His Nigerian name means God’s power. His greatest gift might be spreading joy to others.
That is, of course, unless you are wearing the jersey of the other team.
During UCLA’s victory over USC this month, the Bruins big man foiled the Trojans twice in an eight-second span. First, it was stepping over to block a Kobe Johnson layup. Then it was outrunning the defense to dunk a Tyger Campbell lob.
College basketball, meet Adem Bona.
He won’t be around much longer if he keeps playing like this.
“The fans are cheering, it’s the ‘SC game and I’m hyped, our biggest rival, my first time playing them,” the 6-foot-10 freshman center said breathlessly of his favorite play from his first 2½ months as a Bruin. “I’m fired up, I was like, ‘Yeah, let’s go!’ ”
Everywhere Bona goes is his happy place.
He weaves a joyful path inside Pauley Pavilion, his long arms raised above his head and a wide smile overtaking his face as he waves to students during pregame roll call. He slaps hands with teammates, pounds his chest as part of an introductory video shown on the scoreboard and breaks out that smile again, as if it’s a requirement for wearing the four letters across his chest.
Freshman guard Amari Bailey has missed five games in a row with a foot injury. UCLA coach Mick Cronin says he needs to practice before playing in a game.
After sparking a second-half rally against Colorado last weekend, Bona lingered on the court to embrace student managers in a group hug, everyone pulling in tight to marinate in the moment.
“He’s in like the CEO percentile of attitude and energy level; it’s really, really hard to find,” UCLA coach Mick Cronin said. “When you see somebody that’s that positive, that energetic, always has a smile, it stands out because the rest of us don’t.”
The smile is a tribute to the mother who guided Bona’s family through tragedy while providing her own joy from afar, breaking into gospel songs when they speak on the phone.
“I would say,” Bona said on the eve of the No. 5 Bruins’ showdown against Arizona State on Thursday night at Desert Financial Arena, “I’m a copy of my mom.”
The go-go big man might not have gone anywhere in basketball if he didn’t have to go.
Stepping outside his mother’s Nigerian store to use the roadside as a restroom several years ago, the 13-year-old, already around 6-7, towered over the car he was using as cover.
A local basketball player passing by, struck by the boy’s height, asked if he played the sport. No, the boy who then went by his given name of Ikechukwu told him, he played soccer like most everyone else in the country.
It was the pursuit that gave the boy his blazing speed and made him challenge everyone he encountered to races that he knew he would likely win.
Undeterred, the player followed the boy to his mother’s store. Udu Chinyere had taken over the shop in Lagos from her late husband, Chikaodiri Okoro, selling foodstuffs and trading goods. Okoro, known as “The Big Elephant” because of his size and masculinity, died before Ikechukwu was born as the last of five siblings.
The boy grew up playing soccer most every day at school, near his home and even on holidays, but now this strange man was touting another sport. His mother was hesitant. She asked how much she would have to pay for her son to play basketball.
“When you see somebody that’s that positive, that energetic, always has a smile, it stands out because the rest of us don’t.”
— UCLA basketball coach Mick Cronin, on Adem Bona
Nothing, the man told her. He would teach the boy, showing him the basics during weekend training sessions. Bona’s two older brothers, noting their sibling’s sprouting frame, pleaded with their mother to let him try the new endeavor. She agreed.
It was the start of a journey that would take Bona from his homeland to Turkey to Napa to Los Angeles, the budding prospect going places he once never imagined.
“I thought I was going to be a professional soccer player,” said Bona, who now could be only months away from being selected in the NBA draft.
Weekend training sessions and streetball pickup games were only going to take the teenager so far. He needed advanced instruction and better competition if he wanted to more than dabble in his new sport.
About a year after being discovered on that roadside, he hit the road. Moving with his mother to Turkey, where they both adopted new names in a nod to local culture, Bona honed his game in workouts for a few years before being invited to join the national team.
