Heatles 2.0: Bronny James, Zaire Wade and the making of a high school superteam

(Michael Aguilar/Yahoo Sports animation)
(Michael Aguilar/Yahoo Sports animation)

CHATSWORTH, Calif. — The crowd began to form almost as soon as the three matching SUVs pulled into Chatsworth High School’s parking lot.

A few dozen starstruck students rushed to the gym and clustered around the entrance, necks craned and phones pointed. They all wanted a photo or video of one of Southern California’s most celebrated basketball teams before its players disappeared into the gym to practice.

No, not the Lakers, nor the Clippers. The cause of this frenzy was the arrival of Sierra Canyon’s basketball team headlined by the teenaged sons of LeBron James and Dwyane Wade and a handful of other heavily recruited prospects.

“You’ve got to embrace it,” Zaire Wade said with a chuckle. “There are cameras on us wherever we go. There has been a lot of attention on me my whole life, but this is crazy. This is another level.”

When LeBron starred for St. Vincent-St. Mary High School, his team sold out college gyms from New York to Los Angeles, his youthful face graced the cover of Sports Illustrated and his games were available to watch in his native Ohio on pay-per-view. Almost two decades later, the hype surrounding his eldest son’s team has reached a comparable level.

An unprecedented 15 Sierra Canyon games will air on ESPN networks this season, more than most college or NBA teams. Tickets to the school’s first home game earlier this month sold out in just 32 minutes.

At Sierra Canyon’s home opener, at least a dozen video cameras stalked Bronny and his highly touted teammates throughout the game in hopes of capturing a viral dunk or a YouTube-worthy display of ball handling. Among those seated courtside was Los Angeles Rams running back Todd Gurley, who chose to check out Bronny’s first career start on a night when the Clippers also played a home game.

The buzz generated by Sierra Canyon becomes even more remarkable if you consider how insignificant the school’s basketball team was just a few years ago. The program now hailed as the greatest show in high school hoops — one that’s prompted no less than Drake to sport Trailblazers gear — didn't have its own gym a decade ago, nor had it ever produced any Division I talent.

How did this swanky private school nestled in the San Fernando Valley foothills suddenly emerge as the nation’s trendiest destination for five-star prospects and sons of NBA stars? It's a story of ambition, opportunism and good fortune, one that has left some of Sierra Canyon's competitors feeling wronged in its wake.

Whenever he steps on the court for Sierra Canyon, all eyes are on Bronny James. (Nicolas Lucero/Yahoo Sports)
Whenever he steps on the court for Sierra Canyon, all eyes are on Bronny James. (Nicolas Lucero/Yahoo Sports)

One man’s vision

Ask former Sierra Canyon basketball players about the program’s dizzying ascent over the past decade, and they’re quick to chuckle at the differences between then and now. The school’s first basketball teams consisted of future attorneys, data analysts and music producers, not future college All-Americans and NBA hopefuls.

When Sierra Canyon’s Upper School opened its doors in 2005 to 51 ninth graders, there weren’t many kids who had played organized basketball before. If you were serious about basketball, you probably weren't enrolling at a school that didn't yet play a varsity schedule or have its own gym on campus.

“I’m 5-9, and my first year I played center,” said David Gravich, a member of Sierra Canyon’s first graduating class. “We weren’t bringing in any ringers like they do now.”

Sierra Canyon gained traction and evolved into a contender in California’s lowest-enrollment division over the next five years, but the lack of a home gym stymied the program’s growth.

Practices were held anywhere the basketball team could find an unused court, typically nearby churches, rec centers or fitness clubs. Home games were often played inside a Powerhouse Gym on a cramped court with no seating for spectators and maybe 18 inches of space between the walls and sidelines.

“It was a total nightmare,” head of school Jim Skrumbis said. “If you went hard to the bucket, you were going to run into the wall. We’d have parents come and they would have a hard time keeping their feet off the court.”

