As Max Bonnstetter walked on the CBS Sports television set in Manhattan on Sunday afternoon, he noticed someone wearing red glasses. At first, he didn't know who the man was because his hat was covering his face. But when the man turned around, Bonnstetter noticed it was Spike Lee, so he asked to take a photo with the famous filmmaker.
For Bonnstetter, a seventh grader from New Jersey who turned 13 earlier this month, meeting Lee was just one of the many memorable moments he experienced this past weekend while covering the NCAA tournament for Sports Illustrated Kids.
In particular, Bonnstetter received national attention on Friday night when South Carolina basketball coach Frank Martin praised him for a smart question he asked during an NCAA tournament press conference. Several hours later, a newspaper reporter in South Carolina criticized one of Bonnstetter's questions following the Florida-Wisconsin game, creating a mini-firestorm on the internet and in insular sports journalism circles.
On Sunday afternoon, Bonnstetter appeared on CBS during a pregame show alongside Greg Gumbel, Clark Kellogg, Charles Barkley, and Kenny Smith, whose nephew coaches Bonnstetter's AAU basketball team in New Jersey. Bonnstetter had never appeared on live television before and didn't rehearse with the group, but he fit in seamlessly with broadcasters he's admired for years.
"They were all the nicest people ever," Bonnstetter told VICE Sports Sunday afternoon. "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 weren't the only ones who noticed Bonnstetter. Before Martin's comment on Friday night, Bonnstetter estimated he had around 350 Twitter followers. As of Sunday night, he had more than 1,700 followers, a number that will likely continue to grow.
"My phone has just been exploding over the past couple of days," Bonnstetter said. "Everyone's saying, 'Was that you on TV?' All my friends are texting me, sending me messages on Twitter and Instagram."
Bonnstetter's foray into sports journalism began innocuously enough in the summer of 2014 when he visited some cousins in Ohio and attended a basketball camp run by Cleveland Cavaliers point guard Kyrie Irving. Bonnstetter's father shot a video of his son nearly beating Irving in a shooting contest and posted it on YouTube. It now has nearly 1 million views.
Since then, Bonnstetter has continued shooting videos and posting them on YouTube and sharing his thoughts on Twitter. He also began writing for SI Kids last year after he won a contest and submitted an article on legendary high school basketball coach Bob Hurley.
Barely a teenager, Bonnstetter has already made a mark in college basketball and become popular among coaches and players. During the first round of last year's NCAA tournament in Brooklyn—Bonnstetter's first assignment for SI Kids—Temple coach Fran Dunphy praised Bonnstetter for a question he asked and called him a "pretty cool guy." Villanova coach Jay Wright also sent out a message on Twitter saying he enjoyed an interview with Bonnstetter. Villanova's players were excited to see Bonnstetter, too.
"All of them were like, 'There's a kid in here?,'" Bonnstetter said. "They all went over and crowded around me. They wanted me to ask them questions. They were so nice to me."
Katherine Johnson, Bonnstetter's mother, said almost every program has embraced her son, but none more so than Villanova. Bonnstetter attended a practice before this season and interviewed Wright for a half-hour. Johnson has been amazed at how her son has handled himself in front of the camera, at press conferences, and in locker rooms.
"He is very poised, mature, definitely comfortable," Johnson told VICE Sports. "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."
This past weekend, Johnson accompanied Bonnstetter to the games, which is a perk she enjoys as a big sports fan herself. Since Bonnstetter started following the sport, he has rooted for Duke, thanks to family connections: Johnson graduated from Duke, as did her father and three of her four siblings. Bonnstetter had Duke pacifiers and baby clothes as an infant, and he's attended a few games at Cameron Indoor Stadium, even sitting in the student section once with his mother. Still, mother and son enjoy watching any college basketball game, especially during the NCAA tournament.
"Once I finish my homework, we'll go in the living room, turn on the TV and watch it together," Bonnstetter said. "We love watching all the emotions of the players and coaches and staff, whether it's sad because they lost or screaming and happy because they won. We love watching it all together."
At his young age, Bonnstetter has also shown an uncommon maturity and compassion for others. For a few of his birthdays, instead of accepting presents, he has raised thousands of dollars for pediatric causes. When he turned nine, 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. For his tenth birthday, he raised money that went toward renovating the basketball court outside of Duke Children's Hospital.
Johnson isn't sure why her son has chosen to support children's charities, but it could be in part because his friend's brother had a brain tumor. Bonnstetter's mother and grandfather are also cancer survivors.
"I think just seeing a lot of those things impacted him," Johnson said. "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."
Now that his NCAA tournament assignment is over, Bonnstetter is looking forward to competing himself. He's a point guard on the "Rise as One" AAU team that won the New Jersey state title last season. He's excited for next month's state tournament and other upcoming events.
When his playing days are over, Bonnstetter, a straight-A student in his Catholic middle school, seemingly has a bright future in the media if he chooses that path. He idolizes broadcasters such as Jay Bilas, Jay Williams, Smith, and Barkley. Someday, he could be their heir apparent.
"I love college basketball," Bonnstetter said. "I think it would be such a cool job as a living to be able to watch the game and go and get to commentate."
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