It's a quarter past 8 p.m., and the sounds of a bouncing basketball vibrate throughout Mayfair High School's gymnasium. Several championship banners from all sports hang from the ceiling. The lone retired basketball jersey (the No. 22 of 2004 NBA lottery pick Josh Childress) sits above the back exit sign.
The start of the season is two weeks away, and the boys varsity practice concluded a few hours ago. But some individuals remain in the gym to watch highly touted 2020 prospect Josh Christopher clock in extra skills work. A college commitment battle between Arizona State, UCLA, Missouri and Michigan looms, but in these preseason hours, the native of Carson, California, is concerned with getting ready to defend the CIF Southern Section Division 2AA championship he and Mayfair won last season.
He's the last of the Christopher legacy to pass through the school. As a child in this gym, Josh would dribble a ball bigger than himself while watching his older sister Paris dominate in the early 2000s. His oldest brother, Patrick, once ranked as the No. 6 college prospect in the state of California; he attended Mayfair from his freshman year through his junior season before transferring to Dominguez High School and later played professionally in the NBA and overseas. And Caleb, now a freshman at Arizona State, played here for two years with Josh by his side.
"To be able to be the last of that name means a lot," he says. "Hopefully one of my kids or Caleb's kids, Paris' daughter or Patrick's kids eventually get to carry on that name. Until then, I'm going to keep doing what I do. I have a lot of weight on my shoulders, but I was born for it."
Christopher, wearing a long-sleeved, gray Los Angeles Lakers warm-up shirt, EYBL shorts and turquoise Nikes, is running through a series of ball-handling drills, shooting exercises and pick-and-roll scenarios. He's focused and breathing heavily on the court that's been his home since the eighth grade.
"That kid in eighth grade was more entitled," he says with a smile on his face. "I didn't work as much. I think I relied more on my gifts and my talents in basketball, but I feel like the Josh now has earned his spot and has earned his place to be in the room. Nobody can question my work ethic, and [when] you say my name, you have to put 'winner' along with it."
That's true no matter what name you are saying. Though only 18, the 6'5", 215-pound scoring guard already has multiple personas. There's the serious side, Josh, the person who grinds through practices and continually works on his game after those practices to make himself into one of the No. 11 recruit in the 2020 class. His other half goes by Jaygup—a nickname created at a basketball camp years ago. "Gup" is a showman off the court, never shy to display his taste in style and flair.
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"That's just who I am. ... I was a skater when I was younger, wearing skinny jeans. I was wearing Vans. I was wearing two different socks, blue and then red under it. And then red on top of the blue under. I was just doing crazy stuff," he says. "So I think me having a personality, wanting to express myself, has always been me."
While his demeanor may be more businesslike on the court, Christopher's personality is hard to suppress. When he ran with the Oakland Soldiers AAU team from 2012 to 2014, he orchestrated the team's wearing of bright-colored, neon pink headbands. When an amazing play would take place, they would yell, "Headband highlights!"
"There were pictures of whole teams decked out in headbands, and I just know we started something," he says.
During his sophomore year at Mayfair, Christopher jump-started another trend. After struggling to get comfortable in his long shorts during a game against Sonora High School, he finally found a fit by rolling up the shorts in the front more so than the back. He stepped back on the floor and finished the game with 42 points—the "Jackie Robinson game," as he calls it. From that moment, he's worn the Magic and Bird-era short shorts.
"I'm real superstitious," Christopher says. "I'm trying to break that habit, [but] I had 42 that game. I'm like, 'Oh yeah, we doing something now.' So I just started rolling up the rest of the season."
No matter what persona, or style, he is adopting, he isn't shy, especially with a basketball in his hands. Ask him who should get the last-second shot among himself, Kobe Bryant and Michael Jordan, and the answer is a no-brainer.
"I want the ball in my hands because I don't want any ifs at the end of the game," he says. "If we're going to lose a game, I want to be responsible for it. Win or lose, especially if we lose ... put the blame on me."
That fearlessness is the result of an evolution, fueled from experiences pieced together to make a whole.