Sierra Canyon might still be trying to raise millions of dollars to build its new gym had Skrumbis not met a wealthy hedge fund manager with an unusual goal.

Back in 2010, Jeff Feinberg was financing two stacked youth basketball teams, one that surrounded older son Robbie with some of Southern California’s best players in his age group and another that did the same for younger son Michael. Funding from Feinberg helped both teams to hire proven coaches, to travel to prestigious national tournaments and to practice at first-rate facilities, all of which helped attract and retain top prospects.

As many of the players entered middle school, Feinberg approached some of the core parents with an audacious proposal. He suggested they hunt for a Los Angeles private school where all their sons could enroll and play together for the rest of middle school and high school, enabling them to take advantage of the chemistry and camaraderie they had already developed.

“That was something that Jeff was pushing,” said Thomas McBride, whose son Terrance started playing with the younger Feinberg at age 9. “He brought up that he was thinking about moving to L.A. and that he was looking at schools in the L.A. area.”

Not long after that, McBride recalls Feinberg posing a question that unknowingly accelerated a small private school’s emergence as a basketball power.

“Have you guys ever heard of a school called Sierra Canyon?’” Feinberg asked.

Rams running back Todd Gurley sat courtside to watch Bronny James. (Nicolas Lucero/Yahoo Sports)
Rams running back Todd Gurley sat courtside recently to watch Bronny James. (Nicolas Lucero/Yahoo Sports)

Sierra Canyon gets on the map

Deciding whether to send their sons to Sierra Canyon was not an easy choice for the families Feinberg approached.

Some had little interest in enrolling their 11- and 12-year-old sons in a little-known school an hour’s drive away from their homes. Others were more willing to fight Los Angeles gridlock every day to allow their sons to go to a prestigious private school with a strong academic reputation, a safe environment and ambitions of building an elite athletics program.

“That’s something I had to talk my wife into, and it wasn’t easy,” Thomas McBride said. “We wanted Terrance to play high-level basketball, we didn’t want to break the team apart and I thought it would be a great opportunity for a high-level education as well.”

Skrumbis recalls Feinberg expressing interest in sending both his sons to Sierra Canyon and offering to make a “significant donation” to finance the construction of the new basketball gym. Then Skrumbis remembers Feinberg asking if a few of his sons’ travel basketball teammates could also submit applications to enroll at Sierra Canyon with financial aid to help cover the $37,000-per-year tuition.

There was Cody Riley, a man-child of a sixth-grade power forward whom Clark Francis of Hoop Scoop would later describe as one of the best middle school players he had ever seen. There was Devearl Ramsey, a dynamic seventh-grade point guard with an explosive first step to the basket. And there were sixth graders Remy Martin, Terrance McBride and Adam Seiko, each of whom would also emerge as Division I prospects.

“They’re going to have to qualify for aid and have a demonstrable need,” Skrumbis said.

Replied Feinberg, “No problem.”

In the end, Skrumbis accepted each player and also agreed to hire two coaches from Feinberg’s travel basketball team, Ryan Silver as Sierra Canyon’s new varsity head coach and Ty Nichols to run the middle school program. To Skrumbis, that was an acceptable concession to obtain the donation Sierra Canyon needed to build a new state-of-the-art gym that cost a reported $7 million.

“It was one of the most important moments not only in the history of our basketball program but also in the history of our school,” Skrumbis said.

“Part of my job is to do the greatest good for the greatest number. The gym wasn’t just for basketball. It was a gym for volleyball, a gym for physical education, an indoor space for assemblies, for college counseling nights, for graduation. I was excited about getting it done and checking that box off.”

At the time, Skrumbis viewed the middle-school basketball players who enrolled as somewhat of an afterthought, but he soon realized he had underestimated their potential impact. That group led team “Cali Style” to the seventh-grade AAU national title in 2012 and the eighth-grade AAU national title in 2013 before quickly elevating the stature of Sierra Canyon’s program in Southern California and beyond.

