EVERY MORNING, BRONNY James is driven 25 miles from his family’s home in the West Los Angeles enclave of Brentwood, through the recently fire-ravaged Sepulveda Pass and into a quiet corner of the San Fernando Valley.
The hourlong trip into the teeth of the 405 traffic would be a tough commute for anyone, but he and his 12-year-old brother, Bryce, go through it to reach an institution that has numerous elite athletes, that is more than 40% nonwhite and where celebrities and children of celebrities are common.
The Sierra Canyon School gives Bronny something LeBron James couldn’t have dreamed of 20 years ago as he burst onto the national scene: a semblance of normalcy.
The high school is less than 15 years old, one of its founding board members was Will Smith, and the fundraising push to open the school was highlighted by a Stevie Wonder concert that raised seven figures.
Scotty Pippen Jr. and Kenyon Martin Jr. transferred to finish high school at Sierra Canyon last year. So did current Duke freshman Cassius Stanley, who is the son of NFL and NBA agent Jerome Stanley. Marvin Bagley III‘s jersey hangs in a glass case. He transferred in, graduated a year early, went to Duke and was picked No. 2 in the 2018 NBA draft by the Sacramento Kings.
“When my son saw what it was like at Sierra Canyon, he had no interest in any other schools,” says Hall of Famer Scottie Pippen, whose son graduated last year and is now playing at Vanderbilt. “He loved what he saw there and he was very comfortable.”
The Trailblazers are ranked among the top five high school teams in the nation by various outlets. They play a high-level national schedule with games planned in eight states. They play disciplined offense and use complex defensive systems as their coach prepares them for Division I college basketball.
And now, with Bronny, they have the most famous high school freshman in the country.
“Bronny is a fairly typical 15-year-old who is trying to find himself and learn,” says head coach Andre Chevalier. “He keeps his head down and works. I’m impressed with the way he handles the attention.”
Bronny has good size at 6-foot-2 and he’s in excellent shape. His graceful gait and team-first approach — he’s a willing and gifted passer — are just like his dad’s.
But unlike his father, who was already the best player in his home state of Ohio as a high school freshman, Bronny is currently a role-playing guard on this loaded team, scoring in double figures just once this season.
The 7-0 Trailblazers will spend this weekend in Ohio, where Sierra Canyon will play LeBron’s alma mater, St. Vincent-St. Mary, in a showcase game in front of what most expect to be a large crowd at the Columbus Blue Jackets’ home arena (streamed on ESPN3). The heavily favored California team has a couple of older five-star prospects on the roster, but many of the viewers and attendees will be there to get in on the ground floor for what they hope will be the next LeBron.
Unlike the show LeBron put on in Columbus as a 15-year-old — he won the state tournament MVP in front of a sellout crowd at nearby Ohio State — this likely will be more about the experience than the stats for the James family.
“Obviously, everybody knows that St. Vincent-St. Mary is when people started to recognize me from a national standpoint,” LeBron told ESPN’s Dave McMenamin. “And my son is about to play a high school game versus my alma mater in our home state. The only thing that would have been more emotional is if my son was playing St. Vincent-St. Mary at the LeBron James Arena in Akron. That would have been, like — that would have been too much.”
LeBron donated $1 million to his old school to renovate its gymnasium, provided uniforms for all the school’s athletic teams and gave another $100,000 in 2018 with the promise of further donations. But even with his love for the school that made him, LeBron has often expressed hope that Bronny could have a different experience — a contributing factor when he decided to move to L.A. last year.
He wanted a place like Sierra Canyon, with its loaded and famous team — which also includes senior guard Zaire Wade, son of Dwyane Wade — for the way it develops high-profile young athletes and the controlled high school experience it provides.
“I’ve found that these former players want their kids to be coached and to practice and play alongside other elite players,” Chevalier says. “They want them to have to earn their playing time and their roles.”
WHEN LEBRON WAS a senior in high school in 2003, he had been selling out full-size arenas from North Carolina to L.A., playing on pay-per-view TV and garnering his high school a shoe contract from Adidas. An untold amount of money surrounded the team in LeBron’s wake.
That season, the Ohio High School Athletic Association stripped him of eligibility when it came to light that he had accepted a few throwback jerseys in exchange for autographs and pictures.
A judge reduced the ruling to a one-game suspension, but the damage had been done. LeBron would never forget the way he was treated.
