Column: Winning the name game

To be honest, I don’t feel like talking about the loss to Richmond. So instead, I’m going to tell you a story. I warn you: this is not a story about basketball. It’s the story of a name. Sorry, it’s the story about how the name got so damn big.

Say it slowly, syllable-by-syllable: Pops-Men-sah-Bon-su. Two autumns ago, the name began to slither out of our mouths unlike any other moniker on the planet. He was known as the tall, skinny dude who dunked his own missed free throw in a preseason game.

But now, the name – like the man behind it – has grown. Now, the name has wrapped itself snugly around the media’s rapidly beating heart. Now, it’s showing up everywhere. The Washington Post. ESPN The Magazine. Sports Illustrated. Sports Center. World News Tonight. 20/20. The Economist. The Howard Stern Show. Dateline. Saturday Night Live. Letterman. Leno. Everywhere.

Not that it’s a bad thing. He is hard working, humble and huge (he put on 20 pounds of muscle this summer). He is the face of a talented pool of recruits and a resurrected GW men’s basketball program. And oh yeah, he has a cool name – maybe the coolest name in the history of sports.

“It’s the greatest name ever,” asserts 38-year-old Sports Center anchor Scott Van Pelt, a Pops fan whose on-air voice is as ESPN-thusiastic on the phone as it is on the air. Before following Mensah-Bonsu, he had never heard a name quite like it. Hockey names are always fun though – specifically the Toronto Maple Leafs of the 1980s.Van Pelt calls them the “name” team, including Walt Podubbny, Danny Daoust (pronounced Da-oooo) and Borje Salming.

“They were a truly wretched team … the worst in hockey,” Van Pelt says. Nothing like Pops and the Colonials, who despite losing to Richmond (again) Saturday, have stormed out to a 12-4 record this year.

The genesis of the obsession occurred last season as he watched the Colonials at Richmond with the sound turned down low.

“There was this number 21 dude,” Van Pelt remembers. “He was completely insane, blocking shots and dunking. I thought, ‘This guy plays hard.’ Then I find out his name is friggin’ Pops Mensah-Bonsu.”

Then the 500-watt light-bulb in Van Pelt’s brain lit up, perhaps turning his blond hair a shade brighter. Not only does Pops have an amazing name, he thought, but the guy can play, too. Soon, Van Pelt was mentioning Pops and the Colonials on the air. As Karl Hobbs’ squad improved, so did the number of mentions GW got on SportsCenter. By the end of the season, Van Pelt was sporting one of those goofy yellow-foam tri-cornered hats on the air while reading off Pops’ stat line.

“It was a goof, but not really,” says Van Pelt, who communicates with Pops through e-mail regularly. “If his name was Joe Smith or something not so eccentric, then it obviously wouldn’t be the same. But the fact is (Pops) can go.”

We loved it. We were now on Sports Center. We were on the way to a stage we had not stood on for a long while – a national stage. For Maryland or Georgetown, a member of the media’s obsession is inconsequential. For GW, it means the world. Van Pelt has received several letters from students thanking him for recognizing the Colonials.

The ESPN veteran understands that Atlantic 10 schools just don’t get the same amount of exposure as those from bigger conferences. So if the team’s star player’s name means “whale killer,” as Mensah-Bonsu does, why not let it create a media buzz? Publicity, in this case, is a positive thing.

In reality, Mensah-Bonsu is one of a long line of interesting names to play at the Smith Center. In a few years, maybe it will be mentioned with hoopsters Shawnta Rogers, Yegor Mescheriakov (’99), and Mr. Koul himself – Alexander, that is. Remember him? Before graduating in 1998, he broke the school record for blocks (188).

As Van Pelt and most others know, Mensah-Bonsu’s game is novel, not a novelty. His intensity level is unmatched in the A-10, and while he may not be dominant all the time, he is a constant contributor.

Still, the fact is that the team’s success is created by all 12 names that appear on the roster. But come on, let’s face it: Their names are not as cool as “Pops Mensah-Bonsu.” Look at “Mike Hall.” It’s a compact, rectangular name. Shaped like one of the concrete bricks that seem to make up Hall – a ferocious rebounder who, standing in the paint, might be confused for a brick wall. You might not see Hall on SportsCenter, but without his contributions, Pops would not appear on the Big Show.

The names that make up the Colonials win together, and while much more infrequently now, they lose together. Hall, Pinnock, Williams, Thompson, Kireev, Rice and Elliott all deserve to be recognized along with their high-profile teammate, whose name has the same amount of letters as Carl Yastrzemski. But Pops sells. And that, my friends, is not a bad thing.

Maybe one day he will join Yaz, Oil Can Boyd, Ickey Woods, Dick Butkus and Mookie Blaylock in the sports name hall of fame. But that will be decided at a later date. Right now I’m going to have a Bruschi.

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