With the clock ticking on his career, Bonner pushes hard for one more chance

  • Matt Bonner shoots during his workout routine at the Holderness school last week. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • Matt Bonner (right) practices with strength and conditioning coach Tony Mure at the Holderness School to be ready in case the phone rings for the chance of one more NBA season. Bonner has played 12 seasons in the NBA, the last 10 with the Spurs. GEOFF FORESTER / Monitor staff

  • Matt Bonner runs sprints during his workout at the Holderness school last week. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • Matt Bonner shoots during his workout routine at the Holderness School last week. GEOFF FORESTER / Monitor staff

Published: 9/19/2016 12:00:22 AM

We know what we hope for Matt Bonner, who’s carved out a 12-year NBA career without a trace of arrogance.

Bonner is a long-range shooting specialist who once led the NBA in 3-point shooting. He possesses an unmatched work ethic, an affable manner and a connection to any and every community he touches.

He can teach younger players about class and maturity and pushing others in practice. He’s mastered the art of public relations and does charitable work, making him a desirable commodity as an ambassador of the game. He once served as vice president of the NBA Players Association.

We know this. We know these qualities might push a team to sign the big redhead, who’s currently unemployed and back in New Hampshire, pushing himself at both Holderness School, where I met him Friday, and New Hampton School.

But we know something else, too: Maybe Matt Bonner is fooling himself.

Maybe the bench presses and biceps curls and sprints and stationary bike riding and jump shots and foul shots and resistance training and stretching and sweat, maybe all of that won’t give him another chance, another season.

Maybe Bonner’s NBA career is finished.

As painful as it is, considering I’m writing about the hometown boy, we can’t dismiss this possibility. Not when his former team, the San Antonio Spurs, chose not to bring him back after last season. Not when Bonner is 36, ancient in the world of pro basketball. Not when Bonner has never been known for his quickness or post-up game.

Those are the two sides to weigh here. Meanwhile, Bonner works, just like he’s always done, seemingly since birth.

“I’m going to fight to get into the league,” Bonner told me, his legs pumping on the fan bike at Holderness. “I’m going to fight to play one more year.”

I’ve been writing about the guy for nearly 20 years, and nothing changes. Same desire. Same mean, lean, tall frame. Same jumper that he shoots from other ZIP codes before the ball splashes through the net. Same willingness to do more than anyone else – and I mean anyone else – to gain an edge.

But the Spurs, the team for which Bonner’s off-the-bench spark helped win two championships, would have signed him by now had they wanted him. The Celtics, Bonner told me, are not interested.

Several other teams are, he said, declining to name them.

“There’s been interest, but nothing concrete,” Bonner said. “A lot of teams are like, ‘We like Matt, we just don’t have a roster space right now, but if anything changes, he’s in the mix.’ There’s a long way to go until opening night, so I’m remaining optimistic.”

But there isn’t a long way until preseason games begin. Twelve days, to be exact, and that’s not good.

Tony Mure, however, is firmly in Bonner’s corner. Mure is the strength and conditioning coach at Holderness. He’s been working with Bonner for more than 10 years, running up Loon Mountain with him, rebounding for him, guiding him during weight training, pushing, pushing, pushing.

He made sure I knew that Bonner once ran up Loon, covering 6,000 feet, in 1 hour, 43 seconds. He made sure I knew Bonner’s workouts, six a week, are not a waste of time.

“Our goal was for him to play until he was 40,” Mure said.

He mentioned Bonner’s pickup games at New Hampton School, which features some of the best and tallest post-graduate talent in the country. “They were a joke compared to Matt,” Mure said.

And what would be a discussion about Bonner without bringing up the mental part of the game?

“That’s where he leaves everyone behind,” Mure said. “I work with kids starting in high school who should be playing professionally overseas, but they can’t sit, they can’t wait. The NBA is so stupid if they can’t see the value with this guy, this caliber of personality, being a valued member of the NBA community.”

Where have we heard that before? Remember Bill Haubrich, Bonner’s coach at Concord High, and Frank Alosa, his AAU coach, and Billy Donovan at the University of Florida, and Sam Mitchell with the Toronto Raptors, and Gregg Popovich with the Spurs? They all said the same thing, over and over.

Maybe that’s his edge. Bonner works out six days a week, sometimes doing strength training, sometimes motion and flexibility, always with one goal in mind, one singular purpose. He’s married with two grade school-aged kids, meaning after earning $30 million in salary, he could sit back and enjoy life.

He said his wife, Nadia, understands. She knows Bonner is obsessed with basketball.

“I had to have that conversation with her and she saw the fire in my eyes as I explained to her why I have to do this,” Bonner said. “My whole mindset is at least I can walk away from the game and did everything I could to play for as long as I could. That piece of mind is more valuable than anything.”

How badly does Bonner want to extend his career? I asked if he’d consider playing in Europe if the NBA never calls.

He paused.

“Wow, you’re asking tough questions,” Bonner said. “That’s one of those where I would cross that bridge when I came to it.”

That says a lot. It’s who Bonner is, why he knocked Mure down during one of those pickup basketball games at New Hampton, why he’s working out these days like, well, there’s no tomorrow.

At Holderness on Friday, Bonner showed the discipline and structure and drive that have helped him all these years. “Got an hour and 13 minutes left,” Bonner said when I asked what time he’d finish.

He knew he was funny. I knew he was serious.

He rode the bike 10 miles, then moved to the high gloss, perfectly polished basketball court and shot long jumpers. He looked comfortable while standing – and connecting – near the school mascot, a bull, painted at half court. His shot looked funny, as it always has, launched from in front of his right shoulder, just below his right ear.

It goes in a lot.

“Butter, pure butter,” Mure said, as shot after shot dropped through.

Then Bonner ran sprints outside on the soccer field, 100 yards, 200 yards. He’d rest and measure his heart rate. Mure said this part says a lot about Bonner.

“How quickly his heart rate drops, that’s the key to a great athlete,” Mure said. “He’s unreal.”

Then back inside, to the weights and the bike and the resistance band. Bonner stopped for a moment and let his competitive guard down.

How great is it that his two kids, rarely in New Hampshire this time of year, can enjoy the crisp air and, soon, the foliage. Maybe they’ll learn to ski. Maybe he’ll go ice fishing.

“It’s nice being a normal parent, too,” Bonner said.

Then back to work. More biceps curls, more leg exercises while lying on a mat, more drive toward a goal he’s not ready to give up on.

At 10:45 a.m., one of Bonner’s obsessions seamlessly led into the other area that dominates his life. His kids had early dismissal from their school in Plymouth. The dog had an appointment with the vet, and the family was having dinner with Bonner’s parents, Dave, the former mailman, and Paula, the former teacher.

“That should do it,” Bonner said. “Two hours and two minutes.”

He walked into the parking lot, on a crisp fall morning, keenly aware of time.

(Ray Duckler can be reached at 369-3304, rduckler@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @rayduckler.)

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