The lessons LeBron learned then now show up everywhere at Sierra Canyon. It is not personified so much in Bronny but in a senior teammate, 6-foot-6 wing B.J. Boston.
Boston, who had already committed to play at Kentucky, enrolled in Sierra Canyon for his senior year.
“I came here so that my family could have a better opportunity, my younger sister and my [cousin],” Boston says, explaining his decision to move from the Atlanta area. “I had my [college] scholarship already. I knew I could come here and have fun and learn, but I did it for them.”
His sister is in seventh grade and his cousin, a sophomore, is part of the football team that just won the California Interscholastic Federation state championship. Both were awarded financial aid by the school, which costs nearly $40,000 per year but provides aid to many students, according to school officials.
During LeBron’s high school era, this type of scenario could have been seen as trying to take advantage of his fame.
But not at Sierra Canyon. It’s more like this: a modern great athlete — a young star who will be playing in front of huge crowds and on national television wearing the school’s name on his chest — giving his family a chance at a high-level education and the school a chance to further diversify.
“That young man has only talked about helping his family since the first day we talked to him,” says Jim Skrumbis, the head of school. “Because I’m fortunate to have the sons of pro athletes paying full tuition, we can help out other families and improve our student body.”
LAWYERS, MEDIA DEMANDS, potential agents and eager sneaker reps created a sometimes chaotic atmosphere in LeBron’s high school days. But even with an appearance on the cover of Sports Illustrated at 17, being featured in nationally televised games and the aforementioned suspension, there was no agency for the Akron phenom as an amateur athlete. Often, there was only madness.
What Sierra Canyon strives to provide is controlled madness, controlled chaos. It’s a school not just familiar with athletic fame but celebrity, which has complexities beyond what even LeBron had faced.
For example, Sierra Canyon doesn’t attempt to restrict players’ social media. Players are put through a four-week course to educate them about its benefits and dangers. But Bronny is permitted to say whatever he wishes to his 3.7 million Instagram followers. Stanley and Pippen Jr. had hundreds of thousands of followers themselves.
“We don’t want to stop any of our players from building their brands,” Chevalier says. “They may be able to use that later in life, whether they make it as basketball players or something else.”
Bronny’s parents and school officials agreed before the year that Bronny wouldn’t do any media interviews this season. But when Chevalier calls a timeout, multiple cameras move into position around the bench and several boom mics lower into the huddle.
In 2003, a college student working on a school project with a single handheld camera took some footage that eventually turned into a LeBron-based documentary six years later. Now there are two documentary series in production about the Sierra Canyon team and its players — one by LeBron’s Uninterrupted media platform and the other in conjunction with Dwyane Wade’s production house. After games, Bronny walks past reporters but is followed to his car by his dad’s cameras.
The thought, according to school officials, is that there’s going to be media attention anyway. So why not let someone whom the school and parents trust have the access?
There are many of these types of scenarios around Bronny and the team: a layer of protection and comfort weaved in with needed acceptance of the new world order for elite high school basketball.
On one hand, LeBron wanted his son to go to an environment where he’d have to earn playing time and not always be the center of attention. On the other, Bronny and Zaire went with the team on a two-week barnstorming tour of China over the summer, where they and 7-foot-3 Chinese teammate Harold Yu were treated like visiting dignitaries. Then they took part in the school’s official media day with photo shoots and filming for the professionally produced pregame hype video. That was followed by the Trailblazers’ midnight madness show, which included players tossing logoed items into the crowd and a dunk contest.
Young players dream of these sorts of trappings, and Sierra Canyon tries to responsibly deliver them, walking a line of trying to be elite without being elitist.
“This season is exponentially bigger than the past few years,” Skrumbis says. “We try to recognize it and respect it.”
Meanwhile an NBA father is trying to enjoy it as much as his son.
Last week, after he scored 25 points in a victory in Denver, LeBron streamed the second half of a Sierra Canyon game as he was soaking his feet in ice. Bronny had made his first start that night, 20 years to the day after LeBron made his. When he’d arrived in the postgame locker room, the footage of Bronny’s first in-game dunk — off a lob from Boston — was waiting for him.
“It’s just a pretty cool thing. You don’t know how things are going to line up in life and it almost seems like it’s all coming back full circle, seeing my oldest son doing the things that he’s doing. I’m proud of him and his basketball club,” LeBron said. “They got a great team, but more importantly, they are great kids.”