The NBA's Indie Ambassador: Inside Matt Bonner's All-Star Rock Show

He's won rings with the Spurs and played hoops with Arcade Fire; now Bonner is bringing bands back to All-Star Weekend

Matt Bonner during the game against the Sacramento Kings on November 15th, 2014. Credit: Rocky Widner/NBAE via Getty

Matt Bonner likes to party – for charity. When the San Antonio Spurs' sniper isn't winning rings (or earning nicknames like "The Red Mamba"), he's working his side hustle as an occasional concert booker, a gig that led to his second NBA Alt-Star Party this Friday at New York's Bowery Ballroom.

This year's party benefits the Rock On Foundation, the non-profit Bonner runs with his brother Luke, and features performances from bands like the Hold Steady and a DJ set from Arcade Fire frontman Win Butler. Most folks know Bonner's been the NBA's resident indie-rock ambassador for years now, and recently, Rolling Stone caught up with the Mamba to talk about bringing indie to All-Star weekend, the pressure of booking shows and the music of his life.

This is your second Alt-Star Party. When did you decide you wanted to add 'Show Promoter' to your resume?
A couple years ago during All-Star weekend, I was talking with my brother, discussing all the other parties going on. It's really all about the entertainment and the razzle-dazzle surrounding it. It's like the competition is secondary to the parties and concerts. So basically everything is pop and hip-hop, so we came up with the idea of bringing indie-rock bands into the weekend through our foundation and my brother was like "That just might be crazy enough to work."

Do you choose the bands for the party?
Oh yeah. My brother and I are booking the bands. We're limited by budget and scheduling but it's all us. Last year we had the Walkmen, which was amazing.

Given that the majority of the All-Star weekend entertainment is focused on pop and hip-hop, were you worried about the response your party was going to get?
Absolutely! I remember thinking that it was going to be awesome or just flop. There's really no middle ground for something like this. We just decided to go for it and it went well last year so we decided to do it again. We're going to try and make this an annual thing.

How long have you been into indie rock?
Growing up in New Hampshire there wasn't really much of a live music scene. I didn't go to my first real concert until I in was college. It was a Sage Francis show. In New Hampshire I listened to what I heard in my house and on the radio. The radio was classic rock and mainstream rock like Pearl Jam and Alice in Chains, early '90s stuff. In college, the rise of Napster – not that I'm admitting to illegally downloading music [laughs] – really opened up access to this whole other universe of music.

The tipping point was in 2005. I was playing for the Raptors and we had a game against the Cavaliers. After the game I had a voice mail from my brother saying I should go check this band out at a Toronto venue called Lee's Palace. The band was Okkervil River. My brother told me their singer was from New Hampshire and that it'd be cool to go support another New Hampshire guy. So I got over there just as they were starting and I was blown away. It was amazing to see this band that was just kind of breaking. It opened my eyes, like, "Holy smokes! There's this whole other world I didn't even really know existed."

Did you meet Okkervil River frontman Will Sheff that night?
It's funny you ask that because we've become good friends. Before Luke and I started the Rock On Foundation, we would put on a concert in New Hampshire called "Sneakers and Speakers" that would benefit the Boys & Girls Club. We had no idea how to put something like that on. Luke always said it was like them setting up the concert in Wayne's World 2. We asked Will and Okkervil River to play and they were all about it. It turns out most of the band were big NBA fans. Plus, Will had never done a show in New Hampshire before then. We had a good turnout and that got the ball rolling for us putting on these charity events.

So how did that evolve into these big Alt-Star parties?
Over the past five-or-six years my brother and I have built many great friendships with the bands, managers and booking agencies and have also found out there are tons of big NBA fans in the indie-rock scene. Just lots of like-minded folks who grew up watching the Dream Team and Michael Jordan. I'd always leave tickets for bands whenever they'd ask and then check out their shows or grab lunch, whatever time permitted. I developed lots of relationships just like that, so when my brother retired from his professional basketball career he had the stability to start the Rock On Foundation.

Tell me about the Rock On Foundation's mission?
After doing the "Sneakers and Speakers" concerts we wanted to grow and do something more, so the Rock On Foundation came from that desire. It's a non-profit organization with its own board of directors. We run events now that are not just New Hampshire-based. Whenever we put on an event we also try and tie it in to a local charity within the community that's hosting the event. In these communities we are supporting sports but also music and the arts, because too often in the public-school system, you see those things getting their budgets cut. So with Rock On we're putting on these events and concerts to raise money to put back in the communities.

What have you been listening to recently?
I was a little disappointed in 2014, music-wise. That doesn't mean there wasn't great stuff! I loved Lost in the Dream by the War on Drugs. That was my favorite record of last year. I'm definitely waiting on Kendrick Lamar's new album. I liked Strand of Oaks last year and the new Stars record. It was pretty poppy but I didn't even care!

Do you have go-to artists you listen to on game day?
I'm weird before games, because I'm usually already super pumped-up, so I like to listen to mellow stuff. I'll listen to maybe an album by the Antlers, which seems completely counterintuitive but it helps calm me down.

Are there many indie-rock fans in the NBA?
No. The only person was a former teammate, Brent Barry. Unfortunately he's not playing anymore. We still talk tunes but he's just not on my team anymore. On my team now, sadly, there aren't any indie-rock enthusiasts.