When you think of the San Antonio Spurs, you think Gregg Popovich and Tim Duncan, the coach and player tandem who’ve won five championships together. But consider this: Matt Bonner, now in his ninth season with the club, is the longest-tenured Spur after Duncan, Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker.
That’s exceptional staying power on one of the most successful franchises in pro sports, especially when since Bonner’s game has never stood out. He’s neither athletic enough to make the highlights nor eccentric enough to garner the attention some of the NBA’s other personalities receive. And yet, Bonner ranks third on the franchise’s all-time list in three-pointers made, and lands in the top 10 for games played and three-point field-goal percentage. And he’s always been a fan favorite.
So, what makes Bonner such a lasting hit?
Bonner was drafted 45th overall by the Chicago Bulls in 2003. Traded to Toronto on draft night, he spent a season playing in Italy before joining the Raptors in 2004-05.
It was not a memorable year for the franchise. Vince Carter was traded in December, and fans watched as the team—absent its franchise player—stumbled to a 33-49 finish. Bonner appeared in all 82 games and averaged 7.2 points as a rookie, while shooting 42.4 percent from three.
He also endeared himself to a city known for its love of blue-collar athletes. Bonner hates driving, so he often took public transit home games, earning himself the nickname, “The Red Rocket” in the process. A tussle with Kevin Garnett during a home game in 2004 cemented his fan-favourite status, when he played to the crowd’s cheers as he walked towards the tunnel on his way to the locker room after being ejected.
After just two seasons, Bonner was traded to San Antonio, where he won championships with the Spurs in 2007 and 2014, but his popularity in Toronto endures. And it turns out the feeling is mutual.
“I loved my time with the Raptors,” Bonner says. “I have nothing but positive memories. My wife is from Toronto, and we go back and visit all the time during the summer because her family is there. I still have a lot of friends there.”
As part of their 20th anniversary celebrations, the Raptors have been holding throwback Fridays at home this year—the last one coming Friday night against the Lakers. The events have seen the team invite many former players back to recognize them for their time in Toronto, including Tracy McGrady, Charles Oakley and Muggsy Bogues, who only played 83 games for the Raptors in his career. Bonner seems like an obvious choice, but despite suiting up for 160 games for the Raps, not to mention his continued ties to the city, he says he wasn’t too upset there wasn’t a Vince Carter-style video tribute waiting for him when the Spurs played in Toronto in February.
After a slow start, the Spurs are coming together of late, reminding everyone that they are still firmly among the handful of teams capable of making a run for the title.
Bonner may not play a huge role on a night-to-night basis, but his ability to space the floor as a three-point threat can come into play depending on matchups, as it did during last year’s Western Conference Finals, when he started two games against the Thunder in order to pull Serge Ibaka towards the perimeter on defense.
“You’re the champs. You have that bullseye on your back,” Bonner says of the atmosphere around his team this season. “Everybody gets excited to play you. So you’re getting everybody’s best shot on a night in and night out basis. But otherwise, it’s the same process.”
The Spurs are a notoriously tight-knit group. Popovich’s encounters with the media often amount to little more than a handful of words—and not sentences. Duncan is similarly tight-lipped, though everyone insists he has a wonderful sense of humor when the cameras are off.
Having played for the organization for almost a decade now, it’s fitting that Bonner goes into Spurs mode when asked whether Pop let his guard down and gave an emotional speech to his players after becoming just the sixth coach in league history to win 1,000 games. “What happens in the locker room stays in the locker room,” Bonner says.
But he would entertain one question about the team’s head coach and its franchise player: If Bonner had to choose between interviewing Duncan or Pop, who would he choose?
“Probably coach Pop,” he says. “I feel like Timmy just won’t talk to me. Pop would at least have something for me.”