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A Spur takes game (and flannel shirts) to TV studio

Matt Bonner prepared for his new gig by rummaging through his closet. He found 19 flannel shirts and seven pairs of corduroy pants. Based on his calculations, he had nearly 150 wardrobe combinations — more than enough to last an entire season.

“I’m good to go,” he told himself.

For 10 seasons, Bonner was a dependable member of the San Antonio Spurs. A 6-foot-10 power forward, he launched funky-looking 3-pointers, contributed to two championships and emerged as a fan favorite thanks to his lively personality, red hair and odd obsession with sandwiches.

But after he announced his retirement in January, he quickly moved into a new role as a studio analyst for the Spurs’ broadcasts, which are primarily on Fox Sports Southwest. From a safe remove, he offers insight: how to defend Zach Randolph, how to avoid fouling James Harden. He recently ordered a “bunch of cheap ties,” he said, to lend some gravitas. His wife wants him to wear makeup.

“She says I look quote-unquote ‘shiny,'” Bonner said. “I haven’t caved yet.”

In many ways, Bonner, 37, is following a well-trod path. Broadcasting is a cottage industry for retired athletes. Tony Romo, the former quarterback, recently announced that he was jumping to the broadcast booth at CBS as an NFL analyst. And consider TNT, which, however ill-conceived the experiment, had a series of NBA games this season that were broadcast solely by former players.

The transition can be challenging, said Sean Elliott, a Spurs forward who retired from the NBA in 2001.

“The biggest thing is you don’t have anything to fill that competitive void, and you feel like you could still be out there playing,” said Elliott, now the in-game color commentator for the Spurs’ broadcasts. “You see all the mistakes and all the missed assignments, and you’ve got to figure out how to relay that information without just bashing your guys.”

Bonner, who appears on the network’s pre- and postgame shows, said he did not miss playing basketball. Stuff hurts. The idea of running up and down the court no longer appeals to him. But he is still learning to navigate unfamiliar terrain. His former teammates, whom he still considers close friends, give him a hard time about drifting to the dark side: the media.

“He’s not allowed across that little line there,” said point guard Patty Mills, who pointed to an invisible boundary in the locker room. “If he puts one foot over the line, people start yelling at him.”

It helps, Bonner said, that the Spurs are really good. He does not have much to criticize. 

“It’s not something you really think about,” he said. “You’re young, and you think you’re invincible. You think you’re going to play forever.”

Bonner’s perspective changed during the lockout in 2011, when he served on the executive committee of the players’ union. It was a valuable learning experience, he said. He even wore a suit.

“But I really missed basketball,” he said. “Like, it was driving me nuts. I kind of came to the conclusion that, whatever I did after basketball, I wanted it to have to do with basketball.”

Once the lockout ended, Bonner rejoined the Spurs. But he was already mulling his future. He consulted former teammates who had retired. And through the union, he participated in several offseason programs — coaching, broadcasting and front-office leadership — designed to help players prepare for the next phases of their lives.

With two young children at home, Bonner figured that broadcasting would be more conducive to family life. He also knew that he wanted to earn the job, he said. He thought about his dad, who delivered the mail for 35 years, and his mom, a teacher.

“When I was done playing, I didn’t want to be one of those guys who’s like, ‘Hey, uh, can you give me a job because I’ve played here for 10 years?'” Bonner said. “I wanted to actually have some experience and a résumé so that there would be a professional incentive for them to hire me, and not just because I was a former player.”

In recent seasons, Bonner supplemented his day job as a player by occasionally working, on off nights, as a color commentator for the Austin Spurs of the NBA Development League. Ahead of his first broadcast, Bonner forgot that the team had changed its name.

“Because I called them the Austin Toros about 20 times,” he said, “and the producer was in my ear — ‘Austin Spurs! Austin Spurs!’ — every time I said it.”

Last season, Bonner played sparingly for the Spurs, appearing in just 30 games. He went into the offseason as a free agent. Hoping to latch on with another team, he returned to New Hampshire with his family and continued to train.

“I was just up there working out in the mountains ‘Rocky IV’ style,” he said.

Weeks passed, and then months. The season began without him. By January, Bonner was coping with the hard truth that his playing career was finished.

“I was also starting to go out of my mind not really having anything to do except work out every morning,” he said. “I just felt, I don’t know, unfulfilled.”

Bonner made his retirement official by posting a video essay on the Players’ Tribune website. In the video, Bonner delivers his retirement speech to an empty high school auditorium while he eats a sandwich. A custodian mopping the stage behind him pauses just long enough to muse aloud, “Bonner? I thought he retired years ago.”

The Spurs, meanwhile, memorialized Bonner’s playing career by hanging a flannel shirt — with his name and number in masking tape on the back — in their locker room. It was not especially authentic (they used one of Mills’ shirts) or sentimental (Mills retrieved the shirt for future use), but Bonner was touched by the gesture all the same.

“I don’t know if this is sad or something, but that was actually special to me,” Bonner said.

Back when he was playing, Bonner would prepare for games by attending morning shootarounds. These days, he participates in 11 a.m. conference calls to map out a plan with his network colleagues. He likes to arrive at the arena about two hours before the tip.

“Because I can gain a lot of intel — well, not intel, I don’t know,” he said. “But it’s creatively stimulating for me to just go around and joke around with everybody.”

He always tries to make time to visit with members of the team’s analytics department. “Those guys always have fun, interesting facts,” he said.

Bonner received two valuable pieces of advice. The first, he said, came from an executive at ESPN who told him that he needed to be his own worst critic.

“Because all you’re going to hear is: ‘You’re doing great! You’re doing awesome! You’re the best!’ And then, ‘You’re fired,'” Bonner recalled the executive telling him. “Don’t drink the Kool-Aid.”

The other piece of advice came from his sister, Becky, who urged him to commit to the job. He might not want to work in broadcasting forever, she told him. But for however long he does, he has to give it his all. With that in mind, Bonner still studies game film — much as he did during his playing career. He records his broadcasts and watches them with his wife.

“So I can go back and make notes of all the different mistakes I’ve made,” he said.

Not everyone is such an avid viewer. Coach Gregg Popovich was asked if he was familiar with any of Bonner’s recent work.

“I caught Matt Bonner’s work for about 12 years,” he said. “And all the jokes are recycled, so I don’t think I need to watch it anymore.”

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