Sports
Photo by Ned Dishman, courtesy of Pops Bonsu.

In Conversation: Meet Pops Mensah-Bonsu—the Ghanaian Former Pro Player Trailblazing the Front Desk of the NBA

We speak to the general manager of the Capital City Go-Go about his journey to professional basketball stardom, his hopes for the Basketball Africa League and more.

Nana Pops Mensah-Bonsu didn't take basketball seriously at first. For the now General Manager of the Capital City Go-Go and a former player in the NBA and European leagues, the game wasn't as exciting as other sports. "For me, I was impressionable," he says, "I was young; all my friends played soccer and ran track. That's what I really wanted to do."

Born and raised in London, England, the former pro with Ghanaian roots (whose name stems from his middle name, Papa—the equivalent to 'junior') grew up playing soccer and running track. His older brother started playing basketball, a relatively invisible sport compared to soccer, when he was about 16 in the early 90s and eventually moved to the U.S. on a scholarship. Mensah-Bonsu says that when parents witnessed his brother's experience, they took it as an opportunity for the rest of their children to do the same—allowing them to have a better opportunity to succeed.

Mensah-Bonsu's dad introduced him to basketball and took him to the other side of London where he started developing his skills. After juggling the three sports with basketball on the back burner, Mensah-Bonsu eventually realized his potential once he made the move stateside himself as a teen. Making a name for himself as a student-athlete at George Washington University, his work ethic led him to a professional career in both the NBA, playing for the likes of the Dallas Mavericks, Minnesota Timberwolves and Toronto Raptors as well as internationally—playing for clubs in Spain, France, Turkey, Russia and Italy, to name a few.

Retiring in his early 30s, Mensah-Bonsu is still a part of the game—but on the decision-making side. Currently serving as the Capital City Go-Go's general manager of the G League (the official minor league of the NBA) in Washington, D.C., he's trying to blaze a trail for more diversity and inclusion in the NBA front office. "I really want to do my best and succeed at this next level because I know how profound and impactful it can be if it's done well," he says. "I put pressure on myself to work extra hard to make sure I can get to this position where I can have that impact on these guys and show them a mirror image of themselves and show them how possible it is."

We caught up with Pops Mensah-Bonsu to learn more about his journey navigating basketball stardom to calling the shots behind the scenes, his hopes for the newly established Basketball Africa League and more in the interview below.



Pops with Capital City Go-Go forward Devin Robinson. Photo by Ned Dishman, courtesy of Pops Bonsu.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.

Antoinette Isama for OkayAfrica: At what point did you start to take basketball seriously?

Pops Mensah-Bonsu: I remember my dad came to me and said, "You're going to the States to go to school." I was shocked. I didn't know where it came from or how it came about, but I just remember him telling me I was going to this private school in Princeton and I would be attending the school there and be moving to the U.S.

It was a new world when I got over there—a new territory for me. But I was so excited to be in the U.S. I was never homesick—I just knew that whatever this brought, it would be a great opportunity. But basketball didn't start out as a success for me. I played JV and the coach tried to break me down a little bit. He told me I wasn't very good, but I always used that as motivation because I always knew that this opportunity would lead to a lot of great things for me.

I wasn't even considering the NBA at the time. I didn't even think I could get a scholarship to go to college because I didn't think I was good enough at that point. But I knew if I just kept working and working, one day I could probably get to that level in regards to at least getting a scholarship. But when it came to track, I was the two-time state champion in high jump and I had better scholarship offers in that sport than I did in basketball. But I wasn't in love with track.

Was your transition into college athletics like what one would typically go through?

I had a few Division I scholarships and just weighed my options with the help of my brother and his advice—he had just started his professional career at the time. That's how I ended up at George Washington University (GW) and spent four years there.

It's funny—coming in, I was relatively unknown. I knew that I was a work in progress, but I knew that once I saw that I was able to achieve one of my goals—which was getting the Division I scholarship. I started to set more lofty goals, but I wouldn't tell anybody—because I noticed whenever I would tell people what it is I wanted to achieve, they would try to break me down, or they would try to tell me that what I was doing was crazy or would never happen. They would try to discourage me in doing so.

