BEIRUT

Basketball

Riots inspire London’s Pops, coach optimistic

  • Spain's Pau Gasol (L) vies with Kobe Bryant (R) during the Pre-Olympic friendly basketball match between Spain and USA at Palau Sant Jordi in Barcelona on July 24, 2012. (AFP PHOTO / LLUIS GENE)

  • Kobe Bryant of the US Men's Senior National Team, center, battles for the ball against Serge Ibaka, left, during an exhibition match between Spain and the United States Tuesday, July 24, 2012, in Barcelona, Spain, in preparation for the 2012 Summer Olympics. (AP Photo/Manu Fernandez)

LONDON: As Pops Mensah-Bonsu watched the north London neighborhood of his youth burn in rioting last year, it gave new meaning to the Olympic flame smoldering in the British basketball big man’s heart.

“Seeing that whole event play out on TV hurt my heart,” the four-season NBA veteran said Wednesday. “I grew up right around that police station where the riots started. That showed me what a big responsibility we have.

“I feel like the future of the youth is in our hands. We have a bigger responsibility,” he said.

Mensah-Bonsu wants to show the disadvantaged youth of his old Tottenham neighborhood that there is hope for a better life and that violence is not needed to fight the problems of today.

“Fifteen years ago I was a kid like that in North London,” he said. “If they see how far we’ve come, it can show them how far they can go.”

Mensah-Bonsu, a 2.06 forward of Ghanian heritage, watched the stores where he bought sweets and toys as a child burn to the ground. His parents still have a church in the area.

“Driving down that street was kind of eerie,” he said.

“You always see that kind of stuff happen to someone else. It never happens to you. That’s when you think all this is about more than the Olympics.

“We owe it to the younger generation to get them out of that kind of life. You can’t blame everything that happened on the young people in there. They don’t have the resources to do the right thing.”

He shoulders the burden for the fate of British basketball, with the hosts hoping to reach the knockout stages of the 12-team Olympic men’s tournament and raise the sport’s profile in Britain.

“We hold the future of British basketball in our hands,” he said. “It’s a fairly unknown sport in this country. If we have some success in the Olympics then the attention will come, the sponsors will come.

“It’s a responsibility we embraced with open arms. We accept it.

Chicago Bulls NBA standout Luol Deng will lead the British squad, giving coach Chris Finch several options on how to arrange his other players.

“Having a player like Luol allows you to have a great flexibility in your lineup. We will have some versatility,” Finch said.

“We’re at our best is when he’s able to make the players around him better and react to whatever his teammates are doing.”

And that makes them optimistic.

“The next step for us is to get some breakthrough wins,” Finch said.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on July 26, 2012, on page 14.
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