Ray Duckler: Chomping at the bit, Bonner sees a national title for Florida Gators
In a major scoop you’ll get here and nowhere else, Matt Bonner predicts the University of Florida will win the NCAA championship.
Okay, it’s not stunning news, since Bonner played ball at Florida, competing in four-straight NCAA tournaments from 2000 to 2003.
And once a Gator, always a Gator.
Plus, Florida is the best team in the country heading into today’s first full day of what is known as March Madness.
But I got it straight from the Gator’s mouth, or at least his computer, and we’re talking about an established NBA player, a backup for the San Antonio Spurs whose roots here run as deep as he is tall.
“I have them winning it all,” Bonner, referring to his Gators, said this week via email.
Remember, you heard it here first.
So stop the presses, buckle your seat belt and take a ride as we enjoy our nugget of local flavor in an event so ingrained in us that even President Obama filled out a bracket.
“The NCAA tournament is a cultural institution,” Bonner said. “It transcends the sport of basketball. However, being able to participate in something so huge is something that never sunk in while I was actually playing.”
It’s hard to believe that was so long ago, hard to believe that Bonner turns 34 next month. Just yesterday, the big redhead led Concord High School to three straight state championships.
I shadowed him in Gainesville, where he was an all-conference Gator at Florida. I saw him play in the NCAA tournament at the Superdome in New Orleans, where the Gators and Coach Billy Donovan were outfoxed by Temple and Coach John Chaney. And I visited him in Toronto, home of his first NBA team, where a photographer and I ate dinner with him and watched him shoot countless jump shots on his own time.
Now he’s a 10-year veteran who’s carved out a multimillion dollar career, won an NBA title, married a Canadian woman and had two kids.
Through it all, Bonner has remained faithful to Florida, although I couldn’t confirm that he plays the theme to Jaws and does the Chomp during Gator games.
(Try it with me. Extend your arms in front, one on top of the other with palms touching, then move your arms far apart and bring them back together to signify a hungry Gator.)
But if Bonner does indeed chomp when the Gators open the tourney against Albany this afternoon at 4:10, his family better duck, and the hatches best be battened down.
Bonner stands 6-foot-10.
“I have continued to closely follow and root for the Gators since I graduated,” Bonner wrote me. “Coach Donovan’s done a great job and has built one of the top college basketball programs in the country. I am proud to be a Gator.”
The Gators have extra bite this year. They finished as the nation’s top-ranked team, winners of 26-straight games, and they’re the favorite to win their third national title.
“Playing well going into the tourney and having an experienced team are important,” Bonner said.
Bonner never won a national championship. The closest his Gators came was his freshman season, 2000, when Florida reached the final game, then lost to Michigan State.
Their opening game during that edition of March Madness is forever memorable. Down a point to Butler, Mike Miller, now a forward for the Memphis Grizzlies, took a pass from Teddy Dupay, cut through the lane and scored on a teardrop floater at the buzzer, giving the Gators a one-point win.
Florida then won four straight to reach the final.
Asked about the Butler game, Bonner said, “First of all, I was wide open in the corner. Just joking. That was one of the most exciting wins I’ve ever been a part of. It brought our team together and gave us a second life.”
Rewind here for a moment, to the part about Bonner being wide open.
YouTube it; Bonner was, indeed, wide open in the corner.
He’s made a living deep in the corners of NBA basketball courts, as well as all other areas beyond the 3-point arc. That’s Bonner’s specialty, the reason he’s lasted so long.
In his best season, 2008-09, he averaged career highs in minutes (24 per game), points (8) and rebounds (5). He once nailed 45 percent of his 3-point attempts, a great number, especially for a player so tall.
At 34, old for an NBA player, Bonner averages 11 minutes, 3 points and 2 rebounds a game this season, all career lows.
He has a chance to win his second NBA title as the Spurs had the best record in the league heading into last night.
Bonner downplayed not winning a national college title, saying it “doesn’t really bother me. I have no regrets. I know I left everything I had on the court and in the classroom in my four years at Florida.”
He says he still speaks to Donovan, calling him a “great guy, a family man and a really hard worker. He has earned all of his success.”
That success includes consecutive championships, in 2006 and ’07.
“The Gators are on a 26-game winning streak and start four seniors,” Bonner said. “This could be the year.”