The Kobe Connection: Matt Bonner on historic game and how Bryant dubbed him ‘Red Mamba’

  • Concord native Matt Bonner of the Toronto Raptors couldn’t stop Los Angeles Lakers star Kobe Bryant from getting to the basket during Bryant’s 81-point game on Jan. 22, 2006. It was while reminiscing about that game that Bryant first labeled Bonner ‘Red Mamba.’ AP file

Monitor columnist
Published: 1/28/2020 4:50:58 PM

Matt Bonner was spotted at the Dallas airport Monday, the day after Kobe Bryant had been killed in a helicopter crash.

“Hey, Red Mamba!,” a basketball fan yelled, recognizing the Concord High graduate from his days in the NBA.

“When I heard someone say (Red Mamba), the first thing I thought of was Kobe,” Bonner said by phone from Texas. “And it struck me hard and really hit home that when someone calls me Red Mamba, the first thing I’ll always think of will be Kobe.”

That’s when reality smacked Bonner in the face. At that airport Monday. He knew going forward that his mind would forever flash to Bryant by the mere mention of Bonner’s nickname.

The one he still hears in NBA circles and still cherishes, given to him seven years ago by an unmatched talent who called himself the Black Mamba: Bryant, the Los Angeles Lakers’ superstar whose death Sunday stopped everyone in their tracks.

In an odd, sudden twist of fate, Bryant reached out and touched Bonner in a story that began in Los Angeles on Jan. 22, 2006, the date of Bryant’s greatest game. Bonner was playing on the other side, for the Toronto Raptors.

Seven years later, while live-tweeting his memories from that game, Bryant altered Bonner’s existing nickname –  Red Rocket – by calling him the Red Mamba.

And now, another seven years later, Bryant’s death at 41 has stunned the world, leaving memories and tears and stories everywhere.

The Red Mamba has his.

Bonner played 12 seasons for the Toronto Raptors and San Antonio Spurs. Bryant scored 81 points against the Raptors in ‘06, still the second-highest single-game point total in NBA history. 

Then, in 2013, came The Tweet. The one that gave Bonner his nickname. The nickname that ended up on T-shirts to help fund Bonner’s Rock on Foundation.

That day in ‘13, an apparent Boston Celtics fan tweeted that Bryant had scored 81 points against Toronto in 2006 because Brian Scalabrine, then a Celtic, hadn’t guarded him.

Scalabrine, the popular TV analyst for Celtics games, played 11 seasons in the NBA. He’s about 6-foot-10, 235 pounds, has red hair and could pass for Bonner’s twin. And his Bulls teammates had already labeled Scalabrine the White Mamba, out of affection. And the humor seen by contrasting the Black Mamba, one of the best ever, with the White Mamba, the guy on the end of the bench.

Bryant then tweeted this back to the fan: “The White Mamba wasn’t in the building but the Red Mamba was...Matt Bonner.”

Just like that. Out of left field.

“He dubbed me the Red Mamba,” Bonner said, “and it stuck from there and took off.”

“I have no clue why,” Bonner texted later Monday night. “It’s not like I dropped in 50 any night. Maybe he saw something in me.”

That night, the Black Mamba saw Bonner score 12 points. A nice game for someone coming off the bench. Bonner had a solid career, averaging 5.8 points per game and leading the league in 3-point field goal percentage in 2011.

He had his place, as a spark in a reserve role, not a star, and his public relations skills in both Toronto and San Antonio were unmatched.

The Red Mamba had a vibe that fans liked. They knew Bonner shot jumpers alone some Saturday nights in Toronto, at his home court, with an opera booming in another section and his teammates out on the town, enjoying the night off.

His 3-point shooting off the bench often had an arena-rattling effect. He won two NBA championships with the Spurs. He was 6-foot-10 and had red hair, easily recognizable. In Toronto, in fact, Bonner rode the subway, called the Rocket, chatting with fans on their way to games. And, it turned out, Bonner loved Subway sandwiches. Ate there every day he could.

It all blended nicely, like mayo on an Italian Special. The fans called Bonner the Red Rocket, of course, and Subway signed him to a sponsorship deal, of course, putting the Red Rocket in advertisements and solidifying his popularity.

Bonner played 10 years with the San Antonio Spurs and remains a big hit there as well, highly visible. He lives in San Antonio and does in-studio pre- and post-game TV analysis for the Spurs on Fox Sports Southwest in Irving.

He was working when news about Bryant broke. The Spurs were hosting the Raptors. Both teams were warming up. Bonner marveled that the teams made it through the game and played hard.

“I think it’s amazing how the two teams responded and were still able to play and put forth an amazing effort,” Bonner said. “The news had just broken, and we were all in a state of shock.”

Asked what he remembers most about Bryant’s overall play, Bonner said, “His competitiveness and his preparation and his killer instinct on the floor. It was amazing to witness this and play against him and have that sort of experience.”

Bonner was there the night Bryant made history. The Black Mamba was hot and stayed hot. Bonner was not Bryant’s primary defender, but his help was needed. Everyone’s was.

Bonner said if you crowded Bryant, he drove past you, ferociously to the basket. If you stayed back, he stepped back and popped in a jump shot. “And if you tried to guard him straight up,” Bonner noted, “he would take it to your teeth.”

“I remember a feeling of helplessness,” Bonner said. “It was like there was nothing you could do.”

The Spurs lost the lead in the third quarter and got smoked, 122-104. The Black Mamba simply refused to miss. He was that good. And respected.

He helped the Lakers win five NBA championships before retiring in 2016. He won an Oscar for his children’s film, and the photos and video clips the past few days have shown Bryant as the doting father of four daughters. His 13-year-old, Gianna, also died in the plane crash.

Bryant’s image emerged clean and shiny, a long way from the rape he was once accused of committing before the alleged victim dropped the charges in 2004.

I didn’t believe it was appropriate to put Bonner on the spot by asking for his opinion on the charges Bryant once faced. That’s an elephant in the room that’s sure to surface, especially as the favorable press accounts about Bryant continue, while the MeToo movement watches.

In fact, Bryant had said he named himself the Black Mamba to move the focus from the rape charge to his hard-driving spirit and will to win.

For now, it’s all positive, and the impact Bryant had through his relentless drive, work ethic and focus, in the movie business as well as basketball, was strong, vast and inspiring.

“You saw how he was as a family man and this just breaks your heart,” Bonner said. “I had the opportunity to watch him on the court and he inspired millions of people around the world to be passionate about basketball or whatever they were passionate about.”

It’s fitting that the two Los Angeles teams – the Lakers and the Clippers – were scheduled to play Tuesday at the Staples Center, both teams’ home court and the arena where Bryant dazzled fans for nearly 20 years. It’s also fitting that the game was postponed. The city remains in shock.

That will fade. The stories and memories will carry on. The Red Mamba has one.

“His Mamba mentality made him great,” Bonner said. “I guess I’m linked with him. I’ll think about him for the rest of my life, every time someone calls me the Red Mamba.”

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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