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.