There’s a bit of partying involved, says Isaac Bonga. His parents are visiting, he celebrated his 23rd birthday on Tuesday, and his little brother is also there. “We’re going to eat,” says the jubilee, freshly showered after training. Visiting family from Frankfurt is now easier again, Bonga has signed for two seasons with FC Bayern Munich before the season. In recent years, the 2.04 meter tall guard has been in the NBA noted, with the LA Lakers, the Washington Wizards and most recently with the Toronto Raptors: “It makes a difference whether you sit on the train for four hours or on the plane for eight.”
After that, however, the focus was on the job again, and this Thursday there is a special game on the program. Bayern are guests in the Euroleague Alba Berlin, to the duel of the two German participants. So far, the champions have been in the lead, Berlin is eighth, FCB is in 16th place. The start in the European premier class went badly wrong, the Munich team lost five times, but most recently the first win against champions Efes Istanbul. The team still has to find itself – this is partly due to Bonga, who was injured for almost three and a half months and is now playing again. National player Niels Giffey joined the team at the beginning of the week. Whether he can participate in his home town is an open question, he too has to be integrated first.
Bonga is one step further, he celebrated his debut at the end of October. It was the Bundesliga’s most sensational transfer and the youngster from Neuwied near Koblenz has had a breathtaking career so far. Bonga was trained with the Bundesliga club Frankfurt Skyliners, he attracted attention early on, went through all the national teams, and finally his performances also aroused interest overseas. Bonga was invited to the NBA’s Top 100 Camp, a talent show in the world’s top league, when he was just 16 years old. And he left a lasting impression there as well, registering for the NBA draft two years later was the logical consequence. Finally, in 2018, no less a club than the Los Angeles Lakers secured his services.
Bonga has a hard time naming his favorite position – he can play anywhere
From then on he lived in LA, in the celebrity district of Manhattan Beach, near the Lakers Hall, in the illustrious neighborhood of many sports greats such as Tiger Woods and Maria Sharapova. “It was something completely new in this big city for an 18-year-old,” says Bonga, who wasn’t exactly sure which celebrities lived in his area. It was much more important for him that Moritz Wagner, another German basketball talent, lived near him, “I had someone from home, that helped me”. The two met often, went to training together. Wagner is now under contract with the Orlando Magic, Bonga’s path led him from the Washington Wizards to the Toronto Raptors last season. There his steadily upward leading NBA career faltered; that’s another reason why he thought about maybe putting in a station in Europe. Of course only with a Euroleague club – the European premier class is considered the second best league in the basketball and has significantly reduced the distance to overseas.
What Bonga brings with him from the States to the Isar, in addition to his extraordinary talent, is an immense wealth of experience for a basketball professional who has just turned 23. Working with LeBron James alone has brought a lot, he says. From him he learned how important professionalism is: “You have to have a certain routine, get enough sleep, eat right, regenerate enough.” And he learned “that the greatest strength of such players lies in their mentality”. Players like James are able to “always perform at the highest level”, which makes them so extraordinary.
Bonga also brings enormous versatility from the NBA. He finds it difficult to name his favorite position. Bayern lead him as a point guard, as a game designer. “I’ve played in all positions in recent years,” he says, most recently even as a center in Toronto. Bonga moves very quickly for his size, has a good throw and is athletic enough to hit baskets – he’s also a top-notch defender.
“I’d rather have a coach who yells at me than one who ignores me.”
In the national team, he last impressed with these skills at the Olympic Games, when Germany surprisingly reached the quarter-finals – which they had not done before in 1992. But then Bonga was injured in the World Cup qualifier against Poland in early July, shortly before moving to Munich. He only celebrated his debut at the end of October, it was a “jump into hot water”, as he says. Every game and every training session brings him one step closer to his normal form, he’s currently at “50 to 70 percent”.
These are words that Andrea Trinchieri likes to hear. The impulsive FCB coach is full of praise for Bonga, especially since he is a big fan of versatile players. A lot can still be expected from Bonga, says the Italian. Bonga also appreciates his new boss. “There is a lot of communication,” he says, “the collaboration is very good.” He also has no problems with the well-known impulsive nature of the Italian: “He demands a lot, sometimes it’s not that easy, he works in great detail and pays attention to many small things.” And anyway: “I’d rather have a coach who yells at me than one who doesn’t even pay attention to me. That shows me that he appreciates me.”
It’s going to be loud again in Berlin, you can already say that, and Bonga of course knows about the rivalry between the two German heavyweights. But for him it is a game like any other: “And I want to win it like any other.”