As far as I know, Pops Mensah-Bonsu only knows one way to greet people: with an outstretched hand and oversized smile.
And not one of those forced smiles that hide an underlying annoyance or one of those flimsy handshakes either. Mensah-Bonsu genuinely loves interacting with people, and it shows. Either that or he puts Phillip Seymour Hoffman’s acting to shame.
Sure, it’s easy to be happy after your team won in the game’s final seconds – as Pops’ Toronto Raptors did Monday night – but he’s always been that way and likely always will be. Four years ago, when he was the unofficial mayor of Foggy Bottom, his Colonials were ranked highly in the polls and I was just a freshman reporter, I was assigned to do a story on the team’s relatively poor performance from the free throw line. I was told free throw shooting was somewhat of a touchy subject for the 6-foot-9 power forward (who was shooting less than 50 percent on the season) and needless to say I was apprehensive about the interview.
After 10 minutes of waiting in the lower level of the Smith Center, the London native emerged from the training room. He shook my hand and asked what was up. Hesitantly, I asked him what was going wrong at the line, half-expecting him to be annoyed that a little twerp was focusing on the one negative in what was an otherwise dream season. We both knew all he had to do was furrow his brow and the hard questions would cease, replaced by harmless softballs.
But Pops didn’t furrow his brow, nor did he roll his eyes or give me terse, unhelpful answers. Instead, he opened up, explaining how hard he’s trying to make those free throws, that he just needs to concentrate a little harder and he thinks he’ll turn it around. “What a nice guy,” I remember thinking at the time.
Twelve months later, we crossed paths again, this time after a Washington Wizards victory over his Dallas Mavericks in the Verizon Center. No longer the big man on campus, Mensah-Bonsu had been relegated to bench-warmer and didn’t even dress for the game. Being unfamiliar with the layout of the Verizon Center’s bowels, I got lost and was late getting to the visitors’ locker room after the game, only catching up with Pops as he was walking out of the locker room en route to the team bus. Luckily, I managed to catch his eye at the last second. Once again, big smile, outstretched hand.
One would think the last thing a rookie wants to do is upset his teammates by making them wait, but that didn’t seem to concern Mensah-Bonsu. Instead, we talked at length (he even suggested that we go somewhere quieter so my recorder could pick up the conversation without background noise). Instead of bemoaning his lowly status on the time, he stuck to the positive – how lucky he was to be in the NBA and be given a chance.
Fast forward to Monday, when Mensah-Bonsu came one point short of his first-ever double-double and played more than 20 minutes. So long humility, hello ego? Not quite. Smile, handshake. I told him it wouldn’t be very long, that I knew he had a million people to catch up with. “No, no, take your time,” he said. It was immediately clear that this was the same guy I met four years ago.
For someone who had only been on the team a little more than a month and played alongside an Olympic gold medalist, there was an unusually large collection of reporters around Pops. His teammates joked with him as if he had been around forever, though it soon became obvious they didn’t know him that well after all. During a television interview, guard Anthony Parker made fun of Mensah-Bonsu just off camera in an attempt to fluster him.
Had Parker known Mensah-Bonsu longer, he would have known that getting Pops to smile takes much less effort than that. All you have to do is walk up and say hi.