Riding with Sierra Canyon, the most hyped team in hoops
An inside look at how LeBron James Jr. and the Trailblazers are handling high expectations
Amari Bailey makes a casual beeline across terminal six at Los Angeles International Airport amid holiday travelers in late December, his sights set on the food court. His boarding group is called, but that does nothing to spike his urgency. The team plane isn’t leaving without one of the top five sophomores in the country and the starting point guard for the Sierra Canyon Trailblazers, who have become the talk of high school basketball.
Loaded with eight potential Division I recruits, two McDonald’s All-Americans and the nation’s biggest curiosity, LeBron “Bronny” James Jr., LeBron James’ 15-year-old freshman son, Sierra Canyon often feels more like a training simulator for pros than a high school team. They’re on a mission, with high expectations following last year’s 32-3 season, which concluded with their second straight California Interscholastic Federation state title. But once on the plane, the 6-foot-4 Amari and his mates converge on the last five rows with all the glee of teenagers on a field trip to Disneyland.
They barter candy for the all-important aisle seat, pluck ears from behind and needle each other ceaselessly. One player slips ketchup packets into another’s shoes. Another catches a round of lighthearted ribbing because he’s the only one without wireless headphones. Despite assigned seats, they play a frenetic game of musical chairs until the flight attendant comes by to check seat belts and tray tables.
The only thing quicker than the laughs are the comebacks. An assistant regales anyone who’ll listen with stories about his “legendary” cooking prowess.
“Aw, man, I gotta listen to this?” Amari asked. “Somebody switch seats.”
The only player who doesn’t join in the high jinks is 7-foot-3 junior center Harold Yu, who is too large to fit in coach and is relegated to the bulkhead row at the front of the plane. Despite 10 new faces this season, their chemistry is such that they’ve been together for years.
They’re about to take off.
They are headed to Columbus, Ohio, for a highly anticipated matchup against James’ alma mater, St. Vincent-St. Mary’s, at the 20,000-seat Nationwide Arena, which the NHL’s Columbus Blue Jackets call home.
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Sierra Canyon’s traveling party has ballooned to more than 40 strong that, along with coaches and players, includes academic advisers, administrators and parents stretching from the front of the plane to the back. Keeping a ready eye is a 275-pound security guard named Sosa, who runs a security firm called Peacemakers and was hired by the James family to shadow Bronny. Head coach Andre Chevalier is the last of their party to board. “Study hall in 30 minutes,” Chevalier said to rounds of laughter.
Sierra Canyon’s dizzying schedule will have them crisscrossing the skies to nine states and China, logging more than 45,000 miles, which is more than 26 NBA teams will fly in 2019-20. They will play in three NBA arenas this season.
“It’s easy because we all really like each other,” said 6-foot-8 small forward Ziaire Williams, one of the two McDonald’s All-Americans and a top 10 player in the country who transferred from Notre Dame High School in Sherman Oaks, California. “We’re with each other all the time. We’re just a group of close-knit brothers. This is fun for us. There’s nothing else we’d rather be doing.”
“There is no one player above the group one through 15,” said assistant coach Ed Estavan. “No one gets special treatment at all. No one has asked for it or would want it.”
This is evident when Bronny, among the final boarding group and clutching a neck pillow with champagne-colored Beats headphones, draws seat 22E, a middle seat, unfortunately. It’s a culture the coaching staff has tried to create since Chevalier took the helm before the 2017-18 season.
Before James enrolled Bronny at the exclusive private school in sleepy Chatsworth, California, 30 miles north of Los Angeles, few NBA fans were familiar with Sierra Canyon. But fueled by Bronny’s hyped entrance, Sierra Canyon has transformed itself from a promising program to one of the hottest brands in basketball.
According to New York magazine, Sierra Canyon is the most Instagrammed high school in America. A big reason could be that James has posted no less than a dozen Sierra Canyon related posts to his 60 million-plus Instagram followers this season.
Ever quick to ride the wave, rapper Drake posted a picture on Instagram of himself wearing a dark blue Sierra Canyon hoodie that received more than 1.5 million likes. When then-Washington Wizards point guard Isaiah Thomas found out Sierra Canyon would play 15 nationally televised games this season, he tweeted, “Lol they got more than us.” Actor Jamie Foxx and other celebs have been spotted courtside this season.
