After his appearance at the POP versus Jock Charity Basketball Game, held at McGill’s Love Competition Hall on Saturday Sept. 24, the Tribune had the privilege of speaking to current NBA player and former Toronto Raptor Matt Bonner.
Bonner has been with the San Antonio Spurs organization since 2006, and won a championship with them in 2007. However, lately, instead of fighting for the Larry O’Brien Trophy on the hardcourt, Bonner, as Vice President of the NBA Players Association, has been battling the NBA owners in the boardroom for a new Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA).
The Tribune contacted Bonner at his home in Toronto, and we discussed rookie tribulations, the origins of his “Red Rocket” nickname, his thoughts on the city of Montreal, and, nearest and dearest to all our hearts, academics.
After you were drafted by the Raptors you were asked to spend a year in Italy. Can you describe that experience?
While I was in Italy I had a great year on the court, but off the court it was an absolute nightmare. I only got paid half of my money, I had my electricity cut out: I had two eviction notices because the team wasn’t paying my rent. My water heater broke the first week I was there and never got fixed. I’d do the old freezing cold shower, like when you jump in, get wet, jump out, soap up, jump in, rinse off, jump out. And also I think because of that, because I couldn’t disinfect anything with hot water, I ended up getting salmonella poisoning at one point. I was sick for six days and I lost 22 pounds. I hit 105-temperature fevers. I was hallucinating and stuff. And…uh…that was a lot of fun.
But that taught me two things: One, it made me want to make it in the NBA that much more, and two, once I got to the NBA, I never took anything for granted. I’m so happy just to be in the NBA. That was always my dream.
[A]t the end of all that I got my one-year rookie minimum, unguaranteed contract. The worst contract you can get, but I took it, even though I was getting much bigger offers in Europe because, like I said, playing in the NBA was my dream.
How do you feel about being such a fan favourite in Toronto?
I don’t even know what to say, it’s just incredibly flattering and awesome that all the fans would take to me, you know?…I don’t consider myself a flashy or exciting player to watch, I just try to go out and do whatever I can to help the team win, you know, through hustle and hard work….
It was funny, in Toronto, I got the nickname “The Red Rocket” because I never had a car and I just would either walk to the games or practice, or if it was raining I would take the streetcar or the subway. [Editor’s note: The red colour of Toronto’s TTC transit system and Bonner’s red hair both contributed to the nickname.] A lot of times, going to the game and coming home, I’m on the streetcar with fans who are also going or coming from the game. And they’re just like, “What are you doing here?” And I’m like, “I’m going home, just like you!” And I remember, every time I’d do a basketball camp we’d open it up for questions and one of the questions would be, “What kind of car do you drive?” You know, a big NBA player must have an awesome car. And they just could not understand when I’d tell them that I don’t have a car.
Another funny one…I don’t even know why I’m telling you this, it’s so embarrassing…because I didn’t really make much money in Italy—then I came back and played for the Raptors and I never really had time to secure living arrangements, so, when I came home that following summer, I remember I lived in my parent’s tiny basement with my brother for the whole summer. A year after playing in the NBA. And I remember, same thing at camps, [fans would ask] “How big is your house?” and I’d have to explain to them that I lived in my parents’ basement.
One thing I learned about the NBA is that in college I might average 20 points a game, in Italy I might average 20 points a game, but in the NBA I’m not going to score 20 points a game, ever. I’m not an All-Star. I’m not even a full-time starter. I’m fine with that, I understand that. It’s about finding your niche and your role that is part of the whole and that will win.
You said you’re not an All-Star but a lot of people felt like you should’ve been at the All-Star game in the three-point competition.
Don’t get me started on that. I feel like I’ve gotten the shaft a few times in that department but they always come back with some reason or excuse why I didn’t go. I’m just going to keep shooting the ball and hopefully one of these times I can catch a break. I just hope when I finally catch it I don’t go up there and shoot a two.
How great has it been playing with Tim Duncan in San Antonio?
It’s been awesome, he’s an incredible player. I mean, not just about his physical skills on the court, but his mentality; he’s about all the right things and will do whatever it takes to win. Some nights he won’t shoot the ball if he’s getting double-teamed because he knows if he kicks it out we can swing it and get a better shot off the rotation but if he needs to score he will. He’s not selfish. He doesn’t have an ego. He just goes out and wants to win.
He’s a really funny guy. I get along great with him because I’m from New England and people in New England have a very dry, sarcastic sense of humour and he shares that same attribute. He has a very sarcastic sense of humour and is definitely a funny guy.
What are your plans for the lockout?
I’m vice president on the executive board of the Players Association so I’ve been sitting in on all the negotiation sessions, which means a lot of travelling back and forth to New York City, so I’ve been busy with that, obviously, spending a lot of time with my family. [I’m] enjoying that aspect of the lockout. Normally right now I’d be in training camp but I can put in more time with my family and just work out and try to be healthy and in shape for whenever the lockout ends.
How did you maintain such a high GPA while playing so much ball?
Just busy. Hard work and being busy. I remember I’d go stretches where I’d wake up at 8 and go to bed at midnight for weeks at a time where every spare second was either something academic—studying, class, lab, whatever—or basketball—lifting weights, individual instruction, practice, games. So I just buckled down, put my head down and said I’m going to get the most out of college I can. I’m a student athlete and that means I’m going to get the most I can out of academics and on the court, and that’s what I tried to do.
How did you like our city when you came here for Pop Montreal?
It was amazing. Growing up in New Hampshire, which is about a three hour drive to Montreal, I remember in high school all my buddies would drive up to Montreal to party. You know, the drinking age is lower, they had the casino, and the US dollar was worth twice as much as the Canadian dollar back then and they would just go up there and go nuts and come back Monday morning and tell me all about it. And I obviously never went, I was at the YMCA working on my jumpshot. So the only stories I ever heard about Montreal coming up were these stories of just how…I don’t even know what I was picturing in my head, I was picturing the craziest party place, like Las Vegas times 10, like young 18
-year-old kids just passed out on the street from going nuts. And so I never really had a chance to take a proper visit to Montreal because I went to the University of Florida, then my career and everything. It just never happened for whatever the reason, even though it’s so close. So to be able to go to Montreal and have Win and Will and everybody from Arcade Fire be our hosts and be passionate about sharing their city with me and my wife, we had an absolute blast. We went to so many amazing restaurants and concerts and the whole Pop Montreal festival and everything that entails was amazing. We got to do the Old Port.
We just got a really good cross-section of what Montreal’s about over those four days and it really blew my mind. I loved it, loved the city and it definitely shattered my preconceived notion of what it was.
I look forward to next year when I come back and hopefully participate again and get some of those same experiences.