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There was a time, not long ago, when it would have been unusual for Drake, the father of a 2-year-old, to post a photo of himself wearing a sweatshirt with the logo of Sierra Canyon, a private high school in the unfashionable outer reaches of the San Fernando Valley. There was also a time when one of the world’s most famous people announcing that he was tying his brand to a prep school would have been a defining moment in the lives of every teenager there. Not so at Sierra Canyon, which has recently become the most Instagrammed high school in America.
“Honestly, I forgot that even happened,” said B. J. Boston, a senior who plays on the varsity basketball team, the Trailblazers — the reason for Drake’s interest. Boston is considered one of the country’s best high-school basketball players and had transferred from Georgia to spend his senior year in L.A., but he was not the primary reason for the hype. Last May, LeBron James and Dwyane Wade, who had formed the NBA’s first super-team in Miami a decade ago, announced they were sending their sons, Bronny and Zaire, to Sierra Canyon to play basketball together. Since then, more and more celebrities were showing up courtside at the team’s games, even on nights when they could have caught the Clippers or Lakers at Staples Center. The Trailblazers sold out arenas from Dallas to China (where they took a two-week August trip through Jiaxing, Jinhua, Lishui, Suichang, Shangyu, and Hong Kong, just before the NBA’s own preseason brand-building tour was sucked into debates over the protests there). In early January, when Sierra Canyon played Minnehaha Academy at Minneapolis’s Target Center, home of the NBA’s Timberwolves, they drew 17,000 fans — more than had watched the Timberwolves play the Golden State Warriors two nights before. Sierra Canyon has as many assistant coaches as the Lakers (six), has flown as far as an average NBA team (more than 40,000 miles), and will appear on ESPN 15 times this season.
All of which meant a tag from Drake prompted little more from the team’s players than a debate over his place in the rap pantheon. “He’s my favorite rapper,” said Terren Frank, a senior whose father, Tellis, had also played in the NBA.
“Stop it, Terren,” Zaire Wade said.
“Drake is definitely not a rapper,” said Ziaire Williams, ranked No. 7 on ESPN’s list of the country’s best seniors, one spot below B. J. Boston.
“I like Drake. I just can’t listen to him all day,” Boston said.
“Who said all day?,” Wade said.
“Okay, I can’t listen to him, period,” Boston said. Wade, a Drake defender, thought that was going too far. He suggested they all needed to go back and listen to Drake’s early stuff, from 2010, when they were 8 years old.
It was lunchtime at Sierra Canyon, and the four seniors were having Double-Doubles from In-N-Out. Across the 40-acre campus, the scene looked much as it would at any elite high school in L.A.: a student using his backpack as a pillow on a picnic table, a girl walking down the hall in tears with a remorseful-looking boy at her side, somebody fixing a skateboard. It could’ve been Harvard-Westlake or Crossroads, where the children of celebrities mingle seamlessly with the offspring of Hollywood executives and others from the city’s elite — a finishing school for the entertainment world’s next generation. Sierra Canyon’s board of trustees has included the head of Nickelodeon, L.A. Reid’s wife, and Will and Jada Pinkett Smith. And even without the NBA kids, the Trailblazers’ roster includes the son of a record executive who helped launch the Wu-Tang Clan; the son of a former professional basketball player in China; and the son of Pookey Wigington, a comedian with a weekly show at the Laugh Factory on Sunset Boulevard. (Wigington’s sons go by Snookey, Wookey, Zookey, and Tookey; the last is a backup guard for the Trailblazers.) Hall of Fame running back Jim Brown’s daughter Morgan scored the game-winning goal in the girls’ soccer team’s first playoff game last week
But the addition of Dwyane Wade and, especially, LeBron James to the school’s PTA heralded a new level of fame. Over the past decade, the NBA has turned Los Angeles into its home away from the court, with basketball becoming another arm in the city’s vast entertainment-industrial complex — music, film, television, hoops. Seemingly half of the league’s players retreat there in the off-season to play pickup and strategize post-basketball careers, as LeBron did long before joining the Lakers two years ago. Or they retire in L.A., somewhere along the 101, as Wade and his family did last year. (He is married to the actress Gabrielle Union.) It’s not just that LeBron appeared in Trainwreck and is rebooting Space Jam. He has his own digital-media studio and his own Hollywood production company, as does Wade, and both dads have camera crews making documentaries about their basketball-playing sons.