The players are besieged by media requests from outlets from every corner of the country. “We get at least 20 a day,” said Jim Skrumbis, the school’s headmaster since 2004. Requests for selfies and autographs are now a part of life; simply getting from the hotel entrance to the bus can be an event.
“Have you ever seen High School Musical?” asked senior Zaire Wade, the son of recently retired NBA star Dwyane Wade. “That’s it right there, that’s our life. You’re right in the middle of everything. You’re always being watched or scrutinized by someone. It’s wild. It’s a fantasy.”
A hush falls over the back of the plane. Window shades go down, wheels go up for this four hour and 40-minute flight. Coaches will fire up laptops to watch film. Players will sleep like babies the entire way. Soon they’ll be preparing for their arrival.
Access to campus is by appointment only. Signs in glaring red and white lettering warn “Closed to the Public.” Visitors are greeted by three security guards at a checkpoint. Other guards patrol the grounds in golf carts.
Inside, the campus has a museumlike quality almost like a modern art installation plopped down in the foothills of this sun-dripped suburb.
“It kind of has the feel of an oasis,” said Skrumbis from his second-floor office, which overlooks the well-manicured campus. “We want our students to be in their own comfortable setting, their own world.”
It sits on 40-plus acres divided into an upper campus for grades 7-12, which houses a gym, esports center and open outdoor spaces with lawns and picnic benches. The lower campus on the south side of De Soto Street is occupied by classrooms for prekindergarten through sixth grade and boasts well-tended football and baseball fields. Sierra Canyon School was originally formed as a day camp in 1970 and began serving area students from grades K-8 in 1978.
In the early ’90s, celebrities and athletes began moving to mega upscale enclaves such as Calabasas and Hidden Hills and looked for alternatives to traditional independent schools. The high school began in 2005 with assistance from the likes of Stevie Wonder and Will Smith and Jada Pinkett Smith, who contributed initial funds because they had young kids going to the school. Soon the offspring of the rich and famous were flocking to its doors.
Keeping Up with the Kardashians star Kendall Jenner was a cheerleader, as was her younger sister Kylie, who is one of the world’s youngest self-made billionaires. Model Ireland Baldwin, daughter of actors Alec Baldwin and Kim Basinger, played volleyball and Willow Smith, daughter of Will Smith and Jada Pinkett Smith, dreamed of becoming a singer. Rap mogul Sean “Diddy” Combs’ son has also come through these doors.
“The culture and diversity of our school probably spoke to them in a way that Viewpoint, Harvard Westlake or Campbell Hall didn’t,” said Skrumbis, who stated that the overall student population is currently composed of 53% students of color.
“The goal was not to be an athletic powerhouse,” he explained, “it was to have a well-rounded student experience. The more traditional independent schools tend to be academic powerhouses, but that usually comes at the expense of athletics and the arts.”
The current student body population is about 450, with 98% moving on to colleges. The headmaster is quick to point out the rest “usually go into the arts like acting or filmmaking.”
The tuition is nearly $37,000 for high school students. The school doesn’t offer scholarships. Skrumbis said most of the students receive financial aid. The board of trustees consists of 25 members who are expected “to bring their work, their wisdom, their wealth,” Skrumbis added.
There are plans for a 650-seat auditorium, two dance studios, a media study center and a massive entryway to display students’ art, which will come with a $30 million price tag.
“When we first started we were desperate for applicants, so we started using our fledgling athletic program as a selling point to help students get into college,” he said. “Now we’re very difficult to get into.”
The acceptance rate is about 15% annually, Skrumbis said.
Administrators looked at the way Duke and USC’s applications skyrocketed with the success of their athletic programs. They began to hire hungry young coaches who weren’t given opportunities elsewhere and devoted more resources to athletic programs. Soon the school started winning consistently enough and benefited from “competitive equity,” where the California Interscholastic Federation assigns teams to divisions based on how competitive they are, as opposed to enrollment size.
This gave Sierra Canyon an opportunity to play against top-level opponents, thus raising the school’s profile and giving it a better chance to attract top talent. It worked. By the mid-2000s, it was matching up with and beating traditional powerhouses such as Mater Dei, Artesia and Westchester.
Tournament promoters have paid Sierra Canyon up to $50,000 to travel to big-time high school events. Throw in its 15-game national TV schedule, and school administrators estimate the Trailblazers can pull in the neighborhood of $500,000 a season. With Bronny expected to take a pivotal role and a new slate of potential All-America transfers next season, that figure could double.
