As a highly recruited prospect out of New Hampshire, Matt Bonner says he took a leap of faith when he signed to play basketball at Florida.
At the time, the school was known as a football power. But the now-Spurs veteran was hopeful he and his new teammates could help change that.
“I trusted in what [Florida coach Billy Donovan] was doing and I wanted to be a part of it at the ground floor,” he said.
Today, Florida has one of the best college basketball programs in the nation, winning back-to-back national titles in 2006 and 2007 and becoming an NCAA tournament regular.
And this year, it can claim a unique bragging right: no school is as well represented in the NBA Finals.
Three former Gators — Bonner and the Heat’s Mike Miller and Udonis Haslem — are enjoying a reunion of sorts on the biggest stage in professional basketball. And while the stakes are high, especially with the Heat and Spurs tied at two games apiece with a pivotal Game 5 on Sunday in San Antonio, the memories of their days in Gainesville still make the former teammates smile.
“He’s one of the top five best guys I’ve ever met,” Haslem said of Bonner. “But if [he says] I’m the toughest guy he knows, then he’s the smartest guy I know. If I’m not mistaken, he actually dropped a class at Florida because he got a B. I was joking with him, I can’t remember what class it was, but I said, ‘Matt, I’m going to sit by you and look at your paper,’ and he said, ‘No, you’re not. But I’ll help you study.’ I was like, ‘Get out of here. I don’t need your help studying.’”
Added Miller, who played at Florida from 1999-2000: “We had a great run playing in the national championship game together. Unfortunately, we came up short, but those are memories you never forget.”
This past Sunday, Donovan, the coach who helped bring the three together in college, was at AmericanAirlines Arena for Miami’s 103-84 Game 2 win over San Antonio. While there hasn’t been much time for the coach and players to catch up, Donovan has been keeping an eye on both the Heat and Spurs and tweeting about his former players’ exploits.
“It’s great to see all three of those guys back in the NBA Finals,” Donovan said in an e-mailed statement to the Sun Sentinel. “I’m proud of the success they’re continuing to experience during their NBA careers. I couldn’t be happier for them.”
While Haslem, Miller and Bonner all find themselves in the same place, their journeys to this moment were as different as their decisions to enroll at Florida.
Miller, a sharp-shooting guard in his 13th NBA season, was selected by the Orlando Magic fifth overall in the 2000 draft. Haslem and Bonner, meanwhile, both played overseas before landing in the NBA.
Today, it’s just one more experience they share.
“We had to work. Nothing was given to us,” said Haslem, who is averaging 5.5 points and 3.9 rebounds in the postseason. “It could have been a lot different, so we both had to work, we both had to find our niche and we both have to continue to work to stay here. Very intelligent, great basketball IQs and [we’re] both former Gators.”
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