Basketball helped Bonilla escape danger to reach Barcelona

May 03, 2021 by David Hein, Print
Basketball helped Bonilla escape danger to reach Barcelona

When Gael Bonilla takes the court at the Euroleague Basketball Adidas Next Generation Tournament Finals, winning a second continental crown for U18 FC Barcelona will be his biggest goal. But just playing at the continent’s top youth competition is a major step given the dangers of his home city.

Bonilla was born and raised in Ecatepec, located just north of Mexico City. The city of about 1.6 million people is infamous for being one of the most dangerous places in his native Mexico.

"It was difficult to live there, but thanks to my family and sports I kept focused on my goals," said Bonilla, who picked up the game when he was 7 years old.

Countless players in the United States have said that basketball helped them rise out of their tough situations on the streets back home, thanks to a college scholarship. The same can be said about Bonilla, who received a scholarship to attend the Canarias Basketball Academy on the Spanish island of Tenerife in 2016. Bonilla was just 13 years old when he left Mexico for Europe.

"It was a very difficult time because I was separated from my family and friends. I took refuge in basketball and kept myself busy so as not to think too much about Mexico," Bonilla explained.

One thing that helped Bonilla in his first season at the CBA was the presence of fellow Mexican Diego Willis, who was at the academy from 2015 to 2017.

After his first season with CBA, Bonilla was loaned to Real Madrid for the Spanish Castelldefels tournament and he won the MVP award after averaging 20.2 points, 10.0 rebounds, 3.2 assists, and a PIR of 27.7. After the event, both Real Madrid and FC Barcelona recruited Bonilla to join their club, and he eventually chose Barcelona.

"I decided to go to Barcelona because of the good treatment they gave me at the beginning and because of the new opportunities that would come to me by being with one of the best clubs in the world. Also I wanted to prove to myself that I can compete at the highest level," said Bonilla, who joined the club in December 2016.

After having Willis with him at CBA, by the time he had joined Barcelona Bonilla had already met with Gustavo Ayon. The Real Madrid big man also hails from Mexico and is one of the country’s greatest players. Ayon won the EuroLeague with Real in 2015 and 2018 and led the country’s national team for many years including at the FIBA Basketball World Cup 2014.

"Meeting one of the best Mexican basketball players was very good as he gave me some tips to improve and keep working. What I like most about him is the way he works and everything he gives for Mexico," Bonilla said.

The Barcelona youngster also has helped his homeland on the international level. He played at the FIBA U16 Americas Championship 2019 and excelled individually with 16.2 points, 14.3 rebounds, 4.7 assists, 1.7 steals and 4.5 blocks per game, though Mexico won just one game.

"The most beautiful memory of the tournament for me was having worn my national team's shirt for the first time and playing against Canada and Argentina, who are world powers, and having competed with them," he said.

Later that summer, Bonilla helped Mexico make history by taking first place for the first time at the Centrobasket U17 Championship 2019, including defeating Puerto Rico in the final.

"It was an unforgettable experience because we won the final against Puerto Rico, who were the hosts. Listening to the national anthem when we were crowned champions was an indescribable sensation," said Bonilla, who averaged 14.8 points, 8.4 rebounds, 3.0 assists, 3.0 steals and 2.4 blocks at the tourney.

The 2.02-meter Bonilla has excelled at the club level as well. This season is his third campaign in the ANGT for Barcelona after collecting 3.5 points, 2.3 rebounds, 1.3 assists and 1.5 blocks at the 2018-19 ANGT Valencia at just 15 years of age and contributing 10.0 points, 7.3 rebounds, 4.7 assists, 2.7 steals and 2.7 blocks at the 2019-20 ANGT Valencia. That experience helped him in Valencia last December.

"I learned from the mistakes of my game and that of my teammates. I also learned how to be more calm during the decisive moments," he said.

Barcelona's only ANGT title came in 2016 and Bonilla is hoping to give the club another trophy: "I believe what is needed is attitude and trust in each of your teammates and all of them to play for the same goal," Bonilla said."It would be very nice because I would finish my junior carer in the best possible way."

And it would mean that much more looking back at how Bonilla’s journey started.