What It's Like to Have LeBron James at Your Basketball Tournament

Natalie Weiner@natalieweinerStaff WriterJuly 28, 2018

B/R

CHARLOTTE, N.C.  The coach was irate. It was, after all, impossible that any of the seventh-grade boys playing for his team—most of whom stand between two and 12 inches above this 5'8" writer—could have committed a foul. His righteous indignation was hardly unique: Almost every coach and parent dutifully watching their basketball-loving children play in the USBA National Championship, a tournament for amateur basketball teams on what's informally known as the AAU circuit, vocally expressed their dismay about a call or two.

Soon he was on his feet, standing and yelling at the edge of one of 18 temporary basketball courts set up in the cavernous Charlotte Convention Center. Even before he unfolded himself from the small plastic chair where he'd been sitting next to the scorer's table, he stood out from every other adult in the vicinity. He was larger by a factor of at least one-and-a-half, and instead of a team-branded polo, he wore a backward black snapback, black shorts and a white T-shirt bearing the inspirational slogan: Strive for Greatness. Though tucked inside his collar, a diamond chain occasionally caught the light. His Nike sneakers were a color white only possible on first wear.

As they had at different points throughout this championship game—the tournament's marquee event—despite the fact that there were also high schoolers playing, those sneakers teetered dangerously close to the court's official border, which if he had crossed would have earned his team a technical foul. But he was incensed, shouting at the referee as he gestured toward the scorer's table in a way that was instantly recognizable to even the more casual basketball fan. It was the same incredulous dismay, forehead scrunched up and impossibly long arms outstretched, that he had directed toward then-teammate JR Smith at the end of Game 1 of the 2018 NBA Finals when Smith squandered an opportunity for a game-winning shot—a reaction that became a meme within minutes.

The "coach," of course, was LeBron James. As he participates in this mundane ritual of parental advocacy for his 13-year-old son, LeBron James Jr., and his son's team, the North Coast Blue Chips, a crowd of hundreds jeers in response, all the while documenting it with phones in the air. 

If James is ever capable of anonymity, it's certainly not at an event with over a thousand young, social media-savvy basketball players and their families. Overtime, Slam, Ballislife.com and (obviously) Bleacher Report were there to cover the event; even if we hadn't been, a large portion of the audience was trying to live-stream each game on the convention center's tenuous Wi-Fi, capturing everything from LeBron James Jr.'s pregame stretches to basketball's royal family's eventual exit out what amounted to a VIP door. When LeBron stepped into the bathroom after a game, no fewer than 25 phones were facing the door as their owners waited patiently for him to emerge after he used the facilities. The only thing more inescapable than the camera lenses was the heckling—most commonly, a sing-song "ov-er-ra-ted!" directed toward the younger James.

This love/hate reaction is not new for James, who most recently provoked emotional responses across the sports landscape when he signed with the Los Angeles Lakers this summer. Within the past month, attempts to commemorate his recent move with murals around the city have been defaced almost as soon as they've been completed.

Intense scrutiny isn't new for Bronny, as James' eldest son is best known, either. Though only 13, he's been the subject of highlight reels since he was nine years old; now, covering his middle school career is de rigueur for most sports sites. After he unofficially visited Duke earlier this week alongside his teammates, you can place bets on where Bronny will go to college...in 2023.

"People want to see him play like LeBron," said 12-year-old Amaricko McKenzie, who had gotten to the court an hour early to see Bronny play in person for the first time and was still stuck standing several rows back. After watching so many of Bronny's highlights, McKenzie had thought he might be able to pick up some new moves—he acknowledged, though, that the crowd would be daunting to try to play in front of. "He has to live up to those expectations, on that stage," McKenzie added.

The experience of being a famous child while coping with the pressure of living up to a parent's larger-than-life legacy is hardly new; filling out the name LeBron James Jr., whether he played basketball or not, was already a Sisyphean task. Bronny's path is unprecedented, though, because of the time in which he's coming of age, and specifically, because of the task he has before him in trying to become a professional basketball player—all while trying to live up to his father's dream of having them one day play on the same NBA team. He's the most visible face of a new generation of prospective professional athletes, one for whom follows and highlight reel view counts are just one more way to get a scout's attention.

