OBITUARY

Richard "Rick" Donald Bonnell

May 12, 1958June 1, 2021
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Rick Bonnell, an award-winning sportswriter for more than 33 years at The Charlotte Observer, was found dead in his home Tuesday. He was 63.

Bonnell was The Observer’s first beat reporter to cover the Charlotte Hornets during their inaugural season in 1988-89, and he was still breaking stories on the Hornets beat throughout this past season. Jack Bonnell, Rick’s son, confirmed his father’s death Tuesday night and added that police had told him that there was no reason to suspect foul play.

Rick Bonnell’s cause of death hadn’t been immediately determined, his son said, but was believed to be natural causes. Bonnell was found, unresponsive, by a friend at about 7 p.m. Tuesday in his Charlotte home.

Those are the cold hard facts of Bonnell’s sudden death. But I’m going to try to give you a better sense of one of the best journalists I ever knew, as our staff reels with shock and sadness.

Some devastating background: Beloved Charlotte Observer photographer David T. Foster III was found dead in his home at age 52 on May 24.

Eight days later, we found out Rick Bonnell had also passed away.

Rick Bonnell was a generous colleague, father, foodie, beach-lover, Twitter aficionado, proud Syracuse graduate and “a guy who achieved his lifelong dream by covering an NBA team so long and so well,” according to his son.

Bonnell wrote about Michael Jordan, the Charlotte Hornets owner, for more than 30 years — first as a player, then as an owner. When Jordan decided to give an interview to a single media outlet in Charlotte, it was invariably Bonnell whom he spoke to.

“I’m very sad to learn about Rick’s passing,” Jordan said in a statement Wednesday. “Rick was a staple at Hornets games, dating back to my playing days at the old Charlotte Coliseum.”

To sit next to Bonnell at a Hornets game, as I did hundreds of times over the years, was like sitting next to a hilarious version of a Hornets Wikipedia page.

Bonnell alternated between regaling me with his encyclopedic knowledge of the franchise with insightful and often very funny comments about the game we were watching. He was snarky when it was called for — and it was called for pretty often, because the Hornets lost a lot. Bonnell covered mostly losing seasons by the Charlotte franchise, including a 7-59 season that he survived “with some grace and sanity,” as he wrote in his Twitter biography. When the Hornets were beaten by 30 points, Bonnell would sometimes say: “That was 7-59 bad.”

But Bonnell also never lost the joy of covering a one-point game with three seconds left. He would rub his hands together sometimes when he was excited, almost like a kid, and he often did so just before a moment like that.

To sit next to Bonnell at a Hornets game, as I did hundreds of times over the years, was like sitting next to a hilarious version of a Hornets Wikipedia page.

Bonnell alternated between regaling me with his encyclopedic knowledge of the franchise with insightful and often very funny comments about the game we were watching. He was snarky when it was called for — and it was called for pretty often, because the Hornets lost a lot. Bonnell covered mostly losing seasons by the Charlotte franchise, including a 7-59 season that he survived “with some grace and sanity,” as he wrote in his Twitter biography. When the Hornets were beaten by 30 points, Bonnell would sometimes say: “That was 7-59 bad.”

But Bonnell also never lost the joy of covering a one-point game with three seconds left. He would rub his hands together sometimes when he was excited, almost like a kid, and he often did so just before a moment like that.

Bonnell’s mind was quick. His fingers were fast. He was remarkably good on deadline. By the fourth quarter, he would often have his own two story angles planned out and a third one teed up and waiting for me to write a sports column about— if I wanted it.

“I’m not telling you what to write,” he would say, “but…”

Texting Michael Jordan

The thing is, I wanted him to tell me what to write.

Having Rick Bonnell suggest a Hornets story angle to you in Charlotte was like having Springsteen suggest a lyric in New Jersey to an aspiring songwriter. Bonnell knew the Hornets like no one else, and I mean literally no one. He covered everyone from Muggsy Bogues and Dell Curry to Larry Johnson and Alonzo Mourning to LaMelo Ball and Gordon Hayward.

Bonnell didn’t just have institutional knowledge. He was an institution.