And just as these fathers had maneuvered to direct the course of the NBA by negotiating their own trades and group free-agent signings, the high schoolers had become a youth super-team. The crowds weren’t coming to Sierra Canyon to catch a glimpse of LeBron, or at least not only that. They were there to watch a dynasty introduce its next generation. “Don’t disrespect Bronny!,” a young fan screamed during one game after someone in the crowd threw a Starburst that hit Bronny in the back. During a stop on Sierra Canyon’s tour of China, Zaire Wade walked over to sign a poster of himself that a teenage girl had made. When he gave her a hug, she started weeping. Bronny is only a freshman and comes off the bench for Sierra Canyon, but he already has 4.6 million Instagram followers, which would make him one of the 20 most followed players in the NBA. Before his freshman season even started, and shortly after his 15th birthday, a sneaker-company executive declared him “the most influential high-school athlete of all time.”
The kids, meanwhile, are trying to navigate lives as semi-normal teenagers. “I can’t do Shakespeare,” Williams said over the Double-Doubles. “I’m looking at it like, What is this?”
“Nah, bro, you gotta watch videos on it,” Wade said. He had been consulting a cartoon retelling on YouTube and pulled up a clip describing Hamlet waiting for the ghost of his father to appear. “Are you at the part where Hamlet’s going crazy?,” he asked.
“When he’s talking to himself?,” Williams said.
“No, he’s talking to Polonius, Ophelia’s dad,” Wade said. “Y’all need to catch up.”
“Who’s Ophelia?,” Frank said.
“Ophelia’s the girl that Hamlet likes, remember?,” Wade said. “So when Polonius found out Hamlet liked her, he was like, ‘Oh, you can’t go with him.’ ”
All four of the seniors around the table had transferred from elsewhere, which made the environment at Sierra Canyon, where several of them were taking a yoga class, something they were still adjusting to. “It’s like High School Musical,” Wade said.
“Kids act like they like each other, but they really don’t,” Boston said, turning to Wade. “Tell ’em what you told me this morning.”
“It’s like, out here,” said Wade, who had recently moved from Miami, “everybody has a certain expectation of what you got to be. If you ain’t up here where I expect you to be, you ain’t nobody.”
“L.A. is lit,” Frank, a native, said defensively.
“I’m not saying it’s not lit,” Wade said. “But everybody’s got their own agenda.”
“It’s all competition out here,” Williams said.
“Oh my God,” Wade said, “so much jealousy.”
Before a Sierra Canyon game in late January against Crossroads, a private school in Santa Monica that sells itself as “artsy” (the Trailblazers won by 26 points), I was milling around the court with Cameron Look, the team’s unofficial photographer, and Sosa, a burly New Yorker wearing a fanny pack and an earpiece tucked under a Yankees cap. He was there to provide what may have been the first full-time security detail in high-school-basketball history. Sierra Canyon had multiple LAPD officers on site, along with security guards working the door, but the constant mob of selfie seekers made it necessary for the team to have a personal escort through various crowds. When I asked Sosa what his primary concern was, he replied, “All Bronny, all the time.” I started to ask another question, but his attention had already shifted to some looming security threat, and he walked away without answering. I told Look I was surprised by how soft Sosa’s handshake was. “He’s nice until you cross him,” Look said. “Then he’ll fuck you up.”
After LeBron signed with the Lakers in 2018, Bronny spent his eighth-grade year at Crossroads, a few miles from the family’s home in Brentwood. “When he went to Crossroads, I knew it wasn’t going to work,” Rock Pillsbury, who moved from Texas to become Sierra Canyon’s athletic director, told me. The younger James was a dominant middle-school basketball player — “He very casually put up 30 of their 60 points, and he wasn’t doing anything flashy,” an opposing coach told me as a compliment on both his skills and his manners — but Crossroads had experienced only intermittent athletic success. (Shaq’s sons, Shareef and Shaqir, and his daughter Amirah starred there in recent years, and Denzel Washington once helped coach the eighth-grade team.) Jim Skrumbis, Sierra Canyon’s head of school, private-school-speak for “principal,” said the only question facing the Jameses was the same one facing every citizen of L.A. every day: “Is the drive worth it?”