Though he watched his son Bronny's (third from the left) game in Charlotte from the stands when he first arrived, LeBron James eventually made his way to the team's bench to serve as an unofficial coach.
Though he watched his son Bronny's (third from the left) game in Charlotte from the stands when he first arrived, LeBron James eventually made his way to the team's bench to serve as an unofficial coach.Photo by Natalie Weiner

The wildest part of all of it? This is just the beginning.


"I'm taking donations: For $20, I'll tackle LeBron so I can go viral," said a man standing next to a crowd-control barricade an hour before the North Coast Blue Chips take on the Connecticut Select on the third day of the five-day tournament, addressing a crowd packed in to the point only the smallest children can get through. "'Man Tackles LeBron,'" he continued, presumably imagining the title of the prospective YouTube clip. For others, the inevitability of footage is a source of solace, not potential profit: "I'm just going to watch it on YouTube," said one kid who clearly hasn't hit his growth spurt, after assessing the challenge of seeing over a slew of basketball players.

LeBron eventually enters with a police escort and a few futile gestures toward disguise: a hood pulled up over a hat. By midway through the game, though—which is out of hand early in favor of the dominant Blue Chips—he'd given up both on staying low-profile and on sitting placidly behind the bench. "They were probably up 15 points, and I hear him start calling out plays—like, Yo, he's over here coaching!" said Marcus Robinson, the Connecticut Select coach, laughing. "I was like, OK, he's really involved with this team." According to Xavier Bowman, a member of the Blue Chips' sixth-grade squad and a top-five-ranked forward in the 2024 class by Naismith National Youth All American, that's not unusual. "The tournaments that he comes to, he usually gets involved—especially in high-pressure games," said Bowman, who is 12 years old.

The final score might have been 89-32 Blue Chips, but the Select fervently tracked Bronny's errors nevertheless. "He got crossed up two times!" exclaimed a member of the Connecticut club, who couldn't have been more than nine years old. Meanwhile, some members of an older Select team shouted, "Bronny, you only got two points; Bronny, you suck!"

In truth, Bronny isn't yet the dominating star his father has been since before he entered the NBA: He's not the tallest (currently he's listed at 5'10", per ESPN) or fastest or highest-scoring member of the Blue Chips' seventh-grade team. But he is capable of the kinds of otherworldly plays that invoke images of his father—whether they're made, contested threes that end with him flat on his back, outlet passes that span the length of the court or fancy footwork that helps him cut through traffic for graceful layups.

Then there are the showy moves gone awry: behind-the-back dribbles that become turnovers, deep shots that become air-balls. Those moments, when Bronny has fallen or missed badly, are the ones the crowd relishes most. "I think some of them get a little too caught up in the emotion of wanting to go at LeBron's son versus just playing the game," said Charlotte native Ryan Lutz, who was watching the team he used to coach: CP3, Chris Paul's team, which would wind up facing the Blue Chips in the tournament's championship game. "Do you want to be able to tell your friends, 'Yo, I hit a three on LeBron's son,' or do you want to actually win?"

Two days later, the Blue Chips played a fiery Arkansas team in an elimination game, and despite being dramatically smaller in both stature and reputation than the Blue Chips, the Rising Stars remained intent on keeping things close. In the second half, Bronny was scrapping for the ball when suddenly he clutched his knee in pain. LeBron immediately jumped to his feet and watched steadily from afar. After teammates helped the younger James to the bench, LeBron bent down and started rubbing Bronny's knee as he wiped his eyes with the top of his jersey. A moment of tenderness quickly dissolved, giving way back into a focus on the game: LeBron was back to coaching (it should be noted the Blue Chips have two official coaches, both of whom appeared in all instances to defer to James), and after walking it off, Bronny was back in—just like his dad. All the while, the fans chanted: "Ov-er-ra-ted! Ov-er-ra-ted!"

"LeBron is on another platform," said former NBA point guard T.J. Ford, who was at the tournament coaching his Houston-based AAU squad. Later in the tournament, the sixth-grade T.J. Ford team beat the Blue Chips for that grade's title. "He's had all that criticism and the expectation in his life since he was 16 years old, so he definitely knows how to groom his son to handle that. Most people can't."

Indeed, while the Blue Chips are referred to as "LeBron's team"—whether it belongs to the elder or younger LeBron was never clear—the assumptions surrounding the team are not easy to manage, even for other members of the same club. "It's the Chips, not Bronny's team," a Blue Chips sixth-grader said at one point. "Do you see Bronny on their jerseys? We can call it Bronny's team when he scores more than four points."

