The city of Toronto is known for loving sports athletes with heart, grit and determination. Fans have had love affairs with players like Wendel Clark, Mookie Wilson and Matt Bonner not because of their offensive skills or the fact they could score goals or points in buckets but because of the effort they put into their performances. Fans applauded them for trying their best and playing a “team” game rather than being the best player on their given team. While other players have better statistical numbers these players live on in the hearts of fans for their energy and love of the game.
One player that has stayed in the hearts of Raptor fans since he was acquired in 2001 for Corliss Williamson is Jerome “JYD” Williams. Jerome began his tenure with the Raptors by famously driving from Detroit to Toronto after hearing of the trade. It was this initial gesture that immediately identified Williams as a “working class” basketball player and thrust him into the hearts of raptor fans. You could immediately tell that he was a little different from your average NBA player. This was not a guy worried about shoe contracts and making excuses about being late for “practice”. He was a player who was happy to be in the league and have a job and worked as hard as he could to keep the job he loved so much.
Williams went on to earn the love and respect of the fans by, not scoring lots points, but by running down loose balls and making the extra pass. His most important role as a Raptor, however, may have been the fact that he enthusiastically broke the fourth wall and brought the fans into the game. When he was traded in 2003 (as a salary add on) for Jalen Rose and Donyell Marshall the collective hearts of Raptor fans broke. He never really achieved the same success in Chicago or New York as he did in Toronto and you could tell his heart always belonged to the meat-eating franchise he drove 300km to get to when he was first acquired. Williams received loud ovations everytime he returned to Toronto as a player and continues to receive loud ovations when he is present as the Raptors Community representative.
JYD was not only a player that brought his energy to the court but he also brought it outside the game of basketball where he made possibly his most important contribution to the city and the game as a community ambassador. He was named a finalist in 2000 for the J. Walter Kennedy Citizenship award and in 2002 was named by Sporting News as one of the “good guys in Sports”. He also won the first ever Fannie Mae Community Award. He continues to be actively involved in community projects such as “NBA Cares”, “Basketball without Borders”, “Positive shades of Black” that he began with his brother in 1997 and “The JYD Project”. He has helped countless children and youth all over the world. His efforts on and off the basketball court have earned him respect throughout the NBA and in the city of Toronto. He consistently receives a warm response whenever visiting the ACC.
Toronto has not seen another player like JYD in its history as an NBA franchise. One player that could, potentially, fill the shoes of JYD, both on the court and off is Pops Mensah Bonsu who joined the Raptors part way through last season and made an immediate impact with the club.
Aside from popularizing the headband again Pops has given Raptor fans many reasons to recall the days of Jerome Williams. He is not a flashy player, by any stretch, and plays the game by doing the little things. In his first game with the Raptors he posted 4pts and 10 rebounds against the Miami Heat. Not “earth shattering” numbers but certainly productive and important on a team that had been lacking rebounding production. He instantly earned a reputation for his energy, hard work and the desire to do whatever it took to win games. Brian Colangelo was probably not surprised by the effort Pops showed as it has been a trademark of Bonsu’s since he came out of college.
Bonsu’s road to the NBA has been a long and adventurous one, to say the least, and was marked by a consistent desire to improve and prove his doubters wrong. He was a stand out at George Washington University but went undrafted due to an injury he suffered to his knee prior to the 2006 NCAA tournament. He went on to sign a contract with Dallas and was sent to the D-League before coming back up to play with the Mavs. He spent the next two years bouncing around the world playing for Benneton Treviso, Spanish club DKV Joventut and the San Antonio Spurs before eventually landing at Pearson Airport in Toronto.
During his time in and out of the league Bonsu never gave up and continued to fight his way back to the NBA. He has been everything on a team from a scoring option (D-League All-star with the Fort-Worth Flyers) to end of the bench option (on a stacked San Antonio team). He understands that his role is to contribute any way he can, that his next minutes are not guaranteed and he has to bring his best efforts to each and every game.
With the Raptors last season, it didn’t take long for him to find his niche and become a fan-favourite. The Raps were a poor rebounding team in need of energy and grit. Bargnani was stuggling at the time and Bosh was looking less and less interested. Pops entered his first game and fought for rebounds that no one else was fighting for and dunked with an enthusiasm the team hadn’t seen all season. Pops provided that grit and energy that was sorely lacking and had the ACC crowd on their feet in his first game. His hustle, energy and confidence made him a fixture off of Jay Triano’s bench and he found a new role on a new team.
Much like JYD before him, he is also active in community efforts around the world. He takes great pride in spreading the love of basketball in his native England where he runs the Hawks Basketball Academy and is part of the ALIVE2LIVE schools and College tour helping at risk youth gain opportunities in the community. These are the actions of someone who very much wants to give back to the community that gave to him and a player who is well beyond his years in maturity and grace.
Now he is caught in limbo and there is a danger that one of the most likeable players in Toronto since the days of the ‘Junkyard Dog’ will be left without a home. He may not fit into the Raptors future plans and may have to earn his way back into the league he has fought so hard to stay in.
Brian Colangelo would be wise to consider adding Pops to the Raptors bench this year. With Pops you’re not just getting an athlete who will fight for rebounds and hammer the ball through the hoop you also get a young man who would very much be an asset to the city of Toronto. Someone who could be as active in the community as he is on the court.
One thing is for certain: When he returns, either as a Raptor or as an opponent, Pops Mensah Bonsu will receive a JYD-esque ovation.