Already a veteran of high-level basketball in four different countries, Maccabi FOX Tel Aviv forward Jonah Bolden is only 22 years old, but plays a big role for the team as it looks to finish the Turkish Airlines EuroLeague Regular Season strong and advance to the playoffs. A native of Australia, basketball took Bolden to play high school and college basketball in the United States before he began his professional career last season with FMP in Serbia. He is also the son of former Australian League star power forward Bruce Bolden, from whom Jonah learned a lot of the professionalism that has allowed him to stand out as such an important all-around contributor for Maccabi. In this interview with EuroLeague.net, Bolden discussed his basketball journey, what he likes about life in Israel and what Maccabi needs to do to get to the playoffs. "We had a team meeting without coaches and just players. We spoke about what we need to do and how we need to approach the game," Bolden said. "I think our biggest thing is halfcourt defense. We need to buckle down and focus on that."
This season you join a long list of distinguished players from Australia to stand out in the EuroLeague. How aware were you of the level of European basketball and the accomplishments of those players when you were growing up?
"I only started hearing about the EuroLeague and the fans in Europe when I moved to high school in the States. That kind of broadened my horizons, just within where the Australian players were at in the world, and I started hearing from the Australian players on the national team where they were coming from. I think Joe [Ingles] at the time was in Barcelona and a couple other players were in Europe."
were there any Australian players you turned to for advice when you decided to sign for Maccabi?
"Joe reached out to me because he had played here previously, but other than from him I didn't really reach out for advice, especially because this being my second year overseas, it wasn't too much of a hurdle, coming from Serbia and FMP. It was more so a shock to the system that first year as a pro and this year was just a breeze."
Your road to the top level in Europe was unusual with multiple stops in America and one year with FMP in Serbia before coming to Israel. How did each of those stops help you grow as a person and a basketball player to get where you are today?
"They helped me tremendously. I never expected to leave college, UCLA being the college that it is, to go play over in Belgrade, Serbia, and then getting drafted. Then again, I didn't expect to be overseas for another year. It definitely helped me grow tremendously as a man, as a person, on the court and off the court, becoming more independent, having to fend for myself. Last year was kind of that stepping stone for me coming from college where everything was kind of given to you. You're at one of the top colleges in the world. You have tutors to help you with your academics, you have food on demand, you have coaches always texting you to see if you're good. And then you get to a place in Belgrade, Serbia; it wasn't Red Star, it was the team under, FMP, so it still wasn't even the top. So you have to grow up and I would kind of tell myself that. I got over there an within a week I realized that it wasn't what I expected or what I had imagined, but I made this decision to come here. I could have still been at UCLA, I could have still been in college as a junior, but I made this decision and had to live with it and push through it."
Even over the course of the current season there have been major jumps in your game. Your production from the past month is leaps and bounds above what you did in October and November...
"I think that what I'm doing now is, to me, just scratching the surface. You said it's much better than the first months, I think that was just getting the chemistry and the team, getting a feel for my role and what coach wants from me, what the players can get from me and what they can help me with. Me getting a feel for them; what position to be in, the right times to take the shots and do my thing as much as I can. Once I started to get a feel for that, I tried to maximize my potential in that role that coach wants me to be in. So that’s really the jump in my game."
You are one of the younger players on the Maccabi roster. Which of the veterans have tried to take you under their wing and “show you the ropes”, so to speak?
"Everyone's tried to help me in specific ways. Michael Roll, he played at UCLA as well. He kind of helps me. He's a great shooter, so when I'm having a little slump in shooting, he'll pull me aside after practice and we'll get some shots up. A couple of the other guys, like DeAndre Kane. He's helped me a lot with mental toughness, staying focused on every play. Everyone has bad possessions in a game, but just knowing that you need to forget about it and move forward. Everyone just comes together. We've had a little bit of slumps as a team and that has also just brought us together and we’ve kind of pushed through it."
How do you find life in Tel Aviv? Is it what you expected?
