Nearly a decade has passed since Pops Mensah-Bonsu helped start a basketball revival at George Washington. Now he’s trying for another revival.
The 28-year-old will represent Britain in this summer’s London Olympics. Far from a basketball powerhouse, the British are 43rd in FIBA’s world rankings and will be making just their second Olympics appearance. As was the case in the 1948 London Games, this summer’s selection is a courtesy reservation for the host nation.
But the program is slowly developing; its world ranking is 13 spots higher than last year. The British moved up to the top tier of European basketball in 2008 and qualified the following year for FIBA EuroBasket, the continent’s biennial basketball championship.
“I think we hold the destiny of our sport in our hands,” Mensah-Bonsu said in a telephone interview this week. “To compete at a high level and play well I think is going to reach out to some of the young generation and build up our grass roots. Then we can go from there.”
Mensah-Bonsu faced a similar situation when he arrived at George Washington in 2002. The Colonials were coming off a 12-win season. But Mensah-Bonsu and fellow freshmen Omar Williams and Mike Hall kick-started a renaissance.
Thanks in part to Mensah-Bonsu’s athleticism and attention-grabbing dunks, GW reached No. 6 in the Associated Press poll during his senior season — its highest ranking since 1955 — and earned a No. 8 seed in the NCAA tournament, its highest seeding.
Mensah-Bonsu returned from a late-season knee injury to help the team win its opening-round game in the NCAA tournament for the first time in 12 years. GW lost to top-seeded Duke in the second round.
“I came into GW one way and we left a totally different direction,” Mensah-Bonsu said. “I felt I grew in those four years as a player and a person and we created some sort of tradition there. Hopefully we gave the next teams something to work towards and showed them what could be accomplished.”
All but two players on the British roster played or are still playing college basketball in the United States, and three were NBA draft picks. Luol Deng, the team’s most prominent player, averaged 13.5 points last season with Chicago and was named to his first all-star team. Mensah-Bonsu said Deng “brings pretty much everything” and is a leader on the court.
“We go as he goes,” Mensah-Bonsu said.
The British team is coached by three Americans, two of whom spent part of their professional careers in England. Mensah-Bonsu said the coaches’ experience with different styles has helped them adjust to the international game.
Mensah-Bonsu and Britain get a huge test on Thursday in Manchester, England, when they host the United States in an exhibition. Earlier this month, they lost by a combined nine points in exhibitions against France (No. 12 in the FIBA rankings) and Spain (the world’s second-ranked team).
“The Games will be good for British basketball,” Mensah-Bonsu said. “I’ve played against a bunch of those guys before, but it’ll probably be the biggest basketball event in England to date. We’re all definitely looking forward to it.”