Pops and GW, in Concert
Thursday, November 10, 2005
On a cloudless day last week, Pops Mensah-Bonsu stood on a District street corner and began talking about Matt Leinart. How the Southern California quarterback gave up a chance to be the NFL's No. 1 pick for another year of college. How the Heisman Trophy winner was now the second-biggest thing in Los Angeles, behind only Kobe Bryant. How Leinart's return to college was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, a chance to bask in a final year of collegiate affection.
"You can't replace that when you go to the NFL," Mensah-Bonsu said. "I think he made the right decision."
As he stood on that corner, just outside the gymnasium where he made his name, several passing students greeted Foggy Bottom's closest approximation to Leinart. Like Leinart, Mensah-Bonsu considered turning professional after a successful junior season; he declared for the NBA draft and worked out for nine teams. Mensah-Bonsu's professional prospects were far less certain than Leinart's, and he too ultimately decided the pros could wait, returning to grateful George Washington teammates who have set their goals so high that they refuse to disclose what they are. Also like Leinart, Mensah-Bonsu returned to a grateful student body; in the first few weeks of school, he said, up to 20 students a day would thank him for his decision.
And like Leinart, Mensah-Bonsu is now living a college life almost too happy-go-lucky to be believed, in which dining-hall employees approach him for hugs, TV cameras follow him around campus and virtually every student knows his name.
"I haven't met someone yet who doesn't know who Pops Mensah-Bonsu is or can't recognize him; even the incoming freshmen who haven't seen a basketball game yet will say, 'Look, there's Pops,' " said Frank Dale, co-president of the Colonial Army, the student fan club. "He's pretty much the epitome of the phrase 'Big Man on Campus.' "
To be sure, such celebrity was not the only reason Mensah-Bonsu returned to school after averaging 12.6 points, 6.6 rebounds and 1.5 blocks as a junior. There was the matter of his draft status: Some insiders told him he would be a late first-round pick, some said an early-to-mid second-round pick and some said he might not be drafted. He felt he did well during his individual workouts, but he wasn't willing to leave school without a sure shot at the guaranteed contracts given to first-rounders.
He consulted with Coach Karl Hobbs and several of his teammates throughout the spring and summer, finally calling Hobbs a few days before the deadline and telling of his plans to withdraw his name from the draft.
Still, Mensah-Bonsu told one teammate -- guard Danilo "J.R." Pinnock -- that he had decided to leave, and that the Miami Heat had virtually assured him he would be drafted.
"I was like, 'Awwwww, man,' " Pinnock said. "He said he was joking, and it was like a 100-pound weight was taken off my chest."
Coming back gave Mensah-Bonsu the chance to get the degree he had promised his parents, who live in England; he is pursuing a psychology degree and hopes to graduate this school year.
There was also the basketball opportunity left at George Washington, which has nearly every key piece back from a team that advanced to the NCAA tournament for the first time since 1999. Mike Hall, Mensah-Bonsu's roommate for three years, flirted less seriously with the NBA before announcing he would also return to school. The Colonials are ranked 21st in the Associated Press preseason poll, the highest ranking of any area team, and one national writer has called them a Final Four contender.
Had Mensah-Bonsu left, "people would have still expected us to be good, but we would have had an excuse, a built-in excuse," Hall said. "Now, there's no excuse."