Noie: Pro ball far from NBA still pro ball for former Notre Dame standout Bonzie Colson

Tom Noie
ND Insider

Living the life that so few professional basketball players get to live — in the NBA with its charter flights and five-star hotels and state-of-the-art arenas and highest-level hoops— remains the dream of former Notre Dame power forward Bonzie Colson.

But chase it any cost? Not anymore.

Colson got a taste of NBA life in 2018-19 with eight games as a member of the now World Champion Milwaukee Bucks. He had his own stall with his name and number in the team locker room at Fiserv Forum. He rode charter fights with former Irish teammate and close friend and Bucks guard Pat Connaughton. He practiced against two-time league most valuable player Giannis Antetokounmpo. He had the team tell him that they believed in him, that he had a future with them. They developed him, played him some minutes, insisted that there was something there long term.

Bonzie Colson helped Notre Dame win the Maui Jim Maui Invitational - and rocket to No. 5 in the national polls - in November 2017.

Until someone else came along, maybe someone better or with more potential or whatever the case. When it became short term, Colson understood that pro basketball is a business. And to play pro basketball, it’s most important to handle your business.

That’s what Colson did when he set out to play professionally in Turkey. He spent one year there (2019-20), then another in France (this past one) when he learned that just because you’re not in the NBA and everything that comes with that doesn’t mean that you stop being what you better be — a pro.

A pro doesn’t mean playing in Los Angeles or New York or on TNT or ESPN. A pro means going to work every day dedicated to your game, your team, your career, your craft. Your why. A pro can just as easily play in Turkey or France or any number of high-quality professional leagues overseas.

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That NBA dream? It’s still there, but kind of also not there.

“I didn’t watch much of the NBA,” Colson said last week from his hometown of New Bedford, Mass. “I still love that game, but it’s just a game. I was focused on myself. I want to do whatever I can be to be successful where I’m at.”

That means working. Always. When Colson vacationedearlier in July in Arizona, he often found a court. Even though he leaves again in the middle of this month for his new overseas pro stop, Colson refused to rest.

“I work hard; I’m always in the gym,” Colson said. “I’m putting extra work in. It’s paying off for me.”

It paid off this past season when the 25-year-old Colson averaged a team-best 18.1 points and 5.1 rebounds (second best) with 2.0 assists in 29.2 minutes (second best) over 35 games for Sig Strasbourg in the Pro A (high level) League in France. In 14 Basketball Champions League contests, Colson also averaged team highs for points (18.1) and rebounds (5.9) in 29.6 minutes.

Colson did it all while dealing with pandemic life, which in France, was difficult. Arenas didn’t always have fans. Restaurants were closed. Grocery stores were only sometimes open. Colson spent a lot of time in his apartment on FaceTime with family back home. The country’s lock down in November extended the season even more. He was gone for nearly 11 months and didn’t get home until late June.

The hurdles were huge, but it made Colson realize how much he loves the game.

“You have to put all those things aside and hoop,” he said. “You’ve got to find your reason why you’re playing the game at the end of the day.”

Former Notre Dame power forward Bonzie Colson doesn't much follow the NBA, doesn't wonder what might have been after brief stints in Cleveland and Milwaukee.

A force in France

Playing in France didn’t mean that Colson would become fluent in French. Enough of his teammates and coaches spoke English that there was no language barrier. So speak it? Well…

“I didn’t learn anything,” he said. “I wasn’t going to worry about that. That wasn’t one of my priorities. My main priority was winning and doing work. Everything else would come after that.”

Doing work allowed Colson to earn most valuable player honors in both the Pro A and BCL leagues. He wasn’t just good. He was MVP good.

“It was a good system that allowed me to be a force,” Colson said. “I just played my game. Guys trusted me. It was over after that. That was all she wrote.”

A year like that in a league like that for anyone and they often can write their NBA ticket. Several teams showed interest in Colson, who also spent time with Cleveland before focusing his career overseas.

Come to summer league this month in Las Vegas and maybe something works out, Colson was told. A year or two or three ago — and definitely when Colson was coming off a twice-broken left foot suffered his senior season at Notre Dame — and he would’ve jumped at those offers. Those chances.

Now? Nah.

Take a summer-league offer and for one reason or another, it doesn’t work out. Then all the roster spots in the good leagues, the most competitive leagues, around Europe are all gone. Then what?

“I really didn’t want to play summer league, honestly, kind of waiting for something to happen or waiting to see what other teams will do,” Colson said. “If I played in summer league, you never really know what could happen after that.

“You want to go to a team that wants you.”

For the 2021-22 season, that team is Pinar Karsiyana back where Colson began his overseas career in Turkey. One of the team’s coaches has a son who played with Colson during his previous Turkey trip with Darussafaka. He also has a former Darussafaka teammate who plays for Karsiyana, so the fit, well, fit.

“I had a great offer from this team,” he said. “I really didn’t want to lose this opportunity.”

Lose an opportunity to keep showing what he can do and keep evolving with his game. Watch the 6-foot-6 Colson play now, he insists, and he scarcely resembles the guy he was in college. He’s not as bulky (he’s listed at 226 pounds after playing his senior year over 2017-18 closer to 230) and he’s not really a power forward, though he still showcases the skills around the low post that allowed him to finish his college career with a maniacal/machine-like 34 career double doubles.

“I’m still killing dudes in the post; I still have that in my bag,” Colson said with a chuckle. “I’ve just extended my game to be a more complete player than I was at Notre Dame.”

That means playing more at small forward. Instead of cementing himself near the hoop, he’s picking and rolling off screens and shooting off the dribble. He’s stepping out and hitting 3s. He attempted 146 3-pointers, third-highest on the team. He shot a team-high 143 free throws, 65 more than any teammate.

He’s more of a basketball player. This past season, his third as a pro, Colson felt as good as he’s felt since his third year at Notre Dame. Everything he did worked. Everything flowed.

“That’s what being a pro is,” he said. “Your college days are over. You’ve got to be able to adjust and find a role for when you become a pro. I’ve done a good job of knowing what I need to do work on.”

And knowing what awaits the following season. Colson already has his sights set on what 2021-22 holds for someone nowhere near satisfied with those dual MVPs. That recognition was nice, but there’s more for him to do.

“Come back the next season and kill it,” Colson said. “That’s my mentality.”

Follow South Bend Tribune and NDInsider columnist Tom Noie on Twitter: @tnoieNDI