Some moments, though, are darker than others. An elementary school teammate named Kyrie Brown had a heart condition and would occasionally retreat to baskets along the sidelines when he was tired. But one practice would change his life forever. Brown shot around for a bit on the sideline baskets before he attempted a layup. The next thing Christopher heard was a loud boom before seeing Brown laid out on the floor. The team ran over to Brown as the coaches tried to revive him to no avail. An ambulance arrived to find Brown bleeding from his mouth. He was rushed to a hospital, but he couldn't be saved. Christopher was informed about his death later in the week.
The incident—and his former teammate—doesn't leave Christopher's mind much nowadays.
"I kind of think about it," he says. "Certain times when I hit shots I will be like, that's Kyrie. I just started to take the game more seriously … [and] never take the game for granted. He was on my AAU team. I think anybody that was connected to him in any way has the opportunity to carry on his legacy."
Brown's death is one of several experiences that point to why Christopher approaches the game the way he does and feels like he belongs on the same court with anyone, and has since he was a kid.
When Josh was just 13, he and Caleb were regulars at a run at a nearby 24 Hour Fitness. They often stayed until 3 a.m. as their father, Laron, waited nearby either in the gym or in the parking lot. The goal was simple: Outshine any older players who they matched up with and earn respect from their peers. That didn't come easily—especially at this particular gym. Games were both competitive and physical. Grown men dominated the courts and weren't shy to let you know about it.
The boys didn't back down. Caleb often trash-talked with some of the old heads while Josh tried to make statements on the floor.
"I tried to dunk it so hard I fell," Josh recalls of one particular play. "I broke my finger. … I walked across the street to that McDonald's, put my finger in some ice water and then I was playing next weekend."
Caleb and Josh have spent a lot of time together refining their games. Their bond is evident after spending just a few minutes around the two of them. Born only two years before Josh, Caleb is a firsthand witness to who he is and acknowledges his little brother has always created his lane.
"Josh has always been the same," Caleb says. "He's never let anyone change him. If no one ever gives him credit, he started all this [getting] mad drippy for high school kids."
Josh is no stranger to battling for respect—like the time he and Caleb played with the Cal Supreme's 15U AAU team. When he wasn't getting the playing time he hoped for, Josh's emotions came to a head during halftime of a game when he began crying on the bench. Caleb and another teammate told him to shake it off and keep his confidence high. Still, Josh says it was a moment that "you don't want to feel."
"I felt a lot of that being in a situation where guys were telling me I just didn't have it. ... Just people not telling me nothing and I just sit there and watch the game," he says. "I keep it with me."
Christopher carried those memories this past summer. He spent most of the summer with Vegas Elite AAU, averaging 21.7 points per game on the EYBL circuit. During a July weekend AAU tournament, playing with his good friend, and No. 3 2020 prospect, Jalen Green, Christopher put the basketball world on notice when his ankle-breaking crossovers surfaced on social platforms everywhere.
"I think I took it up another level. I feel like I became more of a household basketball name this summer," Christopher says.
But he was just getting started. He later played with 2019 Drew League champions MHP, run by close friend and mentor Nick Young. After putting up what he estimates was 29 points in the first half of a league playoff game against Baxter's Legacy, Christopher provided another moment that sent the internet into a frenzy.
Bringing the ball up the court with 35 seconds remaining in the third quarter, he dribbled toward the left side of the floor for a screen before swiftly crossing back to his right. When he saw the lane open, he made a dash down the middle of the paint. He took off from his left foot as two defenders slid over to contest in hopes of blocking him or at least fouling him.
Neither happened. Instead, Christopher delivered a posterizing dunk with his right hand, sending the arena into chaos. One of his teammates walked over to chest-bump him while others on the bench uncontrollably left their seats. No missed dunk, broken finger or ice water from McDonald's. This time he finished and made a point on Instagram:
"Summer is mine 😤"
The game of basketball might be his as well in the not-too-distant future.
