High school basketball hype runs in the family. Before LeBron James was the face of the NBA, he appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated in February 2002 as a junior at St. Vincent-St. Mary High School in Akron, Ohio, and played a nationally televised game on ESPN2 as a senior that, according to one executive involved in the broadcast, was at the time the network’s most-watched live sporting event ever. Even as a teenager, LeBron was the biggest story in basketball: He drew comparisons to Michael Jordan and Magic Johnson, his games regularly sold out college gyms and his team crisscrossed the country, logging 9,000 miles of travel in one season.
Nearly two decades later, in an age when social media turns teenage phenoms into celebrities, LeBron’s eldest son is riding the prep hype machine to new levels.
At Sierra Canyon’s home opener Tuesday, at least 10 video cameras shadowed Bronny’s every move during warmups. The school sold out of roughly 1,000 tickets in 32 minutes through a private online presale, and the media contingent on hand included basketball mix-tape makers, national newspaper writers, local television reporters and multiple ESPN personalities.
The Sierra Canyon Trailblazers — who also feature the son of James’s former Miami Heat teammate Dwyane Wade — have landed an unprecedented 15 appearances this season on ESPN’s television networks and streaming service. A YouTube highlight reel of a recent Sierra Canyon victory has received more than 2 million views, and star running back Todd Gurley II of the Los Angeles Rams chose to sit courtside for Bronny and Co. this week rather than watch the Los Angeles Clippers play at Staples Center.
“A lot of the high school guys are more famous than the NBA players,” said Cassy Athena, a well-known sports photographer whose photo of Bronny drew more than 2.5 million likes on LeBron’s Instagram account. “If I post a picture of Bronny, a lot of times it will get more traction than the NBA players.”
While Bronny is not yet his team’s best player and his professional future remains uncertain, the amount of hype he is receiving has solidified Sierra Canyon, an ambitious college preparatory school, as the center of the prep basketball universe and launched a second-generation journey his father hopes will lead to the NBA.
“It’s My Job to pass along [the] Blueprint,” LeBron James, the Los Angeles Lakers’ 34-year-old star forward, wrote alongside a side-by-side photo of him and his son dunking. “Heir to the throne.” He added the hashtag "#LikeFatherLikeSon.”
The Bronny blueprint was forged during his father’s rise to stardom, which included multiple controversies as he grappled with being a professional-quality player in an amateur environment.
James was suspended by the Ohio High School Athletic Association for accepting throwback jerseys from a clothing store, and his mother, Gloria, was heavily criticized for obtaining a loan to buy him a Hummer for his 18th birthday. Before he became the top pick in the 2003 NBA draft, James considered trying to enter the 2002 draft in hopes of jump-starting his professional career and inking endorsement deals.
If LeBron’s arrival was a shock to the systems that governed the sport locally and promoted it nationally two decades ago, Bronny’s reveals how fast those systems have evolved and the far-reaching benefits of his father’s wealth, fame and influence.
Bronny takes the court in a Nike jersey and sneakers, just like his father, who in 2015 signed a lifetime endorsement deal with the sports apparel maker reported to be worth more than $1 billion. Bronny’s wood-paneled locker is adjacent to that of teammate Zaire Wade, the 17-year-old son of LeBron’s former teammate and close friend Dwayne Wade. A few weeks before LeBron and the Lakers went to China for a preseason game, Bronny and Sierra Canyon also visited for a team-bonding trip.
The Trailblazers have collected top players from Georgia, Florida and California to form a high school version of the Miami Heat superteam that starred James and Wade. Sierra Canyon seeks to replicate the Duke or Stanford experience on the high school level, and its commitment to its athletic teams is staggering. The basketball staff has six assistant coaches, on par with an NBA team. The players receive pregame scouting reports and video breakdowns, and they participated in a preseason media day.
Because of its independent status, Sierra Canyon is free to aggressively schedule out-of-state matchups, including a Dec. 14 game against LeBron’s alma mater in Ohio. The Trailblazers will travel to Texas, Massachusetts, Nevada, Arizona and New Jersey this season while also competing in Minnesota in a made-for-television event created by the Paragon Marketing Group, an intermediary between ESPN and high schools.
“A lot of people remember seeing these kids as 2-year-olds at press conferences with their dads,” said Rashid Ghazi, an executive at Paragon, which has placed high school games on ESPN for 16 years. “Fans have grown up with these kids. LeBron is so active on social media with his family that a lot of people feel invested in Bronny.”
LeBron came of age before YouTube and social media, so tracking down his early high school highlights is difficult. By contrast, 13 of Sierra Canyon’s 15 ESPN appearances this season will come on ESPN3, a streaming platform popular among younger audiences and mobile viewers. Paragon supplements ESPN’s coverage by posting clips in real time and sending highlights directly to athletes for use on their own accounts. Among live game coverage, highlight plays, YouTube replays and interviews, online broadcasts regularly log more than 1 million engagements.
ESPN executive Dan Margulis said the network was seeking to balance widespread interest in Bronny with the fact that he is still an untested freshman. He insisted that the network isn’t looking ahead to when Bronny might emerge as a major prospect and, potentially, a candidate to bypass college and jump straight to the NBA if anticipated changes to the draft rules are made.
