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Matt Bonner and the (somewhat lost) art of card collecting

A catchup with the Spurs analyst and fan favorite who still finds joy in, among other things, trading cards.

“I could talk cards for hours,” Matt Bonner says, and you should believe him.

Since his arrival in San Antonio in 2006, part of what’s made the Red Mamba a local favorite is his willingness to let fans in on his personality and off-the-court passions, whether it’s music, comedic exploits, or sandwiches. So as he riffs on the hobby he’s enjoyed since he was a kid growing up in New Hampshire, goes deep on beloved sets from 1970s, and preaches the still-extant joy that can be had even as prices for cards, there’s no doubting the sincerity of that statement.

Unfortunately Bonner doesn’t have hours for card talk. A member of the Spurs broadcast team since 2017, he has a game against the Grizzlies to prep for very shortly. If that time crunch worries you as the blogger who put in this media request and was still battling with what you might write, don’t fret: Bonner’s shown up with a point, a narrative to run against, and plenty of his own story to share. He doesn’t waste a beat upon entering the room, shuffling to a nearby chair, pulling out a small selection of slabbed cards and launching into his thesis:

“If you stick to what’s personally important to you, most of it’s not that expensive,” he says. What colors Bonner’s statement is that sports cards were one of many collectibles that underwent a boom through the pandemic, followed by a correction. The result is an industry that’s not nearly the fertile ground for investment it got hyped as, but with prices still almost prohibitively high for the average person to know where to begin. It’s that context, I quickly realize, that frames his mindset coming into our chat, keen to demonstrate that collecting can still be fun.

“Cards have become like an all-or-nothing — the very coveted high-in-demand stuff is very expensive, but most of the stuff isn’t, in my opinion.”

He sets a first card down. “I love this George Gervin,” he says, revealing a 1975 Topps card of the Spurs Hall of Famer. No, it’s not Gervin’s highly sought-after rookie card, but it is an early look at the Iceman in a Spurs jersey, preserved in a protective case and graded a condition score of 8 out of 10. “It’s a random set without very many good rookies so it gets overlooked, but look at that shot. Isn’t that amazing?” He moves onto a 1978 Topps Pete Maravich, a 9, and again marvels at the design, as well as the mop of hair on Maravich’s head. “With the circle mugshot... I can’t get my hands on enough of this stuff.”

“From here on, it’s all sentimental,” he says, presenting an Alex English rookie card — “He was one of my assistants when I was on the Raptors.” — as well as a Becky Hammon from her first season with the New York Liberty. Then, a signed Micky Ward (the guy portrayed in 2010’s The Fighter, I had to be reminded). “He’s from Lowell, Mass,; I grew up in Concord, just north of Lowell on the Merrimack River. He was like our regional legend. I grew up watching him box and did a couple of charity softball games with him over the years. He’s my all-time favorite boxer. I was able to buy this raw, autographed Mickey Ward card for a dollar. He’s in the Boxing Hall of Fame!”

Bonner not only bargain hunts online, he also sends his own stuff to an authenticating company that gives a score for the condition of the card. “Another one — I’m a huge curling fan. John Shuster, captain of the 2018 gold medal team for Team USA. This one (serial numbered) out of 25. I bought it raw, sent it in (to get graded); it got a 10-10. Same thing, it was five bucks on eBay. And this guy is an absolute legend if you like curling.”

He puts a few more down, first of swimmer Jenny Thompson — “One of the most medaled Olympians ever. She’s from New Hampshire. When I grew up she was a legend... In the 4th grade everyone has to do a New Hampshire state project, and I picked her.” — then the 1961 rookie card of Wayne Embry: “He’s in the Hall of Fame. When I made the Raptors, he was a big reason why. He was in their front office and was a fan of mine. He was a part of the group that gave me an opportunity in the NBA. I saw him at Manu’s Basketball Hall of Fame induction. His contribution to the game as an African American breaking barriers, it’s incredible.”

He rounds out the showcase with a 1981 Topps Larry Bird — “That’s who I was in the driveway” growing up — and 2003 Netpro (International Series) of his “all-time favorite tennis player” Serena Williams, his point crystal clear. “This is an example of, for me, cards that aren’t worth a ton of money but personally mean the world to me. I love what they represent to me. If I put these cards on my wall you’d know a lot about me, just by looking at them, you know. It’s like when you look at someone’s bookshelf, you can tell a lot about them — you can do the same with the kinds of cards they collect.”

As a fellow collector, it’s easy to lose yourself in the banter over cardboard and set aside the wide-eyed, one-way relationship you had with this team and its players as a younger fan. He loses roughly a minute trying to find a picture on his phone of the Billy Mitchell (of King of Kong fame, another regional legend in his own right) autographed cards he’d just won on auction. You’re delighted to make him aware of a 2009 error card that mislabeled the Cavs’ Daniel Gibson as Matt Bonner of the San Antonio Spurs. More importantly you forget he has somewhere pressing to be, butting into answers, sabotaging your own story, and holding him up with asides about a random card, which he of course has a copy of.

This is seemingly all part of the Matt Bonner experience, engaging with him on the ample common ground he extends to others, feeling not at all like you’re talking to a former pro. He keeps on about certain underrated sets in the hallway, his head turned back to you to make one final point before he disappears around a corner, leaving you still curious about those Billy Mitchells.