Wizards G League affiliate general manager Pops Mensah-Bonsu keeps basketball dreams alive NBA veteran oversees daily operations for Capital City Go-Go

When the NBA’s newest G League expansion team needed a guy to run things, they turned to the perfect person for the job — an experienced journeyman with the right kind of basketball savvy.

“I had no business background,” said Pops Mensah-Bonsu, the new general manager of the Capital City Go-Go. “I had planned to go to business school before working in a front office, but the opportunity came before I had the chance.”

The George Washington University standout earned a degree in psychology and played with 18 NBA, G League and international teams combined during his professional career. By most standards, he is perhaps, one of the most successful players to retire from the G League, averaging 26.6 points when he was on what he refers to as his “high horse.”

“I’ve sat in the same seats as two-way players, assigned players and G League contracted players, so I use my experiences to help guys along with their journeys,” said the 35-year-old Mensah-Bonsu.

The team is the Washington Wizards’ G League affiliate, named for go-go music, a hard fusion of blues, rhythm and blues, and funk that’s part of Washington, D.C.’s, bustling musical culture. Everything about the team fits the appeal of the local fan. And for Mensah-Bonsu, he’d already made Washington his home and quickly immersed himself in the city’s diverse climate.

When he got the call from the Wizards to gauge his interest for the general manager position, he was an NBA scout with the San Antonio Spurs, a job he’d been in for about a year. The very next day he flew home to interview with Wizards general manager Ernie Grunfeld.

It was a success.

As general manager, he oversees the daily operations of the Go-Go while engaging in long- and short-term strategic planning.

“I always make sure to check in with players and make sure everything is going smoothly and morale is high,” he said. “As a leader, they feed off of my energy, so regardless of if I’m having a good or bad day, I come into that office with a smile on my face. I always make sure they receive my positive energy. After practice, I catch up with the head coach and see how he feels. I’m always thinking ahead of how I can help make this team better.”

If there’s anyone who can relate to G League players and their grind, it’s Mensah-Bonsu. He’s suited up for the Dallas Mavericks, San Antonio Spurs, Houston Rockets and Toronto Raptors. At times, he suits up for practices if Go-Go head coach Jarell Christian needs him.

“He’s a force to be reckoned with,” said Christian. “He brings that physicality that you need. Intensity rate goes up instantly when he’s on the court. He’s able to touch so many different people because he’s had so many walks of life and experiences. He’s able to connect with people in a way that I’ve never really seen.”

General manager Pops Mensah-Bonsu (center) and head coach Jarell Christian (left) of the Capital City Go-Go participate in an NBA G-League clinic at Charles Hart Middle School on Aug. 8, 2018, in Washington, D.C.

Ned Dishman/NBAE via Getty Images

Although he’s not far removed from his playing days, Mensah-Bonsu misses the hardwood.

“I miss it every morning I get up, every time I watch a game and every time I watch practice,” he said. “There’s a void that I always feel I need to fill. I’m a realist. I understand that my impact is now going to be on this side of the game. But when I’m on the court, I forget it and go back to player mode.”

The difference between the NBA and the G League is the salaries, Mensah-Bonsu said.

“They make a lot more money in the NBA and their CBA [collective bargaining agreement] is much more comprehensive,” he said. “But to the core, it is very similar, just at a larger scale. It’s still managing people and putting a team together.”

In the team’s first season, Mensah-Bonsu soon realized success in the league is measured through development across the board, but mainly with the development of players.

“We are here to help the players become the best they can be on and off the court,” said the first-time general manager.

The Go-Go finished their first season 25-25. It’s only the second time an expansion team finished .500 or better in the G League’s last 10 seasons.

It was his longtime dream to be part of a team’s front office. And when he needs guidance in his position, he has countless mentors, including Toronto Raptors president Masai Ujiri and Amadou Gallo Fall, vice president and managing director of NBA Africa, to lean on.

“I’m indebted to them for always being willing to help me on this side of the game,” said Mensah-Bonsu.

He even plans to collaborate with Gallo Fall and the Basketball Africa League. “It’s a great opportunity to give African players to live out their dreams and play basketball. Every summer I try to be involved in the [Basketball Without Borders] camp in Africa; I started doing camps with NBA Ghana every year. My goal is one day to have a team in Ghana.”

Twenty years ago, if anyone had asked Mensah-Bonsu what he wanted to be when he grew up, he would have answered an Olympian in track and field. Why? He had a natural “you can’t teach that” sort of talent when it came to the sport.

Mensah-Bonsu was raised by low-income Ghanaian parents whose main goal was for their children to have greater opportunities than themselves. He moved from his London home to the United States at 16 years old without his parents and attended The Hun School of Princeton. He became a two-time New Jersey state champion in the high jump and excelled on the basketball court in high school.

It was evident that he had game while playing junior basketball for the Hackney White Heat of the English Basketball League. But to take it to another level, Mensah-Bonsu knew that going to a prep school in the U.S. would help elevate his game and increase his visibility.

