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From Corning to the NBA

Tom Passmore
tpassmore@the-leader.com
Pictured is Rick Bonnell.

Rick Bonnell’s sportswriting career at the Charlotte Observer has taken him to China, Europe twice, three super bowls, two college national championship games, an NBA finals and around 2,000 NBA games.

Before that, however, he spent his childhood at Spring Terrace in the village of South Corning. While growing up, Bonnell thought of the crystal city as a hybrid between a small municipality with the luxury of being around a Fortune 500 company in Corning Incorporated.

“I felt like I had the friendly homey advantages of a small town, but we weren’t isolated from the world around us, and it’s made me better for that,” said Bonnell.

Bonnell attended West High School and credits the school with putting him around talented people that have been successful in their own right to push him to become better. Bonnell’s eldest sister, who lives in North Carolina but still owns a home in Corning, graduated from the first class of West High School.

“My best friend from high school, Blaise Ferrandino, is a music professor at Texas Christian,” said Bonnell. “I grew up with some amazingly smart people. I was lucky to be around some really interesting people.”

Bonnell landed a job at the Star-Gazette when he was 15-16 years old when famed Elmira Star-Gazette sports editor Al Mallette offered him a job covering high school sports for the paper. Bonnell would go on to cover East vs. West games at War Memorial Stadium for the Star-Gazette.

Bonnell has been back to the area since he became a permanent resident in Charlotte and even worked in Corning at the chamber of commerce tourist booth on Market Street while in college at Syracuse.

“The finger lakes are such a fantastic place in the middle of the summer,” said Bonnell. “I’m glad Market Street continues to be a place that draws tourists.”

College and early career

Bonnell attended Syracuse University where he went on two cover the school’s run to the 1986-87 Final Four that included future NBA players like Derrick Coleman, Sherman Douglas and Rony Seikaly.

“I had no idea at first how remarkable that college talent was,” said Bonnell. “It was great for me. It got me to a final four and it exposed my work nationally.”

Coleman, Douglas and Seikaly would go on to a combined 35 years in the NBA.

The experience of 17-straight days of snow in Syracuse during the final four run prompted Bonnell to search for employment in a warmer climate.

“I knew after that experience I desperately wanted to get out of the snow belt,” said Bonnell.

Bonnell’s pristine coverage of that Syracuse team landed him a job in Charlotte with the Hornets, who were an expansion team the same season in 1988. Like many young aspiring journalists, Bonnell figured he would reside in the Queen City for a couple of years then move on to a bigger publication in one of the major media markets.

“I thought I would move to Charlotte to cover the Hornets for a few years, then move to Boston or NY, but I fell madly in love with the city.”

Corning-Painted Post Sports Hall of Fame

In 1990, around two years into his career at the Charlotte Observer, Bonnell was invited to be a keynote speaker at the Corning-Painted Post Sports Hall of Fame Banquet.

To his surprise, he was added to the induction ceremony and placed in the “special” category for induction. At the time the Hall of Fame only had sports categories, but developed a special category to cover any nominee that wasn’t considered for the main line sports like baseball, football, basketball etc.

“That it was a big surprise to me,” said Bonnell about being inducted. “It’s always nice to be remembered by your hometown for something good. It matters. Corning still matters to me. It’s something I value, because Corning made me me.”

Rick’s induction came nine years after the induction of his father, Don Bonnell. Don Bonnell was an assistant sports editor and writer for both the Star-Gazette and the Leader and served on the Corning-Painted Post Hall of Fame Board of Directors for about 20 years.

“It was really important to him to be part of that,” said Bonnell. “It was important to be a part of something that my father was seminal to creating.”

In the 1990s, when a member of the C-PP Hall of Fame died, the board of directors would donate a book to the local library in their memory. Rick would send his dad as many books as he could get his hands on to continue that tradition.

Career in the Queen City

During his time with the Charlotte Observer, Bonnell has primarily been the Hornets beat writer since the inception of the franchise in 1998 and has covered the Panthers, Clemson as well as filling in with NASCAR coverage.

Bonnell covered the worst season in NBA history in 2011-2012 when the then named Charlotte Bobcats went 7-59 in a strike-shortened season.

“The only really boring seasons as a journalist are the mediocre ones,” said Bonnell. “Really good or bad teams make for the most interesting stories.”

Bonnell pointed out two players on that team that made the worst season in NBA histroy easier to cover.

“Kemba Walker and Gerald Henderson were classy and cool going through 7-59,” said Bonnell. “They were accountable and they’d answer questions.”

Walker, from Connecticut, blossomed into arguably the best player in Hornets franchise history before moving to the Boston Celtics in free agency in the summer of 2019. Walker holds Hornets franchise records in points, field goals made, minutes played, three-pointers made and free-throws among other things. Walker was drafted ninth overall by the Hornets in 2011 and wasn’t the highly touted prospect coming out of college.

“What I respect about Kemba is what a worker he is,” said Bonnell. “[Former Hornets head coach] Steve Clifford was terrific in working with him on his weaknesses every off season and figuring out a way to get better. The other thing, that unfortunately isn’t all that common in major league sports, Kemba always practices the golden rule, he always treated people the way he wanted to be treated.”

Bonnell had the chance to cover the NASCAR race at Watkins Glen a couple of times as a fill in, which gave him a chance to come back to his hometown.

Bonnell added that his best story while a writer for the Observer came in 2002 when himself and a couple of colleagues wrote a story pertaining to Hornets management misreporting attendance numbers in an attempt to lobby for a move to New Orleans.

“That’s what journalism is about,” said Bonnell. “Having the courage and intellectual curiosity to chase those things down because people need to know what’s going on.”

Rick’s work can be found on the Charlotte Observer website at https://www.charlotteobserver.com/.