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For Spurs' veteran Bonner, life after NBA is wide open

When his playing days are over, the two-time champion plans on staying close to what makes him happiest: basketball

POSTED: Sep 5, 2015 9:51 AM ET
UPDATED: Sep 5, 2015 4:57 PM ET

By Ian Thomsen

BY Ian Thomsen

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Matt Bonner: Sandwich Hunter

In Germany for the NBA Global Games, Matt Bonner could not pass up a hunt for a good sandwich.

Matt Bonner was standing behind the basket in Las Vegas. He was watching an NBA Summer League game and studying the rosters of the players and conferring with a colleague all at the same time. He was already beginning to prepare for his next life.

"I don't have a set number of years that I'm going to play," said Bonner, looking ahead to his upcoming 10th season with the Spurs -- which will be his 12th in the NBA overall. "I'm going to play as long as I can play. With my skill set, as long as I'm healthy, I think I can keep playing. And I'm fortunate to play for an organization that values recovery and keeping guys healthy and extending careers."

Bonner is 6-foot-10 and 235 pounds with three-point range (41.4 percent for his career, which ranks No. 15 in the NBA all-time), enabling him to stand up to big men defensively and create mismatches at the other end of the floor -- the same formula that has enabled Robert Horry and others like him to play into their late-30s. But Bonner also has recognized that long-term plans evolve quickly, and that the future arrives with the furious speed of these young players who were stampeding back and forth across the Summer League court in July.

When the Spurs' season ended with a loss to the Clippers in the opening round -- the first time in four years that San Antonio hadn't played into June -- Bonner tried to take advantage of the silver lining. At age 35, he signed on for two of the several hands-on courses in the NBPA's career development program.

Bonner was in Las Vegas to investigate a potential career in an NBA front office. Even as he studied these young players who were dreaming of the same kind of playing career that he had made for himself, Bonner found himself looking beyond. He wasn't going to be able to play basketball for another 30 years, and at the same time he was too young to retire.

Spurs Championship Trophy Tour: Matt Bonner in New Hampshire

The Larry O'Brien Trophy continues its off-season tour as super-sub Matt Bonner shows it off in his hometown of Concord, New Hampshire.

Exploring options

"I dreamed of being an NBA player,'' said Bonner. "But until it happened it was never something I counted on.''

Even in childhood he was a realist. Bonner led Concord High School to three state championships in New Hampshire, and he also graduated at the top of his class academically. Just because he wanted to play in the NBA didn't mean that it was going to happen.

"My dad was a mailman and my mom was an elementary school teacher,'' Bonner said. "I was raised in a blue-collar family that prided itself on hard work and academics were always super important in my house. I was lucky in my upbringing to have that foundation instilled in me from a young age.

"I'm a normal person too. No one likes pulling all-nighters and cramming for a test, but generally speaking I enjoyed academics. My approach to the classroom was the same as on the court -- it was a competitive thing for me. I don't have a 175 IQ. I got my grades from hard work. I always tell kids in my basketball camp that it's the same values and principles that make you successful in anything you pursue - basketball, school, guitar-playing, whatever. I always liked to think of my schoolwork as a competition, and in school I didn't want anybody to get better grades than me, even if they were smarter than me.''

What would he have made for a career if he had been unable to find work in basketball professionally? Bonner has trouble answering that question.

"That was one of the bridges I would have crossed if it came to it,'' he said. He was trying to focus in the moment and not look too far ahead.

"I approached college as an opportunity on the court and in the classroom,'' he said. "I wanted to make the most of the opportunity to get the best education I could at the University of Florida for free. If basketball didn't work out, I figured because I worked so hard in the classroom I would be able to figure it out from there.''

He enrolled at Florida in 1999 as a pre-med major.

"I was taking engineering, calculus, organic chemistry, biology,'' he said. "I was taking really hard classes my freshman year, all math and science oriented, and a lot of them had labs. So I had a tough class schedule on top of a regular college basketball schedule of playing, practicing, weightlifting, traveling, individual training and stuff like that. I was killing myself trying to keep up in class and on the court. My schedule was insane. I was waking up at 7:30 and either doing something for school or basketball until I went to sleep at 11:30, and that was every day of the week, Monday through Friday. That year I got my only `B.' It was in chemistry.

"I was like, there is no way I can keep this up for four years. It was impossible. So I switched over to business, which was the next thing I was most interested in. There were no more science labs with that degree path, and I ended up really liking business. My favorite class was finance. It sounds super nerdy, but I loved probabilities and standard deviations and trying to balance risk and the future value of money and how all of that stuff worked together.''

Bonner would be named Academic All-American of the Year in each of his final two seasons. He was going to graduate with a high-honors GPA of 3.96 in business administration that would shape him up for a potential career in finance. But then something better came along. He had a breakout junior season in basketball.

"I was one of the best players in the SEC and outplaying guys who went onto the NBA,'' he said. "That was when I knew I was good enough to play in the NBA. But that didn't mean I was going to play in the NBA - tons of guys who are good don't make it, for whatever reason.

"I guess I did it the hard way. I went to college all four years. I was drafted in the mid-to-late second round. I went to play in Italy for a year.''

By the time he came back to try out for the Toronto Raptors in 2004, the men who had acquired his rights one year earlier had been fired and replaced by new GM Rob Babcock and coach Sam Mitchell. Bonner was sitting in an office with them on the eve of the new season. He had outplayed several other candidates for Toronto's final roster spot.