He had that same joy and mindset when he transferred in his senior year to St. Augustine Preparatory School in Richland, New Jersey, where he averaged 15 points and 12 rebounds a game.

Mensah-Bonsu made a name for himself when he got to George Washington University. He helped lead the Colonials to two consecutive NCAA tournament appearances (2005 and 2006). It was the first time in 50 years the program was ranked No. 10 in both the Associated Press Top 25 and USA Today/ESPN Top 25 polls.

After helping his team beat Michigan State and Maryland on consecutive nights in his junior year, Mensah-Bonsu noticed NBA scouts attending his practices. It was then that he knew he had NBA potential.

He went undrafted in 2006 but worked his way into a spot on the Mavericks after summer league. That season he appeared in 12 games, averaging 2.4 points per game. He spent multiple stints with the Fort Worth Flyers of the NBA Development League. In July 2007, Mensah-Bonsu rejoined the Mavericks for summer league but was later waived. He signed a one-year deal with Benetton Treviso of the Lega Basket Serie A in September 2007, then with CB Granada of Spain in May 2008 to appear in the team’s final game. In August 2008, he signed with Joventut Badalona for one year.

“For me, my mindset was I do not intend to be here long,” he said.

Mensah-Bonsu represented Great Britain in the 2012 Games.

“I don’t think there is a bigger moment for an athlete than walking out in the opening ceremony and it was 10 minutes away from where I walked the streets of London. I remember my brother took a picture of my parents wearing my Olympic jersey.”

Pops Mensah-Bonsu (left) celebrates making a 3-pointer in the men’s basketball preliminary round match between Great Britain and Brazil on Day 4 of the London 2012 Olympic Games at Basketball Arena on July 31, 2012, in London.

Christian Petersen/Getty Images

During his career, he endured many injuries.

“I had 10 surgeries,” he said. “Six on the knee, elbow, shoulder, eye and nose. I say my right side is my bionic side. I wouldn’t say I have recovered. I still feel pain. When I walked up the stairs and I feel some pain, it’s a reminder that it was all worth it because I’m walking up the stairs to my office as a general manager.”

In 2015, his professional playing days ended abruptly after he received a two-year ban due to a doping violation while playing in Greece. He was also ordered to pay a fine of 1,000 euros. Mensah-Bonsu was taking Adderall prescribed for a medical condition.

“I’ve played in the NBA, I’ve played in the NCAA, I’ve played in the Olympics, I’ve played in high-level Europe, and I had never failed a drug test in my life,” he said. “When that happened, it ended my career. I was still fighting to clear my name because I didn’t want that be a dark cloud over my career or the way it ended.”

After retiring that same year, he became regional representative and international liaison for the National Basketball Players Association. He said that while there he received a phone call that would finally help clear the violation. According to Mensah-Bonsu, his agent told him that an appellate committee of the Greek courts researched and found out that Adderall wasn’t a performance-enhancing drug.

Off the court, he indulges in his family and four children and his love for fashion. He even graced the runway during New York Fashion Week in September 2016.

“Fashion has always been a big part of who I am,” he said. “I remember getting a text asking if I wanted to walk for Studio One Eighty Nine, an Accra-based line by Abrima Erwiah and actress Rosario Dawson, in New York Fashion Week’s show. I was like, ‘You literally made my life.’ I was the only nonmodel at the show, and people wanted to know who I was.”

Mensah-Bonsu says he could’ve been more proactive in preparing for life after basketball, but it’s the relationships he built that have allowed him to gain success as a general manager.

“I always tell people your character is determined by how you treat people who can’t do anything for you,” he said. “I always was open to engaging with people that I came across. People remember your character and their interactions.”

His advice to current players is to start planning now.

“It’s always a good idea to think about life after basketball and lay a foundation,” he said. “Sometimes basketball isn’t fair to us. I love the game, it did a lot for me, but my career ended before I wanted it to, and such is life.”

In Mensah-Bonsu’s mind, his journey to the NBA didn’t start or finish under the most ideal of circumstances. However, his path to front-office status has earned him the opportunity to oversee a franchise and a group of hungry players.

The SEED Project’s annual fundraiser was the premier party for 2017 NBA draft week The program develops African basketball and academic talent and the importance of giving back

On June 21 more than 300 exclusive guests entered the Marquee New York dance and nightclub for the 5th Annual Seed Summer Party, a fundraiser that helps raise money for more than 2,000 students in Senegal, Gambia and the United States participating in the SEED Project.

The West African-themed upscale shindig has become one of New York’s premier summer pre-NBA draft events. The West African vibes, food from celebrity chef Pierre Thiam, and an exclusive private auction, were all in the name of fun and philanthropy.