Sierra Canyon was founded in 1972 as a summer camp for kids, half an hour from Brentwood if traffic is light. The camp was a hit among families in the San Fernando Valley, and six years later, the founders opened an elementary school with fortuitous timing. The California Supreme Court had recently mandated that Los Angeles desegregate its public schools for the 1978 school year, which sent wealthy white parents in the Valley scrambling to avoid busing their children to integrated schools around the city. Sierra Canyon hoped to enroll 50 students. It ended up with 150.
As Sierra Canyon’s reputation grew, and the suburbs along the 101 corridor — Studio City, Sherman Oaks, Calabasas — became more desirable to the L.A. entertainment firmament, the school emerged as an alternative for a celebrity clientele willing to deal with some extra time on the 405 in exchange for the advantages a slightly newer model of school could confer. In 2001, several Sierra Canyon parents, including Andy Gordon, a partner at Goldman Sachs, and Will and Jada Pinkett Smith, whose daughter, Willow, was a student, bought land up the hill from the campus and earmarked it as a location for a future high school. Sierra Canyon’s founders had neither the expertise nor the money to run a high school, but after looking at the donor lists at L.A.’s top private high schools, they realized some of those parents had once been Sierra Canyon elementary parents. In 2004, Stevie Wonder, whose daughter went to Sierra Canyon, performed a three-hour benefit concert hosted by fellow Sierra Canyon parent Howie Mandel. (Later fund-raisers were headlined by Jamie Foxx, Cedric the Entertainer, and Anthony Anderson.)
The next year, the high school opened with 51 freshman and, according to Skrumbis, three mandates from its board of trustees: First, it should have great academics; second, it needed a well-rounded commitment to sports and extracurriculars; and third, Skrumbis remembers Gordon saying, “I don’t want this to be a school for rich white Jewish kids from Hidden Hills.” (Gordon himself is a Jew living in Hidden Hills, the ultraexclusive gated community in the Valley.) Sierra Canyon has a strong academic reputation, and several parents told me the school’s relative diversity, at least compared with other L.A. private schools, was a big factor in their decision to enroll their children. “Even though it’s a lot of celebrity kids, at the same time it’s really diverse,” Cedric the Entertainer, whose daughter is a student, told me.
Fulfilling the trustees’s second request was a challenge. Six boys showed up to the school’s first football practice, while the starting center on its inaugural basketball team was five-foot-nine. (Harold Yu, a transfer from China who starts at center today, is seven-foot-three.) In 2010, the school still had no gym, and Jeff Feinberg, a rich Jewish guy who lived in Hidden Hills, approached Skrumbis with a proposition. Feinberg ran a hedge fund — the SEC had recently accused two employees at the fund of operating a “bribery scheme” — and, according to the Newark Star-Ledger, had considered buying a stake in the Brooklyn Nets. Instead, he financed two traveling youth basketball teams that allowed him to surround each of his sons with some of the best middle-school-age basketball talent in Southern California. Feinberg wanted the kids to be able to play together year-round and pitched Skrumbis on the idea of enrolling the members of Team Cali Style at Sierra Canyon. In exchange, Feinberg offered to make a large donation to help build a gym.
The $7 million Feinberg Family Pavilion opened its doors in 2013, and Sierra Canyon quickly became a basketball powerhouse. Ireland Baldwin, Kim Basinger and Alec Baldwin’s daughter, attended Sierra Canyon in the early 2010s — she left in the middle of her senior year to pursue a modeling career — and remembers a sudden shift. “I was here since preschool, and the sports didn’t pick up until later,” Baldwin, who played volleyball, said. “By high school, all the same kids were still going to school together, but suddenly we were seeing these six-foot-six seventh-graders. We were like, What the hell?”
When the Team Cali Style group graduated in 2017 (along with Marvin Bagley, the top-ranked high-school player in the country, who had transferred to the school), Sierra Canyon welcomed five notable transfers: three sons of former NBA players Scottie Pippen, Kenyon Martin, and Tellis Frank, plus the nephew of former Lakers point guard Derek Fisher and the son of a prominent NBA agent. High-school basketball has come to be dominated by private schools that suck in talent, both local and from across the country; IMG, the professional sports agency, operates a boarding school in Florida with a top basketball team. But the star power at Sierra Canyon was unique — players with famous names, from families already plugged into the city’s engine of celebrity. The kids could also play ball. Sierra Canyon won back-to-back state titles in 2018 and 2019, with NBA dads filling the Feinberg Family Pavilion along with their famous friends: Kanye and Kim Kardashian West, whose half-sisters Kylie and Kendall Jenner were Sierra Canyon cheerleaders, showed up to watch alongside Larsa Pippen, Scottie’s wife and one of Kim’s best friends.