Scotty Pippen Jr., the son of six-time NBA champion Scottie Pippen, transferred to Sierra Canyon as a junior for the 2017-18 season when his parents wanted to move from Florida to California.
Pippen, a 6-foot-1 unranked wrecking ball of a point guard, was one of six new players that season. He was surprised to see how quickly the team jelled.
“The fact we were all starting from the same place actually helped us bond,” said Pippen, now the starting freshman point guard for Vanderbilt. “We traveled so much and were always with each other, so you’re all you have. It’s just 11 or 12 best friends constantly spending time together.”
Coaches at Sierra Canyon firmly believe that how well a team gets along off the floor reflects how well they play on it. On a trip to Hawaii last season, they went snorkeling and spent time at the beach when they were not playing or practicing.
In the spring of their senior year, Pippen and best bud K.J. Martin, the son of Kenyon Martin Jr., who is completing a postgraduate year at IMG Academy in Florida before entering his name in this year’s NBA draft, took a trip to Fort Lauderdale, Florida, for spring break.
Six of the seniors on last year’s state title team went to Italy for a week to immerse themselves in art, food and other forms of Italian culture.
“It’s about creating an atmosphere where they become a team before they even step on the floor,” said Chevalier.
This season’s bonding session was Sierra’s most ambitious yet — a two-week preseason barnstorming tour of China, including stops in Jiaxing, Shangyu, Suichang and Hong Kong.
The ricocheting across the world’s most populous country was both eye-opening and disorienting. When they first stepped off the plane at Hong Kong International Airport, they were surrounded by protesters.
“I seriously thought they were going to jump us,” said Wade. “We didn’t know what was going on. It was kind of scary.”
They stayed in 10 hotels and traveled 3,000 miles on the mainland besides the 13,760-mile round trip that saw them in the air for 28 hours of flight time. Mobs of fans would swarm the hotel and greet the players whenever they boarded their charter bus or arrived at arenas.
Wade was a frequent object of affection considering his father, Dwyane, is one of the most recognizable NBA faces in China given his long-standing endorsement deal with sneaker company Li-Ning. A young fan burst into tears after giving Wade a portrait she had drawn of him that was met with his approval.
“It was humbling and crazy all at the same time,” Wade remembered. “To make someone feel good like that.”
Teammates would pepper Yu, who is from China, with questions about what it was like to grow up there and just what the heck is that you’re eating.
While they were encouraged to be curious and take in as much culture as they could, despite having a translator, the language barrier actually pulled them together more.
“That’s how we got to know each other,” said Williams, who had only known his new teammates for four days before boarding the plane for China, “because we could only really talk to each other.”
Back stateside, the team’s lifeline is a group text that includes about 20 people, including coaches and members of both the current team and last year’s edition. It’s where advice, encouragement and jokes are doled out in equal portions. The connection doesn’t end when players graduate and go their separate ways. Last year’s graduating seniors, including Pippen and Duke standout Cassius Stanley, FaceTime each other to watch Sierra Canyon’s nationally televised games.
Other alums who keep in touch are Sacramento Kings forward Marvin Bagley III, the No. 2 pick in the 2018 NBA draft, and Arizona State guard Remy Martin.
“This is a family,” said Chevalier. “That is at the core of what we do. There’s always strength in unity. That’s our message to our guys.”
James, wearing a gray sweatshirt and wool cap, enters Nationwide Arena hand in hand with wife Savannah on Dec. 14. They take front row seats across from Sierra Canyon’s bench, joined by close friends from the 2002 St. Vincent-St. Mary team and James’ agent Rich Paul.
This will be James’ first time seeing Bronny play as a freshman. He made the trip after a road game in Miami the night before.
A nervous Bronny fires up a first-quarter miss before getting his first bucket, an offensive rebound putback at 6:42 in the second quarter.
The next possession, Bronny controls a left-handed dribble and swoops down the baseline for a running, high-arching floater, the staple of his offensive repertoire. James bounds out of his seat with a huge grin. After another floater, James flexes.
With 56.6 seconds remaining in the fourth quarter and St. Vincent-St. Mary up 56-55, they inbound in front of the scorer’s table at halfcourt. Anticipating the pass, Bronny knocks it away and collects the steal. He races in for a go-ahead, one-handed layup, giving the Trailblazers a 57-56 lead.