The SEED (Sport for Education and Economic Development) Project is an international nongovernmental organization that uses sports, specifically basketball, as a way to identify, cultivate and educate leaders. According to its website, SEED works to maximize student potential in educational activities while emphasizing leadership and social responsibility. The organization is based in Senegal and serves 2,000 youths a year, ages 6 to 19, with boarding and after-school athletic, academic and leadership programs in accordance with the principles of education, life skills and responsible citizenship.

NBA vice president and managing director for Africa, Amadou Gallo Fall, said the event fared very well.

“It’s always exciting to, first of all, see those young men and women who’ve been through the program, the SEED Project in Senegal, as they move on to have an opportunity to pursue their education, get a college degree, and continue to play basketball,” Fall said. “To have them come to New York and share their stories with supporters and people who are interested in finding out more about what SEED is about. They [SEED team in New York] did a fantastic job, just a great location and a great turnout. We’re pleased.”

Since 2002, 92 percent of the Seed Project’s graduates have attended university or secured a job upon leaving the program. Fifty-nine percent of graduates have earned scholarships to attend U.S.-based universities.

Fall said the most important aspect of the SEED Project is for it to continue to be in a position to “provide opportunity for young boys and girls who have a passion and a desire to achieve big things, just a holistic approach in terms of using basketball as a conduit to really impact these young lives.”

“At the end of the day, it’s about motivating these young people to have an interest, to take on their responsibility in terms of what they can contribute to the future of Africa,” Fall explained. “I’ve always told them, if Africa’s ever going to have a chance of true development, it has to be able to rely on its youth, which are the biggest asset, more than 65 percent of the population, and it’s only going to get younger in the future. SEED’s mission is really to use basketball to empower and get these young people to focus on their education and learning to be good citizens and having a sense of responsibility towards their community.

“So the most important things for me is just to see them continue to grow as human beings. I think sports come third in bottom row there. Obviously, the values of the game of basketball teach them to be disciplined, to set goals, and learn to work as a team.”

In May, the NBA and SEED Project announced the official opening of NBA Academy Africa, an elite basketball training center in Thies, Senegal, for the top male and female prospects from throughout Africa. NBA Academy Africa is the first of its kind on the continent. Twelve elite male prospects will be selected following scouting programs conducted with local federations across Africa and elite skills camps hosted in Thies that started in May and will end in December. All 12 prospects will receive scholarships and training at NBA Academy Africa.

Besides NBA Academy Africa, the NBA and SEED Project also announced their plan to launch a new NBA Academy Africa facility in Saly, Senegal, for elite male prospects from throughout Africa, scheduled to open in the fall. When the new facility in Saly opens, SEED Project’s facility in Thies will house and train female prospects and younger male prospects.

Courtesy of SEED Project

According to a press release, NBA Academy Africa will employ a holistic, 360-degree approach to player development that focuses on education, leadership, character development and life skills. As part of the program, the students will compete against top competition throughout the year and will have an opportunity to be selected for travel teams that play in international tournaments and exhibition games.

NBA Academy Africa builds on the NBA’s existing basketball and youth development initiatives in Africa, including Jr. NBA programs for boys and girls ages 16 and under in Cameroon, Congo, Kenya, Morocco, Mozambique, Nigeria, Ivory Coast, Tanzania, Uganda, Senegal and South Africa. Basketball Without Borders (BWB), the NBA and FIBA’s global basketball development and community outreach program, has been held in Africa 14 times, with nine former BWB Africa campers drafted into the NBA.

Fall said he feels blessed to see the growth of SEED across Africa.

“The work we are doing at NBA Africa in some many ways dovetails with what I’ve started at SEED,” he explained. “It’s really, really an exciting time for basketball in general, but especially for us. Just humbled and blessed for the opportunity to work with such brilliant group of young people who, undoubtedly, all we’re doing is just provide the enabling factor for them to have a chance to be successful in life, first and foremost. Some of them, yes, will achieve big things in basketball, but that’s really the cherry on the top of the cake, I say.”

Fall’s journey plays out in the narrative of how the SEED Project began.

“It’s really my story, how I stumbled into basketball many, many years ago. I was helped by a generous soul, somebody who was with the Peace Corps who saw me play and helped me get a scholarship to come to the U.S. It opened my eyes to the power of sports, and also opened doors for me to meet unbelievable people along the way,” he said. “I found a career in basketball even after a short college career. I just endeavored from that point on to figure out a way to give back, especially replicating my story and we’re able to do that with number of other young people. Ultimately, we thought coming up with an organization which sole mission would be how to use sports as a conduit to socioeconomic development.

“That’s how SEED came about. SEED’s going to be 20 years old in 2018, so that’s an amazing … 20 years later seeing all the young people who have been imparted. We just want to make sure that they all continue to focus on having the duty to give back, to inspire the next generation,” said Fall. “It’s great to see now that people who are running the organization instantly are all young people that we’ve crossed paths with many, many years ago who are coming to basically carry on the torch. The mission remains the same. What is exciting is to see now people who have gone through the program coming back and taking it to even greater heights.”