Pen in hand and under press conference lights, 10-year NBA veteran Bonzi Wells on Friday signed on to be the head men’s basketball coach at LeMoyne-Owen College and made it clear that he is “ready to get to work.”
That work, according to Wells, is to win and to get his players to “understand what they are here for. … Education is the most important thing. Like I told them in my meeting, I wouldn’t be up here right now if it wasn’t for the education, me getting my diploma, getting my degree. Getting your education is everything. I want to preach that to them.
“If they do something after college in basketball, that’s icing on top of the cake.”
LeMoyne-Owen College President Dr. Vernell Bennett-Fairs set the tone for the introduction of Wells, who played for the Memphis Grizzlies from 2003-05 under coach Hubie Brown after being traded from Portland.
“We are confident that Mr. Wells’ work ethic, his career, his example will be fabulous for our students,” said Bennett-Fairs. “We’re very excited to see what he brings to LeMoyne-Owen College (LOC).”
Bennett-Fairs still is relatively new at the helm of LOC, taking over as president last January. She framed the hiring of Wells as “adding to the magic” that is happening on the South Memphis campus of the only HBCU (historically black college and universities) in Memphis.
New LOC Athletic Director William B. Anderson, the former men’s basketball coach, said the hiring of Wells was the next step in Bennett-Fairs’ vision and plan for the college.
“During our interview process Bonzi separated himself quite well (from the ‘many’ other candidates) with his vision,” said Anderson. “His vision lined up exactly with what our president is looking for: How he wants to impact student-athletes’ lives and help them beyond basketball.”
Anderson, who had coached the men’s basketball since 2009, succeeded Clint Jackson, who retired as athletic director earlier this year. He also had served as athletic director before Jackson was named to the position in 2013.
Bennett-Fairs’ vision for LOC’s sports programs mirrors her next-level vision for the college overall and “there was no way I could do both,” Anderson said of serving as coach and athletic director.
Wells, said Anderson, is “a role model. His career is something they (players) can look at and aspire to be. He can really share life experiences with them that can help them grow, not only here at LeMoyne-Owen College, but become the leaders that we would like for them to be in our community.”
Wells, who has no college-level, head-coaching experience, said, “This is just big for me, big for my family. We don’t take this lightly. …
“It’s going to be a tough job … learning a lot of stuff on the fly. Everything is happening fast for me, but ever since I’ve been around here, I just see this family atmosphere. And everybody has treated me like family. I feel like I’m back home again.
Wells said he met Anderson a few months ago during the Allen Iverson Basketball Classic that was held at Bartlett High School. His agent connected him with Anderson and University of Memphis head men’s basketball coach Penny Hardaway “and it just became a conversation.
“It just started like that. We didn’t know how far we were going to take it.”
During the Iverson Classic, Wells coached against his former Portland teammate Rasheed Wallace. The two have a podcast called “Let’s Get Technical,” with Hardaway having appeared as a guest last spring.
Wallace was set to become the head coach at LOC, with Wells to be his assistant. However, according to Wells, Hardaway convinced Wallace to join him as an assistant at the UofM, opening the head-coaching lane at LOC.
“I’ve always been a Memphis guy since I got traded down here,” Wells said. “I’ve always had connections down here. … I’m very excited to be here. I’ve got my brother Rasheed Wallace down here as well. … We’re very excited to entrench ourselves into the Memphis culture and do what we do. We’re here to win games. We’re here to create some great student-athletes. … That’s what it’s all about.”
With candor and in response to a question, Wells said when he joined the Grizzlies in 2003 he was “coming from a tough situation in Portland … My name probably wasn’t the best. Everybody thought I was this crazy person. And when I got to Memphis nobody cared about that. … They allowed me to be me.”
Wells said whenever he has been in Memphis it has been like family.
“I never had a problem in Memphis. Everybody has always showed me love. They appreciated me; they appreciated the way I played. And that’s what it’s all about. My job now is to hand that over to the kids. I want the people in the community talking about how hard our kids play. …
“It’s full circle and I am very excited.”
Wells referenced “the trend around the country” regarding former professional athletes taking on positions at HBCUs. For example, this year’s South Heritage Classic will feature Hall of Famers Deion Sanders and Eddie George coaching HBCU rivals Jackson State University and Tennessee State University.
“The way the world is changing, it’s HBCUs’ time,” said Wells. “We’ve promoted these other colleges that are not HBCUs long enough. So now it’s time to get the revenue and all that stuff directed to the HBCUs. We need to get all the media attention.
“Like I told them in my interview process, I’ll use any type of celebrity I have to get attention to the HBCUs. From Deion Sanders and all the other guys, professional athletes that went to these schools, we’re going to use every ounce of our celebrity to make sure our schools are on the map and they are talking about us daily on the ESPNs, the FoxSports and all those things,” said Wells.
“We need to be in those type of conversations every week.”
- For the record, the full name of LOC’s new men’s head basketball coach is Gawen DeAngelo Wells, aka Bonzi.
- Wells was a two-time Mid-American Conference Player of the Year while playing for Ball State. He was the 11th pick in the 1998 NBA draft, with the Detroit Pistons trading him to Portland on draft day.
- LOC has only had four coaches in the modern era, with the legendary Jerry Johnson serving for 46 years. Johnson, who died in January at 102, became the first African-American basketball coach to win a Division III national title when LeMoyne-Owen got the job done in 1975.
- Other than LOC’s Magicians, no men’s college basketball program in Tennessee has won an NCAA title. LOC also is the only sports program from Memphis to capture an NCAA championship.
- Circle October 24. That’s the date when Wells and his Magicians are scheduled to take the court at FedExForum for an exhibition game against Hardaway, Wallace and the latest version of the University of Memphis Tigers.
(This story reflects reporting by TSD sports columnist Terry Davis.)