His next opportunity came via the modern marvel of Instagram. Program directors from Prolific Prep in Napa messaged him on the social media platform, asking if he would be interested in coming to play for them.
Initially reluctant, Bona needed a nudge from his mother. She knew this would be the next logical step in his basketball career, even if it meant he would have to leave her behind for his final two years of high school.
He bid farewell and boarded a plane, headed for another country where he didn’t know anyone. Paired with a host family, Bona quickly befriended everyone he met, his radiant smile his biggest asset.
Billy McKnight, who coached Bona for his final season at Prolific Prep, recalled him celebrating a big victory with more abandon than his teammates even though he had not played because of an injury.
“He’s going to leave an imprint on the kids he plays with and the coaches that he’s played for no matter where he goes,” McKnight said, “because of his personality and how hard he plays and the quality of character that he has.”
Courted by some of the nation’s top college programs, including Kansas and Kentucky, Bona was torn anew about his future. As usual, mother knew best, steering him toward UCLA.
“She was thinking about it like a win-win situation for me,” Bona said, “saying you have one of the best schools in the world just for basketball and academically wise, you can’t turn it down. I was like, ‘Yes, mom.’ ”
Blessed with the greatest wingspan (7 feet 4), biggest hands (10.25 inches across) and largest feet (size 17) on the Bruins, Bona has had an impact in recent weeks that can’t be measured for a team that has won 13 consecutive games, the longest streak in the nation among major conference teams.
He made the go-ahead basket in a comeback victory over Washington State, snatched a career-high 10 rebounds against USC and jolted his team out of a lengthy funk with his strong play on both ends of the court in the second half against Colorado.
“This guy is incredible, man,” UCLA forward Jaime Jaquez Jr. said of a teammate who was selected the Pac-12 Conference’s freshman of the week twice in a row. “He runs, he blocks shots, runs down to the other end of the floor and dunks on people. I mean, what more can you ask for from a big?”
“He’s going to leave an imprint on the kids he plays with and the coaches that he’s played for no matter where he goes because of his personality and how hard he plays and the quality of character that he has.”
— Prolific Prep basketball coach Billy McKnight, on Adem Bona
How about switching onto a jitterbug of a point guard? Bona did that too, stepping out on the wing last weekend to contest Colorado’s KJ Simpson. The lightning-quick guard challenged Bona, driving toward the basket. It appeared he beat the big man for a layup before Bona recovered, extending his arm to block the shot.
“He’s just a natural, unique athlete that can run like a deer and guard smaller guys in a big person’s body,” said UCLA assistant coach Darren Savino, who works extensively with the team’s big men.
Bona’s highlights have increased in frequency after a month or so of dropped passes, foul trouble and unsteady footwork. He’s improved in all areas, largely as a result of avoiding the fouls that kept him off the court.
Among other things, Bona has learned to get into defensive position earlier, keep his hands where the referees can see them and avoid reaching fouls on the perimeter. As his fouls have decreased, his production has soared. Over the last five games, he’s averaged 11.4 points and 6.4 rebounds per game while making 67.6% off his shots.
His teammates are flinging him more passes every game, both in the half-court offense and in transition, capitalizing on the speed he developed in his homeland long before he caught his first lob.
“For my height, it doesn’t make sense,” Bona said of his greatest athletic gift, “but in my head it makes sense.”
Coaches Cori Close of UCLA and Tara VanDerveer of Stanford say it’s critical to fight athletic gender discrimination at places like Riverside City College.
Bona’s celebratory dances in the locker room also have a genetic component because they resemble moves that he’s seen his mother make. Mother and son haven’t seen each other except over FaceTime chats since he departed Turkey, but they still share special moments.
After her other sons told her about their younger sibling’s recent 15-point, eight-rebound performance against Utah, she called and serenaded him with another song. He cracked up.
“It was so funny, I was dying,” he said, the smile on a mother’s son widening once more.
Go beyond the scoreboard
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