By: Ron Higgins
SEC Digital Network
Hey, in the SEC’s 2003 six-player NBA draft class, who had the pasty redheaded big white kid from Florida to have the most notable pro career? That’s right. NONE of you. Don’t lie to me. I’m not lying to myself, because I didn’t, either.
If you would have told me that guy, former Gators’ forward Matt Bonner, would still be the NBA after all this time, have a championship ring and become one of the best three-point shooters in NBA history, I would have pulled you to the side of the road and ask you to hop on one leg while touching your nose and then have you walk a straight line.
The SEC had six players taken in the ’03 draft. The first three selected were Georgia swingman Jarvis Hayes, Mississippi State center Mario Austin and Mississippi State point guard Derrick Zimmerman.
Hayes lasted seven NBA seasons with three teams, Austin never played a minute in the league and Zimmerman played in two NBA games and was a defensive whiz in the NBDL (the NBA’s minor leagues).
That trio all ended up in Europe where they have made nice livings.
The last three SEC players taken in ’03 were guards Keith Bogans of Kentucky and Maurice Williams of Alabama, and Bonner. Bogans and Williams went straight to the NBA where in 10 seasons, Bogans has played for seven teams and Williams has suited up for five franchises.
And there’s Bonner, who in college combined his 3.96 grade point average and his 39.5 three-point percentage to unlock the secret to NBA longevity, winning a NBA championship ring with San Antonio and signing a contract extension that gave him financial security for life.
“In the NBA, you have three guys on every team who are the top offensive options,” says Matt, who’s in his ninth NBA season (he played overseas his first year after college), the last seven with the Spurs. “Everybody else fills in roles. You have to fit into the system. If you can be good at everything, but really great at one thing that your team needs, you can stick and find yourself a niche in the NBA. So that’s what I’ve tried to do. I stay ready when I’m needed. I’ve tried to come in and make shots when I’m open.”
When Matt entered the NBA in 2004-05 with Toronto, he was unique. There weren’t many players 6-10, 240 pounds who combined just enough bulk to defend muscled up post players, along with an outside shooting stroke better than most guards.
There are more players in the league like Matt now, but few with his incredible shooting stats. Through 36 games of this 2012-13 season, he’s a career 46.7 percent field goal shooter despite 50.3 percent of his career attempts from behind the three-point line.
He’s a 41.7 percent career three-point shooter, led the NBA in three-point percentage in 2010-11 at 45.7 percent and currently leads the league at 47.4 percent.
Matt was fortunate that even at an early age growing up in Concord, N.H. when he had a sweet outside shooting stroke, that coaches didn’t automatically stick him in the post because of his size.
“I’ve always been a good outside shooter,” he says. “I lucked out, because my AAU coach when I was growing up ran a motion offense. He never pegged anyone to one specific position. You played all the floor spots and we worked on all the skills of the game, regardless of size. Guards would work on postups, big men would work on perimeter shooting.”
And then Matt landed in the college system starting in 1999-2000 – Billy Donovan-coached Florida – that fit his skill set perfectly. Matt admits he considered staying close to home and playing in the Big East Conference until he met Donovan, Florida’s young, energetic coach who played an attacking, aggressive style that Matt appreciated. Here was another coach who realized Matt’s strength was his outside shooting range.
“My high school team happened to play in a Christmas tournament in Fort Lauderdale,” Matt recalls. “Coach Donovan and Coach Pel (Florida assistant coach and former Kentucky star John Pelphrey) saw me and started recruiting.”
The folks back home in New Hampshire didn’t think Matt would really sign with a school 1,125 miles from Concord. But he did.
“When I committed to Florida, I don’t think the Gators had made the (NCAA) tournament since back in 1995,” Matt says. “I felt Coach Donovan was going to build something special, but people back home couldn’t understand why I turned down offers from Providence, Boston College and UConn to go play at Florida.
“My senior year in high school, Florida went to the Sweet 16 and lost to Gonzaga (73-72). My first year at Florida, we went all the way to national championship game (losing to Michigan State, 89-76).”
Matt’s college career wasn’t spectacular, but it was extremely efficient. True, he averaged a mere 12 points and 5.9 rebounds, but his intelligence and leadership were so valued that Donovan twice made him a team captain.
“He (Donovan) was putting together a team that could run and press and he wanted a 4-man (a power forward) to stretch the floor on offense who was also mobile enough to press on defense,” Matt says. “I’m not the world’s greatest athlete, but I worked hard to fulfill that role on the defensive end. I knew I could do it on offense.”
Matt also found a kindred spirit in fellow redhead Pelphrey, who then was just about a decade removed from his Kentucky playing days.
“The entire Florida staff did an amazing job developing us each year, so by the end of your four years it’s like night and day from when you walked on campus,” Matt remembers. “I was close to all the assistants, but Coach Pel worked with me a lot.
“I remember one summer our team was getting ready for an overseas exhibition tour. We were short a body, so Coach Pel suited up and went through the training camp to help our team get ready for Europe. Me and him were matched together, and that was pretty funny. If I could find the tape of those practices, I could hold it as blackmail material, for sure.”