In the four years that the “Cali Style” nucleus played for Sierra Canyon, the school’s basketball team piled up a 108-16 record and won nationally televised showdowns against the likes of Oak Hill Academy, Findlay Prep and La Lumiere. The lone black mark against the Trailblazers was that they never captured a section or state championship in the top division during that period, not even after they added future NBA lottery pick Marvin Bagley for the 2016-17 season.

For Sierra Canyon, a stunning 2017 first-round state playoff loss signaled the end of an era. Mentally exhausted and ready for a new challenge, Nichols stepped down as head coach and became the school’s new dean of students. Bagley accepted a scholarship to Duke and the remaining “Cali Style” alums also left for college.

Left behind was a program with a growing reputation, a national schedule and a need for fresh talent. To no one’s surprise, it didn’t take long for Sierra Canyon’s phone to start ringing.

Bronny James may be just a freshman, but all eyes are on him wherever Sierra Canyon goes. (Nicolas Lucero/Yahoo Sports)
Bronny James may be just a freshman, but all eyes are on him wherever Sierra Canyon goes. (Nicolas Lucero/Yahoo Sports)

LeBron comes calling

Everyone at Sierra Canyon insists the school never set out to become a destination for sons of NBA superstars. They contend they, too, were caught by surprise by some of the inquiries they received prior to the start of the 2017-18 school year.

Sierra Canyon caught the attention of Kenyon Martin in December 2016 when the Trailblazers dismantled his son’s team by 32 points. Seven months later, Kenyon Martin Jr. announced that he would transfer to Sierra Canyon for his final two years of high school.

About that same time, Derek Fisher sent word that his nephew was moving from Grand Rapids to Los Angeles and asked if Sierra Canyon had room for him. That turned out to be guard Duane Washington, then an under-the-radar rising senior and now sixth-ranked Ohio State’s second-leading scorer.

Scottie Pippen’s son also transferred to Sierra Canyon when his family moved from Florida, not that anyone at his new school had any inkling the 6-foot, 160-pound junior would be a difference maker. Said Skrumbis with a laugh, “He was just a couple inches taller than me and I’m not very tall. I remember giving him a tour of the school and thinking maybe he’ll play on our JV team or something.”

That trio of players made up three fifths of new coach Andre Chevalier’s starting five when the 2017-18 season began. The other two spots belonged to two more transfers with basketball bloodlines, Cassius Stanley, the son of a longtime NFL and NBA agent, and Terren Frank, the son of former NBA journeyman Tellis Frank.

“You had this really unique set of families, and it literally all happened by chance,” Skrumbis said. “None of it was coordinated. There was never any thought that we would be the school for the sons of ex-NBA guys.”

Ultimately, five transfers playing together for the first time achieved what the previous Sierra Canyon teams could not. Fueled by Stanley’s soaring dunks, Martin’s rebounding and Pippen’s toughness and court vision, the Trailblazers won back-to-back state titles in California’s rugged top division in 2018 and 2019, cementing the program as one of the country’s best.

Long lines for selfies and increased media attention were a byproduct of so many players with NBA connections, but aside from that Sierra Canyon had no trouble maintaining normalcy for the Pippen and Martin families. No students or teachers were starstruck over the presence of former NBA players at a school attended by Kendall and Kylie Jenner and the children of Jamie Foxx, Will Smith and Sean “Diddy” Combs.

“People appreciate the fact that our campus was designed to make it secure and that we have an attitude that we’re all the same,” Skrumbis said. “No one makes a big deal, no one asks for autographs or selfies, no one even talks about it. It’s just part of our culture. For a lot of these families, that’s really refreshing.

The positive experience that the sons of Pippen and Martin had at Sierra Canyon came at an opportune time for the school. It coincided with LeBron’s search for a school for Bronny and younger son Bryce, 12, after he signed with the Los Angeles Lakers in July 2018.

