Westfield native has dreams of sportswriting career come true
The headline, which read “Kyrie Irving finally has his playoff moment,” caught my eye on ESPN.com earlier this week, but I was most interested in the byline directly below it that identified the author of the online story.
Because as much as Irving’s 37 points, six rebounds and seven assists were critical to the Boston Celtics’ 99-91 victory over Indiana in Game 2 of the NBA’s Eastern Conference first-round playoff series Wednesday, my prime-time “player” — from this corner of the world anyway — was Tim Bontemps.
Tim, 34, has been an NBA writer for ESPN since last November, the most recent stop in a professional odyssey that has also taken him from the New York Post to the Washington Post in the last dozen years.
Oh, by the way, Tim was born in Westfield, grew up in Sherman and Randolph, and graduated from Randolph Central School and St. Bonaventure University.
Talk about a local guy making good.
“When I was a kid, I was a huge sports fan,” Tim said recently. “One day I had an epiphany that I was not going to be a professional athlete, and so I decided if I wasn’t going to be able to be a professional athlete, it would be pretty fun to go to games for free, and to go to games for free, the way to do that was to write about sports.
“When I was about 10, honestly, that was the conversation I had with myself.”
Jeff Bontemps is a farmer in Randolph and Tim spent much of his youth working with his dad on the farm.
“While I didn’t want to get into farming (as a career), it did form my childhood quite a bit,” Tim said.
In other words, life on a dairy farm meant that Tim learned to work nights, weekends and holidays, just as he’s done during his sports writing career.
“Now I work on Christmas and I work on the Fourth of July,” he said. “It’s kind of what I’ve always done. It’s also something I grew up with. My dad would go to work every single day. I didn’t want to necessarily get into farming, but because of dad’s example it showed me that working every day like that is a necessity, so it hasn’t fazed me that I’m in a 24-7, 365-days-a-year business now.”
Getting from the farm in Cattaraugus County to Boston’s TD Garden, home of the Celtics, has been equal parts talent and tenaciousness.
Recalled Tim: “My senior year (at Randolph Central School), I remember (teacher) Paul Steward writing in my yearbook, ‘Good luck trying to pursue this field. It’s incredibly challenging and a crowded business to get into. The way you have to do it is you have to work harder than anyone else.’
“That’s always stuck with me.”
And hard work begets good fortune, which Tim readily acknowledges.
“A lot of people have been a lot of help,” he said. “If you’re going to do this job, you have to get very lucky.”
Upon graduating from high school, Tim matriculated at St. Bonaventure, which has an all-star cast of journalism alumni, including Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN, and Mike Vaccaro of the New York Post.
“I didn’t even know those guys went to school there,” Tim said. “My parents (Jeff and Ellen) are both from northern New Jersey, so I read both (Wojnarowski in The Times-Herald Record in Middletown, New Jersey and Vaccaro in the New York Post) when I would go visit my grandparents.”
Inspired by Wojnarowski and Vaccaro, Tim decided he wanted to try to be like them professionally, too, so he developed a game plan, even if he describes it now as “arrogant and stupid.”
“Spring semester of my freshman year I worked at the school paper and I went to the office of a professor named Pat Vecchio. He was one of the advisers of the student paper. Because I was a very stupid, 19-year-old kid, I basically went to his office and said, ‘Listen, I’d like to be a famous sports writer someday. Could you get me in touch with someone so I know how to do that?'”
Vecchio, according to Tim, wrote an email address and name on a Post-it Note.
It changed the trajectory of the teenager’s life.
The name on that Post-it Note on that day in 2004 was Vaccaro. Within a couple of hours, he sent Tim back a two-page email with his contact information, along with that of Wojnarowski and Chuck Pollock, the former longtime sports editor at the Olean Times Herald. The career path that Tim envisioned as a 10-year-old was maybe not crystal clear at that point, but he certainly had a direction, not to mention the ambition.
Vaccaro remembers that email.
“Sadly, one of the reasons I remember so well is that Tim was one of the few students who didn’t only reach out to me, but was persistent about it,” Vaccaro said via email. “I told him at the time that alone put him ahead of the pace of a lot of his colleagues, so few of whom tend to take advantage of the … resources Bona has. But that was never a problem with Tim, and he stayed in regular contact and he did so in a way that it’s 100 percent obvious why he’s become the reporter he’s become.”
Serving as an intern at the Times Herald, beginning in his sophomore year at St. Bonaventure, Tim joined a long list of talented TH alums, including Wojnarowski, Vaccaro, Tom Missel and Ellicottville native Tyler Dunne, who now writes for Bleacher Report.