I just always kept a lot of stuff to myself and just let my work ethic do the talking. One of my initial goals was to start on the team; by the end of my freshman year I was starting. The second year I told myself I wanted to be one of the best players in the conference—and I was able to do that by winning most improved player. My junior year I set an even bigger goal to be one of the best players in the country. I remember we played against Michigan State and Maryland on consecutive nights, and those were the two of my best games in college.

I remember coming back to campus, a friend of mine said, "People were talking about in the stands and asking whether or not you were going to come back to school." I was like, "What do they mean? I'm already back on campus." He was like, "No, silly, they're talking about if you're going to enter the draft." That's the day I realized I had reached the point that I have an opportunity to play in the NBA. Once I knew I had a chance to do so, I just continued down that path, continued working hard. I really wanted to get drafted, but my senior year I got hurt, so I ended up going undrafted but still ended up getting a contract to the NBA, and that was the start of my NBA career. This is the first 10 years of my life in the US in a nutshell.

Pops Mensah-Bonsu during the 2013-2014 Turkish Airlines Euroleague Top 16 Date 11 game in Istanbul, Turkey. Photo by Aykut Akici/EB via Getty Images.

From that point, you have had your fair share of experiences in the NBA, internationally, as well as in the G League. How were you able to navigate making the best decisions for yourself throughout your professional career?

Usually that's based on each opportunity and what happens. For example, I was playing Dallas my rookie year. This is part of the reason why me being in the front office side is so important because of some of these experiences. I remember at 12:00 p.m. my contract was guaranteed, but not only was my contract guaranteed, but my lease was going to be up. I coordinated my lease signing and my contract together, so that if I could re-sign, then I'd just renew my lease. If I was released, then I would just leave. I remember it was 11:54, and I still had yet to receive a call. I'm thinking, "Okay, I'm in the clear. They're going to resign my contract and I'm coming back to Dallas for another year." Two minutes later my phone rings and it's the GM. He tells me they're going in a different direction. Literally I went from getting ready to start my second season in the NBA to having to move out of my house in Dallas and pack up all my stuff and two days later be in Venice, Italy.

It was definitely a humbling moment—I ran into a lot of those moments over the course of my career. People ask me if I would do anything differently in my life or in my career and I say no—even knowing what I know now. I probably wouldn't be in this position if I hadn't experienced some of the things that I did. I think it's better allowing me to do this job because I've seen the NBA. I've seen basketball; I've seen life from so many different angles and through so many different lenses that it's made me the man I am today.

How did you get to be the manager of the Go-Gos, and in what ways has your career informed how you relate with the players on the G League team?

I've played for five different teams in the NBA. I've played pretty much in every country in Europe. I've had success in G League, played college ball. I'm 35; I retired a little earlier to get on this side. All of those things and all of those experiences and all the places I've been, all the coaches that I've been a part of, the teammates I've had, the coaches I've played for, all of the good and bad things that happened to me have allowed me to be better suited for positions like this.

All of those moments pretty much showed me my character. When it came to deciding what I wanted to do, I remember watching a show on NBA TV called Open Court, where they have former players talk about the NBA and talk about some of the current events going on. They did a special edition one with coaches and they did another one with general managers. When I watched the general manager episode, I noticed that they had five white GMs talking about a league that was 90 percent black. To be honest with you, it shocked me that that was the case. No offense to those guys, but I was like, "Well, why is there not more not only players, let alone African American players, but an African player in a position of leadership?"

I really felt like with the relationships that I've had and my experiences over the course of my career, I had an opportunity to have an impact on this side of the game. I could've still been playing today. I retired at 32, turning 33, to get on this side. It eats me alive every day that I don't get to continue playing the sport that I love.

But I'm a realist. You have to be mindful of what it is, of who you are, and what it is in regards to your social responsibility. Being one of the first Ghanaian players in the NBA, I felt like instead of trying to pursue a dream that could be a long shot or could be coming to an end, why not kick start your career on this side of the game and allow some players in general, let alone African players, to see a mirror image of themselves in a position of leadership. Then I could take control of what I felt like these players need and help better serve them. Once I knew I had the opportunity on this side of the game, that's when I decided to focus in a little bit more and take some of those opportunities and go full fledged in it.