The building explodes. James pops off the bench. A ref orders him back to the sideline. Sierra Canyon wins 59-56. Bronny breaks out the Conor McGregor walk before being mobbed by teammates. He finishes with 16 points and wins the MVP award. Afterward, father and son pose for pictures with smiles as wide as the great outdoors.
“It was electric,” said senior B.J. Boston, who has committed to Kentucky. “That was the biggest game I’ve ever been in.”
Sierra Canyon’s exploits dominate social media feeds and ESPN highlight packages. Bronny’s shot made SC Top 10. But in the sleepy John Glenn Columbus International Airport the next day, the game is a distant memory. Dressed in their slim-fitting team sweats, they meander through the terminal in search of snacks and reading material for the trip home.
Bronny, the most buzzed-about high school basketball player in the country, strolls by alone. Neck pillow resting on his shoulders, clutching a bag of Sour Gummy Worms, he rejoins his mates. Other travelers scurry by, oblivious to basketball royalty. The teenage wunderkinder gather around one of the many ever present smartphones and break up over a GIF of someone falling down.
Bronny’s freshman year has had the expected growing pains. He’s heard his share of jeers and taunts, mostly toothless playground stuff such as “daddy’s boy” and “rich kid.” He’s had scoreless games and limited playing time. He’s been tentative on the court.
He’s still a work in progress who has to learn like everyone else.
A few days after the Ohio trip, the team plays in a tournament in Las Vegas at the Tarkanian Classic. Absent is the hype, nerves and television cameras that enveloped their last game.
Sierra Canyon jumps out to a 12-4 lead when Coach Chevalier calls out, “Bronny, that’s you.” The freshman bounds off the bench and enters the game with 12 minutes to go in the first half. He is a ball of activity. His on-ball defense, arguably his best skill, suffocates flustered ball handlers. His trigger is quick, firing up three 3-pointers with his first three touches. All misses.
During a free throw, Chevalier summons him to the bench.
“Settle down, move the ball,” he said. “Your looks will come.”
The freshman nods and reenters the fray. He quickly gets a steal at halfcourt and delivers a laser to a streaking Boston for a dunk. Savannah James jumps from her seat.
After five frenetic minutes, Bronny sits. But his energy doesn’t subside. He rarely takes a seat while cheering on his mates as the tempo of the game increases.
“Oh, nice pass!” he exclaimed when Amari sends a no-look frozen rope to a streaking Terren Frank.
“Get that s—, boy!” he hollered when sophomore forward Shy Odom swats a shot out of bounds from the weak side.
Bronny finishes with 13 points on 5-of-10 shooting in 19 minutes, marking his first back-to-back double-figure games of the season. The team wins, but after the game he’s almost as reserved as he was amped during it. As he walks off the floor, his mother hugs him and says, “I love you.”
“He’s just so young and people expect the world from him,” said Chevalier. “It just takes time and reps. He’s been putting in the work. The expectation doesn’t bother him. You wouldn’t know it to be around him. He’s immune to it.”
Of course no one really knows what’s in the head of a 15-year-old who’s at the center of a media obsession. The press won’t find out, since he’s been made off-limits for his freshman season. A photographer’s request to shoot at practice is met with instructions that Bronny is not to be photographed. And as much as he’s guided his career, even James wonders about his thoughts.
“I don’t really pry,” said James at the Los Angeles Lakers’ practice facility in early December. “I’m just dad to him, and you know how kids are with their parents. They don’t tell you everything. But I know my son and I just watch him and make sure that he’s himself.”
The irony is Bronny appears careful not to make himself the center of attention. Behind closed doors, he’ll perform a goofy dance or dish it out with the best of them, but he is mindful to take a back seat to a more outgoing senior.
The attention Bronny has received this season has been vastly disproportionate to his role. In 31 games, he’s averaged 4.6 points, 1.8 rebounds and 1.2 assists on 57% shooting from the field and 27% from 3. He finished the regular season as Sierra Canyon’s seventh-leading scorer and rebounder.
A recent headline after a Sierra Canyon win read, Bronny James Drops Six Points. After scoring five points in a playoff win, another headline trumpeted, Bronny James, Sierra Canyon Beat Etiwanda 73-62. In that contest, Williams finished with 24, Boston 19, Amari 18.
