Bulldog Nation

RHS Alumni Lorenzo Bonam Proving Unstoppable



The rest of the Pac-12 is still grasping to understand: Utah’s Lorenzo Bonam is right-handed, but his left hand is lethal.

Among the junior guard’s many gifts — his gazelle-like speed, his slippery drives, his hang-time through the air — his left hand is the one that still surprises. When he hit a high arcing shot over 6-foot-10 Josh Scott to beat Colorado last month, the Buffs were stunned.

“It’s getting to the point where he’s got to get better at going right,” Utah assistant coach DeMarlo Slocum said, chuckling. “You can watch college basketball every night, and you won’t see many guys who can do that. It’s very rare.

Back in Inkster, Mich., sitting in front of the television, Bonam’s family members see the left-handed drives and remember a skinny boy playing on a driveway across the street from his house, trying to score on his brothers who were more than five years older.

Every shot, every drive, Lorenzo would get knocked down. He had to figure it out on his own.

“He had to fool people to get his shot off,” said Marlissa Gambril, Bonam’s aunt. “His brothers told him if he wants to score, he’s gotta earn it. They would play all day until the sun went down, and they’d just keep blocking his shot.”

Now, Bonam is putting that skill to good use. But it’s not the only lesson he’s had to learn to survive.

The softest-spoken member of the Runnin’ Utes has lost people in his life — death took some, prison took others. He’s seen his world go up in smoke. He’s been his own biggest believer at times, and the biggest barrier to his dreams at others.

Playing basketball was a dream that kept Bonam going in the darkest moments, the one solid root that guided his life. And today, he is doing what it takes to keep going — left-handed shots included.


Coach Renny

In Bonam’s “personal” information on Utah’s roster page, one finds only his birthdate. Outside of Michigan, Bonam doesn’t talk much about his past — not even his first coach.

His dad, Lorenzo Bonam Sr. — “Coach Renny,” as he was known throughout Inkster — was the first coach for many would-be ballers in the Detroit suburb of 25,000 people.

Everyone of a certain age who played youth basketball in Inkster knew Lorenzo Sr., and most liked him. He was a big man, around 300 pounds with long frizzy hair that he braided back. He was a tyrant in practice who picked on every mistake, but a laid-back presence during games.

“He always used to say, ‘If the kids didn’t get it in practice, ain’t no sense yellin’ and screamin’ in the game,'” said Craig Lewis, Inkster’s rec center director. “He was really tough on the kids. At the same time, they loved him.”

Lorenzo Jr. paints an idyllic picture: Coach Renny was a military vet who settled down as a stay-at-home dad, cooking meals for his kids and driving them to school. When it was too dark for the boys to play basketball outside, Coach Renny had the keys to the complex gym. His sons could play for hours after dark if they wanted.

Lorenzo Jr. got into basketball early, and he always played with older kids. When he was 8, he played with 9- and 10-year-olds. When he was 10, he played with 12- and 13-year-olds.

“I was just the one running around, didn’t know nothing, just trying to play,” he said.

Coach Renny taught his sons — his stepsons Omar Gambril and Jonathan Gambril were close to him as well — how to be crafty on the court. Anything that got points was permitted, no matter how unconventional: “Go get the bucket,” was a favorite line.

The Bonams have a history of heart problems, and Lorenzo Sr. was overweight. On the sidelines at a game at Inkster High School, Coach Renny suffered a heart attack on Jan. 6, 2007, and died at 45.

Lorenzo Jr. felt robbed.

“When they told me my daddy died, I was hot, I was heated, I was mad,” he said. “That was who I was always with. Through everything.”

It was about to get much worse for the Bonams. And the man who had guided his son through everything wouldn’t be there.


‘Things got tragic’

Over the phone, Jonathan Gambril is warm, open, funny. Even after he volunteers that he went to prison for five years for carjacking, it’s tough to reconcile the crime with the man. If there’s any hardness from his time in prison, he doesn’t reveal it.

It was trying for Jonathan and the family being apart for some of the toughest times in each other’s lives. Jonathan remembers his brother remaining stoic throughout.

“It was a real hard struggle, but I’ve never really seen Lorenzo look down,” Jonathan said. “I never even really seen him cry. He always had a plan.”

Lorenzo Sr.’s death was only the overture for more problems for the family.

Only a year afterward, Jonathan burned the house down trying to cook chicken. No one was hurt: Lorenzo and his sister Dasia were in school, and Jonathan and Yvette Hoilfield, Lorenzo’s mom, escaped the house. But almost all their belongings were gone, and the family didn’t have insurance.

“We were broke after that,” Bonam said. “Things got tragic.”

They moved a lot, in with family members, to bad neighborhoods. Hoilfield worked multiple jobs, and her children often spent time with relatives. Lorenzo also stayed with his friend Robert Crawford, whose own father was a youth coach. The boys became “like brothers,” Crawford said.

Lorenzo’s actual brother, Jonathan, went a different road. When he learned his grades wouldn’t be good enough to play Division I basketball, he left school and, he said, started getting caught up “with the wrong people.” He was arrested in 2009, and didn’t see Lorenzo while he was in prison.

