Editorial: A different kind of champion
Matt Bonner isn’t an American sports hero. Sure he has his fans, but he hasn’t transcended the game the way a hero is expected to.
To be fair, he is undoubtedly the greatest basketball player New Hampshire has ever produced. He led Concord High School to three state championships, was a very good player on a very good team at the University of Florida and on Sunday night collected his second NBA world championship ring with the San Antonio Spurs.
But his numbers in the pros don’t jump off the page. This year, he averaged 3.2 points scored and 11.3 minutes played per game. His career numbers are only slightly better – 6.2 points in 17.7 minutes. Yes, he has been the consummate bench player – a mature big man whom Spurs coach Gregg Popovich can turn to when the situation calls for it, whether as part of the overall game strategy or just to rest key players – but there are plenty of lovable guys filling out professional rosters.
Much has also been made of Bonner’s intellect and engaging personality. He excelled as a student at Concord High and Florida, where he was twice named Academic All-American of the Year. As a professional, the “Red Rocket” or “Red Mamba” endeared himself to fans because he personified the everyman – “a regular guy just like me.”
Of course, he isn’t just a regular guy. He’s wealthy, relatively famous and happens to be among the best basketball players in the world. At 6 feet 10 inches, he’s also quite tall – and he writes a blog about sandwiches and is a bit of a YouTube star.
But even with all that, he’s hardly transcendent, nor is he a catalyst for comparison and debate. Dimaggio vs. Williams. Brady vs. Manning. Bird vs. Magic. Being a fan is an emotional endeavor that involves an investment not only in the athlete but a commitment to challenging other fans who dare make the case for their own heroes. The athlete’s personal life is a factor, too, because it’s just not enough to debate who is the better quarterback, Brady or Manning. Fans must also be voyeurs who dissect the way the men carry themselves in their personal lives, with the belief that a less spectacular and titillating existence off the field of play diminishes the accomplishments on it.
Not many people are clamoring for dirt on Bonner that they could use to degrade his basketball ability and elevate a comparable, but preferred, sports hero.
But yet, on Sunday night, in the waning moments of the Spurs’ decisive victory over the humbled Miami Heat, there was something of the American sports hero in Bonner. As Spurs stars such as Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Kawhi Leonard left the floor to cheers, Bonner smiled and congratulated them before returning to the background, away from the cameras. That’s it. He didn’t thump his chest or engage Duncan in some elaborate, choreographed celebration. He showed no signs of being the betrayed big man on campus. He looked like a man thoroughly enjoying himself without thinking about himself; the kind of guy who seizes the day – and the people around him – wherever he goes and whatever he does.
Bonner will always be a legend in New Hampshire, and perhaps that’s good enough for him. But it’s easy to make a case for wider appreciation that goes beyond the trite assessment that he plays the game the right way. Rank him among America’s sports heroes because it appears that he has figured it out – life, that is – and that, too, puts him in exclusive company. And if your child is looking for a quality to emulate in a professional athlete, zest for life is a good place to start.