With the advent of the new professional basketball league on the continent, are you planning on getting involved with the Africa Basketball League and what they're planning on doing over there?

Yes, I'm partly involved as it is already. Hopefully with everything that's going on, my dream would be to have a professional team in Ghana. I'm very passionate about this league being a success because I feel like we really have to understand that it's not just the league's name at stake. It's Africa in general. Whenever something goes awry, or it doesn't go to plan in Africa, people be like, "TIA." This is Africa, and I don't want that to be the case.

I hope with me getting on this side of the game, that will hopefully inspire kids in the next generation or some of the current players in the NBA to the point that when they retire, they want to get in positions of leadership. They want to help others in that way too. That's what I want for this league too. I want this league to inspire the younger generation and inspire to develop the grassroots systems in some of these countries to allow the talent to be cultivated, and allow the NBA to see what more Africa has to offer.

Photo by Ned Dishman, courtesy of Pops Bonsu.

With Angola's own Bruno Fernando declaring for the draft, as well as Giannis Antetokounmpo and more young African players coming into the league and making an impact, what is one thing that you wish you knew coming into the league that a young hopeful should know?

Listen. You have two eyes and you have two ears for a reason. Look and listen more than you speak. Be a sponge, especially to those who came before you and those who are trying to help you. When I was young, I was a freshman. You feel like you know everything, but just allow those who have come before you and who are trying to help you, to do so. I know the kid, Bruno. I saw him in passing and told him he's got a responsibility on his shoulders. Once he becomes a successful Angolan player, he's going to inspire all these young Angolan players to want to be like him; want to be great. Like when Hakeem got to the league, when Dikembe got to the league, they led the wave of African players coming into the NBA.

I use that same model and example with what I'm doing now. When people get to see me in an executive position in the NBA, it's going to inspire them to want to get in that position. It allows me as a decision maker in that position to do right by a lot of these players too. I've been cut a number of different times. I've been put in situations that I didn't feel like I deserved to be in. I feel like the people making the decisions didn't really understand who I was and the person whose life they were making a decision on.

But now with all the experiences I've had, it's rare that I see a situation or a player that could shock me. Anything that happens to a player or his background or where he's from, I've either seen, heard, or it's happened to me before. I use that experience to allow me to better serve these guys.

What are some challenges working on the executive side that have become lessons learned in your day to day?

It's tough being so pro-player but also have to run a business too. I want to do right by the players, but you also have to understand that you're managing the team. You have to do what's best for the team.

For me, one of the toughest things this season was having a close friend of mine on my team. I remember I had to do what's right for the team and I ended up having to cut him. That was probably one of the most difficult things I've ever had to do, but I always tell myself I would approach this with honesty, transparency and integrity. I know it's never going to get easy, but if I'm able to do it like that every time, then I can feel good that I went about things the right way.

What validated that is a few weeks later, he came to me and told me he appreciated everything that I did for him and that he respected how I went about things; then thanked me for the opportunity adding that there's still love. I appreciated just hearing that because I know how tough it was for him to experience that—as tough as it was for me to even have to do it. It was heartbreaking to have to do, but I have been cut before and I wish some of the situations I was in were a little more mindful of the human side of things because there's more to the game than just Xs and Os and number crunchers. There's a human side of things and I really try to take that approach to everything.

To keep up with Pops Mensah-Bonsu, follow him on Twitter.

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This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

The Grammys were a big moment. Why did you decide to dedicate your award to Burna Boy and acknowledge the new generation of up-and-coming African artists?

I'm always in contact with my continent. I go back on a regular basis, and that's where my source of inspiration is from. Throughout the years going back and forth, I've been seeing the entrepreneurship of the young generation coming up. When I started music—there was none of that. You just went to the studio, and you found people to help you do your music. Now you can be a self-producer. I have nephews and nieces, and I'll just say "Ok, what's new? Let me listen to the new stuff." And I just realized that the rest of the world has no clue about what's happening in Africa.

