Birth of the Spiritual

by Dr. L.A. Gabay / portrait by Suzy Gorman

Anthony Bonner’s fast-break jam off a pass from John Starks late in the third quarter of Game 3 of the 1994 NBA finals ignited a rally that sadly still had the Knicks falling 4 points short against Houston that night.

Two nights later, in a must-win game at Madison Square Garden, Anthony Bonner provided an encore off the bench and once again threw down in the mugs of the Rockets. This time, however, the Knicks won the game, tied the series at 2-2 and became part of an exciting Spring of ’94 in New York sports: The Rangers won the Cup, the Yankees were at the top of the American League stats and might have won the World Series had baseball not gone on strike midway through the season and the Knicks were 6 points away from lifting the Larry O’Brien for the first time (the ’70 and ’73 champions were awarded the Walter A. Brown). In the Spring of ’94, the sporting and non-sporting world all held a collective breath during Game 5 of the NBA Finals while O.J. went for his unsettling joy ride in a Bronco down the 405. NBC had split screen coverage of the game and the Juice, a prelude to the reality TV that would bombard the airwaves a decade later.

Reflecting on the many exciting narratives during that famed spring, Bonner’s two dunks still remain etched in the lore of that era as something slightly more than solely basketball plays.

To some, Bonner’s success may seem random or lucky. After all, the NBA has 30 teams with 450 jobs available. Considering the number of Div. 1 colleges in the U.S., foreign markets, high school hopefuls, D-League and former NBA players attempting tryouts, a person has a better statistical chance to be struck by lightning than to make it as a role player lost deep on the end of the bench of an NBA team. Though some are more memorable than others, every one who suits up in the League is mathematically a phenomenon.

From a distance (my Knicks season tickets are in the upper bowl) it may appear arbitrary, as though the 10 guys on the court could be replaced by any 10 big guys from any major basketball university. But a closer look at one player reveals that every guy is present for his own set of special reasons. There is nothing certain and no guarantees in the life of a professional basketball player. Even with the rare skill set, physical attributes, singular motivation, enormous preparation, hard work, physical and mental discipline, making it to the League is a pipe dream deep in REM. Words such as faith, luck, destiny, good fortune, and even perhaps God all figure in to the unknown variables that decide who arrives, who thrives and who is denied from the League. In June of 1994, for those two nights, Anthony Bonner was a big guy, in basketball’s biggest game, in it’s biggest arena: He was chosen.

Bonner was an ideal fit for those Knicks; similar to Mason, Oakley and Ewing he seemed allergic to smiling, took pride in his defense and had fire in his eyes. The 6-8 Bonner was a versatile defender who used his size, strength, speed and an able handle to guard the best players on the other team. During those epic battles with the Bulls and Pacers he would cover Pippen, Kukoc, Horace Grant, Reggie, the Davises and made it (sometimes literally) painfully clear that he had the backs of each player wearing a Knicks Jersey, from A-Z or more accurately from Anderson (Eric) to Williams (Herb). Bonner was a tough and serious sort, but was also remarkably likable and seemed to have so much more going inside his quasi-myopic beat-down-the-opponent eyes.

Bonner’s post-NBA career provides a good explanation for his unique gaze. After retiring from basketball, Anthony began to trek the globe, landing in Liberia, Jerusalem, Panama, Siberia and Columbia just to name a few of his many passport stamps. He traveled to these spots on what he refers to as “Christianity-based and basketball-infused Mission trips, promoting service, humility and a belief of a greater good.” Anthony Bonner is a traveler but not a tourist. As such, the teachings of each mission are bible-based with a simple agenda: “go in as a outsider and leave an insider.” The intent is to “be open, hear more clearly God’s vision, and fully immerse” himself in the culture.

Sitting next to me upstairs at Whole Foods on a sweltering July day in NYC, when he talks about his faith, I notice a curious gleam in his eye that I imagine I saw from many seats away when he was a Knick. It is the gleam of inspiration, of doing something for which one feels destined. anthony bonner and wife

“My favorite part of the bible are the Gospels: Matthew, Mark, Luke and John because they are about people.” He then begins to rap: “‘Don’t push me cause I’m close to the edge, I’m just trying not to lose my head.’ Grandmaster Flash, ‘The Message.’ So many men, that is their story right now. The guys in the bible, they didn’t fit in, some even came from prisons and had criminal records. Today and back in the day, if you look, act or think different, you are not always considered acceptable.”

When he returns home to Atlanta from his theologically inspired journeys, Anthony supports his wife’s work as a special education administrator or hits the track with his 4-year-old son. Anthony can also be found in his kitchen with a cup of tea and a dimly lit light, late at night with his notebooks, journals and laptop writing with the same intensity he displayed on the hardwood.  His first book is a heartfelt response to his life experience as a player, teacher and coach. “Young people try to emulate uniquely gifted athletes rather than explore their own gifts. I wrote this as a gentle reminder that being a champion is finding love, joy, peace and health.” The book is slated to be published early next year.

From his travels and experience teaching communications at his Alma Mater, Vashon High School in St. Louis, Anthony is familiar with the daily lives of young people and it has become evident to him that today’s technology-native generation is bright, caring and ambitious, but are “sometimes lacking in the fundamentals of life: Basketball takes care of itself, but manners and writing are sadly becoming a lost art. Things like standing up straight, introducing yourself properly, head-up, speaking clearly and being proud of who you are is more important than any rebounding drill.”

Bonner practices what he preaches: He often writes hand written notes to his wife and takes his 76-year-old mom everywhere he goes, even though she doesn’t exactly pull punches: “During the Finals I had two ailing groins and a strained abdominal, and I wanted to play so badly. When I saw mom after that game she asked me how come I missed those two foul shots after Robert Horry wacked me and why [I was] so slow rotating on the pick-and-roll? She was a stay-at-home mother of five, who likes the game to be played right and who loves me to the core.”

The 1994 Knicks had attitude, charisma and a swing-first philosophy. Fouls were never called during practice. “If you got hurt, nobody came over to check on you, you just moved off the court and someone else went in,” Bonner says. When Coach Riley (who Bonner describes as a “master of managing men”) shook up his line-up for a few weeks in the spring of 1994, and made Bonner a starter, the Knicks went on to win 17 straight games, which included a historic undefeated month of March. Bonner also led the eventual Eastern Conference Champions in field goal percentage.

When Bonner was given his moment, the basketball court opened up and the world met a man who understood that if those around him succeeded, he was a success. From the MSG spotlight to the dimly lit kitchen table, Anthony Bonner is a man whose has purposed to share, stare, listen, learn, and protect those around him.