With athleticism that drops jaws in an uptempo setting and a skill set that allows him to thrive in the half court, Christopher has shown an ability to score in an abundance of ways, taking a smaller guard to the post or a bigger opponent off the dribble. He has a knack for hitting contested shots as well. He does both while alternating between a broad, boyish smile and a menacing look. Asked to describe his game, coaches and teammates let superlatives fly: Confident. Finely tuned. Dog on the court. Naturally gifted scorer. Explosive.
Mayfair teammate Dior Johnson, one of the brightest prospects in the 2022 class, echoes the feelings of many when he says of Christopher: "People throw beast, animal, around. There's not too many beasts, and there's not too many animals. You feel me? Boy is an animal."
That may be the case on the court, but he's anything but around his family, who are a tight group.
Each Wednesday, Josh schedules a group FaceTime chat for all of his siblings to check in with each other. Most days after practice, he'll go home and watch the Lakers game with his grandmother. If he can save up the fare, he will occasionally call an Uber to visit Patrick in Beverly Hills, where he now designs his own clothing line. And recently, he traveled down to Tempe, Arizona, to watch Caleb's first college game.
He sat a few rows behind his brother's bench with his parents. After the final buzzer, he headed toward the locker room, where the family got a chance to embrace and quickly catch up with Caleb.
His parents are deeply religious. Laron plays the piano regularly in churches. His mother, Halona, named him and Caleb after figures in the Bible. And when Josh and Caleb began wearing the No. 13 and 3, respectively, Laron found meaning in their choices when he noticed that Psalm 133:1 represented how he viewed them and the concept of unity: "Behold, how good and how pleasant it is for brethren to dwell together in unity."
"Anywhere I go, I'll ask for No. 13," Josh says, "even if I have to switch it to 31. In other games ... if I can't wear my 13, then I'll try to wear Caleb's 3."
To his parents, though, Josh has the makings of being more than a number on a roster.
"Every time I talk to somebody about him being born in 20 minutes, they start laughing," Laron said. "But that just means to me that he's ready. ... He's ready to lead on the basketball court. He's ready to lead in the classroom. He's ready to lead the culture. He's ready to lead socially. He's ready to lead economically in a couple of years. ... Whoever follows him, that's their decision. I think that it's a beauty of leadership."
Already, Christopher has shown a willingness to break from the stereotypical path of a blue-chip basketball talent. In early October, he chose to use one of his official visits on a historically black college, Howard University in Washington, D.C. He toured the campus, scrimmaged with players on the roster and got a feel for what an HBCU can offer that other schools cannot. Thon Maker's brother Makur Maker, the No. 7 prospect in the 2020 recruiting class, has also toured Howard, but the two remain in a small sample size.
Christopher's choice is months away, but his decision to stay close to home for high school suggests he's no basketball mercenary.
While many top prospects relocate to prep schools like Oak Hill, IMG or Montverde, he saw no reason to leave Mayfair. He's loved the community since Paris advised his father to enroll him in the eighth grade. And in a few months, he's set to graduate with friends who he's been tight with since the day he stepped foot on campus.
"To be able to finally have a school and a place I can call home, why would I leave?" Christopher says. "I'm a Cali kid. A lot of kids go all over the place to find schools, which is fine; you have to do what's best for your career and your future. I thought just staying in California, the best state, was in my best interest."
His coach, Tony Davis, has known Christopher since he was two years old. Davis has taken notice of how comfortably he can walk the campus. Students and staff treat him like any other student, which is important to Christopher. If you catch his Instagram stories, you may find him posting about Mayfair or his senior seminar course—not typical for a top high school prospect in this era. He'll soon be approaching the time to plan out his prom attire and whom he might ask as a date.
There is an endless list of reasons why Christopher has positioned himself where he is today. It's created a foundation upon which he has long stood and shapes his unwavering confidence, loyalty and kindness.
"I want my legacy for all people to get the crystal-clear look at who I was," Christopher said. "I want you to know that I was down-to-earth. I gave them Josh Christopher. I gave them a decent person, I wasn't cap (i.e., a liar), like they say. I want my great-great-grandkids to be able to eat off my name and know who I was. So then my name and my last name just get carried for years after that."
Eric Yeboah is a producer at Bleacher Report.