Lately, it seems everything Preston Wynne touches turns to gold. In the past four years he’s won basketball championships at two colleges, one professional team and the 6-foot-and-under elite bracket of Spokane Hoopfest, the world’s largest 3-on-3 tournament.
But the Spokane tribal star hasn’t lent his successful touch to one hometown conflict. His alma mater, Wellpinit High School, is the last team in the state of Washington to endorse the name Redskins. He estimates there is an even split in the town for those who don’t care and those who are made uncomfortable by the name.
Wynne, who is of mixed ancestry – Native and African-American – says he doesn’t know how his former high school got the Redskins name, but he asks the question, “Would you want to keep that going? That’s like a slave owner owning a black school down south, calling students the N-word and everyone being OK with it.”
“If it makes so many people uncomfortable,” he adds, “we can be other names that represent Native American culture. I’d do whatever you can in your power to come together instead of fighting for names.”
Once the epitome of ‘Redskin Pride’ on the Spokane Reservation basketball court, the now well-traveled Wynne gained a perspective of his own through opportunities in basketball. He was a late bloomer who loved baseball and family, with two children and helping care for a mother with multiple sclerosis. Basketball was more of a hobby, although he became a perennial Native tourney all-star—another Good Will Hunting-type basketball prodigy. Former Montana Grizzlies starter J.R. Camel would often get angry when he saw Wynne at tournaments. “He told me these [All-Indian tournaments] will always be here. Go play. Go as far as you can.”
Wynne didn’t think about college until he was 24, when he tried out at Spokane Community College. It was one of those “what the heck,” moments, after a former high school teammate had planted a seed in his mind that he was missing out on something exceptional, he says. The 6-foot-1 guard tried out in 2011 and soon became a starter, embarking on a two-year stint that would see him set single-season and career scoring records for that school. He was the league MVP and Division I opportunities were coming in: Gonzaga, Seattle and Utah State, to name a few.
His past, however, came back to haunt him. Wynne had participated in All-Indian tournaments that violated the NCAA’s guidelines for player recruitment. “Once the schools found out my previous history of playing in the unknown Native tournaments, they found I was ineligible,” he recalled. What had been a vast sea of scholarship opportunities suddenly narrowed into a handful of options.
With two years of eligibility remaining, Wynne took his jump-shot to NAIA Division I Vanguard University—a Christian school. “It was just very surreal,” he said. “I grew up on the rez, where religion and stuff is kind of just wishy-washy. It’s there, but it’s not there. To go down to a place that’s 100 percent Christian was just a huge wakeup call for me.”
The Costa Mesa, California school has a code of conduct for students, many reinforced by teachings from the Bible. Wynne wasn’t very good at following the many rules. “I was breaking rules left and right. It was terrible. The first year I wanted to quit; it was just so hard.” But he decided to stay. “One of the big problems of the rez is you can always run home; it’s easy to run home.’”
He began excelling on the basketball court, leading Vanguard to the national championship his senior season, in 2014. With an average of 26.6 points per game, he became the first Native American to be named tournament MVP.
Sports Illustrated dedicated a photo and a few paragraphs to his performance.
Now out of school, a good opportunity came calling. Wynne was signed to play professionally for EWE Baskets Oldenburg (Germany), which surprisingly brought him close to home—in a basketball sense. “It felt like playing in a Native tournament every game. It was very rough and I liked it.” He led his team in scoring average (17.2 points) and brought Oldenburg its first ProB championship last April.
Wynne returned home just in time for Spokane Hoopfest in June, where he played alongside an old friend, J.R. Camel. “Desert Horse,” Camel’s elite team. The team became the first All-Indian team to win an elite championship in the 27-year tournament. Wynne was named MVP. “To me, that’s my most important championship. People don’t believe me, but I’m serious.”
For the past eight months, Wynne has been healing from a groin injury, and starting a mentoring program for Native youth in the Spokane area. He’s debating returning to Germany, going to another European league or trying out for the NBA Development League. Though he got a late start to his career, he hasn’t given up on a dream of playing in the NBA. He encourages Native Americans to leave their comfort zone and earn college degrees. “It’s an important milestone. For me, it was more of something I knew I had to do if I wanted to help Native kids.”
While he’s not exactly leading a “remove the mascot,” crusade, Wynne, through his experience, is providing a mentor’s aid – something he aims to be doing for a long time. “I get both sides [of the Redskins debate]. If 50 percent are uncomfortable and 50 percent don’t care, why not change it for the people that are uncomfortable?”
Follow ICTMN’s Cary Rosenbaum on Twitter: @caryrosenbaum