Pops Has Proud Parents

By Mike Wise
Thursday, March 16, 2006

Imagine two Pentecostal ministers from Tottenham, England, excitedly flying in from London for Senior Day at George Washington. Now imagine the proud moment when the God-fearing parents of Nana Papa Yaw Mensah-Bonsu see their son's nickname in bold letters during GW's final home game: "Pops, Marry Me" read the rear of a young man's trousers.

"We could not believe this," Agnes Mensah-Bonsu said. "It's beyond my imagination, the popularity of our son, how many people love him. For education and for basketball, we are happy he stayed."

More than four years ago, Agnes and Nana Henry Mensah-Bonsu entrusted their second-youngest of five children to GW's faculty and men's basketball coaching staff.

"He was a skinny, little rat," remembered his big sister, Audrey, who lives in Fairfax. "His knee caps were probably bigger around than his legs."

But like the program, Audrey's little brother ate well and often. He lifted weights and grew. And grew, until he was 6 feet 9, 240 pounds of intellect, athleticism and NBA first-round potential. He also happens to be the Colonials' best chance to survive and advance on the first day of the greatest annual sporting event in America.

Eighth-seeded GW tries for its first NCAA tournament victory in 12 years tonight, and Pops Mensah-Bonsu -- who has not played a game since he tore cartilage in his knee Feb. 22 -- also is the closest thing Karl Hobbs has to Willis Reed, the former Knick who hobbled onto the court in Game 7 of the 1970 NBA finals despite a badly injured leg.

Remember the Captain? Bob Zurfluh does.

"Wait, you want me to draw a connection between a Hall of Famer in Game 7 of the NBA Finals to a college kid coming off a knee injury?" said Zurfluh, GW's assistant athletic director of marketing and promotions, who worked at Madison Square Garden from 1962 to 1973 and witnessed Willis's miraculous return. "Even for me, that's kind of going out there a little."

All right, Zurf, it is a flat-out reach. But four years ago so was the notion of GW owning the nation's gaudiest win-loss record (26-2), attaining a No. 6 national ranking and being one win away from presumably taking on mighty Duke in the tournament's second round. And if that game were to come off Saturday, Pops Mensah-Bonsu would have to put a body on big Shelden Williams and rely on prayer -- at home and abroad.

During Sunday services in Tottenham, "we pray for the entire team, the coaches and for the protection over their lives," Agnes said. "We also pray that everybody won't attack our son."

Along the lines of Hack-a-Shaq -- the strategy for putting Shaquille O'Neal on the foul line -- Pop-a-Pops is also big in the Atlantic 10 Conference and beyond. The more coaches find ways to physically beat on Mensah-Bonsu, the more they find their team has a chance. If they knew of Pops's Ghanaian stock, they wouldn't go there.

According to family lore, this is how Pops's great-great grandfather got his name: In the Asanti language of his family's Ghanaian region, Mensah means three, and Pops's ancestor was the third-born son. The Bonsu part came after a tribal war. The fighting began deep inland, but Pops's great-great-grandfather fought and fought until he emerged on the Ghanaian coast.

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