BEFORE WE TELL the story of how Matt Bonner became the first NBA player to land a sneaker deal by, effectively, begging for shoes on social media, we should tell you a little about the man himself.
For the past several years, he's written a sandwich blog, the Sandwich Hunter, in which he engages in the search for the nation's greatest sandwich. In 2013, he was named the 19th-smartest man in pro sports -- so he's got that going for him. His first two years in the NBA, with the Raptors, he didn't own a car, so he took the city's Red Rocket streetcars everywhere -- which is how he scored the nickname the Red Rocket. (His Red Mamba nickname came later, on the anniversary of Kobe Bryant's 81-point game, when Kobe was live-tweeting the NBA TV broadcast and called Bonner that. Matt Bonner might be the only 12th man in the history of the NBA with two nicknames. But we digress.)
So what about the shoes? Well, let's just say Bonner marches to the beat of his own kettledrum -- and his shoe deals have gone the same way.
Matt Bonner: I gotta start from the beginning. My first two years in the NBA, I was with And1, which at the time had a lot of NBA players. They had more than half the guys on the Raptors when I was in Toronto, from 2004 to 2006. But after my first two seasons, the company got bought out or sold or something and lost or dropped some of their NBA guys.* I went unsponsored for a year and just wore whatever I could.
These were dark days for Bonner's feet. But salvation awaited him, in the form of grandpa shoes.
Bonner: While I was with the Raptors, I was good friends with a Toronto-based New Balance rep who would always say, "You gotta try New Balance. You gotta try New Balance!"But I was like, "New Balance!?"I didn't even know they made basketball shoes.
He gave me a few pairs to try out when I got a chance. One summer [after being traded to the Spurs in 2006], I was home in New Hampshire and needed a pair of basketball shoes. There they were, sitting in my parents' garage in New Hampshire. I tried them on and I was like, "Oh, my goodness, these are really comfortable."
New Balance basketball shoes -- like tiny little shiatsu massages for Matt Bonner's feet. And thus a beautiful friendship was born; New Balance sent Bonner a host of shoes to wear, without pay. Still, a few years later, during the 2010-11 season, that deal with New Balance literally exploded on the court.
Bonner: So do you remember when I had that sneaker blowout? Well, the company had sent me the prototype of a custom shoe that I'd been wearing, where it had my name and my number, [the New Hampshire state motto] "Live Free or Die"and [the image of a famous state monument called] the Old Man of the Mountain. But when I wore them in a game, within a few minutes they completely fell apart ...
The sole of one of Bonner's shoes, in fact, had almost fully detached; it was flopping around on the court like a dying fish.
Bonner: Afterward they explained to me that it was a prototype and I wasn't supposed to wear it. They'd never told me that. Then, when I emailed and asked when the new custom shoes were coming in, ones I could wear in games, they said, "Oh, we decided we're not sponsoring basketball anymore,"or whatever. I got the impression they were still going to make basketball shoes, but apparently they weren't going to put any resources into promoting or sponsoring guys, including their lone professional basketball player.
New Balance, in other words, had relieved Matt Bonner of a job he wasn't even getting paid to do. Now, Bonner is not exactly well-known for much. (Did we mention his sandwich blog?) But if there was anything he was well-known for ...
Bonner: ... it was definitely wearing New Balances. I mean, I think I was the only person at that point in the whole NBA wearing the brand. And, again, it's not like I was getting paid. So I was a bit befuddled as to why they couldn't keep me on. I mean, I took a lot of flak for wearing them. I got heckled quite a bit. Things like, "Hey, Bonner, nice New Balances."Nothing really all that clever; 99.99 percent of heckles are not clever.
After that, Bonner's feet went unsponsored. There were guys at the Y with better shoe deals than his.
Bonner: And let me tell you, it's a bizarre thing being an NBA player not on a sneaker deal. Luckily, I had a stockpile of about 20 pairs of the New Balances I'd been wearing. Fast-forward to five years later and I was doing everything I could to make those shoes last. They don't even make that model anymore. At the start of this season, I got down to my last pair, and that was it. I had no contingency plans. I didn't know what I was going to do.
Thankfully, the sneaker website Nice Kicks heard Bonner's story. Tragic news has a way of traveling fast. And in an act of generosity -- some might even say charity -- the folks there allowed the Spur to take control of their Twitter handle for an hour one afternoon ...
Bonner: I didn't even know how to tweet. It was funny. I'm not on social media, so I had them on a Bluetooth, explaining to me how to do stuff.
But once Bonner got the hang of it, he got down to business. The Red Mamba, doin' work ...
Biongiorno twitterverse. This is Matt Bonner aka The Red Rocket aka The Red Mamba aka The Sandwich Hunter on twitter for the first time ... 2:30 PM, 21 Oct 2013
OMG I can't believe I'm like totally on twitter, lol :-) Yolo ... 2:31 PM, 21 Oct 2013
@newbalance @Adidas @peaksportsUSA I'm ready to sign the first ever shoe deal via twitter. Any takers? #history ... 2:33 PM, 21 Oct 2013
@newbalance @nicekicks What's up Matt? We want to keep you in NBs - there's a fresh shipment of New Balance product headed your way. #AskBonner ... 2:48 PM, 21 Oct 2013
@newbalance Now as the sole NB wearing NBA player for the last 4 years... I have tears in my eyes I never thought this day would come. ... 2:29 PM, 21 Oct 2013
@newbalance I'm assuming by sending a shipment of NB product you are saying you want to sponsor me officially? Like with an actual contract? ... 2:59 PM, 21 Oct 2013
@newbalance I sure hope that's what you're saying... #miraclescanhappen #fairytaleending ... 3:01 PM, 21 Oct 2013
Bonner: And ... crickets. I never heard back from them.
Bonner's love affair with New Balance had ended how it began -- lamely. Still, his Hour of Groundbreaking Social Media Marketing was not for naught.
Bonner: Pretty soon after that, Adidas came into the picture, sending me a bunch of shoes to try on. I found a few pairs that were pretty comfortable, so I worked out a deal with them. And then I pretty much started wearing them right away.
Today Bonner has new shoes, 20 boxes, all stacked in his garage in San Antonio -- just in case he gets dumped again. And if he is, he can always take solace in the knowledge that he, alone, once scored a sneaker deal on the basis of being a guy with no shoes to wear. Which, admittedly, wasn't all that much leverage. But it was all the leverage he needed. Because when you tangle with the Red Mamba, the Red Mamba always wins.