LeBron originally enrolled both sons at Santa Monica Crossroads, another prestigious private school with a long list of famous alumni but a more inconsistent basketball program. Shaquille O’Neal’s eldest son Shareef led Crossroads to a 25-win season and a Division II state title in 2018, but the Roadrunners staggered to a 14-12 record last year, including a 10th consecutive loss to Sierra Canyon.

Last May, LeBron confirmed that Bronny and Bryce would leave Crossroads and attend Sierra Canyon. In addition to the school’s top-notch academics, secure campus and diverse student body, Sierra Canyon was also willing to make some concessions that other schools would not, according to a coach whose campus LeBron also toured.

“He wanted to have control of who enters the program,” the coach said. “That’s why he ended up leaving Crossroads. He couldn’t form a super team like he wanted.”

Heatles 2.0

The talent surrounding Bronny this season is so excessive that third-year Sierra Canyon coach Andre Chevalier typically brings the ballyhooed freshman guard off the bench. In addition to Bronny, four other coveted prospects from all over the country transferred to Sierra Canyon to join a roster that already boasted the TCU-bound Frank, five-star sophomore shooting guard Amari Bailey and 7-foot-3 Chinese center Harold Yu.

Senior guard Zaire Wade followed Bronny to Sierra Canyon after his father and stepmother Gabrielle Union moved from Miami to Los Angeles to make her acting work more convenient. Sophomore wing Shy Odom left a Boston private school after he and Bailey became friends playing for USA Basketball and discussed joining forces.

Small forward Ziaire Williams, Rivals.com’s No. 6 prospect and one of two projected 2021 lottery picks on Sierra Canyon’s roster, arrived from nearby Sherman Oaks Notre Dame after a reported difference of opinion with his former coach. Swingman B.J. Boston, a Kentucky signee and Sierra Canyon’s other projected 2021 lottery pick, said he decided last-minute to leave his former school in Georgia because the environment at Sierra Canyon would be better for his younger sister and nephew.

“Family is everything to me,” Boston said. “I’m in my last year of high school. I’m already committed to Kentucky. So I really did it just for them to get them a better upbringing.”

The influx of out-of-state talent has further solidified Sierra Canyon as the Monstars of Southern California high school basketball, a program whose rapid ascent has inspired a combination of suspicion and contempt.

Opposing coaches have accused Sierra Canyon for years of violating California Interscholastic Federation rules by offering athletes perks that other students don’t receive in an effort to entice them to enroll. Those same coaches now question why parents would uproot their families and move to one of the priciest parts of the country without some form of under-the-table payment for their expenses.

Said one Los Angeles-area high school coach speaking on the condition of anonymity, “I have zero positive to say regarding what they are doing. This is no longer high school sports to me.”

Added another, “Originally, it was like, ‘They’re getting transfers. They’re dirty. But whatever, that’s SoCal basketball.’ Now it’s grown to the point where a lot of people would like to see it investigated.”

(Amber Matsumoto/Yahoo Sports illustration)
(Amber Matsumoto/Yahoo Sports illustration)

Administrators at Sierra Canyon bristle at those unsubstantiated accusations of recruiting and at the notion they’ve violated the spirit of high school athletics. Skrumbis contends that parents of elite athletes are approaching Sierra Canyon because of the school’s track record, not the other way around.

“We don’t recruit because we don’t have to,” he said.

Sierra Canyon’s head of school admits that he’s “not thrilled” that Wade and Boston arrived as seniors and will spend only one year at the school. He’d like to see Chevalier’s program “scale back” on its reliance on transfers, but he also is quick to point out that Sierra Canyon is far from alone in using that approach to fill holes in its roster.

“If you’re going to play at this level, it’s the world in which we live,” Skrumbis said. “In college, if you don’t get your head around the one-and-done, you’re not going to compete at the highest level. And in high school, if you don’t get your head around transfers to some extent, the same can be said.”