“Honestly, it helps that St. Bonaventure is there, but it’s also certainly a testament to (Pollock) and the influence he’s had on all of us,” Tim said. “He’s a terrific guy and a great mentor to me.”
After working at the school newspaper at St. Bonaventure and interning at the Times Herald, Tim also did an internship at The Buffalo News. A month after his graduation from Bonas in 2007, he had an interview scheduled with a newspaper in South Carolina.
But then a funny thing happened before he even left for the 5,000-circulation daily.
“I was in a pasture feeding cows with my dad, and Vacc calls me,” Tim said.
The plans to go to the Deep South were scratched. The New York Post, Vaccaro said, had a clerking job, which would mean Tim could write once a week and assemble sports agate pages during his other four shifts.
“(Vacc) got me in the door,” Tim said. “He’s just been a massive influence on me all the way through.”
Ever so slowly during his five years at the New York Post, his writing opportunities increased, essentially becoming a general-assignment staff member. By 2012, he took over the Nets basketball beat and broke some big stories along the way, including Jason Kidd’s coaching departure from the team in 2014, before landing his dream job as the national NBA writer at the Washington Post.
“I couldn’t believe the (Washington) Post was interested in hiring me,” Tim said. “That was the place I always dreamed of working. I think it’s the gold standard in sports journalism newspaper-wise.
“I just broke down (when the call came). That was a huge deal for me. Honestly, I never thought I’d leave there, to be frank. … To be able to say I was the national NBA writer for the Washington Post and have that on a business card was the neatest thing.”
Tim’s work was certainly noticed. In fact, it was his coverage of Kevin Durant’s signing with Golden State in 2016 that truly put the 2003 Randolph Central School grad on the national map.
“July 3-4-5 I wrote one story each day and it combined to have 2.5 million page views, I think, on our site, which was a subscription site,” Tim recalled. “This was crazy. … Completely absurd. (Durant) was from (Washington, D.C.) and everybody was obsessed with him going to Golden State.
“I saw those numbers and thought, ‘Man, we really can’t write enough about this team.’ I went to my office and said, ‘Look, I think I should move to Oakland and be around this team all the time. If I can do the job from New York, why not do the job from San Francisco and be on the West Coast and be around this team, and really be in the middle of it?'”
Given the green light to move to the Bay Area, Tim spent two years there covering Durant and the Warriors.
“It was a weird transition for me,” he admitted. “I never lived anywhere other than Sherman, Randolph, Western New York and outside (New York City) where my family was at,” he said. ” … It was a big adjustment.”
But he called the move an enjoyable one.
“I had an awesome apartment, I lived a mile from the Golden Gate Bridge, which for a kid from Western New York was wild. I’d wake up every day and see it. The winters were far nicer — 60 and sunny every single day of the year, which was nice. It was a cool experience. I met my future wife. … It all worked out.”
Professionally, Tim said the Warriors weren’t quite the compelling story he had hoped, certainly not like the Miami Heat were when LeBron James joined that franchise in 2010, but he enjoyed the experience nonetheless.
“I’m sure it led me to getting this job at ESPN,” he said.
In late October 2018, Tim announced that he was leaving the Washington Post for an NBA reporter job with ESPN. Based in Boston, he now focuses primarily on the Celtics, the Raptors and the Sixers, who are all currently in the playoffs.
“For me to get an opportunity to work with (Wojnarowski), Brian Windhorst and all the other people at ESPN, and to be at a place that has the resources, time and investment to really cover the NBA the way it does made it a decision I had to make,” Tim said. “As much as I love the (Washington) Post, moving here (for) this job just made sense when they approached me with the opportunity.”
Vaccaro said that Tim’s climb to the highest levels of the sports writing world was not only because of his talent, but also because of his work ethic.
“There isn’t an extra phone call he won’t make or an extra source he won’t talk to, and that means he writes with an authority that is impossible to make up,” Vaccaro said. “It’s a genuine skill.”
As it’s turned out, Tim’s appearance at Pat Vecchio’s office his freshman year turned out to be exactly the bold move he had to make. Fast-forward 15 years, and Tim has joined an impressive list of Bona alums who are among the best in the business.
“We were drilled in fundamentals right from day one: reporting, writing, inverted pyramid, all of it,” Vaccaro said. “It’s like learning to play basketball. Nobody really likes working in form and fundamentals, but once you have those mastered it’s easy to get better. Same deal in the (journalism) school. Plus, there are naturally (going to be) role models who have emerged and become successful, and that served as a great inspiration for me, as I’m sure it does for a lot of others.”
Tim falls into that group, too.
“I’ve been very fortunate in a very competitive field to find my way,” he said.