If I trailed slightly behind him at a Hornets game on the way to our seats, a fan would sometimes see the dapper reporter with the bald head gleaming in the lights and yell, “Hey, Rick!” He always stopped to talk. He thought about the readers first and what they might want to know and he’d frame his postgame questions to try to figure that out.

And did he have a good contact list?! Oh my Lord.

Let’s put it this way: Rick could text Jordan, the Hornets owner but also one of the most elusive men in the world when he wants to be, and get a text reply back. Or a phone call.

“As much as any reporter I know, Rick was accurate, insightful and fair,” said Gary Schwab, who was Bonnell’s sports editor for much of his career. “That’s why Michael Jordan returned Rick’s calls.” Said Jordan Wednesday: “He prided himself on being fair and honest in his reporting, and I truly respected that about him. Rick became the source for Hornets news in Charlotte, which speaks to his talent and professionalism. The Hornets’ family will miss Rick’s friendly face at our games. I send my condolences to his family and friends.”

Joined Observer in 1987

In 1987, Schwab was tasked with finding a superlative reporter for two different jobs.

“Managing Editor Mark Ethridge called me into his office and told me to find someone who was, or could become, one of the best basketball writers in the country for two job openings,” Schwab said. “The first was to cover Duke, North Carolina and N.C. State for our new Raleigh Sports Bureau. Then, a year later, to cover the Hornets and the NBA. For both jobs, I looked at hundreds of applications and talked to dozens of people. Then, both times, I hired Rick Bonnell.”

Bonnell transferred from the Raleigh bureau to Charlotte to cover the Hornets’ very first season in 1988-89, wearing a tuxedo to the team’s opening game. He never left the Queen City after that and rode that initial wave of Hornets euphoria by writing a book in his spare time about the team’s early years.

And although he occasionally took other assignments for the newspaper for short periods and did take a couple of brief breaks from covering the Hornets, he would return to the job quickly because that was what he loved most. And it was covering the Hornets and the NBA at large where he made his biggest mark. Also known as a leader among beat writers who covered the league, Bonnell served a term as president of the Professional Basketball Writers Association from 2007-09.

In the recent documentary “The Last Dance,” Chicago Bulls-era Jordan is shown briefly reading The Charlotte Observer — and if you looked closely, you could tell he was reading one of Bonnell’s stories. Bonnell got a huge kick out of that.

“Work was a huge part of his life,” Jack Bonnell said. “He took a lot of pride in what he did. He liked telling stories — in the newspaper, and in life.”

‘He wanted to learn from you’

In recent years, Bonnell’s primary editor has been Matt Stephens, an editor who was a generation younger than Bonnell was.

“He never made me feel like I was a young editor working with a veteran reporter,” Stephens said. “He always made me feel equal, wanting to hear what I had to say, wanting to learn. But that wasn’t just because I was his boss. The same can be said for the interns we’ve had, the reporters who have less experience than he did — he wanted to learn from you and genuinely wanted to hear what you have to say. He’s one of the kindest, most respectful people I’ve ever met.”

Rick Bonnell shared a house with his sister in Charlotte, but she also spent large chunks of time in Corning, N.Y., where the Bonnell siblings had grown up (his father was also a sports journalist). So Bonnell was alone at the time of his sudden death. Bonnell covered the Hornets’ 2020-21 season and then the postseason wrap-up interviews, too, making positive impressions on the teams’ players as he always had.

“On one of my first days in Charlotte, I sat down for an interview with Rick,” Hornets guard Terry Rozier said. “What I expected to be like every other interview I’d done in my career was more of a conversation than a media obligation. Since that time, Rick has been engaging and fair in every interaction.... Next season in Charlotte won’t be the same without him.”

“Over the course of my 8 years in Charlotte,” said Hornets center Cody Zeller, “I’ve seen him every time I’ve walked off the court from a shootaround, practice or game. I was always impressed with his passion for writing, reporting and his love for Charlotte Hornets basketball.”

“Rick was professional and diligent in covering the Hornets,” said Marvin Williams, who Bonnell wrote about for his six seasons in Charlotte. “But he became a friend as well.”