Anytime one program receives multiple transfers in one school year, it triggers a California Interscholastic Federation audit in which the circumstances of the transfer are reviewed. For example, Williams failed to produce documented proof of a valid residence change after his transfer, so the CIF ruled that he must sit out the first month of the season.

Since the CIF lacks the means to hire an army of investigators to police its schools, it relies on tips from parents, coaches and administrators to ferret out undue influence. Some rival coaches fear the CIF lacks motivation to investigate Sierra Canyon because of the money the school’s basketball program generates, but CIF-Southern Section commissioner Rob Wigod is quick to poke holes in that conspiracy theory.

According to Wigod, the CIF’s longstanding sponsorship deals have not changed now that the son of LeBron James is at Sierra Canyon, nor will the CIF receive any extra money from the Trailblazers’ extra TV appearances during the regular season. The CIF generates revenue from postseason ticket sales, but Sierra Canyon is such a small school that it previously hasn’t filled arenas as consistently as other Los Angeles-area powers, not even last season with the sons of Pippen and Martin on the team.

“If coaches really believe that we’re profiting off Sierra Canyon, that’s simply not the case,” Wigod said. “This coming year it might be different, but historically they haven’t been financially beneficial.”

Sierra Canyon's roster is stacked with Division I talent like Amari Bailey, who Rivals ranks in the top 10 in the Class of 2022. (Nicolas Lucero)
Sierra Canyon's roster is stacked with Division I talent like Amari Bailey, who Rivals ranks in the top 10 in the Class of 2022. (Nicolas Lucero)

‘It’s obviously different here’

Walk into a Sierra Canyon practice this season, and it’s easy to see why a basketball prospect might find the school appealing. The level of competition is tough for any traditional high school program to match, as is the number of coaches providing hands-on instruction.

On a recent December afternoon, Sierra Canyon’s starting five went against the most overqualified scout team in high school basketball, one featuring several future college players. Chevalier and six assistant coaches flanked the floor on both sides, shouting encouragement and instruction.

“Elite players have to be elite every day,” bellowed Chevalier after a mental lapse from Bailey led to a basket. Moments later, Boston had to stifle a chuckle when Chevalier demanded that his players use their “man voice” after they timidly repeated something back to him in unison.

“We always talk about how it’s cool to be challenged every day,” Zaire Wade said. “Everyone came from separate high schools where they were the man on the team. It’s obviously different here. It gets us better everyday.”

Competitive practices are crucial for Sierra Canyon this season because the Trailblazers have scheduled some high-level opponents. They’ve already defeated reigning Texas 6A state champ Duncanville the Saturday after Thanksgiving, validating their No. 7 ranking in USA Today’s Super 25. In all, they’ll travel to eight different states this season, including a visit to Ohio on Dec. 14 for a showdown against LeBron’s former high school.

Wherever Sierra Canyon goes, it’s always the center of attention.

Thanksgiving Hoopfest organizer Glenn Smith said he moved the event from a high school gym to the home of the NBA’s Dallas Mavericks after tickets to the Sierra Canyon-Duncanville game sold out in less than an hour. The game drew a crowd of 12,000 people, more than enough to justify Smith’s decision.

“Everyone thought I was crazy to move the game, but they didn’t know how much demand there was,” Smith said. “I was getting about 300 calls and texts per day from people wanting tickets. They would start as early as 7 a.m. and go until 10:30 at night.”

When Sierra Canyon travels to a game, players have learned to expect a throng of fans waiting for pictures after games or outside their hotel. So many media requests pour in each day that Skrumbis is considering hiring a PR firm to help director of sports information David Sobel manage them all.

It’s a staggering change for a school whose basketball program once toiled in obscurity. In just over a decade, Sierra Canyon has gone from parents-only crowds to sold-out arenas, from 5-foot-9 centers to Bronny and Zaire, from freshmen playing competitive basketball for the first time to the Heatles 2.0.

“Everywhere we go there are cameras,” Odom said. “You always have to have your best face on.”

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