A craze has taken hold of the San Antonio Spurs’ pregame shootarounds, a competition involving a championship belt and cold muscles.
The Spurs have one of the more regimented pregame routines you’ll find in the NBA. Players are typically on the floor to work out at the same time before every game and in a set order. Just like when the Spurs are running “Motion Weak” or another of Gregg Popovich’s set plays, everybody is exactly where he needs to be at just the right time.
The Bonner Challenge, as it has come to be known, tests the ability of these Spurs to knock down a series of shots without missing, with a little friendly competition while doing so.
“The first rule of Bonner Challenge is you don’t talk about Bonner Challenge,” says Matt Bonner, the game’s patron saint.
To complete the Bonner Challenge, a player must hit a right-handed layup, left-handed layup, free throw, jumper from the top of the key, two 3-pointers from the top of the arc, another jump shot from the top of the key, a second free throw, another left-handed layup and one last right-handed layup. All without missing. All in a row.
Hitting the sequence of shots will earn you the honor of holding the Bonner Challenge title.
But there’s a catch. (There’s always a catch.)
To complete the Challenge, the shots you take must be your first of the day. No warm-up attempts while waiting for teammates to finish up their pregame work or getting a few shots up during morning shootaround the day of the game. Much like Bonner will hit a 3-pointer just seconds after checking into the game, players are expected to complete the Bonner Challenge without warming up.
“If you take one shot, you’re disqualified,” Bonner says. "It doesn’t count."
The challenge can be tackled only once per day. If you miss, you’re done.
The competition among the Spurs has become fierce. A Bonner Challenge winner’s reign lasts only until the next Spur can match his feat. Or, as Bonner says, "You’re king until someone else takes it.”
Patty Mills, one of the few Spurs who does not take part in the competition, has seen firsthand the frustration the game has provided for his teammates.
"Normally I don’t play. I sit and watch and get excited for guys that go and do it,” Mills says. “But it’s definitely a game that gets frustrating. That’s probably why I don’t play it."
When a player wins the Challenge, he receives his own championship belt. Currently, a smaller belt -- still a replica of championship belts victorious boxers or professional wrestlers boast, but only big enough to wrap around a player’s bicep -- is passed from winner to winner. According to Bonner, the belt was the idea of assistant coach Chip Engelland.
Former Spur Nando de Colo, who was traded to the Toronto Raptors for Austin Daye just before the February trade deadline, was so good at the competition that the team sent him a full-size championship belt after his departure.
"Nando had won the most at the time he got traded, so as a kind of souvenir we sent him the belt to take with him to Toronto,” Bonner says. "It’s definitely taken on a life of its own. With the belt, it definitely parallels what you would see in a WWE storyline.”
Bonner himself is obviously a standout in the competition -- you can’t name something after yourself without being good at it -- and De Colo excelled in his time in San Antonio, but the clubhouse leader in the Bonner Challenge isn’t on the active roster.
"Our de facto commissioner, coach Chip Engelland, is currently leading,” Bonner says. "But not for long."
Is the ability to shoot cold off the bench really an attribute that can be developed? Probably not, according to Bonner. But for a team known for making the most of every resource available, it’s not out of the question. After all, the Spurs did finish first in 3-point shooting and third in true shooting percentage in the regular season.
Either way, it can’t hurt to have a little fun.