MIAMI — A decade ago, a pair of buddies at the University of Florida had NBA dreams
NBA officials, though, weren’t dreaming much about them.
Forward Udonis Haslem wasn’t even taken in the 2002 draft. He had to play in France in 2002-03.
Forward Matt Bonner, a year behind Haslem at Florida, was selected in the 2003 draft but was with just the 45th overall pick in the second round. Bonner went to play in Italy for a year.
But here they are now facing off in the NBA Finals, Haslem for the Miami Heat and Bonner for the San Antonio Spurs. Both are going for another championship ring, Haslem already having won titles with the Heat in 2006 and 2012 and Bonner having been fitted for a ring with the Spurs in 2007.
“Obviously, we had to work,’’ said Haslem, whose Heat lost to the Spurs 92-88 in Thursday’s Game 1. “Nothing was given to us. We were probably those guys that could have gone either way. It could have been a lot different, but we both had to find our niche and we both had to work to stay here.’’
Haslem, who broke into the NBA with Miami in 2003, found his niche with rebounding and toughness, and this season became the leading board man in Heat history. Bonner, who made Toronto’s roster in 2004 before being traded to the Spurs in 2006, found his for being a 6-foot-10 guy who can step out and hit a 3-pointer.
“We both played all four years in college and we played a year overseas before we got to make it in the NBA,’’ Bonner said. “I think when you take that path, it definitely makes you appreciate everything you have in the NBA. You take nothing for granted. You have to work for every inch.’’
While at Florida, Haslem and Bonner helped the Gators to the 2000 NCAA title game. There’s another player from that team in these Finals in Heat guard Mike Miller. But Miller’s situation is different, considering he played just two years at Florida before being the No. 5 pick in the NBA draft and being named Rookie of the Year.
Bonner and Miller played just the 1999-2000 season together. But Bonner was with Haslem for three years and the two developed quite a bond.
“We’re very close,’’ Bonner said. “We played three years together, started alongside each other …. We had classes with each other. We wished each other good luck (before the series). I have a ton of respect for him.’’
On Friday, the two tried to outdo one another in an exchange of compliments.
“He’s one of the top five guys I’ve ever met,’’ Haslem said. “Definitely one of the smartest people I’ve ever met. He has a great sense of humor.’’
During his freshman season of 1999-2000, when the Gators lost to Michigan State in the NCAA final, Bonner didn’t play a lot and averaged 4.8 points. But the next two years, he and Haslem were the team’s key cogs.
Haslem averaged 16.8 points and 7.5 rebounds, and Bonner 13.3 and 7.5 in 2000-01. Haslem averaged 16.0 and 8.3, and Bonner 15.6 and 7.2 in 2001-02.
“Toughest person I ever played with,’’ Bonner said of Haslem. “I just remember every day in practice, we’d do this rebounding drill and I would try to time it so that I wouldn’t be next to him in the drill, so I wouldn’t have to go against him. I dreaded boxing him out.’’
Told Bonner had called him the “toughest,’’ Haslem reiterated the part about Bonner’s intelligence. But he said it didn’t always benefit him.
“If I’m the toughest guy he knows, then he’s definitely the smartest guy I know,’’ Haslem said of Bonner, who was named in a top-20 list by the Sporting News in 2010 as the 19th-smartest athlete. “If I’m not mistaken, he actually dropped a class at Florida because he got a B, which I would have gave my left arm for a B. I thought he was nuts.
“I was joking with him (earlier this week). I said, ‘Matt, I can’t remember what class it was.’ And I said, ‘I’m going to sit by you and I’m going to look at your paper.’ He said, ‘No, you’re not, but I’ll help you study.’ I was like, ‘Get the hell out of here. I can study on my own. I don’t need your help studying.’ ’’
Both since have ended up doing just fine in the NBA. Haslem has been a Heat stalwart for a decade and starts at power forward. Bonner has been a reliable reserve and led the NBA in 3-point percentage in 2010-11.
Now, the two meet in the Finals. Will it be the tough guy or the smart one who gets another ring?