ORLANDO - His body drained of fluids, his temperature peaking at a dangerous 104.5 degrees, Matt Bonner was in trouble.
It would have been one thing to contract salmonella in America where a hospital bed and medical insurance could have pampered him. But in Messina, Sicily?
Bonner’s mother Paula - along with her other son Luke - had coincidentally arrived in Sicily to visit Bonner when he fell sick.
So when his weight began plummeting, Mrs. Bonner asked her son’s basketball team - Sicilia - for help. And they did - by sending a dentist that arrived to Bonner’s apartment on a motorcycle smoking a cigarette.
He gave Bonner a number of shots, then purchased an IV packet at the local drug store. The dentist/doctor used a broomstick, a bedpost and the string from Bonner’s hoops shorts to connect the IV. He used Bonner’s shaving alcohol to help with the shots.
“In four days to lose 16 pounds, to have a fever of 104.5 at that age and to have a dentist, not a doctor, come - it was a little unnerving to say the least,” Mrs. Bonner said.
Bonner eventually recovered, missing just one game for the A-1 professional league team, and actually laughed off the whole ordeal while he was stuck in bed.
“That’s just Matt,” Mrs. Bonner said.
MASTER OF DECEPTION
Bonner’s mop of Alabama clay-colored hair screams something professional. Maybe a bank clerk. Maybe the owner of your local barbershop.
His cheery smile whispers something more ordinary. Perhaps a little league umpire or a janitor.
“When we looked at Matt Bonner we thought that he could be the guy next door or the guy in the movie Hoosiers,” Toronto guard Jalen Rose said. “When you see him, that’s what you think and that’s what makes him likable.”
But Matt Bonner has never been one to fit the stereotypes. Not in Sicily. Not in Toronto, either, where Bonner is now a solid Raptors forward.
In 2003, Bonner left the Gators a bona-fide do-it-all. His 3.96 GPA as a business administration graduate meshed with a UF basketball career that saw him average 15.2 points and 6.1 rebounds per game as a senior.
But despite Bonner’s preparation in basketball and literacy, he slipped to No. 45 in the 2003 NBA Draft. He was traded on draft night - from the Chicago Bulls to the Toronto Raptors - for Tommy Smith, a virtual nobody. Then the Raptors politely told him to take a hike.
“They said, ‘We don’t really have a spot for you on the roster,’” Bonner recalls. “‘We want you to go to Europe, play a year there and then we’ll give you a contract when you get back.’”
And so, with nothing but a verbal guarantee from an organization younger than the player it was shipping, Bonner left for Sicily.
So far, so bad. But bad was just the beginning.
LOST IN TRANSLATION
Bonner could forget about the fact that none of Sicilia’s players or coaches spoke English. He could manage living off paltry wages.
But halfway through the season, Sicilia filed for bankruptcy.
Sicilia stopped paying him. Bonner’s heater broke. His apartment’s tap spat cold water - only cold water. Bonner likely contracted salmonella because he couldn’t wash his dishes in hot water. Even his electricity and satellite signal were cut on occasion.
“There were two eviction notices,” Bonner said. “It was a pain in the butt.”
So did Bonner leave the team like half of the players did?
“I was staying focused on getting better on the court,” Bonner said. “My total focus was to make the NBA the next year.”
Bonner toiled with Sicilia, averaging 19.2 points and 9.3 rebounds and holding out hope for a future with the Raptors.
MAKING THE PROS (AGAIN)
Toronto promised Bonner a roster spot if he played in Europe for one season.
But during a tumultuous 33-49 2003-04 season, the Raptors fired general manager Glen Grunwald. Head coach Kevin O’Neill was axed at the season’s end.
“I basically had to start from scratch and make the team,” Bonner said.
He still landed on the squad anyhow. Those close to him were not surprised.