After the season ended with the Hornets losing a play-in game, Bonnell headed to Litchfield Beach, S.C., to relax for a few days. He returned to Charlotte on Thursday, said Jack Bonnell, but wasn’t scheduled to come back to work for several more days.

Jack Bonnell and his father talked or texted a lot. So when his father wasn’t answering his phone messages, he looked at Bonnell’s Twitter account. Bonnell was religious about updating it, but he hadn’t been active on the social media platform since Sunday. Then Jack, and other family members, got worried.

Jack Bonnell lives in Durham with his wife, Kayla, so he got hold of a friend of his father’s, who went to check on him Tuesday and found him.

Jack Bonnell called me at 9:41 p.m. Tuesday, partly because I had been friends with his dad and partly because my number was the only Observer-related one he could find in his phone. The younger Bonnell inherited his father’s good manners, so he began that conversation by saying: “I’m so sorry to call you so late.”

Rick Bonnell loved to play tennis, walk for several miles daily on a Charlotte greenway and mentor younger Observer reporters. He was known as a great and frequent guest on local talk radio. His survivors also include his daughter Claire; and his two sisters, Deborah Cummings and Diane Tammaro. He was preceded his death by his mother, Janet Kelly Bonnell, and his father Donald Thomas Bonnell.

Said Mike Persinger, who was a colleague of Bonnell’s for decades at The Observer as a sports editor: “I worked with Rick for 30 years, edited hundreds of his stories. But our friendship went beyond that. He always asked about my kids, and I always asked about his. We talked politics and economics in addition to basketball, but it always came back to basketball. Our last text was about LaMelo Ball.”

Said Tom Sorensen, a former Observer sports columnist: “Rick was really bright, and really, really sensitive and caring. When an old friend died, it was Rick who found me, and he told me as gently as he could. Shocked as I was, I was glad it was him. I tried to talk Rick into leaving his job and going on the road.... But he knew how much people — his employer and his readers, especially his readers —depended on him. So Rick stayed. How do you walk away from what you do so well?”

One last story: When I first moved to Charlotte, in 1994, Bonnell told me about the house I ended up buying, played tennis with me in Freedom Park, showed me the difference between all the Queens Roads, and basically made sure I knew that although I was coming to a city where I knew almost no one, I now had at least one friend.

Rick was a lovely person, and a great journalist. And I’m honestly not sure what we in the sports department are going to do without him.

The family will receive visitors Sunday at McEwen Funeral Service on 10500 Park Road in Charlotte from 1-4 p.m. A private memorial service will be held at a later date.

In lieu of flowers, memorials are requested to The Hornets Foundation (www.nba.com\hornets\community).

Condolences may be offered at www.mcewenpinevillechapel.com.

Services

  • Receiving of Friends

    Sunday, June 6, 2021

Memories

Richard "Rick" Donald Bonnell

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Hill Overton

June 16, 2021

I was stunned to learn of our losing Rick far too soon. He was 22 years behind me and I'm so sorry he wasn't able to be with us far longer than he was. I had the pleasure of covering the Hornets with Rick from 1988 until the pandemic and he was always the thorough, consummate professional! I send my comforting thoughts and prayers to his family and friends. Hill Overton

Scott Bempkins

June 7, 2021

I knew Rick well during our Jr. High and High School years. I'm glad to know that he lived his dream following and reporting on the Charlotte NBA teams. Clearly, he was a master of his craft and loved his work. We were in touch for brief times after college, but I regret that were out of touch more recently. Rick was an upbeat, positive guy who lifted up people around him. My sincere condolences to his entire family. Rest in Peace, my friend.

Jim Naughton

June 6, 2021

Rick and I were roommates for a year when we worked at the Syracuse newspapers, but he was my friend long before that. I was proud to have him in my wedding, and proud to be in his. I like to think that if you told 25-year-old Rick about the career he was going to have, he would not have believed you. Hard work, a fondness for people, and a way with words took him a long way. My condolences to everyone who is mourning his death, especially his children.

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