While many of Sierra Canyon’s parents and alumni were excited about all the attention, the current student population seemed largely unmoved. Before a recent game at the Feinberg Family Pavilion, with Ireland Baldwin sitting courtside and Cedric the Entertainer a few rows back, I chatted with Gowri Vadmal, a senior who has been at Sierra Canyon since second grade and is the captain of the school’s equally stacked math team. (“It’s not by chance that our math team is the best in Southern California — half the team is Chinese,” Skrumbis told me, while discussing the fact that 50 of Sierra Canyon’s 63 international students come from Chinese families wealthy enough to pay $70,000 a year to cover Sierra Canyon’s $36,250 annual tuition plus room and board.) Vadmal, who also performs at basketball games as a member of the school’s drumline, said the school had changed recently. When I asked what she meant, she paused for a long time and answered only after another drumliner walked up and encouraged her to share their grievance. “From drumline’s perspective, I think we’re appreciated a little less,” Vadmal said. They no longer had a reserved section in the stands now that the school was selling more tickets than it had seats. (The school says the situation has been remedied and the drumline has its reserved seats again.) Later, during a time-out, I watched as the drumline was shushed by a Sierra Canyon staff member so the public-address announcer could finish reading an advertisement for a nearby luxury subdivision.
“This is our safe spot,” Ziaire Williams said one afternoon, entering the basketball team’s private locker room in the Feinberg Family Pavilion. “It’s a little man cave,” Zaire Wade said. An Xbox had recently gone missing, and the team’s seniors were blaming one of the freshmen for the empty McDonald’s bag on the floor.
The locker room was lined with jerseys representing Sierra Canyon graduates who had gone on to play Division I college basketball, including Bagley at Duke and Robbie Feinberg at Harvard, although the current players were already looking beyond that. “They should have put up league jerseys instead,” Boston said.
I pointed out that Bagley was in fact the only Sierra Canyon alum to beat the long odds of making it to the NBA. “But there’s gonna be a lot more, for sure,” Williams said.
Between the intense travel schedule, the robust coaching staff, and the media training the team received at the beginning of the year, Sierra Canyon was doing its best to approximate the pressures the players would experience after graduating. “We want to prepare them not only for college but also for the NBA,” Andre Chevalier, who has been the team’s head coach since 2017, said. “They want to be 15 when they’re away from the game, but when it’s connected to the game, they want it to be as close to the NBA as possible.”
During one Sierra Canyon game, I sat courtside with Richard Shapiro, the school’s chief financial officer. “My wife says I seem to have more fun doing this stuff than all my other jobs combined!,” he said. While most schools must pay their own way to the tournaments Sierra Canyon was playing around the country, the organizers of these events were so desperate to have Sierra Canyon on the marquee that Shapiro had been able to charge anywhere from $15,000 to $40,000 (when the girls’ team comes too); for the games played in NBA-size arenas to accommodate the demand for tickets to see Sierra Canyon live, Shapiro has worked out a revenue-sharing model that he said could generate fees that approach six figures per game. Nike had been an eager partner — the team got Sierra Canyon–branded LeBron Nike sneakers — and tickets to home games were in such demand that the school sacrificed its home-court advantage and moved many of its games to a larger gym at California State University–Northridge. “The whole point of playing games at csun was to bring in more money,” Shapiro said. While we spoke, several Sierra Canyon students were in the lobby of the Feinberg Family Pavilion selling hot cocoa — the temperature had dipped below 60 degrees in Los Angeles — as a fund-raiser for the girls’ soccer team.
“This school is definitely all about business,” Williams said. He and several of his teammates were complaining that they rarely experience the feeling of playing in front of a home crowd because the games have been moved to csun and so many tickets are being sold not to die-hard Sierra Canyon fans but to the legions of curious outsiders. At one game, the players heard the organizers were charging $100 for courtside seats. “If I ever pay $100 to watch some high-school players …,” Williams said.
“I wouldn’t pay $100 to see an NBA team,” Frank said. “That’s a lot of money to watch some basketball.”
