Matt Bonner leaves the stage after 12 seasons in the NBA

  • In four seasons as a Florida Gator, Bonner amassed 1,570 career points. AP file

  • Bonner played 12 seasons in the NBA, including 10 with the San Antonio Spurs. AP file

  • Matt Bonner won three NHIAA titles during his time at Concord High School. Monitor file

Monitor staff
Published: 1/6/2017 2:19:10 PM

The big red head kept working hard, his trademark quality, right until the end.

Rather than merely pushing news of his retirement through the team’s public relations department, Matt Bonner produced a video last month and released it on Friday. He poked fun at himself, speaking to empty seats, revealing that this was the end after 12 seasons in the NBA.

A week or two later, he pumped iron in the hotel gyms on his drive from New Hampshire to San Antonio, just in case a team, any team, showed interest.

And when none did, Matt Bonner, the Concord High School graduate who no one could guard, the University of Florida all-league player with the near-perfect grade point average, the power forward for the San Antonio Spurs who turned his limited role into a starring role when it came to public relations, heard the final buzzer and walked away.

Bonner’s new career, doing pre- and post-game analysis on Spurs telecasts for Fox Sports Southwest, begins Tuesday.

“I’m good with it,” Bonner told me by phone from San Antonio. “The last time we talked, you saw what I was trying to do, and I think I accomplished that. I kept working, being 100 percent committed to the game to see if I could get signed, and it didn’t happen. I’m content knowing I did what I could, and now it came to a natural end.”

Let the record show that Bonner, a 6-foot-10 forward, once led the league in three-point shooting percentage and finished with the 14th highest mark, .414, in NBA history. Let the record also show Bonner never, ever got outworked during his career with the Spurs and the Toronto Raptors.

At first glance, the story of Bonner, who won two championships with the Tim Duncan- and Tony Parker-led Spurs, seems boring. Who cares about a player who averaged 5.8 points and 3.0 rebounds per game? Who cares about a player who earned $30 million in 12 years, the approximate annual salary of LeBron James?

And, most of all, who cares about that stale, cliche-ridden theme, the one about work ethic, the one about arriving early and staying late? Most often, while the player may indeed work hard, it rarely means he or she works harder than everyone else.

In this case, though, it’s true. Bonner made his name and his career making everyone he played alongside conscious of his endless fuel tank. If you played with Bonner, you had to put in the extra effort. Otherwise, you’d look bad.

As Spurs Coach Gregg Popovich told me via email, “He was one of the best teammates a player could have and someone I enjoyed coaching every minute we were together.”

Added Bonner, “Just being a professional basketball player for all this time, it’s like I was conditioned to stay true to my training until I knew it was over.”

Joey Craigue of Concord, who runs local year-round basketball clinics, coaches talented youth teams and plays professionally each summer in China, copied Bonner’s drive. At least he tried to.

Craigue and Bonner’s brother, Luke Bonner, were buddies in middle school when Matt starred at Concord High. They watched in awe when the older Bonner practiced at the Concord YMCA and ran full-court layup drills in the blazing heat at the West Street outdoor court.

Not simply because Bonner was so good, but because, with colleges already hot on his trail and his greatness secured, Bonner never stopped practicing.

At the Y, he practiced until he got kicked off the court by an aerobics class. Then he practiced on a squash court until he got kicked off by squash players. Then he went into the hallway or into the basement, anywhere he could find space.

“I talk about him all the time at my clinics,” Craigue said. “He’s doing dribbling drills every day of his life. EVERY DAY! He was probably doing dribbling drills on Christmas.”

“He really set an example for all of us,” said Luke, who played at UMass-Amherst before a brief pro career in Europe.

Matt’s routine was simple. Go to school, then come home for a snack, then go to the YMCA to practice, then go home and do homework, then eat dinner, then go back to the Y for more practice.

Period.

“He did what he had to do to get to the next level,” said Bonner’s father, Dave Bonner, shortly before heading to Concord High to watch the Tide play. “Whatever Billy Donovan asked, Matt did it.”

Donovan, who coaches the NBA’s Oklahoma City Thunder, was the head coach at the University of Florida when he called the Bonner home at the precise start of the high school recruiting period. The phone rang at one past midnight.

Donovan won the Bonner sweepstakes, beating out legendary Duke Coach Mike Krzyzewski, who hosted the Bonners for a country-club breakfast in Durham, N.C.

After Florida, the Chicago Bulls drafted Bonner 45th overall in June of 2003, then traded him to the Raptors on the same night. Bonner played a season in Italy, then joined the Raptors for his rookie season in 2004.

