Inside LeBron James Jr.’s visit to Springfield for the Hoophall Classic

In front of a sold out arena, LeBron James Jr. was a must-see.

LeBron James Jr and Sierra Canyon were a sight to see at the Hoophall Classic in Springfield, MA
LeBron James Jr, and Sierra Canyon were a sight to see at the Hoophall Classic in Springfield. –Deyscha Smith

SPRINGFIELD — Two hours before the last game of the Hoophall Classic, the Blake Physical Arena at Springfield College on Saturday is standing-room only. Fans donning gold and purple Lakers jerseys pack the arena, waiting in anticipation. They had just watched the St. Patrick School’s Noah Farrakhan take on his former team, IMG Academy, in a competitive matchup that featured Tennessee-bound Jaden Springer. They murmur to each other while looking over at the entrance to the locker room. Any minute now, they will finally get to see the arrival of Sierra Canyon’s LeBron “Bronny” James Jr.

When the most famous high school basketball player in the world strolls onto the court, the crowd roars in cheers and applause. Wearing cream Beats by Dre headphones, a white short-sleeve shirt, and off-white Nikes on his feet, he shoots around with his team during warmups as “Iced out” by French Montana blares from the speakers. The crowd, now standing on their feet with arms stretched out as far as they can, beg and plead for his attention while waving their iPhones.

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“Bronny! Bronny!” a group of kids in Nike sweatshirts scream at him.  He doesn’t notice, instead focused on finding another basketball to shoot. After a few misses and makes, he walks to the other end of the court to warm up with Kentucky-commit Brandon Boston Jr.

LeBron James Jr. warming up on Saturday before Sierra Canyon took on Dominican High School at the Hoophall Classic in Springfield, Mass. —Deyscha Smith

Even before the game starts, the allure of LeBron James Jr. is as interesting as the hype that follows him anywhere he goes. To adoring fans of all ages chanting his name, Bronny represents the possibility that one day, he could carry on his father’s basketball prowess.

As the starters are called, Bronny is not one of them. He stands at the end of a line of his teammates, giving each starter a personalized handshake to hype them up before tip-off. Then he takes his seat on the bench, waiting to be subbed in.

Bronny James doing a signature handshake with Ziaire Williams as the starters are announced before the game. —Deyscha Smith

With four minutes left in the first quarter, Bronny’s moment comes amidst a roar of cheers and applause from the crowd. Finally, what everyone had come to see.

He finds his place nicely within Sierra Canyon’s offense and right away, he sends a sharp pass to Roxbury’s Shy Odom, who is open in the paint and finishes with an easy layup.  On the next offensive possession, he dishes a lob to Boston – who misses the dunk. It’s a highlight reel that could have happened, with Bronny as the orchestrator.

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While watching, it’s easy to subconsciously want to compare Bronny to LeBron. He shows a strong passing ability and a solid level of decision-making. He orchestrates the offense and makes a play familiar to those done by his father: when a ball is tipped off the fingers of Odom, Bronny dashes to the baseline and saves it from going out of bounds by snagging it with both hands and dishing it behind his back. Boston catches it, dribbles down the lane and then finds Odom – who knocks down a dunk. It’s a testament to Boston’s ability to find his teammates and create scoring opportunities, but it’s a glimpse at Bronny’s own potential. Although he only finished with three points, his developing skillset is there.

Sierra Canyon torches Dominican High School, winning 90-55. They put on a show: from Boston dunking over Alex Antetokounmpo, younger brother of Bucks’ forward Giannis Antetokounmpo, to Odom dazzling in front of his home crowd, finishing with 16 points, 10 boards and earning Player of the Game.

Odom, whose nickname on the team is “Muscle Man”, compared his teammates to superheroes after the game: Zaire Williams is Iron Man, Tookey Wigington is Spider-Man, Amari Bailey Superman, Boston is Batman and Robert Thibiant is Robin. Sierra Canyon is a team composed of special talent and skill, idolized by fans.

So who would Bronny be?

“Bronny would be Captain America,” Odom said.

Given the scene in Springfield, it’s fitting. When Steve Rogers later becomes Captain America in the Marvel Universe, he is met with expectations and given a responsibility to protect others. Bronny, too, has a level of expectation and a responsibility placed on his shoulders to demonstrate athletic promise. He is met with criticism, and during Monday’s game, he was hit with an object from someone in the stands. Father LeBron James, who sat at a table on the far end of the court and was unable to see exactly what happened, was asked about the incident at the TD Garden later that afternoon before the Lakers take on the Celtics.

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“It’s just disrespectful,” James said. “And it was a little kid, too. I don’t know how old that little kid was. I don’t know if he learned that on his own, or he learned it at home.”

Even Bronny’s own teammate, five-star prospect Ziaire Williams who is ranked fifth in the country, is amazed by how he deals with the scrutiny.

“You’d be surprised by all the stuff Bronny has to go through,”  Williams told Yahoo Sports. “It’s not fair, but he doesn’t let it faze him at all. I’m learning how to be more like that from him, and he’s younger than me.”

LeBron James Jr. subbing into the game. —Deyscha Smith

With this level of attention, it’s easy to forget that he is 15 years old and Sierra Canyon is only a high school team. But, an hour or so after the game is over, when Blake Arena is clear of spectators and most media members, the Sierra Canyon boys finally have their fun.

They run around the basketball court, joking around with each other. Some of them crowd around the free-throw line, watching members of the team’s personnel go one on one with each other. Wade holds a camcorder in his hands, laughing while filming the matchup.  Boston sits on top of a nearby table, scrolling on his cell phone and staring at the screen. Bronny sits at the same table as Boston, next to Dylan White. He looks around, as if he’s thinking about something.

Perhaps for the first time, he might be taking it all in.

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