Matt Bonner: The Red Rocker

By Lorne Chan

Matt Bonner’s first three albums ever purchased:

Stone Cold Rhymin’ by Young MC

The Joshua Tree, by U2

Bizarre Ride II the Pharcyde, by The Pharcyde

And that’s how an audiophile was born.

“I liked the Pharcyde album cover, I thought it was cool,” Bonner said. “I gave it a shot and I was hooked.”

It was the early 1990s, and Bonner was a youth league basketball star/West Coast hip-hop aficionado on the not-so-mean streets of Concord, New Hampshire.

Long before the Red Rocket took flight or the Red Mamba grew fangs, Bonner and his brother Luke were entranced by an offer of 12 CDs for a penny. They began listening to everything from Led Zeppelin to A Tribe Called Quest.

Bonner’s love for music and basketball has blossomed into a charity, the Rock On Foundation, that stages concerts and basketball games to support youth programs.

Rock On is hosting two events in New York City for All-Star Weekend, a benefit dinner on Feb. 12 and a concert, dubbed the Alt Star Party, on Feb. 13 at the Bowery Ballroom headlined by The Hold Steady. The concert also has DJ sets by Win Butler (Arcade Fire) and Chris Tomson (Vampire Weekend) who happen to be members of two of the biggest indie rock bands in the world, and two people Bonner counts among his friends. Tickets for the Alt Star Party sold out in four minutes.

“A lot of people maybe equate pop or hip-hop to the NBA,” Bonner said. “But because of that, I’ve sort of become the de facto NBA ambassador to the indie rock scene through the years.”

Matt and Luke Bonner don’t play musical instruments. They’ve always been better at figuring out a 2-3 zone than 3/4 time. But they’ve always loved music, citing time spent on Walkmans while they were on the road for basketball tournaments. Matt Bonner said he developed an affinity for underground hip-hop, naming Canadian rapper Buck 65 from the Anticon collective.

“Athletes have more connections to musicians than most people think,” said Luke Bonner, who is the executive director of the Rock On Foundation. “You see a lot of similar traits develop in sports and in art classes. The discipline required, the creativity and the ability to respond to constructive criticism. “

Many music fans can remember their personal “show that changed everything.” That concert so captivating that it changed the way you hear music. For Matt Bonner, it happened at a club called Lee’s Palace, about an hour after he played against LeBron James. It was in Toronto in Nov. 2005, and Bonner was a forward for the Raptors. He had just finished a game against Cleveland, when Luke told him that Okkervil River, a band originally from New Hampshire, was playing in Toronto that night.

“The energy at their show was amazing,” Bonner said. “It opened the door to this independent music world that I hadn’t even known existed.”

The Bonner brothers’ next move was to put on their own concert in New Hampshire. Luke said the brothers drew inspiration from the classic film “Wayne’s World 2,” as they cold-called their favorite acts to play a benefit show they would call “Sneakers and Speakers.” Armed with determination and free Spurs tickets, their plan worked.

“We’d beg bands to play, try to leave as many of them tickets as possible, and really just discovered that these were really nice people,” Matt Bonner said.  “A lot of them are huge NBA fans. They’re mostly kids in their late 20s who grew up with Michael Jordan and the Dream Team, so basketball’s a part of their lives.”

The Bonner brothers began adding shows, including a 2013 showcase at the South by Southwest music festival in Austin, featuring then Spurs teammate Stak 5 (Stephen Jackson) and Port Arthur rapper Bun B, one half of the Underground Kingz.

Matt Bonner’s often jumping on stage or helping out during Rock On shows, switching roles from Spurs forward to the world’s only 6-foot-10 band roadie. They brought the show to the AT&T Center for the first time last year, with rap duo Mobb Deep headlining Rock On Night and playing a show at the AT&T Center’s Overtime.  Rock On Night will return this season on March 20, when the Spurs host the Celtics.

Garrett Drinon of the New Hampshire band STRNGRS is playing the Rock On Foundation’s Alt Star Party and performed at AT&T Center’s Overtime last year. Drinon also grew up with the Bonners. He recalled them often listening to music, but said he “never thought they’d turn it into a foundation.”

“It’s amazing what they’ve been able to do through a love of music,” Drinon said. “Matt’s a total individual who has his own thing going on, and I think an indie rock musician might be drawn to someone who’s a little more out of the ordinary.”

The Bonners inadvertently became a part of the indie rock world. Matt showed his love for music, and to his surprise, the musicians loved him back.

Before the 2013 All-Star Game, a musician-driven social media campaign lobbied for Bonner to be included in the 3-point contest. Dave Hartley, bassist for The War on Drugs, led the campaign as rockers used the Twitter hashtag #LetBonnerShoot to get him in the contest. Bonner, a 41.5-percent career shooter from behind the arc, had a few Grammy winners championing his cause. And The War on Drugs recently had one of the most critically acclaimed albums of 2014.

"There's so much injustice in the world that we can't do anything about, but this is something we can change. #LetBonnerShoot,” Arcade Fire’s official account tweeted.

The Bonner bump worked. He was selected and reached the Foot Locker Three-Point Contest final, finishing second to Kyrie Irving.

While President Barack Obama may know Bonner as a “sandwich blogger named the Red Mamba,” musicians see him as a friend who’s using concerts to support youth causes.

One of Rock On Foundation’s biggest projects so far has been aiding with the restoration of the basketball court at White Park in Concord. A court where not only the Bonner brothers played pickup games growing up, but their father, Dave, grew up playing there, too.

“It’s a historic playground basketball court as far as we’re concerned in New Hampshire, and for whatever reason, over the last 10 to15 years, the court had deteriorated,” Matt Bonner said. “The hoops were horrible and rusted, and there were cracks on the court.”

Rock On proceeds went to installing new professional-grade hoops.

“No matter what time we drove by the court over summer, there were kids playing,” Bonner said. “Kids were thanking us for the court, which was really cool that they knew where it came from.”

Their charity efforts also turned the Bonners into two of the Granite State’s favorite sons. At a Sneakers and Speakers concert last summer, July 12, 2014 was declared as “Rock On Foundation Day” in New Hampshire. Bonner brought the Larry O’Brien Championship Trophy to the event, and his requests to take the trophy were an inspiration for the Spurs’ summer-long trophy tour.

"We are incredibly proud of Matt and Luke Bonner not just for their athletic achievements, but even more so for their commitment to giving back,” New Hampshire governor Maggie Hassan said. “The Bonners exemplify what I call the 'all-hands-on-deck' spirit of our people, where we pitch in and work together to improve our communities.”

In addition to supporting its ongoing initiatives and expanding grant programs, Rock On will be contributing proceeds from its All Star Weekend festivities to support the Voices of Change Initiative run by the MacDowell Colony, a New Hampshire artist residency.

Bonner has combined basketball and indie rock to help various causes, but there’s still one group that isn’t in on Bonner’s musical tastes:

The rest of the Spurs.

 “I’m kind of on my own in the locker room,” Bonner said. “I play Arcade Fire in the weight room, but that’s about all I get away with.”


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