UNC junior Shelby Swanson named 2024 Rick Bonnell Memorial Scholarship winner

There would be times over his decades at The Charlotte Observer when Rick Bonnell, the late great Hornets beat writer, would emerge from an interview rubbing his hands in excitement, giddy to tell the world what he’d learned.

This year, the scholarship that bears his name will be awarded to a sportswriter who works with a similar joy.

The Charlotte Hornets Foundation announced Friday that Shelby Swanson, a journalism student at the University of North Carolina, will be the third recipient of the annual Rick Bonnell Memorial Scholarship. The scholarship, which awards $10,000 annually to a journalism student enrolled at a North Carolina college or university, will be presented to Swanson during Friday’s Hornets game against the Orlando Magic. She’ll be joined by Observer sports editor Lydia Craver and Bonnell’s children, Claire and Jack, during the on-court presentation.

For Swanson, the scholarship recognizes her hard work to date, yes — but it also represents something to strive for.

“It was really cool to learn about the passion that (Bonnell) had,” said Swanson, a native of Durham, North Carolina. “That’s what I try to have, who I try to be, and hopefully one day I’ll go on to have a long, respected career like he did. The scholarship in his name really meant a lot to me.”

Rick Bonnell
Rick Bonnell

Swanson, a 21-year-old junior, is the sports editor of UNC’s student newspaper, The Daily Tar Heel. In her young career she’s produced journalism that is not only excellent but is creative and amplifies voices and stories that often go unnoticed.

A few examples: She’s written about how NIL deals, teamed with other cultural forces, have helped create “a much larger breadth of self-expression” in women’s college basketball. That story landed on the front page of The (Raleigh) News & Observer sports section. She’s also written about recruiting tactics in college baseball and how that impacts team diversity. Just last week, with boots on the ground in Los Angeles to cover the UNC men’s basketball team’s Sweet 16 game against Alabama, Swanson wrote about how prop betting increases the vitriol college athletes receive from fans — a story that rehashed an important conversation and spawned other reporting like that in national publications.

Swanson’s love of journalism began with the summer trips her family would embark on when she was a kid. A “bucket list” goal for her father, Jon, was to attend a baseball game in every major league stadium across the country, and Swanson was along for the ride. (“No glamorous European vacations growing up,” she said with a smile. “We were packing everyone up in the minivan and driving to see the Kansas City Royals.”)

During these games, her dad, a huge Red Sox fan, would tell stories of the players to keep his young daughter engaged. Stories of Mookie Betts’ prowess as an outfielder, yes, but also as a bowler. Stories of Dustin Pedroia overcoming steep odds and playing larger than his 5-foot-9 stature. Stories of David Ortiz immigrating from the Dominican Republic and turning into the voice of his city after the tragic Boston Marathon shooting of 2013.

These early moments, she said, are what inspired her journey in journalism. And her passion has only grown.

Sounds like Bonnell — the award-winning sportswriter who covered the Hornets from their inaugural season in 1988-89 through 2020-21.

“I’d read stories about him,” Swanson said of Bonnell, “and he would come out of a locker room or an interview and just be rubbing his hands. He was really excited to get to writing. ... I know I kind of get the same feeling when I get really excited about a story.”

Said Claire and Jack Bonnell in a joint statement: “We are thrilled for Shelby to be this year’s recipient of the Rick Bonnell Memorial Scholarship. She embodies the genuine love and excitement for journalism that our father had. We are so appreciative of the Charlotte Hornets Foundation for helping to keep our father’s memory alive, and we look forward to following Shelby as she shares powerful stories for years to come.”

Swanson is the third recipient of the scholarship. Her family will attend the game in Spectrum Center, too, which includes her mother (Kris), her father (Jon), her brothers (Will and Jack) and her sister (Jenna).

The inaugural scholarship was given in 2022 to Noah Monroe, another UNC student. The second was awarded last year to Bianca Rodriguez of UNC Charlotte.