Wpg Sun: Incredible journey for Bison
From Washington, D.C., Brandon, Winnipeg and now Halifax
Ilarion Bonhomme landed in Halifax ready for the latest – and last – stop in a university basketball career that almost never started.
The man who helped send Bonhomme off on this journey is no longer here to watch him finish it. Bonhomme just feels like he is.
In 2010, Henry Champ walked into a high school gymnasium in Washington, D.C., having made the DMV his home after a distinguished career as a White House correspondent. Champ, who had become the chancellor of Brandon University, was a basketball fan always open to spending downtime courtside, and perhaps do some PR for his alma mater.
It was there he crossed paths with Bonhomme, a moment of pure happenstance that, the Manitoba Bisons point guard would recognize later, was also life-changing.
Champ approached the Cardozo Clerks senior after the game and gauged his interest in playing his next-level ball in Canada.
Bonhomme, having fielded interest from NCAA Division II and III schools, had no idea who he was or what he was offering.
“He said ‘Are you interested?’,” Bonhomme said, “and I said ‘No thank you, I think I’m good.’”
If one believes in fate, this is where that belief is affirmed. Bonhomme – “I was a stubborn kid” – held on to Champ’s business card and, when off-season injuries derailed his NCAA dreams, made a call to see what might still be on the table.
“He said ‘It’s going to be tough, but we’ll see what we can do,’” Bonhomme said. “And he got me up there.”
Bonhomme arrived with one suitcase to be nothing more than a practice player – no jersey, no games, no guarantees.
After three years in Brandon, including a Canada West rookie of the year in 2011-12, Bonhomme decided he needed a change of scenery and transferred to U of M.
The second youngest of seven kids to Lucienne and Ilarion, Sr., Bonhomme acknowledges he wouldn’t be here now without all that came before.
At Cardozo, which once was the face of segregation in the D.C. school system, he never played a home game because his school’s dilapidated gym had been condemned more than 50 years earlier.
At home, he was raised by parents he calls the best in the world and a close-knit family that looked after each other in a community where drugs and shootings were a part of his reality.
“We never had a lot of money. There was times when it was tough to pay bills,” he said. “We wouldn’t have hot water, so you gotta wake up early and you gotta boil water to shower to go to school. Seven kids sleeping on one mattress on the floor. Coming from that, I never take anything for granted.”
Upon Bonhomme, Bisons head coach Kirby Schepp heaps effusive praise.
“In my 25 years coaching, I don’t know if there’s anybody ahead of him in terms of the quality of kid and the person he is,” Schepp said. “… He treats everyone from the kid wiping the floor to the secretary to his teammates with incredible respect. I see the way he is around kids, around my kids, he’s just awesome.”
Champ passed away in 2012, two years after Bonhomme arrived on a campus he’d never heard of, and five days before the team he wasn’t guaranteed to play for started its new season.
“He changed my life,” Bonhomme said. “I don’t even want to imagine where I would be if he hadn’t come into my life. A lot of my friends are in way worse situations, they’re in tough places and bad things happening. Without him, I don’t know what my fate would be.”
When the ball goes up Thursday for the Bisons first game in Halifax, this incredible journey will take Bonhomme into a once-unthinkable moment in the national limelight. He will think of his family, but also the memory of a man who believed so deeply in him.
“I’ll never forget him,” he said. “I still feel like he’s with me. I talk to him. I look up and I’ll just be happy.”
On the heels of Bonhomme’s game shoes are the Sharpied markings “RIP” and “Champ.”
It serves a constant reminder that, while Champ may not be here right now, he’s with him every step of the way.