But the James' are the draw; of that there's no doubt.

"With a dad like LeBron, everywhere he goes, people know him, and they cheer for him or they cheer against him," said 72-year-old Charlotte native Melvin Phifer, whose grandson was playing in the tournament. The former coach had gotten to the court almost three hours early to watch Bronny play, and he stood in the front row, pressed up against the barricade with all the kids. Phifer had been to all three USBA tournaments in which the James family had participated, explaining that it gave him something exciting to talk about with people at his job in the Charlotte public school system.

The Blue Chips took the tournament title in an overtime game against Paul's team, CP3 (Paul was not present at the tournament, though he had been at the Peach Jam the week prior). Less than a week later, the highlights already have over a million views on YouTube. Of course, many parents were convinced a favorable whistle in favor of the James' had gift-wrapped the tournament for Bronny and his brother, Bryce, who didn't play because of a broken hand but whose fifth-grade team won the tournament as well.

For their part, the tournament's on-court officials admit an already difficult job is complicated by the introduction of a global superstar. "It's a lot different when LeBron's standing over there," said Brian Woodyard, a referee who called several Blue Chips games. "You can't win: LeBron says it's wrong and [the other parents] say it's right, and vice versa. That's how it's gonna be."

When LeBron tried to argue his case about a foul, Woodyard did the only thing he could: say nothing. The first few times, it was an assignment he looked forward to—but now? He's happy to be heading to a court of fourth-graders. "I think it's more personal for the parents and the coaches than it is for the kids," he said. "They want to beat LeBron more than the kids do."

That fervor, though, is inevitably balanced with the fact that coming face-to-face with LeBrons Jr. and Sr. is—for most of the participating families—a once-in-a-lifetime experience. It's an opportunity that might become increasingly rare given how rapidly Bronny's star is rising: On Wednesday, a Blue Chips game in Las Vegas was cancelled amid security concerns. And that came after a game earlier in the day that saw LeBron's previous coach, Tyronn Lue, and Paul briefly join LeBron in the stands.

In Charlotte, despite some chaos, the show went on. Early in the tournament, a team called the Atlanta Nets lost to the Blue Chips, 66-28, although you would have been hard-pressed to see it on the faces of the team's parents and coaches afterward. "They thought it was going to be a blowout, but we competed, and I think we surprised the hell out of them," said Bobby Hart, whose 13-year-old son, Jai'Que, was one of the Nets' best players. "He had LeBron James Jr. on his ass out there, so I'm happy. I've been waiting on that for three years." 

LeBron gave the crowd at his son's game against the Atlanta Nets an unexpected shooting exhibition during halftime in Charlotte.
LeBron gave the crowd at his son's game against the Atlanta Nets an unexpected shooting exhibition during halftime in Charlotte.Photo by Natalie Weiner

But Jai'Que sympathized with Bronny, even though he'd been beaten by him. "He has a lot of haters, and he has a lot of pressure on him because his dad is so great," he said.

Those haters are likely taking the "under" on the question that will continue to haunt LeBron James Jr: How good can he be? As omnipresent as the "ov-er-ra-ted" chants is LeBron Sr.'s story. Compared to a childhood spent on the brink of homelessness and without a father, Bronny's path looks blissfully obstacle-free.

LeBron stands on the sideline coaching and cheering, pushing Bronny toward greatness the way he wishes someone had been there to push him. "When I was younger, I didn't have a dad," James said in a preview for his upcoming HBO show The Shop. "So my whole thing was, when I have a kid, not only is he gonna be a junior, I'm gonna do everything that this man didn't do."

But while LeBron broke into the national spotlight in high school, just as his grainy highlights were becoming available on desktop computers, Bronny has to live out the answer to this question in front of millions of people, whether they're showing up to his games in such large numbers that it's unsafe for him to play or tracking his every move online. While LeBron was the kid from Akron who overcame the odds, Bronny—to his opponents—is the odds.

"This was one of the most important games of my life," Jai'Que continued solemnly. "This really meant something to me, and to everybody on my team.

"We come from a city where nobody really knows us. Just a bunch of kids from Douglasville, Georgia, playing against LeBron James Jr.—fighting out there and battling. It was a day to remember."

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