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."
And coming back also offered Mensah-Bonsu the chance to revisit his larger-than-life on-campus persona, which has led Hobbs to dub his 6-foot-9, 240-pound forward "the Mayor."
"You see him walking down the campus, he's waving and shaking hands, he always looks like he's running for office," Hobbs said. "I would say he may be the most popular student here on campus."
Take the first day of the NBA season, for example, a day on which a camera crew from BET's "Maad Sports" arrived to film a day-in-the-life of Pops. The crew interviewed him in a courtyard; after that segment, freshman Joe Wall came up to shake Mensah-Bonsu's hand and wish him good luck. The crew followed Mensah-Bonsu on errands across campus, during which various school employees professed what a nice young man this was. The crew followed him into the campus food court, where one worker hugged him, another asked him whether he'd be playing for the Washington Wizards next season and several students waved.
"They might not know him personally, but everybody knows him," said sophomore Audie Fugett, a former walk-on with the women's basketball team.
His senior teammates said this is how it's been since Mensah-Bonsu was a freshman; they attribute his popularity to his effusive personality and his appealing first name. And newer teammates have quickly caught on. Transfer Cheyenne Moore said the first question he gets from GW students is, "Are you on the basketball team?" The second question is, "Do you know Pops?"
Mensah-Bonsu said he tries to be a regular student in other ways. He briefly played intramural soccer as a sophomore. He attends several men's soccer games a year and nearly every volleyball and women's basketball game, and he threw his support behind the student fan club's effort to draw more fans to the women's games.
He also knows life would be different if he were in the NBA. He wouldn't have a 19-inch TV, instead preferring an 84-inch projector screen. He wouldn't have a kitchen that he likens to an airplane cockpit. He wouldn't have spent the first night of the NBA season studying for a midterm exam in social psychology. He wouldn't have to walk across campus to sign for a monthly meal allowance of a few hundred dollars while the players he once auditioned against employ personal chefs.
Then again, if he were in the NBA, he would no longer be the Mayor of Foggy Bottom.
"When I was going to make my decision I made sure that it was my final decision. I wasn't going to have no regrets and no doubts or second thoughts," he said. "You've definitely got to experience the college life, you know what I'm saying? It only comes around once."