Not only did Matt play on four NCAA tournament teams, he played for two Gators’ squads that were SEC regular season co-champions and Florida was a collective 100-32 in his college career.
He also achieved the ultimate student-athlete balance. Not only was he a four-time All-SEC choice – third team as a freshman, second team as a sophomore and junior and finally first team as a senior – but he also was the Verizon Academic All-America team’s Academic All-American of the Year two consecutive seasons. He graduated with a business degree.
Shortly before Matt was drafted, he won the SEC’s highest individual honor. He was named the 2002-03 male recipient of the H. Boyd McWhorter Scholar-Athlete Award, receiving a $10,000 post-graduate scholarship.
“Both in the classroom and on the floor, Matt worked as hard as any player I’ve ever had,” Donovan said. “He took as much pride in winning the academic all-American of the year award as he did any game that we won. He was a true student athlete.”
Even more so, he was a good teammate, said former Gators’ forward Udonis Haslem of the Miami Heat, who won his second NBA championship ring last season.
“We all knew how smart Matt was,” Haslem said, “but he was so down-to-earth he never thought that way.”
Matt entered into the pro basketball as a dying breed, someone who actually played stayed in school all four years. The Bulls drafted him in the second round of the ‘03 NBA draft and then traded to Raptors, who immediately discovered they had no roster room for him.
That began Matt’s not-so-excellent Italian adventure, spending the 2003-04 season playing for Sicilia Messina in the Italian 1A. He averaged 19.2 points and 9.3 rebounds, but looking back he wonders how he survived.
Halfway through the season, the franchise filed bankruptcy and the team stopped paying its players. Soon, Matt found himself sitting in the dark after his electricity had been shutoff and he didn’t have much hot water. He survived two eviction notices and a case of salmonella.
“I lost 22 pounds in 5 ½ days,” Matt recalls. “I had a 105-degree fever and was hallucinating. Plus, the team didn’t pay half of what they owed me, but I never had a lot of money anyway growing up. So having a few thousand dollars in my pocket and having them pay for a car and an apartment, I thought I was in Heaven. That whole experience makes me appreciate what happened to me since.”
After Matt’s first pro season in Italy, the Raptors did indeed sign him back on the roster.
He played his second and third pro seasons in Toronto, getting an average of about 1,600 minutes playing time per year spread over 160 games. It was enough to show exactly how he could fit into a team looking for a versatile big guy with range.
That franchise thankfully for Matt, happened to the San Antonio Spurs, one of the NBA’s perennial title contenders built around future Hall of Famers Tim Duncan and Tony Parker.
In June 2006, the Spurs traded for him and one year later in 2007 he had won a NBA championship. Each season until this year, Matt’s playing time increased because Spurs’ coach Gregg Popovich finally realized the value of having a crew of three-point shooters of all shapes and sizes.
Though Matt’s minutes have been reduced in the first 2 ½ months of this season, he still leads the NBA in three-point percentage and is hoping to be invited for the first time in his career to the three-point shooting contest at the league’s all-star game.
“I’ve loved playing for the Spurs, it’s like playing for Florida,” says Matt, who’s now married. “Positive people surround you. They all check their egos at the door. It’s about getting the job done.”
That attitude is why Matt remains one of the Spurs’ most popular players.
His teammates appreciate his professionalism and humor, always prepared to play yet not exuding a bad attitude because of the sudden lack of playing time.
He’s beloved by the Spurs’ fans. Just last year, Patrick Gonzalez, a student at Woodlake Hills Middle School in San Antonio, Texas, was given in-school suspension for coming to school with a likeness of Matt’s face shaved into his hair.
And while Matt has loved playing in San Antonio, he always keeps an eye on his Gators. In fact, he says, there’s a brotherhood between the eight former Donovan-coached Gators currently playing in the NBA that never dies. Those eight players have combined for four NBA titles, three all-star game appearances, a Rookie of the Year award and a Sixth Man of the Year award.
“Coach Donovan has created a family culture at Florida,” Matt says proudly. “He recruits high character student-athletes who are going to buy into system, work hard, put team first and be low maintenance off-the-court. He hires good people and it’s a tight knit group.
“We all still have that Gator nation mindset. I always check (NBA) box scores to see how all the former Gators did and I root for them. A lot of times when I’m on the road, it doesn’t matter where I am, if I’m walking to lunch wearing a Florida shirt, someone is always going to shout `Go Gators.’ ”
Matt, who turns 33 on April 5, would like to ride this NBA career train long as possible. If he ever retires, though, his decision might be based on something a bit out of the norm.
Unlike 99.9 percent of NBA players that wear Nike and adidas shoes, with some Reeboks and an occasional Puma, Matt wears these funky out-of-circulation New Balance midcut shoes that look something you lace on to go take out the garbage.
“I’m down to four pairs of these things, size 17, a model called 8026 from about five years ago,” Matt says. “I have no idea while I like them so much, other than they are comfortable on my feet. I went on e-Bay last year and found a pair in my size that was purple, and I didn’t get them. Maybe I should have bought them and colored them.
“I’ve been married longer to these shoes longer than my wife. I guess it sticks out, because I’m the only one that wears New Balance. When the shoes run out, I may have to retire.”