"Rob said, 'We want you on the team, but we can only give you a one-year unguaranteed rookie minimum contract,' '' recalled Bonner. Babcock went onto explain that the Raptors' needs at point guard could prevent Bonner from finishing the season with Toronto. Babcock also understood that Bonner was receiving interest from teams in Europe who could offer more money than the Raptors.

"Rob said, 'What do you want to do?''' recalled Bonner. "I thought about it for a few seconds. Then Sam said, 'Matt, when you were a kid, what was your dream? Was it playing in the NBA or playing in Europe?' I said it was to play in the NBA. He said, 'Sign the contract.' I signed the contract.''

On the first trip out west, Donyell Marshall suffered a hamstring injury. Bonner stepped into the rotation and averaged 7.2 points in 18.9 minutes as a rookie. After his second season he was traded to the Spurs for Rasho Nesterovic. San Antonio has won at least 50 games every year while earning two NBA championships, and in 2010-11 Bonner led the NBA in three-point shooting (45.7 percent).

The seasons have flown by in this career that he has never taken for granted.

"I've been thinking about it probably the last three years,'' said Bonner of his long-term future. He was in no hurry to retire as a player, because he loves his job, and yet it is in his nature to be prepared. And so when he was surprised by the abrupt end to their season in Game 7 at Los Angeles on May 2, Bonner decided to make the best of it. He made plans to go to Syracuse.

Steal and Slam

Cory Joesph steals the ball and Matt Bonner gets the loose ball and finishes with authority.

Preparing for life after NBA

The players' union operated five career-development programs last summer: Coaching, front-office management, real estate, business and broadcasting, which was the program at Syracuse that Bonner attended. The subjects of these programs were the result of a league-wide survey of players: These were the areas they were interested in exploring.

Most of the costs, apart from travel, were covered by the union. The majority of the players who attend these furlongs were already retired or else planning ahead, like Bonner, though a few were in their mid-20s.

Sportscaster U. was held at Syracuse University's S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications for four days in early June. Bonner's seven classmates were Amar'e Stoudemire, Kelenna Azubuike, Danny Granger, Randy Foye, Robbie Hummel, Nazr Mohammed and Jason Thompson. Registration was limited in order to provide maximum air time for the students. More than 70% of the program's participants have gone onto make careers in broadcasting, including Shaquille O'Neal.

"It's very intensive,'' said Bonner. "There's no messing around. They try to teach you as much as they possibly can in those four days. You get guidance and experts in the field and it was just an awesome experience.''

The program was managed by broadcaster Matt Park at Syracuse's new state-of-the-art broadcasting facilities. The players worked in studio, moving from one format to another to provide them with an understanding for the demands and skills of a variety of potential jobs.

"I had to bring a couple of suits because we were going to be on-air,'' said Bonner. "They had a full-functioning studio and we were put into all of these different situations. The first thing we did was read a PSA (public service announcement). Then we did some analyst work. We did a kind of multi-person (talk) show. We went on the court to demonstrate something. We did radio commentating, TV commentating -- anything you could do as a broadcaster, we did it, and then you reviewed the film like you would in basketball. You look at the film, take notes, and figure out what you did well so you can work on your strengths and weaknesses.''

One month later, Bonner was in Las Vegas for the Leadership program, which was meant to prepare the players to be GMs, scouts or other administrative positions for NBA franchises. It was operated by former NBA executive Brendan Suhr.

"There were maybe 30 current and retired players at that one,'' said Bonner. "A lot of it was about the mindset and the process and the commitment. The biggest thing I took away from it was how hard you have to work and travel in order to be successful in a front office. The attention to detail that goes into it blew me away. Not that I wasn't aware of it, but learning first-hand what they go through was eye-opening.''

Kevin Eastman of the Clippers gave a highly-motivational speech that appealed to the players' sense of competition. If they were intending to win in the front office, then they would need to plan on working at least as hard as their rivals.

"We had an exercise in scouting,'' said Bonner of his experience in Las Vegas. "We were divided into teams -- three or four of us for each organization -- and we were given four (Summer League) teams that we had to scout. And then we did an expansion draft the next morning, and we were given 30 seconds to make our picks. It showed how stressful the draft is and how you need to be prepared to make quick decisions.''

Bonner plans on attending the NBPA's remaining three career-development furlongs -- with the understanding that more such programs are under development by the union.

"These programs are a great way to see how you like doing something,'' Bonner said. "It's hard to know if you're going to like doing something until you're actually doing it.''

But why was he bothering? Many players -- as well as envious fans -- would assume that playing in the NBA is the ultimate career, and that Bonner could never do as well as he is doing now. And then there is the money: His NBA salaries have surely set up Bonner for life. So why would he feel the need to keep working when early retirement awaits?

"That's a really good question,'' he said, and for a few moments he was quiet. "For me, I think the general goal in life is to be as happy as you can. To do whatever makes you happy. Part of that equation is finding something you are passionate about and then pursuing it. To me it's the game of basketball. Even when I can't play it anymore, I know I'll still want to be part of the game. Because that's what makes me happy."

It's not about making the most money. For Bonner, it is about creating his happiest, most rewarding life. If it were not for this point of view then he never would have made it to the NBA in the first place.

"Having a career in the NBA gives you freedom to pursue whatever you want to do,'' he said. "Whatever is your passion.'' It is an opportunity that he is not going to waste.

Ian Thomsen has covered the NBA since 2000. You can e-mail him here or follow him on Twitter.

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