In the coming weeks, we'll probably hear stories from coaches and teammates about what Matt Bonner meant to them. There's no doubt that the 12-year vet, who has spent his last 10 seasons with the Spurs, has inspired an impressive collection of humorous, if not inspiring, anecdotes.
But for now, with San Antonio's roster at 14 guaranteed contracts, training camp on the horizon and a youth movement in effect, it's safe to let the sad reality sink in: (another) one of the longest-tenured and most endearing Spurs won't likely be around next season. There are no hard feelings, Bonner has said, but if a signing hasn't taken place yet, it's fair to assume that 15th spot will go to someone else, or be left strategically vacant.
That leaves the 36-year-old free agent waiting to see how things shake out around the rest of the league. Which could mean joining another team in October, or retiring from the game. Whatever happens, now is a good time to reflect on a legacy that's as scrupulous on the court as it is absurd off the court.
The term 'role player' is broad enough to include all athletes who assume a limited and well-defined function, a subgenre of specialists and high-character guys that are prepared to contribute when needed. They're the little details that help build to a punchline, the road crew at a music show, the fixings of a sandwich.
Bonner not only fit the bill when he was acquired in 2006, he found the perfect landing spot in San Antonio, a team with three stars and a need for satellites to willingly orbit around them. As a player within the Spurs system, his set of skills -- three-point shooting, solid defense and heady decision-making -- made him an asset, while his character became a key element in the team's bubbling chemistry.
He played sparingly his first year, appearing in 56 games for a Spurs team that went on to win its third championship in five years and adding this Mark Madsen ankle-breaker to his mixtape.
His best statistical season was with the aging 2008-09 team that lost Manu Ginobili to injury, with an expanded role resulting in career highs in points (8.2) and rebounds (4.8) in almost 24 minutes per game. Still modest numbers, but they did coincide with Bonner putting up the fifth-highest offensive rating in the NBA that season.
The reserve big man may be better remembered for the times he stepped up later in his career, as a weapon against Zach Randolph's Grizzlies team that had eliminated San Antonio from the playoffs in 2011, and as a starter in the last two games of the 2014 Western Conference Finals against the Thunder.
He'll go down as fourth all time in three-pointers made for the Spurs, with his 656 just five behind Bruce Bowen's total. He led the league in three-point percentage (45.7) in the 2010-11 season and also had a second-place finish in the 2013 Three Point Shootout. In 10 seasons with San Antonio, he attempted a total of 285 free throws and 1,588 three-pointers (and 1,250 two-pointers), a product of his clear-cut function within the offense: space the floor, hit threes, and don't turn the ball over -- which reminds me, he owns the Spurs' best ever turnover percentage.
Bonner's forays into the lane were rarely pretty, but he did develop a trusty floater as he adapted to defenders chasing him off the three-point line. And every now and again, fans were treated to that rarest of sights, the Red Rocket in flight:
As with the Red Rocket nickname, Bonner often riffs off the identity of an unsung, redheaded bench player, making the most of the attention he received. He embraced the Red Mamba handle Kobe gave him, took his search for the perfect sandwich on the road under the name the Sandwich Hunter, and showed his acting, directing and editing chops with the hilarious Coach B -- with Tim Duncan dubbing him the Medium Fundamental in the first episode. He endorsed baby carrots, because of course, and he's combined his love of music and desire to help the community by co-founding (with brother Luke) the Rock On Foundation.
The sketches and colorful news stories (including his famed courting of New Balance for a shoe deal) were a contrast to the often-stoic player we saw on the floor, who never knew how many minutes he'd get any given night and treated each one with the requisite focus and professionalism.
Well, most of the time.
But perhaps equally as important is that all his antics revealed an openness that reporters and fans didn't always get out of a notoriously taciturn organization like San Antonio's. I've never been on the front lines of a Spurs media scrum, but by most accounts player access is tough to come by compared to other teams. Bonner was, as PtR big boss J.R. Wilco told me, routinely one of the most available, he and addressed questions without reservations but with considerable charm.
That he paired his affable nature with an inclination towards comedy made Bonner even easier to connect to.
Humor is subjective, and his penchant for the self-deprecating, deadpan and awkward may not appeal to everyone, but I've always seen his comedic sensibilities as a unique bridge between player and fan. We can appreciate the effort, regardless of whether we relate to the palate of reference points. But if you enjoy the work of Tim Heidecker and Eric Wareheim, as Bonner does, even better.
Sense of humor has been an important part of the Spurs philosophy under Pop. It's one of the first qualities the coach looks for in a player, as well as one of the things that ultimately galvanizes a group of guys who spend a lot of time together from October through April, May and, sometimes, June. "It's just basketball," is an idea that he often echoes, both because that's what he believes and because reminding people of it serves a functional purpose, helping take the edge off before the pressures of the league become too much.
Most players, I'd imagine, pursue interests off the court that reinforce that healthy perspective, and Bonner's wacky videos are no different. But they also feed into a larger idea of what makes a team come together. When you watch Patty Mills and Aron Baynes in hair-metal wigs, Matt Bonner in the background alongside the Coyote, and the low-key franchise pillar Kawhi Leonard holding down the drums, you see the intangible qualities that front offices seek out in a role player materialize.
Bonner has said he wants to be a part of the game even after his playing days are over -- it's just a matter of what path he takes.
"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."
He may find his way back to the Spurs someday on the bench or in the front office; he'd likely excel either way. He could take a job in front of the camera (he took part in the NBPA's 'Sportscaster U' program) or indeed find himself on the roster of a team for one more year. Whatever role he chooses, he'll make it his own. He always has.