To the coaches and James, this season was never going to be about his numbers, but adjustment and growth. Nevertheless, he’s drawn raves from his teammates.
“His aggressiveness has been his best improvement,” said Boston. “He attacks now.”
“He’s a bucket-getter,” added Wade. “Seems like his ups improve every game. He’s going to be able to do it all.”
Next fall, the family will allow the younger James to be interviewed by select members of the press to get him acclimated to the media when the expectations will be even higher.
“His work ethic has been the best thing,” according to Chevalier. “That will determine how far he goes.”
Williams takes a seat at a workbench. Wade and Boston enter the classroom and join him. Today is the sixth and final day to finish their current project. It’s a mobile with specific requirements to better understand physics. It requires 10 items, six levels and must be 50 centimeters by 50 centimeters. It also needs a theme; theirs is ending homelessness.
Wade provides nine of the items: eight coins and a dollar bill. Their excitable silver-haired teacher, Joan Rohrback, adds a plastic cup, on which Boston writes, “spare change please.”
“Remember force times weight is equal to force times weight,” called out their teacher, nicknamed “Dr. R” by her students.
But this trio uses the opportunity to play off one another while tying their items to green yarn to strike the perfect balance. The subject of girlfriends comes up and the players naturally demur.
“Nothing but trouble,” said Boston jokingly.
“You only need one,” said Williams. “That’s all you need. You give yourself but you don’t get in return. Just one is all you need.”
Wade squeals with delight and starts ribbing Boston.
“Tell him, tell him,” said Wade. “Come on, don’t lie.”
“What are you talking about?” countered Boston. “You’re the one who’s wifed up.”
The players crack up. Wade says his long-distance girlfriend lives in Miami and visits weekly.
The conversation zigs and zags. A debate rages: Twizzlers or Red Vines?
“Oh, Red Vines all the way!” exclaimed Williams. You can buy them at the school concession stand for $3. There’s yogurt parfait, pancakes, Hot Pockets, hummus, beef jerky, ice cream, fruit salad, AriZona Iced Tea and just about every candy under the sun. If you’re really feeling it, there’s sushi for $14.
Parents put money on students’ accounts at the beginning of the year so they don’t have to use cash and receive text messages or emails to alert them if the money is running low.
“What do you think pays for all this?” Dr. R joked.
“There’s a lot of money here,” Williams added.
The players said the cross section of big-time high school basketball, fame and expectation lie at a surreal wonderland they are sometimes unsure how to navigate. It helps that they have goals.
“I’m going to be an entrepreneur,” Wade declared. “I’ve already started on it. Big things. You know I have some experience because of my dad. I’ve already got a head start. My company is going to be called Young DNA.”
Boston chimed in: “I want to be a filmmaker,” he said. “I’m going to tell stories.”
“I want to study engineering,” added Williams. “I want to know how things work.”
Of course, these are post-NBA goals.
“Getting to the league is the No. 1 goal,” said Boston. “I’ll be in college for however long it takes. Whatever God’s plan is.”
On the inside of his left forearm, Boston has a tattoo of the Bible verse Jeremiah 29:11: “For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.”
Boston delicately applies a glue gun to the strings on the mobile, the finishing touches.
“Let Boston’s magic fingers take care of it,” he said. “Gotta get the perfect balance.”
“My playa from the Himalayas!” Williams responded. “Teamwork makes a dream work!”
It’s hard to tell if they are talking about their project or the Trailblazers, who are 28-4 this season and play in the state regionals as the No. 1 seed on Saturday.
A horn sounds across campus signaling the end of the school day at 3:30. The classroom has emptied. Wade, Williams and Boston are the only ones who remain. They’re not satisfied with their project just yet. Adjustments must be made.
Dr. R sits at the next table grading papers and tossing out encouraging words. They finally tweak it just so, and head for the food truck outside the gym, where two dozen kids are milling about.
Bronny has already secured his goodies. The engineering trio, meanwhile, decides to pass on the food truck in favor of hitting the nearest In-N-Out Burger. They have practice in one hour.
“I didn’t drive today,” Williams said of his Ford Fusion. “You got the whip?”
“Of course,” replied Wade. They head for his Audi Q5, a Christmas present from his father.
In this moment, to these teenagers, burgers and fries are everything.