Max Bonnstetter is my idol. Alright, one of them.
He is a thirteen-year-old seventh-grader, a basketball writer and sports reporter for Sports Illustrated Kids who snagged that plum gig by winning a contest for his piece on legendary high school basketball coach Bob Hurley of recently shuttered St. Anthony’s in Jersey City.
Now the young fella rubs elbows with the likes of Greg Gumbel, Clark Kellogg, Charles Barkley and Kenny Smith, whose nephew coaches Max’s AAU basketball team. He interviews college players and head coaches alike with innate skill, uncommon poise and undeniable aplomb.
He is well-prepared, a real student of the game. And he couldn’t be happier. Even when he’s criticized.
At the NCAA Tournament in March Max was on assignment for SI Kids — his second such NCAA tourney engagement for the magazine — when he unwittingly attracted national attention by asking one high-profile coach, Frank Martin of South Carolina, a question about playing defense.
The seventh-seeded Gamecocks had just trounced third-seed Baylor (70–50) in the Sweet 16 en route to an eventual berth in the Final Four, essentially by winning the defensive battle(s).
During a tournament press conference Bonnstetter asked Martin which he taught first when espousing defensive principles, “technique” or “attitude.”
Martin was outwardly unruffled but appeared mildly surprised and certainly impressed by the boy’s implicit understanding of the game and of what it takes to will a team to victory.
“First of all, a lot of respect to you. That’s a heck of a question. I’ve been doing this a long time and that’s the first time anyone’s ever asked me that. That’s a heck of a question,” Martin marveled.
After continuing to praise Bonnstetter for asking a smart question, the coach went on to explain that attitude came first. Buying in. Commitment. Desire. Selflessness. Toughness. A team — not an individual — mentality and bent. Unquestioned.
Repetition eventually begets performance, instincts aside. Once these tenets were understood, accepted and firmly entrenched, then and only then would technique be assessed, refined and polished.
Apparently one or two members of the insular world of sports journalism, veteran newspaper reporters from South Carolina, had difficulty handling this unique turn of events. (Out of common courtesy they shall remain nameless).
One tweeted at the time that Max’s question “is cute and all, but [that he, the tweeter, is] not a fan of an off-topic question at 1 am when beat writers are trying to pull gamers together.”
That afternoon the adult scribe feebly attempted to cover his exposed behind by lamely tweeting this: “Apologies if anyone interpreted tweet last nite as disparaging SI Kids reporter. Not the case. Always good to see young ppl in journalism.”
The boy’s question was not only not “off-topic,” it cut to the heart of the matter like a hot knife through butter. And it was prefaced with a sage remark steeped in knowledge and made with respect.
No matter. Max was so thoroughly enjoying the experience that a touch of misplaced criticism could not and would not taint it in any way.
In fact after appearing on CBS during a pregame show later that weekend with the four aforementioned basketball broadcasting luminaries — his first foray into live television mind you and with no group rehearsal — he volunteered that “they were all the nicest people ever. I felt like I was just sitting on the couch talking to these nice people about basketball. Honestly, that’s what I felt like.”
The CBS producers along with viewers nationwide and around the world no doubt had mouths agape. The kid is a natural. Temple’s Fran Dunphy and Villanova’s Jay Wright observed as much and have publicly saluted the lad, applauding him and richly commending his journalistic acumen.
This is all gravy for Max. As his mother Katherine Johnson notes, “he is very poised, mature, definitely comfortable. But he also, I don’t think, takes himself too seriously. He just has a good time. He really enjoys it. It’s a nice combination. He laughs at himself. You can tell he’s passionate, but he really has a fun time.”
The boy’s passion may very well take a back seat to his compassion. For a few of his birthdays rather than accept gifts, he has raised thousands of dollars for various pediatric causes.
With familial allegiances to Duke — his mother, grandfather and three of his aunts and uncles are all graduates of the university — he collected donations from family and friends for The Monday Life, a nonprofit organization founded by a former Duke basketball student manager that supports hospitalized children. This was to celebrate his ninth birthday. When he turned ten, he raised money to be earmarked for the renovation of the basketball court outside of Duke Children’s Hospital.
His mother posits that perhaps her son was affected by a friend’s brother who had a brain tumor.
She and her father are cancer survivors. Maybe that opened his eyes. She explains that, “I think just seeing a lot of those things impacted him. I think he has an acute awareness of how fortunate he is. It’s innate. He’s kind. He wants to give back. It’s something that is meaningful to him.”
Talented. Humble. Compassionate. Kind. Thirteen.
Good genes. Better parents.
[Editor’s Note: This piece was written by Mr. Kaplan in June 2017.]