Bookmark and Share Email this page Email Print this page Print

Anthony Bonner

Basketball Coach, Vashon High School

By Hal Bush
Photograph by Pete Newcomb

Anthony Bonner, arguably the best and most successful pro-basketball player to come from Saint Louis University, veteran of 16 years of pro ball in the NBA and overseas, now sits in a cramped, windowless office next to a gymnasium filled with shouting students. At 38, Bonner is starting fresh—and he compares his new life to “walking into a situation with gasoline underwear.”

His predecessor, Floyd Irons, commanded the basketball program at powerhouse Vashon High School for 33 years, producing 10 state titles and numerous Division Iplayers—including Bonner himself. Irons is an even bigger local legend than Bonner, but his mythic status has taken some hits lately. The former coach’s tenure at Vashon was dotted with various charges of misbe-havior and autocratic control, as well as misappropriation of funds. Both the allegations and the accomplishments make Irons a tough act to follow, and Bonner thought long and hard about accepting Vashon’s offer—then accepted the challenge.

Which mentors have had the biggest impact on your own career? Coach Irons opened the doorway for me to excel. Coach Rich Grawer, at SLU, demanded even more of me, to prepare me for something that I did not even know was possible: becoming a professional. And Coach Pat Riley, in New York, showed me a level of organization and professionalism, and a demanding presence, that have been unequaled since then.

Can you talk about your coaching style? I am a cooperative coach. I want to give an athlete the freedom to use all of his or her abilities—and the assurance to do that.

What are the biggest challenges, coming into Vashon? These are not my kids. I am earning their trust, and they are earning my trust. I have to be vulnerable, open up. I’m not naïve enough to think that supporters of Coach Irons want this to work, so it’s an everyday challenge, trying to let the kids know that I genuinely want to help them. I did not create this situation, and neither did the kids; we all inherited it.

What did Coach Irons mean to Vashon? And how did the players and coaches handle that loss? In the beginning, they fought me tooth and nail, but now they are coming around—partly because I have had to take some actions, like sending the whole team out of practice to discipline them. Coach Irons put this school on the map, in terms of excellence. He set a standard that we all feel the pressure to live up to. They are starting to learn that if they don’t give it their all, they are actually letting down generations of great teams here at Vashon.

What makes a good coach? Adaptability. Players change from year to year; the team’s personality changes. You need to believe in your system—you run it and run it, until it’s like tying your shoes every day. Athletes are looking for a good teacher who is consistent and who genuinely cares about them.

What is the best part of your job? You’ve put the time in to practice, and finally there is that moment of clarity, and they say, “Wow!” and start to believe in what you have been teaching them.

What is the worst part of your job? Discipline. It’s never fun to take something away from a kid that he genuinely loves, and they do love basketball—but sometimes you do that to get them to see the bigger picture.

You are executive director of community outreach for the entire school district. What does that involve? Solidifying and enhancing new relationships between the district and private organizations. It’s very rewarding. There are many people out in the community who genuinely want to help, and they have programs they can bring in that won’t cost the schools a dime, and that can help equip these kids for success.

What do you want people to know about you and Vashon’s basketball program? We’re heading in a new direction. I’m trying to raise the bar, expecting more in character development, ethical behavior, everything. I’m a very spiritual man. We were put here and given experiences in order to share them. I lived 10 years in Europe, and it teaches you to live outside the box. These kids need to know that there’s more to life than Vashon High School. I’m still learning. That’s part of the journey.