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Finally playing with same age, Bona takes leadership role in quest for podium top step
UDINE (Italy) - Adem Bona faced older players in three national team competitions over the last 14 months. Finally playing in his own age group at the FIBA U16 European Championship 2019, the Turkey center is taking on a leadership role in his quest to reach the top step of the podium.
Bona has been the standout player on a well-balanced Turkey team in Udine as he averaged 13.0 points, 11.0 rebounds and 4.3 blocks. Not bad for someone who only practiced with the team two days before coming to Italy.
"These guys show so much love to me, especially with things I don't know. We are building good chemistry. I am adjusting really well to them," Bona said.
The 6ft 9in (2.06m) big man arrived with the U16 team right at the end of the Turkish training camp after playing at the FIBA U18 European Championship 2019, which ended on August 4. The 2003-born Bona was playing in a competition for 2001-born players, but that didn't stop him from averaging 4.9 points, 5.7 rebounds and 1.7 blocks as Turkey grabbed the silver medal, losing to Spain in the Final.
"It was a huge experience and a huge pleasure to play with guys two years older and bigger than me. I learned a lot - like leadership and teamwork. The U18 team really had great chemistry," Bona said. "There were so many tough guys there, who beat you up left and right. That was the toughest part for me."
And now in Udine, Bona is the one dishing out the beat-down, smiling and saying: "Now I have to do it here, it's payback."
Adem Bona went up against players older and bigger than him in Volos
But Bona is also trying to pass along some of that chemistry and leadership he learned from Volos.
"I am trying to lead them down the right road. I am trying to make them understand that it's not a one-player team. It's a 12-player team. Not even, you also have the coaches. Everyone works together to achieve a goal. So I try to make the team go together down one path. The easiest way is not always the best way. You learn the hard way. That's the best way. We work hard and have big dreams," he said.
Bona's big dreams did not always include basketball. He only took up the game in late 2015 after playing football as a youngster in Nigeria. It was on a football pitch in Lagos where the tall midfielder was spotted.
"I was the team captain. One guy saw me and saw how tall I was and asked if I play basketball. I said, no I play football. He asked if I wanted to try basketball and I said I don't know," Bona recalled.
The man asked Bona where he lived and they went to talk to his mother about him playing basketball. And that's how it started.
"WE STARTED WITH BRONZE; WE STEPPED UP TO SILVER; AND WHAT'S NEXT AFTER SILVER? IT'S GOLD. SO WE HAVE A BIG TARGET."
Bona played only about a year in Nigeria before Turkish coach Turkay Cakiroglu was contacted about this intriguing youngster in Lagos. He ended up coming to Turkey in late 2016 - alone at the age of 13, leaving behind his mother and four older siblings - his father having passed away when Bona was a baby.
"It was a big experience. I had to leave my family when I came to Turkey and was training for six months before I saw my mom, who then came to Turkey," he said. "It was a little bit hard but it was fun because I was playing basketball."
In April 2018, Bona received his Turkish passport, which also saw a name change, going from his original Ikechukwu Stanley Okoro to his current name.
Having now switched his name, Bona had long swapped sports - though he still loves watching football. With that, his role models have also changed to include some basketball players, mainly Ben Wallace and Giannis Antetokounmpo.
"I like Ben Wallace because he was an undersized big guy and he was aggressive all the time," Bona said of the former big man who was best remembered for helping the Detroit Pistons win an NBA title. "He would take on guys bigger than him. He made defense fun for basketball. Before Ben Wallace there wasn't much fun on defense in basketball. He made it fun. That's why I like him."
And Antetokounmpo seems like an absolute given as a role model for Bona given the talent and skillset and that the Greece star's family hails from Nigeria. "It's a big inspiration. I watch a lot of Giannis videos. I watched his life story. It's an inspiration to me," Bona said.
Just two months after he switched names, Bona was on a plane to Argentina to play for his new homeland at the FIBA U17 Basketball World Cup 2018.
"It was my first tournament. I was new to international basketball. It was a great experience for me. I saw foreign players playing with different styles and at different levels," he said.
Just like in Volos earlier this summer, Bona was two years younger than the other players. And that combined with his being new to the international game meant he did not get a lot of minutes on the court.
"I really did not play a lot of minutes but I learned a lot. My physical level was not very good back then so I had to work on it. And I saw I had a lot of deficiencies. So I had to work on them," said Bona, who averaged 1.4 points, 2.3 rebounds and 1.4 blocks in 8.5 minutes as Turkey finished fifth.
Bona had another taste of international action just four weeks later at the FIBA U16 European Championship 2018. Playing only one year younger, he averaged 2.3 points, 5.7 rebounds and 1.3 blocks in the tournament in helping Turkey to third place.
Another top-five showing in Udine would get Bona back to the U17 World Cup, something which he is really targeting for 2020 in Bulgaria.
"I would be so glad to play in the World Cup again. The first time I went there I didn't really play at all. I will try my best to get there and I will prove myself," he said.
Of course, the goal in Udine is bigger.
Adem Bona (3rd from left) after taking second place at FIBA U18 European Championship 2019
"I say it's like a line: we started with the bronze (at last year's U16 European tournament); we stepped up to the silver (at this year's U18 European event); and what's next after silver? It's gold. So we have a big target. We are fighting so hard for the gold, and I believe in my teammates that we will do it together."
Thanks also to Bona finally playing at his own age group.