"It's not at all what I expected. The image I had of Israel prior to coming here was totally different from what it is. It's great, to be honest. I think this is one of the better clubs to play for in Europe, in my opinion. The weather. The people. For the most part, there is no real language barrier. Compared to last year in Belgrade, the language barrier was huge. But here for the most part everyone speaks English. And they are very catering; the team is very professional, from the head coach, to the GM, the owners, all the way down to the equipment guy. They are all very catering and helpful. So it’s been really good."
Which road trips have you most enjoyed?
"I'd say maybe Milan. I kind of explored a little bit in Milan. I left the hotel for a little bit, for a couple of hours. That's really the only place so far where I've spent time outside of the hotel, to be honest. We kind of fly in the night before and fly out right after the games. Milan was nice weather, nice city, some good tourist attractions."
I know that your father has been to Tel Aviv to see you play. Have you had other friends and family members come? What are their impressions of your life here – and the atmosphere the fans create at your EuroLeague games?
"My mom has been here, my auntie, my uncle, my girlfriend, that's about it. They have pretty much had the same reaction as me; they had a stereotypical image of what Israel is to them and then getting here it's totally opposite. People here are, for the most part, nice. I guess the language barrier. Just the weather. And the Maccabi fans, I think they're the best in Europe. Obviously my girlfriend and mom and dad had never been to a EuroLeague game before, so they got to experience what a EuroLeague game is. Sometimes there's more fans than NBA games because every game is critical in EuroLeague, so the fans show up for every game."
Your father of course was a great player in Australia. How much of your game is modeled on your father's?
"He was! He was a different player from me. I'm a taller, longer, more athletic player. He was a stereotypical older, back-in-the-day power forward. Stocky, big, post, mid-range, back-to-the-basket type player. But he's definitely helped me from day one on the court just with being professional, how I approach the game. Approaching every game the same, do what you can do and do it to the best of your abilities. Just go at it hard."
Did your dad ever coach you on a team?
"Yeah, just for one year in local competition in Australia, under 16. It was really good. We won the championship and went on to win the state championship. My dad obviously jumped on me more than he did others, but there wasn't any time when I took it personally. I knew when I stepped on the court it wasn't father-son, it was head coach-player. At the same time knowing that he's my dad and his expectations of me are higher, just because he knows what I can do. So knowing he's going to be picking on me even for the littlest of things and what came of that, I didn’t take it so much as a negative, I saw it as the only time I should be worried is when he's not talking to me. If he's looking at me and talking to me and trying to pick at me, he sees what I can do and I just have to go and do it."
Maccabi is in eighth place and controls its own destiny, but the road to the playoffs will not be easy. How are the team's spirits going into this decisive stretch?
"We're in high spirits, coming off the last [Israeli] league win over Jerusalem. We've kind of come together, especially after the Efes win. We know what we need to do. We know what is expected of us. We know what we can do. We know it's going to be a little difficult with a couple of road games after this Khimki game and including even the Israeli League, how that helps prepare us for the EuroLeague and taking them more serious preparing for the road ahead. So we’ve kind of come together. We had a team meeting without coaches and just players. We spoke about what we need to do and how we need to approach the game."
Your next game is against Khimki, against which you had 10 points and 7 rebounds in a victory in Russia. What does Maccabi have to do to protect home court against Khimki?
"Just play like we played against Efes. Running. I think we're one of the top teams in the EuroLeague in transition. That's our bread and butter. Getting the ball and running. I think our biggest thing is halfcourt defense. We need to buckle down and focus on that. And once we buckle down on that, the turnovers start turning into offense and we have to get back to playing the way we play and feeding off, like I said before, the fans help us a lot, so we feed off them and even feed off ourselves. Our team spirit and the bench helps a lot."
After 25 tough games so far, what lessons have you and Maccabi learned that make you a tougher and better team for this final playoff push?
"Just approaching every game the same. I think early on we were kind of less focused than we should have, inconsistent. We were a little bit inconsistent as a team. The players as a team have come together. Like I said we had that team meeting and we spoke about the things we need to focus on, consistency, guys putting in a little bit of extra work after practice. We had a little bit of a slump where our shooting went down and we know we can shoot, we know what we can do. From the beginning until now, I think our biggest thing was consistency and approaching every game the same, Israeli League games and EuroLeague games."