At the Hoophall Classic in Springfield, Massachusetts — home to the basketball Hall of Fame — Sierra Canyon’s presence sold out the event in January for the first time in 19 years. There were 40 police officers to handle the standing-room-only crowd, and the documentary crews had cameras and boom operators racing in and out of the team’s huddles during time-outs. This was on top of the 36 media members seated along the sidelines, plus the cameras collecting footage for SLAM magazine, BallerTV, and Global Kid Media, a growing digital empire in which Vedant Gupta, a 13-year-old from Michigan, interviews athletes with the goal of becoming the “1st national tv sports sideline reporter as a kid.” I found Gupta and his dad, Vipul, hanging around outside the Sierra Canyon locker room after one of the team’s games. Vipul did most of the talking. “We came here because he wanted to talk to Dwyane and LeBron, but we keep getting pushed out,” Vipul said, complaining about the tight security around the team. After Vedant, who is just over five feet tall, landed an interview with seven-foot-three Harold Yu, Vipul interrupted his son’s questioning to pull out his phone and show off @globalkidmedia, which has 1,061 Instagram followers, and instructed Vedant to ask Yu a question in Mandarin. “You better not say you don’t know how to say anything, because you’ve taken a semester of it,” Vipul told his son, before suggesting Yu might be able to help build the Global Kid Media brand back on the mainland.
LeBron has said his “greatest achievement” would be to play in the NBA with his son. When Ken Griffey Jr. briefly played alongside his dad as a 20-year-old center fielder for the Seattle Mariners in 1990, it felt like a novelty ripped from father-son fantasy camp. But last year, three second-generation phenoms (Vladimir Guerrero’s son, Vladimir Jr.; Dante Bichette’s son Bo; and Craig Biggio’s son Cavan) were starters for the Toronto Blue Jays. And basketball is even further along: The Wall Street Journal found in 2016 that, at the time, almost half of the players in the NBA were related to college or professional athletes. The children of athletes are now blessed not only with good genes but with the more traditional marker of dynasties: wealth, which athletes now make much more of than they did even a generation ago and which, in this context, affords their children the superior training, nutrition, and expertise now required to compete in modern youth sports. In this way, Sierra Canyon represented one future, in which elite schools that once propagated boardroom dynasties and allowed Hollywood royalty to reproduce itself, one “child star” offspring of former stars after another, could do the same in sports.
Even if the NBA drops its prohibition against players joining the league less than a year after their high-school graduation, the earliest Bronny could play with his dad is 2023, when LeBron will be 38. And while LeBron’s regular Instagram posts about his son have fueled a frenzy of attention and speculation, for the time being, at least, he has made some attempt to temper expectations. The Jameses have prohibited Bronny from doing any interviews as a freshman, for instance, even as an overseas sportsbook took bets not only on how many games Sierra Canyon would win this season but on whether Bronny would eventually make it to the NBA. “My son is in ninth grade, man,” LeBron said in response to a New York reporter’s question about whether he would finally join the Knicks if the team drafted his son. “We’re trying to worry about what project he’s gotta turn in tomorrow.”
Bronny’s parents finally allowed him to join Instagram last May, shortly before his transfer to Sierra Canyon with Wade was announced. “Everyone welcome the heir to the throne to IG @bronny!,” @KingJames wrote on Instagram. “Keep y’all hating asses off his comments.” (Draymond Green, the tempestuous Golden State Warrior, didn’t take the hint: “Im at your fucking neck this summer G!!! All gas.”)
