ever seen shoot the basketball,” Williams said. “It was hard to look past the way she could get buckets.”
Williams was impressed by the way Robinson overcame the things that stood in her way. Being a young single mother who is trying to be a collegiate student-athlete would keep a lot of careers from taking off, but Robinson worked hard enough to avoid that.
She was honored in her senior year with the Ruth Russell award, given to Nevada’s top female senior student-athlete of 2011. She was drafted with the thirty-first pick in the 2011 WNBA draft. She was the first player drafted to the WNBA from Nevada. While Ryneldi Becenti was the first Native American to sign with the WNBA in 1997, Robinson was the first Native American player to be drafted to the WNBA.
She stepped out of class on April 11, 2011, and got the word from her agent.
“I hung up the phone and my mom called me, and she was just crying,” Robinson said. “I left class and went I went back to the offices, and my coaches had heard, and we were all just excited.”
They had come a long way, and to be drafted by Phoenix, Robinson felt like it was all worth it. Having to leave her son, all the time she spent getting eligible in order to play at Nevada, it paid off. That night, the Phoenix Mercury traded Robinson to the Connecticut Sun, who at the time was the only team funded by a Native American tribe. The Sun played in Uncasville, CT, Robinson would be moving 2,111 miles from her reservation.
“It was very far away from home, so I did have problems leaving my son,” Robinson said. “But I was happy to be there and to go to the casino and meet a lot of people, it was very exciting.”
Robinson became an ambassador for Nike’s N7 line, clothing that represents Native American culture. Robinson and Coach Albright would travel to events and games, and Native Americans would show up to meet and get her autographs.
“It was unbelievable the respect they had for her,” Albright said. “She showed me a lot about the spirit of the Native American people.”
The love for competition and basketball on a Native American Reservation surprised Albright at first, but she quickly realized her connection to basketball is quite similar to theirs.
“[I got] to show other kids, male or female, that it’s possible, it can happen, it does happen, and I’m proof to show it,” Robinson said. “And that definitely made me happy.”
Robinson was sent overseas with Connecticut, but was eventually released before making it on the pro roster.
“I lost sight of the fact that it’s a job and I’m working to take somebody’s spot,” Robinson said. “That’s somebody’s income, that’s somebody’s family not being fed.”
She was not prepared mentally to play pro ball before she was released. She eventually got the chance to play professionally overseas, where she played for 4 seasons until injuries led her to retire. She considered another run at making a team, but eventually made the decision to come home and be with her son, whom she would call every night while overseas. He understood what she was doing, and was used to the distance, but after a serious knee injury, he had asked her to come home.
“I had to start thinking about what I was going to do,” Robinson said. “[I] had only been playing basketball, like I had to go out into the real world, and that became my next big thing.”
She moved back to the reservation, and tried to get herself together.
“I was slightly depressed,” Robinson said. “It was like the end of a chapter, and basketball was the love of my life.”
Luckily, Coach Albright called. Nevada was playing Wyoming and Albright wanted Robinson there so they could talk after. She knew Robinson could not give up basketball, and offered her a position as a grad assistant, but she would have to go back to school. Robinson accepted the offer, came back to Nevada to help coach, and pursue her master’s degree. She is currently 1 credit away from getting a master’s degree in Educational Leadership.
Only forty-one percent of first-time, full-time Native American students attending four-year institutions beginning in 2012 graduated within 6 years, compared to sixty-two percent for all students.
“I am currently getting my prerequisites done so I can apply for nursing school,” Robinson said. “I want to give my son the best life possible, and being a nurse, I love helping people and being active, it is a good career to have.”
In 2017 as Albright was retiring, Coach Amanda Levens took over and promoted Robinson to the Director of Player Development, making her 1 of 3 Native women coaching at the NCAA Division 1 level.
After 1 year in that role, Robinson moved back to the reservation.
“I work for the Eastern Shoshone Tribal Health Department,” Robinson said. “My specialty in that department is the Special Diabetes Department.”
She was not done with basketball however, as she helped coach high school basketball in Wyoming, winning back to back state championships as an assistant coach.
Approaching ten years since she became the first Native American drafted to the WNBA, the exposure for current Native players has increased.
“With social media, the fact that young Native players who come from a population of like 500 people, they’re able to actually get their name out there because they can post their games,” Robinson said. “I think that helps to get more people out there.”
Her son, Julius Jeffery Robinson, was named after Julius “Dr. J” Erving and Michael Jeffrey Jordan.
“He’s in it, he wants to play college ball, he wants to become a professional basketball player,” Robinson said. “He’s in it to win it.”
He is thirteen-years-old, and is preparing to head into high school basketball. The 5’6” 7th grader has a long road ahead, but luckily has his mother to push him.
“He can see the floor really well and can handle the ball really well too,” Robinson said. “He can shoot good also, just not as good as me, but one day he will get there.”
As a 19-year-old student-athlete, having Julius almost kept her from a basketball scholarship. Nearly 10 years after being drafted to the WNBA she is now pushing him to a scholarship of his own.
“Trying to get him to the level that he needs to be at so that he can be successful, basically just putting my time and energy into trying to make my son successful at whatever he wants to be,” Robinson said. “That is my main focus right now because before I know it, he’s going to be an adult and have his own life.”
Bryon Restori can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @mchinery6