I went to Toronto to cover Bonner. The Raptors were off one night. Bonner, though, was not, choosing instead to meet me at the Air Canada Centre, home of the Raptors, to fire endless three-point bombs on a downstairs practice court. Meanwhile, rich people in tuxedos and spaghetti-strapped gowns watched an opera upstairs.

The arena was the site of one of Bonner’s greatest memories: his first NBA game, played the day after he knew for sure he’d made the team.

“I called my dad that afternoon and he drove all the way to Toronto,” Bonner said. “Somehow he talked his way onto the court and when I ran from the tunnel to the court, he was court side and slapped me five. I was officially an NBA player.”

Bonner became a celebrity in Toronto. He signed countless autographs. He took public transportation on a train called The Rocket, mingling with fans and earning the nickname The Red Rocket.

And two months after his first game, Bonner committed a hard foul while blocking a dunk attempt by Minnesota superstar Kevin Garnett, known as a villain each time he stepped on a court away from home.

Garnett got mad, Bonner got ejected and the Toronto crowd went crazy, chanting, “BON-NER, BON-NER, BON-NER,” as the rookie ran down the tunnel, both index fingers raised high.

“A really great memory,” Bonner said.

He was traded to the Spurs two years later. He had career highs in points per game (8.2) and rebounds (4.8) during the 2008-09 season, and led the NBA in three-point shooting in 2010-11 with a .457 percentage. He had great times there, too, winning titles in 2007 and ’14.

“The second championship was a little more special because I had my own wife and kids who I got to share the experience with,” Bonner told me. “And I got to take the trophy back to New Hampshire and take a tour around Concord.”

He showed the trophy to fans, his fans, at White Park and the West Street Park and the Concord YMCA and Concord High and the Concord Boys and Girls Club.

“All the places where I grew up,” Bonner said.

He finished his career averaging 5.8 points and 3.0 rebounds in 16.9 minutes per game. He and Luke sponsored rock festivals, with cool indie artists, in San Antonio and New Orleans, raising money for organizations that supported the arts and music and athletics. He did the same here to raise money for new baskets and backboards in city parks.

He came home last summer, 36 years old, a senior citizen by NBA standards. He worked out at New Hampton School and Holderness School, waiting for the phone to ring, hoping for a 13th season.

I watched his workout in September at Holderness, near the start of the season. I watched him in the fitness room, on the court, outdoors. He lifted weights, sprinted, rode the stationary bike, twisted himself into a pretzel and, of course, shot jumpers.

Lots and lots of jumpers.

His recent workouts were done under the guidance of Tony Mure, the strength and conditioning coach at Holderness. He’d been working with Bonner for more than 10 years.

He’d run up Loon Mountain with Bonner, covering 6,000 feet. He’d rebound all those jumpers for Bonner. He’d push Bonner during weight training, and Friday he went to bat for Bonner.

“I’m shocked he wasn’t signed,” Mure told me. “It’s an insult, and it shows you where the NBA is right now, a sad organization that throws money around at people with no NBA experience and not valuing what they could get for their money. To think a guy like that cannot contribute is ridiculous, and I’m really pissed off at the Celtics. What were they thinking?”

Bonner accepted the truth last month. He made a video, filled with self deprecating humor, ahead of time and stored it away, releasing it on Friday.

The video shows him munching on a sandwich on stage in the Holderness School auditorium. A reporter and her cameraman leave once they realize it’s a press conference for Matt Bonner, not Matt Damon.

Mure, dressed in a janitor’s uniform, his mouth crooked in vintage Bill Murray-style numbness, says, “I thought he retired yee-ahs ago.”

“Let me get straight to the point,” Bonner announces. “I am retiring from playing competitive basketball at any level above the Concord Men’s League Over 35 Division. Does anyone have any questions?”

Empty red seats are then shown, with crickets chirping in the background.

“It’s the perfect blend of humor, sincerity and humility, which is what he’s been known for through his NBA career,” noted Luke. “He made a decision of what he wanted to get across in the video and I thought he nailed it.”

He did. Bonner leaves with no regrets.

“Regardless of what the chances were, I was committed to the process we talked about the last time I saw you, and that was being 100 percent ready in case I got that phone call,” Bonner said.

I asked why he chose to poke fun at himself in the video.

“I wanted to make sure people knew I didn’t think of myself as extraordinary or anything,” Bonner said. “I was not a hall of famer. I was just a role player, but I felt the urge and need to make this video.”

Typical Bonner.

Working, right to the end.


Ray Duckler bio photo

Ray Duckler, our intrepid columnist, focuses on the Suncook Valley. He floats from topic to topic, searching for the humor or sadness or humanity in each subject. A native New Yorker, he loves the Yankees and Giants. The Red Sox and Patriots? Not so much.



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