“If Bronny becomes his dad, we’ll be all over it just like if any kid was that good,” Margulis said. “Bronny seems to be incredibly poised with all the pressure that’s on him. I don’t want to be the person who adds to it. This [year’s coverage] is an experiment.”
The digital interest in the team is matched in person: A recent game in Dallas had more than 10,000 pack American Airlines Center, home of the NBA’s Mavericks. Sierra Canyon will host future games at nearby Cal State Northridge to accommodate larger crowds. The school employed a seven-man private security team to complement four Los Angeles Police Department officers for its first on-campus game. Bronny is shuttled to and from school by a driver, and guards are close by before and after games.
Nevertheless, school administrators describe Bronny, as one put it, as a “yes, sir/no, sir kid” who is “extremely mature for his age” and who understands that he is still “the rookie” on a team that has two seniors who are top-10 national recruits.
“Bronny doesn’t really want the praise,” the team’s coach, Andre Chevalier, said. “He just keeps his head down. He’s not looking into the crowd. He’s not trying to sign autographs. It’s wonderful.”
LeBron has made a natural transition from hyped prospect to hype man, fueling much of the interest in his son by attending his AAU games, sharing clips on social media and even using the Lakers’ media day to campaign for Sierra Canyon to play at Staples Center.
But there are two firm boundaries: LeBron has barred Bronny from doing media interviews during his freshman year, and he has taken a hands-off approach with Sierra Canyon’s coaches. LeBron rushed to the locker room to watch Bronny’s highlights after the Lakers’ road win over the Denver Nuggets on Tuesday, but he resists the temptation to bombard Chevalier with suggestions or requests. The same is true of Wade, who has attended games with his wife, actress Gabrielle Union.
“They want me to make my own judgments,” said Chevalier, who has coached high school basketball for more than 20 years and guided the Trailblazers to state titles in 2018 and 2019. “They did their research before they came here. They watch from a distance.”
It is not lost on Sierra Canyon administrators that the James family could have sent Bronny to any high school. At the same time, Sierra Canyon was perhaps uniquely qualified to land him. LeBron and Sierra Canyon are philosophically aligned: His “Strive for Greatness” catchphrase nearly mirrors the school’s Latin motto “Excellentia propter se,” which translates to “excellence is its own reward.”
The high school has deep celebrity ties: Stevie Wonder and Will Smith played integral roles in its founding in 2005, while Kylie and Kendall Jenner are among its famous alumni. Sierra Canyon’s teams have captured state titles in numerous sports, including football and girls’ volleyball. In recent years, the basketball team has featured now-Sacramento Kings forward Marvin Bagley III and the sons of former NBA stars Scottie Pippen and Kenyon Martin.
While LeBron attended a private Catholic high school with a tradition of academic and athletic success, Sierra Canyon bears all the hallmarks of a top prep school. The sprawling campus boasts mountain vistas, an athletic complex with well-maintained fields and an esports game room packed with high-end computers. Tuition runs $40,000 per year, the average class size is 15 students, and 98 percent of graduating seniors go on to four-year universities.
The school aims to compete academically with blue bloods such as Phillips Academy in Andover, Mass. and Harvard-Westlake School in Los Angeles, but it cultivates a more relaxed environment. The 550 students abide by an informal dress code and attend classes near middle-class Chatsworth rather than in ritzy Beverly Hills or Bel-Air. An elaborate busing system brings in teens from all corners of Los Angeles, and students of color make up 43 percent of the student body.
“We’re elite without being elitist,” said Jim Skrumbis, the head of school. “That appeals to a lot of families.”
Sierra Canyon has benefited from good fortune, too. Without a recent California rule change that allows smaller schools to play against larger schools if they demonstrate “competitive equity” by fielding winning teams, the Trailblazers would have been stuck in a lower classification group. That would have made it more difficult to schedule highly ranked opponents and to attract blue chip players.
The basketball program’s all-consuming intensity and wall-to-wall media coverage might seem like overkill or exploitation to outsiders. School officials assert that visibility and top-flight competition are of paramount importance to families who expect their children to earn Division I college scholarships and, hopefully, play in the NBA. B.J. Boston, a senior forward, said he relocated from Atlanta in hopes of preparing himself for the University of Kentucky and a professional career that could improve his family’s long-term financial security.
“Does everybody want this? Not really,” Athletic Director Rock Pillsbury said. “This group does. The parents want to give their kids the best chance to be successful, and these are really driven kids. We want to be the best in every single sport, the best in arts, the best in academics. The fun part is going for it.”
The scope of the attention has sounded some alarms on campus. Skrumbis said he had “mixed feelings” about the basketball program’s success because he “[doesn’t] want the school to be defined in one way.”
Pillsbury said that high-level prep sports “could be getting close” to media oversaturation. Steve Burnett, a Sierra Canyon counselor, wondered whether fans will soon be paying for team-specific high school cable packages.
The James family, however, is proceeding full speed ahead. With Bronny’s launchpad in place, it can focus on its long-term goal: LeBron said his “greatest achievement in life” would be to play in the NBA with his son, which could happen as soon as 2023. He made that declaration last year via his “Uninterrupted” media company, which sent a six-man documentary film crew to film Bronny’s game on Tuesday.
The surest way to realize that dream, LeBron seems to have concluded, is to put on a show.