As a ninth grader, Bonam said, he was falling down that path as well. He didn’t like school, so he cut class. He didn’t do his homework.

His brother’s arrest helped change his behavior, but so did another realization: He wanted to play basketball, and he wanted to leave his hometown. Inkster was racked by the recession at the time, and Bonam didn’t see his future there.

“I started going to school happy,” he said. “I figured if I just laughed at everything, everything would be all right. I could just deal with it. We were all just basically trying to make it out.”

In basketball, he needed help, too. While his talent made him a prospect, he couldn’t always afford to travel. Hoilfield remembers when an AAU coach told an excited Lorenzo he could join if he had $300. Hoilfield — who earned the nickname “Mama Dukes” for her willingness to pick battles — gave the coach an earful.

“I was so mad,” she said. “I said, ‘Why would you send my child home with these ideas? Didn’t you know his daddy died and his house burned up? Didn’t you know we don’t have no $300?'”

But those who knew the Bonams were quick to pitch in for the expenses. Local schools, many of which stocked teams with Coach Renny protegés, raised money after the Bonams lost their house. Many of the fees for Lorenzo’s basketball exploits were covered by donations or loans from neighbors.

“I think a lot of people in the community saw a special talent,” Lewis said. “They didn’t want what happened to his brother to happen to him.”


Out of Inkster

The Utes first saw Bonam as a high school star at Robichaud High in Inkster. He was an intriguing prospect, Slocum said, a great athlete with a clear understanding of the game. But one look at his grades gave away that he wasn’t going to qualify for the Division I level.

Bonam didn’t get discouraged. He decided to go to Gillette Junior College in Wyoming, a program that would take him outside of his comfort zone in a predominantly white mining town in a state where Bonam had never been.

For the Pronghorns, basketball was easy: From the moment he stepped on the court, assistant coach Nick Carter knew, he was “different.” Even on a team with several double-digit scorers, Bonam was the focal point that helped Gillette win 58 games in two years, earning All-American status as a sophomore.

Classes were tougher. Carter, who is an attorney, said his impression was that Bonam hadn’t seen much of a template for classroom success. He tried to impress upon Bonam that his education would be the tool that set him up for long-term success.

The lesson clicked, especially when Bonam visited Inkster, and saw others he knew had already dropped out of college.

“There’s just a lot of negative people back there,” he said. “Just a lot of people who will tell you, ‘You gonna be back here with us.’ I didn’t want that for myself.”

Bonam first signed with Southern Miss, where he was told he would be “one of those dudes” who could help propel the team to the next level. He was spooked when the program faced NCAA sanctions, and was released from his letter of intent.

The Utes, who had recruited him since his Robichaud days, stood out for their level of academic support. He felt like the hands-on help would be critical to finishing a degree. Slocum helped sell the pitch: Utah would be a safe place.

Halfway through his second semester pursuing a sociology degree, Bonam becomes animated when talking about one of his favorite classes, which examines inequality along racial, gender and economic lines.

“When you’ve been through what he’s been through, you’re not afraid of a challenge,” Slocum said. “Our whole idea was to bring him into our environment and help him create some successful habits. He’s been able to take advantage of all that.”


Making his own name

This past December, Jonathan made a 10-hour trek from his home in Michigan to New York City. He was approved to go by his parole officer, but he wouldn’t have missed it for the world either way.

His little brother didn’t disappoint: Bonam had 12 points and nine assists in a 77-75 overtime win over Duke, Jonathan’s favorite childhood team. The brothers reunited for the first time since Jonathan got out of prison last August, sharing dinner together, then enjoying some time with the rest of the Utes. Jonathan stayed into the wee hours of morning, then caught a ride back to go to work the following afternoon.

“It was a short window,” he said, “but I had to take it.”

Bonam is single-handedly adding to Pac-12 Networks’ footprint in Inkster: Lewis said he got the channel just to watch the Utes play. Others have caught him on ESPN, playing the same fast-paced, intuitive style he did in Inkster.

While Inkster shows Bonam love, he maintains a complicated relationship with his hometown. He hasn’t been back to Michigan in a year and a half. When the holidays came around, he opted to spend it with Jordan Loveridge’s family (who was happy to entertain him). Utah seems to be his home now — a sentiment illustrated when Bonam ordered a custom-made shirt with a picture of the team plastered across the back.

Which is not to say he’s turned his back on his family: He regularly talks to his brothers, his mother and some of his old friends — including Crawford, who is now at Vermillion College.

Still, Bonam does have a trip planned. He wants to visit Michigan shortly before the Pac-12 Tournament. When he gets there, he knows Jonathan will be waiting. It’s been almost seven years since they’ve gone to the old court, playing one-on-one.

He expects it to go differently than it used to. So does everyone else. It’s hard to see how anyone can stand between Bonam and something he wants anymore.

“I don’t know if I want to play him this time,” Jonathan said. “I might just tell him I want to stay undefeated.”


Twitter: @kylegoon


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