Four years ago, when I received my Grammy for the album Sings, I said "Brace yourself, because Africa is coming. You have to open your heart, your mind and ears to listen to what is going on and what is coming from the new generation of my contient"— I said that four years ago, and the time has come because [with artists like] Burna Boy, Wizkid, Davido, Yemi Alade and many more from Nigeria, and Sho Madjozi from South Africa—you have so much happening culturally in Africa. I have the feeling that sometimes people just completely turn their head away from Africa and I just wonder how one could possibly turn their head away from where they come from, because Africa is the cradle of humanity. Culture comes from there—there's no music on this planet that doesn't have Africa in it.

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Is this why you've chosen to work with a lot of younger artists from the continent like Yemi Alade most recently?

I'm so proud of this new generation of musicians that are using the technology to tell a positive story about Africa. It's no longer about our suffering. Everybody suffers. So, why should people be focusing only on our suffering and not seeing just the human beings that we are, and how joyful we are? Then suddenly, you realize that joy becomes political because if your society, your people are perceived as joyful, then a leader cannot complain anymore that something is wrong. Beyond all that, [I do it] to pay tribute to the entrepreneurship of the young generation. They aren't waiting on help from anybody. If you are famous in your country and on your continent, there's nothing that can stop you. You have billions of people that will love you, so why should the rest of the world look aside when you're passing by? They should pay attention.

That's why I use my platform to bring the attention of the media to this new generation coming. They don't want to be caught by surprise because I've been telling them to pay attention. If something happens, and they don't pay attention, at least I've done my work.

I do think it's really amazing how new artists have been able to gain traction and put their music out despite their not being a lot of support by African leaders for creative industries. Do you think that African governments, and the folks with money should invest more entertainment?

I think they should because we create jobs. People make money, and it's not only the artists. There's also the people helping them make videos, or cut tracks—music creates jobs.

I think we have to educate our leaders and our business people in Africa. Who can carry their brand better than us? Who are the best ambassadors of our cultures, our countries and our continent? It's us artists across different forms of art, from painters, to storytellers, to people in theatre and movies. Every form of art is about telling the story of ordinary people and the people that have come before us. How do you know about your own history, if not for the elderly people that tell you the story of who you are?

In order for us to tell our story, we need to have a voice. We need to say it through different mediums. Music is one of them. We shouldn't let anyone else tell our stories anymore. That time in history has passed. We have new narratives, we have proof of how entrepreneurial we are. Africans can make money in Africa and anywhere else. The world is open to us—the world is ours. No one can stop us.

So many African artists look to you as an inspiration and a model for longevity in the music industry. I'm wondering which artists served that role for you when you were first coming up.

There are many, many of them. I would say it started with traditional musicians because I was a very curious child. I come from that background of traditional musicians telling me stories through songs. [Growing up] my brothers were playing music, my father brought the instruments for them, and freed a room in a crowded house for them to rehearse. I heard every genre of music in the '60, '70s and '80s through them, but my role models start with traditional musicians, both male and female. [But at a certain point] I noticed that every album that would be brought home had just men on the covers. I was like, "Okay, so women don't sing? They can't do albums too?" Then you had Western women start coming in and I was like, "Okay, at least some women are making it through [in the industry]."

Then Miriam Makeba came and Aretha Franklin came. The day Aretha Franklin came, the singer of my brother's band—who had such a fucking ego, you couldn't even put it anywhere—said "there's no song I can't sing." [But] Aretha came and he couldn't sing. I'm like, "What? A woman is whooping your butt. I like that."

So, there have been strong men and women as musicians that have informed the music that I make today. The only way I could absorb it and make my own music, and become a role model to others today is because I am proud of my culture. I know where I come from, I'm not trying to copy anybody because everybody copied what we have. There wouldn't be any music in America without the input of enslaved people that came from Africa. The blues came from slaves. It doesn't matter how hard the slave owner wanted to dehumanize us—they even took the drum away from us. But we had many ways of celebrating culture. We had many ways of celebrating our humanity—singing was one of them. We sing our pain to lift it up. We sing our joy to share it with people. That's what African music is. The essence of what music is comes from that place. We've seen it all, we've been through hell, yet here we are prevailing still.