Up and down the Sierra Canyon roster, the players now saw their place on the team as a way to build their brand in various ways. Zaire Wade has 1.8 million Instagram followers. Dylan White, one of the team’s bench players, is a budding rapper; his teammates raved to me about his songs, and an Instagram endorsement from one of the more famous kids on the team could jump-start his rap career. “Dylan can not only use his network, but he can use the other guy’s network if they decide to post one of his raps,” said Chevalier, who joined Instagram this season to help understand how his players see the world. “It allows him to get his name out there and grow his brand and push his music.” At one game, I met L Simpson, a Sierra Canyon basketball player who graduated last year. He has his own clothing line, Take No L’s, and told me business was “boomin’. ”
One irony of Sierra Canyon’s season of excessive hype is that its best players, Boston and Williams, are not sports royalty. (Boston has committed to attend the University of Kentucky, a basketball powerhouse, and Williams can go to pretty much any school he wants.) Another irony is that, despite all the attention, the team has occasionally struggled, losing to less heralded teams from Virginia, Minnesota, Long Island, and the other side of L.A.; Sierra Canyon is currently ranked 17th in ESPN’s list of the country’s 25 best high-school basketball teams, one spot ahead of a public high school in Camden, New Jersey. That’s in part because there’s no guarantee that every next-generation talent will be the Second Coming. Derek Fisher, whose son plays on Sierra Canyon’s eighth-grade basketball team, told me he thinks his son could play his way onto an Ivy League team if he wanted it badly enough, but he wasn’t sure his son’s heart was in it — or at least not as much as it was in Fortnite and NBA2K. “Realistically, in five years, he might be able to get an e-sports scholarship,” Fisher said. (Sierra Canyon has a team for that: John Branca, an entertainment lawyer — he is the co-executor of Michael Jackson’s estate — funded an e-sports team on behalf of his son that recently won back-to-back games of Rocket League by a combined score of 78-3.)
As a freshman, Bronny James has been a role player, as everyone close to him — if not the hype machine — expected him to be. Zaire Wade’s season was derailed by injury, and he struggled to find consistent minutes. While the expectations were higher, the NBA dads also seemed to have a more realistic sense of what was possible, knowing how hard it had been for them, and Chevalier told me the famous dads are generally hands-off. (This isn’t always the case for other parents: I watched one father angrily but unsuccessfully try to fight his way past Sosa into the locker room after a game to confront Chevalier about his son’s limited playing time.) One evening in January, I walked out of the Feinberg Family Pavilion with Dwyane Wade and tried to put a positive spin on things by asking about the successful alley-oop his son had thrown to Bronny in the team’s game that night, as he had done with Bronny’s father countless times. “We wanted more of those moments,” Wade said candidly. “For him, the opportunity isn’t here the way he wanted it to be when we came here.” Wade said that his son had been “coddled for a while in his life” and that this was the first time he had faced real adversity. “Would I love him to play more and be more involved? Yeah,” Wade said. “But if it’s not happening this year, then he has to work hard so it happens next year, wherever he’s at.”
Shortly after classes let out on Monday, January 27 — while several packs of Sierra Canyon students gathered under a staircase, playing games on their iPhones, and SUVs and Teslas made their way to the front of the pickup line — LeBron James quietly entered the back of the Feinberg Family Pavilion and took a seat on a folding chair. Sierra Canyon’s seventh-grade boys’ basketball team, including his younger son, Bryce Maximus James, was about to play Campbell Hall, another private school in the Valley. It had been hard for LeBron to catch many of his sons’ games, given that his playing schedule overlaps with theirs. He’d managed to see Bronny play in Springfield, Massachusetts, a week earlier by rushing there from Boston, where the Lakers were playing the Celtics the same night. “I would break every routine in my life for my family,” he said at the time.
At Sierra Canyon, LeBron wore sunglasses, a Sierra Canyon sweatshirt, and a cap printed with the phrase MORE THAN AN ATHLETE. The previous day, Kobe Bryant and his daughter Gigi had died alongside seven others in a helicopter crash in Calabasas. The night before that, LeBron had passed Kobe for third place on the NBA’s all-time scoring list while wearing black sneakers on which he had written MAMBA 4 LIFE. It had been more than 24 hours since the crash, and James still hadn’t spoken publicly. He was subdued while watching his younger son, nodding politely when he nailed a step-back jump shot — a Kobe specialty. (LeBron had showcased exemplary parental affirmation earlier, when he declared he had only “the third-best jump shot in the household. Bryce Maximus got a cooker too!”)
In retirement, Kobe had begun to navigate the NBA-Hollywood nexus better than anyone, winning an Oscar in 2018, and all of L.A. and much of the country joined the NBA in mourning. The documentary crew from LeBron’s company was called into action on their off day to film the scene at the school, and while Bronny James and Zaire Wade had grown up with the Bryants as family friends, the other Sierra Canyon players also seemed moved by his death. “There was never a time in my life when I didn’t know who Kobe was,” Terren Frank said, speaking literally. (Sierra Canyon’s JV team has a player named Kobe.) The day had been complicated at Sierra Canyon by an internet rumor that Gigi was a student there, and news trucks had shown up on campus that morning. The Bryant family lives two hours away, in Orange County, but Sierra Canyon’s status as the school of choice for the children of L.A.’s elite athletes made the rumor seem briefly plausible. “I ask myself, Where did that come from?,” Skrumbis said. “There’s a racial component to it, right? Kobe’s rich, famous, and black, so his daughter must have gone to Sierra Canyon or is going to transfer there and bring all the players on his club team there.”
