Great Britain star Pops Mensah-Bonsu, one of the faces of British basketball, sits down for a Hoopsfix 1 on 1. Coming off his most successful season to date with Besiktas, leading the Turkish side to the treble, he talks about growing up, playing under Joe White,the NBA, where he could be playing next season and his hopes for the future.
Hoopsfix (HF): Growing up in the UK – basketball not a big thing, what made you first start playing basketball?
Pops Mensah-Bonsu (PMB):That’s a great question. I think me wanting to be like my older brother was something that I really wanted to do. He started playing basketball, moved to the US and went to school, furthered his education and furthered his career. I felt like I wanted the same opportunity. Initially when I went over to the states, I was just going to school, playing football and athletics. Once I was like 16, 17 that was when I really started taking it seriously and totally focused on basketball alone and I never looked back – and the rest is history. I was able to go to university, have a good career there, make the NBA, playing a few seasons there and have a good career in Europe too, so definitely feel like the choice I made at 16/17 was a great one.
HF: Before you went out to the states, what was it like growing up here, trying to pursue a career with your dreams that seemed so far away?
PMB: It’s funny you say that, a lot of people ask me that. About 15 years ago I thought I was going to the Olympics as a high jumper, that was my main event. I was one of the better high jumpers in England for my age, and when I went over to the US i was one of the better high jumpers over there too. So, I always thought my dreams of being an Olympic athlete were going to be on the track and field. Going to the Olympics now, in a sport that is a fairly unknown in this country, I feel like it’s big for me and big for the team. We have some responsibility, we feel like if we have some sort of success, we’ll be able to attract some of the younger generation and then we’ll get some of the government funding and get some of that notoriety we feel like basketball deserves in this country. So with playing well at the Olympics, I think a lot will happen.
HF: You played under the legendary Joe White, can you talk a bit about his influence on your career and life growing up?
PMB: It’s kind of difficult to even put it into words what he did for me. I don’t think I would be here, myself and Andrew (Sullivan) and a few other players in and around basketball arenas wouldn’t be here today. I know once he passed away, a lot of those guys stopped playing. It’s difficult for me because I was one of those guys who blossomed late, and when he was alive I wasn’t the finished product that I had wanted him to see and he passed away and never got to see me at my best. I always wanted him to see me make it to the NBA and make him proud. Once I made it to the NBA and he’d passed away, it’s always been difficult for me but I’ve always used it as a motivating factor to keep going. Knowing he’s up in heaven smiling down and watching on me, keeps me going, and it drives me. He wasn’t just a coach to us, he was a father figure to a lot of us, he didn’t just teach us basketball; he gave us homework, he taught us discipline, he taught us how to be men at a young age and we’re very appreciative of that. I pay my respect to him every time I play the game. I definitely miss him but I’m glad that he taught me at a young age to be the man I am today.
HF: Your professional career, you’ve been all over the world – is there a particular team or country that stands out to you as your best year?
PMB: (Laughs) It’s funny you should say that, I would like to say probably this past year that I had has been my best year as a pro. Everything kind of fell into place, everything went well and as a team we had success by winning the triple. That’s always big when you can win, whenever you can win, everything comes together, especially this year us winning and me coming in joining the team going to the Olympics was big. I knew coming into this summer I wanted to be playing some of my best basketball and what better way to do it than by winning everything in Turkey. I definitely feel good about that and I have a lot of confidence in my self and my game now and hopefully it’s going to carry over into the Olympics.
HF: You’ve mentioned you played in the NBA, is that something that you still aspire to, would you like to go back there or do you feel like you had some great times in the NBA but now you’re happy in Europe?
PMB: I’m definitely happy in Europe, also had some great times in the NBA, also aspire to go back! But it’s not something I let consume me. With the season I had last year I have a lot of options under my belt, a lot of choices I need to make. I’m actually just talking to my agent right now, trying to figure out which route and which way I wanna go, and what I wanna do, so we’ll see. I’m not sure if I’m going to wait until after the Olympics, if I do, I’m probably leaning towards going back to the NBA, if not I’ll sign with one of the bigger teams over here in Europe early. We’ll see, like I said the ball is in my court right now, I feel like my play this past season helped me and it did all the talking I need to do, hopefully it’s enough to get me to where I want to be.
HF: You’ve been involved with the GB programme a long time now, how important is it for you to represent your country, is that something you see yourself doing until the end of your career?
PMB: Definitely. When you’re younger, you’re playing football or doing athletics, the biggest thing for you is playing for your country, playing in the European Championships, the World Cup, the Olympics and being able to do it in basketball and being one of the leaders on this team is a great feeling for me. When I was 14, I never would have imagined or knew that I would be at this level, especially representing my country on the biggest stage in my own backyard, it’s a great feeling to know I’m going to be leading the team out, with my parents there, my friends and family, in front of the whole world with Great Britain on my chest and it’s a very proud moment for me, and it’ll be one of the moments I’ll remember for the rest of my life.
HF: You’ve had a lot of spectacular dunks over your career, is there any particular one that sticks out for you, that you think, “You know what, that was probably the best time I ever got anyone”
PMB: This is the dunk in my head, but it’s not on tape: It was at pre-draft camp, and I stole the ball at half court and I went to do a windmill and a guy came out of nowhere and tried to jump in and foul me and you know, I still converted the windmill. A guy came up to me after I made that play, everyone ran on the court and was excited, this one guy came up to me and was like “Pops, you’ve probably just got drafted off that one play!”.
In college I had one where one of my teammates threw me an alley oop, a guy tried to foul me again and I caught it and dunked it backwards, that was pretty cool.
Let me think about my professional career…I had one this year, playing against Matthew Bryan-Amaning actually, I stole the ball and one of his teammates tried to chase me down, and I wasn’t expecting him to jump, I thought he was just going to try to foul me so I told myself “hey, you’re gonna have to dunk it”. He jumped up and jumped into me, and like I said I was able to finish it, he fell on the floor and slid out of bounds (see video below). It was a pretty emotional play but was pretty cool – those are probably my three favourite dunks.
Also, I also had one against Macedonia, I think you were at that game, it was on a fast break and the big man jumped again and I was able to dunk on him (see video above). But any time you’re able to dunk on someone it’s always good.
HF: What message would you give to any younger players that want to be in your position right now?
PMB: Don’t give up. Never doubt yourself. I was in that position at one point, I was walking the streets of North London, I always believed, never gave up. And even as many times as I’ve had setbacks in my career I’ve always stayed positive and always been able to overcome. That’s one thing I’d tell some of those guys, stay positive, keep working hard and just work harder than your opponent and everything will fall into place eventually.
HF: And when it’s all said and done and your career is over, how do you want to be remembered, what do you want your legacy to be?
PMB: As far as on the court is concerned, being known for my work ethic and what i brought to the game. When people talk about me, I want them to say “hey, when that guy was on the court, you knew, he impacted the game and he changed the game when he came in the game, he’s a very impactful player.” Just remember me for how I affected people’s lives. I’d definitely love to be remembered for that and you know, hopefully when it’s all said and done that will be the case.
HF: Thanks so much for your time Pops, really appreciate it!
Image Credit: Layne Murdoch/NBAE via Getty Images
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