"I have to be able to sing my songs till I die."

You've always championed African culture and identity, whether it's through singing in Yoruba, or representing Benin through various endeavors. Did you at any point, ever face pressure from the industry to tone down your "Africanness" to appeal to certain audiences?

They have a saying in my country, that "the advisor is not the payer." [It's about] what you do with the advice people give you. I'm always listening, I'm always ready to sit and hear constructive criticism. But if you want to critique for the sake of criticizing me—I've heard some journalists say that I'm not African enough in France because my music sounds too Western. I said, "What is the music of the West then? Tell me." Take Africa out of it and there's no music for y'all.

For me, I respect everybody, particularly the differences because there lies the genius. We all don't think the same.

People said, "Why don't you show your titties?" I'm like, "Well, I don't feel like showing my titties because my titties ain't singing. My voice is not in my breasts." You've got to be somebody, and I am African. I come from a rich culture. Why should I change to look like what? What do you want me to look like? I've never ever allowed anyone to say to me, "You can't do this." I have fought some producers that try to change my music. I say, "If that's the case, you take the microphone, you sing, it's not mine, I'm out of here." You have to stand for something. If you are afraid of not making it, then you become a fool to somebody.

People will say what they want to say. If I want to dress differently, I do sometimes. When I received the NAACP award, I wore a suit. A well-tailored suit, and I kill it too in a suit. It's not what you wear, it's who you are.

I always say, if anyone wants to work with me, I'm open. The bridge I'm trying to build, everybody's welcome on it in the respect of each other's differences. My strength might be your weakness, and then I supply. My weakness might be your strength. It goes both ways. I don't have the answer to everything, but one thing I know is that if we stop bitching at each other and blaming people for all the things that aren't good in our life will be better off because when we start doing that, what do we do? We create fear, and fear is dangerous.

I wanted to ask you about the controversy surrounding the Best World Music category at the Grammys. Many believe that it doesn't truly encompass the diversity of music coming from the continent. What are your thoughts on the matter?

Don't underestimate the recording academy. They have been thinking about it way before this. It's a conversation that we're going to be engaging in. Africa is not a country, it's a continent. The Latin Grammy exists. We should have the African Grammys too, because it's a continent, because it's vast, it's huge. So, it's a conversation we started having because the academy is also realizing this, and they are, at least, having that conversation. Right now, if you look at the "French Grammys" coming up, there's not one person of African descent [represented]. Not one. They just completely ban what is called "world music" out of it and we're in the 21st century. So, I think criticizing is one thing, finding solutions is another.

Let's work with the recording academy and find out how we can help to come up with something that works for everybody. That's all I'm about. I'm always about solutions. The thing is that we also need to recognize that we cannot be discriminating when it comes to culture. If we don't speak to each other, and we're always blaming and pointing fingers, there's no conversation possible anymore. We should have an open discussion about this and be creative about it. That's all I say.

Speaking on shifting genres, you recently worked with Pablo Nouvelle on his new project Eliso, I saw it described as your "maiden venture into electronic music." What was that experience like for you?

I started with electronic music. If you ask David Byrne, he would tell you that my first album, Logozo was completely electric, but African electric. So for me, working on this album brings me back to the beginning and, I'm not done doing that. I'm going to do it more.

So, we can expect a lot more of this electronic sound that you've already been working on?

I'm not saying anything.

We can't have a hint?

No, nothing, because I always follow my inspiration. If my inspiration changes a little bit, I have to change [my direction].

You just go with whatever feels right?

I have to be able to sing my songs till I die. All my songs, if I can't sing them, with just my voice and a guitar, it means it's not good. When writing a song, less is more because if you add too much stuff, then you kill the song. You're overstating it. Do the minimal. If it feels good to you, and you can sing it in your sleep, wake up dancing to it, and you can feel it in every beat in your body, it's right.

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