“I thought he had NBA skill at the power forward position,” said UF coach Billy Donovan, who coached Bonner during his days as a Gators player. “It’s almost like he’s a machine. He just works and he’s focused and he does the same routine over and over.”
Those who didn’t know Bonner were a tad more skeptical.
“You look at him and you wouldn’t think that he can play the game of basketball - there’s the red hair and he’s not the fastest guy,” Raptors guard Mo Peterson said.
But what his teammates couldn’t figure out by scanning Bonner’s appearance they realized when they watched him shoot. And boy, can Bonner shoot.
BEING HIS OWN MAN
Bonner loves the elbows at the top of the paint. He gravitates to the left elbow during a pre-Orlando game shootaround.
There’s nothing fancy about his stroke: just a little stutter step here, a baby hop there, ball cocks perpendicular to his head - but the results.
Swish. Swish. Swish. Then four more, making for a total of seven consecutive made shots from that lovable left elbow.
“It’s not about being different,” said Toronto’s up-and-coming forward Chris Bosh. “It’s about being able to play basketball, and Matt can play. Everyone knows he can shoot the basketball. I think if he can keep shooting the ball, he can make it in the league for a long time.”
Bonner began logging playing time for the Raptors from the onset of the 2004-05 season. He wouldn’t dominate the ball, but if opponents left him open, he would fire.
At one point, Bonner led the NBA with a field goal percentage above 60 percent.
The only thing more striking than that statistic is the way Bonner has lived his NBA life.
Toronto’s Rafer Alston, also known as “Skip to My Lou,” his AND 1 moniker, could qualify as Bonner’s polar opposite, a spokesperson for the NBA culture. But even Alston can’t discriminate against a teammate who says he has yet to club with his teammates.
“I don’t know if he likes techno dancing or things like that, but we have to find out what kind of place he would like to go to,” Alston said. “We don’t mind hanging out with Matt cause he’s a fun guy.”
Maybe Bonner stays in because he doesn’t have a car.
Instead he walks - yes, walks - to every home practice and game. Sometimes Bonner frequents the pricier of restaurants on the way there. Places like Mr. Subs and Subway.
“You look at him - he’s a Red Sox fan, a blue-collar guy, walks to practice every day - he’s not high maintenance,” Peterson said. “He comes into practice, punches in and goes back home.”
And on the way to work Bonner encounters his very own fans, who call him the Red Rocket.
“The fans go crazy for some reason,” Bonner said. “It’s a hockey town and they love when someone comes in and works hard.”
THE RAP ON BONNER’S FUTURE
Bonner has scored 10 points or more 23 times this season.
He’s drained 36 threes, 34 of those within the last three months.
And Bonner’s field-goal percentage of 54.6 percent? That would be third behind only Shaquille O’Neal, Amare Stoudamire and Yao Ming.
“Matt’s a good kid, works good, plays hard and is very respectful,” Toronto head coach Sam Mitchell said. “I wish there were more Matt Bonner guys in the NBA.”
Bonner sees himself being a starter down the road. And Toronto’s young nucleus of Bosh, Alston and Peterson looks to include Bonner in the future.
“That’s up to Matt,” Mitchell said. “If he works and continues to develop as a player, the sky’s the limit. He can be whatever he wants to be.”
Said Peterson: “He’s put himself in a position where he’s going to make a lot of money.”
Something tells you he’s not about the money. Even so, his financial troubles are likely over. For now he can milk the NBA’s piggy bank. When his professional career concludes, Bonner plans to study for a graduate degree.
Just don’t bet on that happening any time soon.
“How are we going to cut a guy that was leading the league in field goal percentage?” Mitchell said.
Of course, his shooting is no accident.
After swishing seven consecutive shots from the left elbow, Bonner trots in his own goofy way to the right elbow.
At first he misses a number of the uncontested jumpers - this is his own way of showing he is just Matt Bonner.
Then he casually hits eight consecutive shots - this is his own way of showing he is one healthy and soon-to-be millionaire Red Rocket.