That afternoon, Chevalier stopped the varsity practice after an hour so he and the team could join LeBron in supporting the seventh-graders. After a strong drive from one player, Zaire Wade leaped out of the stands and flexed his biceps, leaving the middle schooler to do his best to keep from smiling and looking over at the slightly older but much more famous boys cheering him on. “Who the fuck is that?,” Wade said, impressed. “Why isn’t he on varsity?” Chevalier had already considered the idea, but he had also done his research and had reservations. “We look at the kid’s parents,” he said, noting that mom’s and dad’s heights aren’t promising — the kid might never grow tall enough to star in the post. “Realistically, he’s a guard for us.”
As Wade watched the game, a thought seemed to dawn on him. “Bronny, you gonna play with Bryce?,” he asked, about LeBron’s younger son. The James brothers will in fact be fellow high schoolers, and Sierra Canyon was preparing. Richard Shapiro, the CFO, was already fielding inquiries about the team’s future appearances and thought the opportunities might be even bigger with two Jameses. When I asked Rock Pillsbury, who at one point referred to Bronny as a “rookie,” what his hopes are for the athletic department going forward, he compared it to an enterprise that had suddenly become flush. “It’s like we’ve got a business with $100 million in earnings, and this year we made $200 million,” he said. “Now the hard part is trying to stay there.”
The next night, Sierra Canyon’s varsity had its final home game of the season at the Feinberg Family Pavilion. It was Senior Night for six of the players, who had spent an average of three semesters on campus. The school managed to turn out a decent student section in part by bribing the kids with a wristband that entitled them to “free dress” the following day, which meant they could break the school’s dress code and wear a tee instead of a collared shirt. In the locker room before the game, Chevalier went over the team’s game plan and pointed to the phrase MAMBA MENTALITY written on a whiteboard. “Honor Kobe tonight by the way that you guys play,” he said. Bronny, only a grade older than Gigi, had written MAMBACITA and RIP GIGI in marker on his shoes.
The Lakers had postponed their game that night, which meant LeBron would have a chance to do what Kobe had come to enjoy most in retirement. Just before tip-off, he walked into the gym wearing a Sierra Canyon hoodie; hugged David Fizdale, the recently fired Knicks coach, who had come to witness the show; and took a seat next to his wife, Savannah. Shortly after the game started, with the action at the other end of the court, LeBron shouted his son’s name to get his attention, then tossed a bottle of Fiji water to him across the court like a bowling ball — an apparent attempt at encouraging proper hydration.
The game was close in the first half, but Sierra Canyon eventually took over. After throwing down a dunk on a fast break, Zaire Wade grabbed his jersey and yanked it across his chest in an homage to one of Kobe’s signature celebrations. Bronny James entered the game late in the first quarter to heckling from the Campbell Hall fans but quickly delivered two assists and a strip that led to an easy dunk for one of his teammates. It was the kind of quiet role his father had imagined for him as a freshman — until it wasn’t. In the third quarter, Bronny faked left on an inbounds play, then cut right, leaving his defender behind and leaping into the air to catch a pass from B. J. Boston. His mother and father leaped out of their seats as their son slammed the ball home. The highlight later made SportsCenter’s Top 10, and as Bronny walked off the court, LeBron hugged his son and put him in a headlock.
LeBron had to escape the gym quickly before the fans engulfed him, but eventually, the crowd dispersed, which let the Sierra Canyon players make their way back onto the court. Boston walked around holding a girl’s hand. One player asked another if they were going to In-N-Out. Williams mingled with his parents, an uncle, and two great aunts, until one of the documentary crews intruded on the family gathering. “The camerapeople always come out and ruin our party,” his father joked. The kids were trying to be kids amid the hoopla, and Bronny made it clear that his priorities are the same as any 15-year-old’s. He wanted to know what he could wear to school tomorrow and yelled out to no one in particular, “Do players get free dress too?”
*This article appears in the February 17, 2020, issue of New York Magazine. Subscribe Now!