In the seven years since his last pogo-stick dunk for George Washington University, former Colonials standout Pops Mensah-Bonsu has bounced around so many teams and played in so many places that he joked recently that he can hardly keep track. Yet after his professional travels — the tally is five NBA teams and in five countries in Europe — there is a hunger for more.
A year ago, while recovering from a knee injury he suffered playing for host Britain in the London Olympics, Mensah-Bonsu made a bucket list of places he wanted to visit. He put the Christ the Redeemer statue in Rio de Janeiro at the top.
Mensah-Bonsu got the chance to scratch that off when the Washington Wizards, desperate for interior help, gave him a training camp invitation that included a trip to Brazil. The Wizards kept a tight schedule on the excursion, with little room for sightseeing, but Mensah-Bonsu took full advantage of joining John Wall for an Adidas promotional event at the feet of the 98-foot statue that overlooks the city.
“No way I could come all the way to Rio and not see the Christ the Redeemer. Even if it wasn’t on schedule, I was going to wake up at 5 o’clock, early the next morning and go see it,” Mensah-Bonsu said. “I was overjoyed. It was a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Obviously, playing in the NBA is a big deal, but to play in the NBA, in a country I always wanted to visit, is even bigger.”
Mensah-Bonsu had all but given up on his chances of returning to the NBA when New Orleans cut him in January 2011 after he suffered an elbow injury. He said he briefly considered walking away from the game because he was running out of ways to motivate himself.
“It was so difficult to come to terms with where I was at the time that it took a lot out of me,” said Mensah-Bonsu, who finished that season in France. “But there is one point every summer I get that itch. I see a couple of NBA games and say, ‘Hey, I could be on that team.’ I really believe that what I bring to the table, every team in the NBA needs. I really feel every team needs — that guy who is going to go get that defensive stop, who is going to go get that offensive rebound that they need and who is not afraid to guard different positions and stick their nose in there. And that’s me.”
In addition to battling through injuries, Mensah-Bonsu, 30, has adjusted his game from being a wild ball of energy to a more cerebral and well-rounded player. “Now that I’m older, I like to pick and choose when I use my athleticism,” he said.
With injuries to Emeka Okafor and Chris Singleton leaving the Wizards thin up front, Mensah-Bonsu got the call to work out for a team he knows well. Mensah-Bonsu keeps his offseason home in Washington and knew several members of the team because he works out at Verizon Center every summer. The Wizards don’t have an available roster spot with 15 players under contract, but Mensah-Bonsu said he doesn’t plan to let up.
“It’d be great to get out of my own bed, come out of my own house and drive 10 minutes to work every day and do the job that I love and dreamed about my whole life,” he said. “It’s a small opportunity, I see any opportunity as one. That’s why I don’t take anything for granted and go as hard as I can every day in practice, and do my best to raise some eyebrows and wow the coaches every time I step on the floor. I can bring something to the table, even though it’s an uphill battle.”
After scoring two points with three rebounds in the Wizards’ 111-106 overtime loss to Brooklyn in the preseason opener, the 6-foot-9 Mensah Bonsu didn’t receive any playing time in Brazil. But Coach Randy Wittman said he might get a chance to see more minutes on Tuesday when the Wizards host the two-time defending champion Miami Heat at Verizon Center because starting big man Nene will not be available after staying in his native Brazil to attend to a “personal matter.” Wittman said Nene should be back in uniform on Thursday, when the team travels to Baltimore to play the New York Knicks.
Mensah-Bonsu had a memorable time in Brazil, but not everything worked out well. During a skills challenge at an NBA fan appreciation event, he slipped on his final rush to the basket, fell down and lost the ball. Then, after recovering, he missed a dunk.
“The two worst things that could happen to me, happened,” Mensah-Bonsu said with a laugh. “My teammates was laughing at me. I told myself, I have to make up for it somehow. Maybe if I get a few seconds in the game [against Miami], I get a block or dunk on somebody. We’ll see.”