PULLMAN – Isaac Bonton’s basketball schedule is conflicting with his basketball schedule.
There’s an obligation Saturday night at USC’s Galen Center. There’s another one Sunday morning in the Tri-Cities.
Bound by his athletic scholarship at Washington State, the Cougars’ starting point guard has to prioritize one over the other, but spending just five minutes with Bonton at an evening practice for the AAU Pullman Titans at Lincoln Middle School, it’s inherently clear why he’s in this pickle.
The Cougars (14-10, 5-6 Pac-12) play the USC Trojans (17-7, 6-5) at 5 p.m. Saturday. The Titans turn around and play the next morning in central Washington.
When he’s not a floor general for Kyle Smith’s Cougars, when he’s not a Washington State junior balancing academic duties and a social life, Bonton’s an assistant coach for the eighth-grade, Pullman-based AAU team.
“Associate head coach,” Bonton clarifies with a smirk.
If his travel schedule somehow allows it, WSU’s second-leading scorer will get off an airplane in Spokane on Sunday, hop in a car and ignore the speed limit so he can catch the Titans’ final game at the 3 Cities Clash tournament. Even when the team’s head coach, Gabby Rodriguez, assured Bonton it was OK if he was absent, the WSU guard didn’t budge and guaranteed he’d make an effort to be on the Titans’ bench.
“I instantly made it a priority in my schedule, with practices and everything,” Bonton said. “I have all that to do, but I’m right here. This is like a second practice to me. It’s just important as getting to my practices, because I want to show up every day as much as I can for these kids.”
When Bonton switched majors, from sociology to general education, a WSU adviser encouraged him to enroll in a practicum course that would allow him to receive credit for coaching. The adviser pointed him toward Rodriguez, who has coached this group of players since most were in the fourth grade.
Various WSU basketball players have dropped in to speak or help out – Robert Franks last year, Malachi Flynn the year before and Klay Thompson nearly a decade ago – but Rodriguez said none has been as engaged as Bonton, who’ll satisfy his credit requirement soon but vows to volunteer his time through the remainder of the season.
“As long as they let me here,” Bonton said. “I’m going to definitely be here the rest of the season. Next year, coming back hopefully, I can be right back here from the start this time. I literally want to be involved as much as I can.”
Here’s a glimpse of that. The Titans were originally scheduled this week to practice Monday, Wednesday and Thursday. Knowing the Cougars would be traveling to Los Angeles Wednesday afternoon, Bonton and the team agreed to practice Tuesday night so he could get one final session with them before leaving for a two-game Pac-12 road trip.
During the approximately 1 1/2-hour practice, Bonton, wearing a dark gray shirt and crimson beanie, captured their attention whenever he spoke. Rodriguez has spent years drilling the Titans on different topics, but he’s found many of the same lessons can be more impactful when they come from another mouth, and players are likely to give their full attention to someone they see on national television every week.
“I think they look at me now in that parent role, like it’s coach or it’s mom or dad talking to me,” Rodriguez said. “But now that he’s here, he’s the cool guy, obviously. He’s young and he’s obviously on the (WSU) team. He’s the starting point guard, he’s visible and they’re able to see him. I think the coolest thing is now he’s accessible to them and they can ask those questions, and they do.”
Rodriguez gives Bonton the autonomy to lead various drills throughout practice. He’s designed some himself and pulled others from his personal library. The Portland native played at two high schools, Parkrose and Columbia Christian, and three colleges later, he’s found a prime landing spot at WSU with Kyle Smith. Not only has he gathered plenty of intel about the game, through playing under five coaches, he’s found a constructive way to deliver it to an impressionable group of middle-school athletes.
“Get back, get back.”
“Hey, we’ve got to block out.”
“I like it Nez, I like it Nez.”
“What do we talk about during this drill? Communication and boxing out.”
“Take care of it, take care of it. We’re sloppy.”
During one specific drill, Bonton split the group into three lines and instructed them to drop into a low stance. Players were supposed to dribble with their left hand while simultaneously focusing on Bonton, who flashed a certain number of fingers on his right hand. While maintaining their dribble, the players were instructed to repeat the number of fingers.
“One! Five! Four! Three! Two! One! Five! One!”
Amid the chorus of bouncing basketballs, a few players blurted out the wrong number, prompting Bonton to crack, “Ya’ll boys need to go to math class. You’re out here skipping math class. Skipping math class.” Then he smiles: “I’m just playing.”
Smith, the first-year WSU coach who convinced Bonton to transfer from Casper (Wyoming) College, wasn’t aware of his point guard’s involvement with the Titans until Sunday evening. In the wake of the Cougars’ 79-67 rivalry win over Washington, Bonton was frantically packing up his things so he could make Pullman’s 6 p.m. championship game against Colfax.
