On Tuesday afternoons you'll likely find Vashon High School basketball coach Anthony Bonner at the library. While his Wolverines work on an after-school class in entrepreneurship, Bonner sits to the side with a book open and highlighter in hand. Last week's oeuvre? Napoleon Hill's Keys to Success: The 17 Principles of Personal Achievement. "Somebody once told me," says the 39-year-old Vashon alum, "that you can go farther in the world with a library card than with a driver's license."
Bonner has already journeyed far and wide. He was Mr. Show-Me Basketball (the state's top player) in 1986; Saint Louis University's career leader in points (1,972), rebounds (1,424) and steals (192); a six-year veteran of the NBA, with tours through the Sacramento Kings, the Orlando Magic and the New York Knicks — not to mention globe-trotting stints for European and Caribbean professional teams.
It's a million-dollar résumé, one that resulted in the hometown hero's jerseys being retired at Vashon and SLU. To Bonner, though, his basketball glories are not especially what he'd like to be remembered for. "You know, I tell my friends that on my tombstone, or vault, or whatever it ends up being, the very last thing it will say — in very small print — is 'professional basketball player.' Above that, in much bigger fonts, there'll be 50 other things."
"Poet," "entrepreneur" and "motivational speaker," Bonner hopes, will be a few words among them. He says he's developing a motivational products company and expects to publish several books of his own poetry within the next year. He already claims the title of "coach," though his legacy is long from being determined. Says Bonner: "I do not yet have the relationship with these kids that I long to have."
It was only a few weeks before the 2006 basketball season began that Vashon's most successful player was tapped to replace the storied Floyd Irons, the third most victorious high school coach in state history and the man Vashon's fiercely loyal alumni still call "The Master."
"A lot of coaches said they wouldn't even think of applying for the job," observes Soldan International Studies High School boys' basketball coach Justin Tatum. "But Bonner is a strong guy, mentally and physically. He wasn't going to let anything get to him."
At the first pre-season meeting Bonner convened in 2006, the Wolverines' parents held court for several hours, complaining about Irons' ouster. Bonner says the criticism continued all season. The team's heartbreaking one-point loss in the state championship sectionals last year further fueled the ire. "Everywhere I go," says assistant coach Tony Walters, "I hear, 'Vashon is losing because Floyd Irons isn't there.'"
Bonner is now in his second season and many of Irons' former players have either graduated or transferred to other schools. A set of tawny streaks marks the spot where "Irons' Court" was once painted on the gym floor, but has since been removed. The stands are no longer filled to capacity — yet another sign that Irons' era is over. "At the end of the day," laments Bonner, "most people that come to the games are not coming to see us because we're successful. When we are, a great number of people are deflated."
Bonner says he was once "great friends" with Irons, but that they have not spoken since he became coach. "Maybe one day his stance will change and we will get to talk. But I still admire and respect him, and will always be in his debt."
The six-foot-six son of a cabdriver didn't make Irons' varsity team until his junior year, and even then he did not log many minutes on the court. (During his freshman year, Bonner was kicked out early on for missing a tryout and played on the B-team in his sophomore year.) Then came the summer of "metamorphosis," as Bonner calls it, of playing ball by day, jumping rope and running through Barrett Brothers Park in north St. Louis at night. It was the memorable senior year when he became a starter and captured the Mr. Show-Me crown.
"To go on and have the career that I did at SLU and beyond, I credit God for that," says Bonner. The practicing Baptist has sought as much guidance from his pastor as from his SLU coach, Rich Grawer, since taking over the Wolverines. Some fans may remember that Grawer and Bonner's mother, Rosetta, flanked Bonner when Veronica O'Brien of the St. Louis Public School Board of Education announced his hiring at a tense press conference on October 16, 2006.
Bonner has instituted many changes — some sweeping, others subtle. He permits the boys to play football in the fall. He also holds open tryouts. Teachers must sign forms attesting to the players' homework status and whether they are tardy to class. Bonner, who works out regularly, has also challenged each Wolverine to a one-on-one match. Undefeated so far, he says it's a way of showing the players they should listen to a near fortysomething who's still got game.
The coach enrolled the Wolverines in an after-school program in which they create their own company and sell a product (wristbands and T-shirts, for example) to learn business principles. And they will soon become Big Brothers to students at a nearby school as part of the Big Brothers Big Sisters of Eastern Missouri program.
With the help of volunteer assistants Tony Walters and Antonio Campbell, both mid-'80s graduates of Vashon, Bonner says, he's trying to teach the students that there's more to life than basketball. "We are different [from Irons' staff] in that we don't necessarily want the best basketball players on our team. We want the best young men who are willing to help themselves." College — not the NBA — has to be the ultimate goal, adds Bonner.
Senior Errol Isom says that wearing a Wolverines jersey is a big responsibility and that last season's changes ratcheted up the pressure. "We didn't want to let anyone down," Isom says. "But by Coach Bonner sticking with us, we've gotten over that. He could have easily given up. It's made us stronger. We're bonding nicely now."
The Wolverines went 20-7 during the 2006-2007 season, won the Public High League title and advanced to the state tournament. This year they are 13-7 to date. They won't win the PHL title outright, but could finish in a three-way tie with Gateway High School and Soldan. District tournaments begin February 18.
"This year's team is better because they don't rely on one great player like Leon Powell," says Bonner, referring to a 2007 Vashon graduate. "Each one has to do his part every night if they want to win."
Bonner insists that the losses offer constructive lessons for his team, and that's a point he's trying to hammer home with the underclassmen, especially this second semester, when four of his players became ineligible.
"You see the disappointment in their eyes. It's this total draining of energy," he says. "You're trying to tell a kid his life is not over — it's just begun, because he's just learned a lesson right there — but you know he's not going to get the lesson right then."