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Around the world and back: Jonah Bolden on returning home and basketball expectations ahead
Bolden is back, and ready for a new role with the Kings this season.
After three years away from professional basketball, Jonah Bolden speaks like someone who is ready to reintegrate basketball into his life, albeit from the powerful position of knowing that professional sport is a piece to the puzzle, not the entire picture.
Credit: Sydney Kings
Time away from the game has allowed Bolden to explore off-court ventures, start companies and focus on family. It’s a story that any Australian who has left home to explore an intentional endeavour can understand – the realisation that there is more to life than chasing a profession around the globe. It’s a lesson that transcends basketball. This makes Bolden more relatable than ever, especially now as he finds comfort restarting a professional career at home.
“It’s definitely good to be home,” Bolden told The Pick and Roll recently. “It’s different when you have travelled and having seen the world for what it is and realising there is nothing like home. It’s where you were born and raised.”
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It’s easy to overlook the toll it takes for someone like Bolden to realise his dream of playing in the NBA. His basketball journey began as a junior athlete in the New South Wales regional leagues as a teenager, that led him into the green and gold at the 2013 FIBA U19 World Championship. Bolden then embarked on a journey that saw him gallivant around the globe; prep school stops at Nevada’s Findlay College Prep and New England’s Brewster Academy springboarded Bolden into a collegiate career with the UCLA Bruins in California. He eventually decided to turn professional ahead of schedule, and went European.
Bolden’s professional career accelerated with stops in Serbia’s Košarkaški klub FMP and Israel’s Maccabi Tel Aviv, before his NBA dream was realised in the 2017 draft with the Philadelphia 76ers, followed by a stint with the Phoenix Suns. In actualised terms, Bolden spent each year between 2015 and 2020 playing in different locations, mostly at different levels, and was devoid of any career stability. This is part and parcel of life on the traveling circus of professional sports, albeit a lifestyle that comes with a personal cost that is often overlooked.
I asked Bolden about the lessons he learned about himself, whilst away from the grind of professional basketball.
“Mostly just taking things day by day. It was it was a collaborative decision and different factors led to [stepping away from basketball] which allowed me, for pretty much the first time since I was really young, some actual time to think, to be with myself and realise that it's a total process.
“We're still very young. As much as it doesn’t feels like it, where you’re playing all the time at [age] 23 and 24, you still have miles ahead. It was really being able to take a step back and get a better point of view and see things for how they are. Just a different perspective.”
That “different perspective” Bolden mentions permeates through all facets related to basketball, and his upcoming return to the rigours of being a professional athlete. He acknowledged his journey during our discussion and aptly noted that his well-travelled career offers knowledge that his new teammates can benefit from. By his mid-twenties, Bolden had experienced the upper levels of the global basketball pyramids, and now returns to Australia with a wealth of experience that’s unusual for NBL athletes of his age.
But why return to professional basketball? What are the reasons for Bolden reigniting his career?
Credit: Sydney Kings
“Simply just the itch to come back and play,” Bolden explained. “Growing up playing the game, loving the game and always having love for it. Obviously, at the time, I felt like I couldn't give as much to the game and get back as much as I would like. So coming around to it now, being back in gyms, around people playing and working on myself has got that itch going.”
There is now the reality that basketball is once and again central to Bolden’s professional life. A renewed commitment to the sport has returned him to a familiar environment, one that is getting more comfortable with each passing week.
“It's definitely something that I missed, just the consistency and the repetition,” Bolden said. “Obviously, professional players are professional for that reason. They do it day in and day out. Taking some time off, you forget what it really takes to get to that level. Being back now, day after day, with lifting, conditioning, shooting on the court and scrimmaging, it definitely brings back good memories. Some muscle memory has been reactivated.”
Bolden was raised in New South Wales and his father, Bruce, played four seasons with the Sydney Kings in the 1990s. The romantic narrative is seductive and a natural starting point, when looking ahead to Bolden’s first season in the NBL. But the good feelings can only last for so long. Sydney has established itself as Australia’s premier basketball franchise since Bolden left the city almost a decade ago.
Successive championships, led by a cavalry of players and coaches with NBA pedigrees, have upped the ante for the Kings. They are now a fully formed leader of the NBL’s push to professionalise their league, and their success has forced another pivot ahead of this upcoming NBL season. Mahmoud Abdelfattah takes over coaching duties for Chase Buford, who has returned to North America in search of greater NBA duties. Xavier Cooks has graduated from NBL MVP to NBA player, although the Kings aren’t exactly hurting. They have signed an import trio of Denzel Valentine, Jaylen Adams and D.J. Hogg en route to again being the betting favourite to claim the championship this season.
Credit: Sydney Kings
Bolden returning home as the prodigal son would be a marquee headline for many NBL franchises, but the storyline is relegated in Sydney. He is an NBA athlete and, regardless of his recent sabbatical, there is a role that needs servicing on this Kings team as they search for a three-peat. But Sydney don’t need an MVP version of Bolden this season - they just need a reliable big man. When asked if he has any personal goals or metrics that he’s hoping to achieve this year, Bolden sounds well aware of the talent around him in Sydney.
“I wouldn't say anything specific. I've got my own goals, but I don't want to put a number on it yet. But my focus, if you want to talk metrics, would be the boards, offensive rebounding and defensive rebounding. Playmaking, not necessarily with scoring, but having touch with the ball, getting the ball to guys, finding the open guy and pushing it up the floor. We have a longer, deeper team, so we can stretch the floor with guys that are very versatile, and we can play multiple positions.
“But personally, it's just really crashing the boards, making my presence known when I'm on the court and getting consistency with the three ball. They are the biggest things.”
Having embarked on a global odyssey to begin his basketball career, Jonah Bolden now reenters Australian basketball with a renewed outlook. He brings insights gleaned from time away from the sport. Bolden was once the best player no one is talking about. He is now the NBL’s newest Australian athlete returning home, and arrives in Sydney with a great basketball opportunity to reestablish his standing in the game.