“I was pretty impressed. He did it on his own, he was volunteering his time,” Smith said. “… I think one of the moms said, ‘This is why we live in Pullman.’ After they just watched him play a game, then he’s out there coaching a 13-year-old team. It’s great.”
Hours after the UW game, Bonton retweeted photos of him posing with the Titans, who each had a championship medal draped around their neck. Caleb Northcroft, a guard for the middle-school AAU club, is a ball boy at WSU, so he made a similar jaunt from Beasley Coliseum to Lincoln Middle School on Sunday evening.
“I think it’s good,” Northcroft said. “Making the time for us, to come with us, it really means a lot.”
Northcroft explained he was “kind of starstruck” the first time Bonton showed up at Titans practice.
“Having someone like that in such a small town,” Northcroft said, “he’s really big to everybody.”
Bonton’s impact on the Titans doesn’t stop as soon as he arrives in the gym. This weekend, he noticed a hitch in Northcroft’s free-throw motion – something Rodriguez had been tinkering with for weeks – and made a small fix.
“I think he hit all of his free throws this weekend,” Rodriguez said. “… Some of these kids, the smallest piece of advice that’s constructive, they feel better about what they’re doing.”
“It’s obvious he loves being around the kids,” said Northcroft’s father, Marty, a former WSU athlete who’s an assistant athletic director for marketing at the University of Idaho. “… I think it’s good for them to hear a different voice, somebody that they see play and they know what he’s capable of. He can talk to them about little things and help them improve their game.”
Near the end of Monday’s practice, Bonton gave each player a printout with “three questions to ask yourself every night.”
1) What did I do today to better myself?
2) What did I do today to better those around me?
3) Would the choices I made today make my loved ones proud?
At the bottom of the sheet, he included a Pelé quote: “Success is no accident. It is hard work, perseverance, learning, studying, sacrifice and most of all, love what you are doing or learning to do.”
Bonton also recited a story about Kobe Bryant, work ethic and repetition, urging players to find time outside of allotted practice hours to sharpen their skills – as the late Los Angeles Laker famously did throughout a decorated NBA career.
“I think they’re more excited for practice. It’s not so mundane, it’s a little bit of extra excitement into it,” said Dennis Wilson, whose son, Cody, plays point guard for the Titans. “He brings a lot to the table, too, of just the knowledge. They know to listen to him. He’s there right now. … They look at him in his eyes and they listen to him.”
At the same age, Bonton took his cues from Division I basketball players at the University of Portland, who’d host the Portland Pilot youth camps he and a friend attended. The WSU guard feels obligated to use his platform and share his knowledge in a similar manner, though he doesn’t want public praise for doing it, which is why Bonton was initially uncomfortable with the media attention his volunteer work received after the social media post from Sunday’s championship.
That’s also why Bonton didn’t agree to speak to reporters about his role with the Titans until he broached the topic with players at Monday’s practice, and got a thumbs-up.
Because, for the player who’s dishing out four assists per game at WSU – eighth best in the Pac-12 – Bonton gets as much gratification from teaching the fundamentals of passing as he does shoveling the ball to CJ Elleby in the open court.
“One thing with basketball, it’s done so much for me in my life,” he said. “It’s always been there through all the rough times and everything. I’ve always felt this was my sanctuary and where I could just free my mind and just love the game. That’s what I want to do with these kids. It’s a great experience to come out here and just give back to them. I just always want to give back.”
Before players scattered from the gym Tuesday night, they huddled around their assistant coach for a parting message. Bonton may not see the Titans until next week, so he’s hopeful his words instill confidence and reaffirm the lessons he’s taught leading into Saturday’s tournament.
“I like the focus,” Bonton said, addressing the group. “Nez, I’m proud of you. Way to pick it up. You picked it up quick. That means he’s paying attention, that means he’s focused. That’s got to rub off on the rest of us. I thought Ian played the hardest. I think Ian and Nez played the hardest today. I think they were locked in, competing hard. You guys all want to step up to that level. Anytime you see a guy working harder than you, you just want to naturally pick it up. Everybody. That’s just going to raise the level, raise the level for our whole team, our whole program.”
Bonton will be glued to his phone this weekend, expecting a stream of text updates from Rodriguez when the Titans finish.
“I just want to see the kids grow,” Bonton said. “I’ll never take these relationships for granted and I’ll be here, wide open, regardless of basketball or not, for these kids, for the rest of their lives.
“It’s a lot bigger than basketball to me.”
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