ATLANTA — Sure, he’s got rings, millions, and worldwide acclaim. But above all that, LeBron James is a dad, and like any good dad, he hates missing his kids’ ballgames for work. Saturday night, he did something about it.
James and the 24-3 Lakers are in the middle of a nine-day, five-game East Coast swing that runs from Miami to Milwaukee. Like most dads, James was happy to take time off from a business trip to watch his kid play. Unlike most dads, James has access to a private plane. With his namesake son slated to play in a marquee high school game Saturday night, James chartered a plane from Miami to Columbus, Ohio, on Saturday morning, and then from Columbus to Atlanta late Saturday night after his son’s game.
"If you ask me, what's been the only sucky thing about this season so far is that my son has played like six games into his freshman year and I haven't seen one," James told assembled media after the Lakers defeated Miami on Friday. "I love what I do. I don't take this for granted. This is a dream come true. But missing my son, you know Bron Jr., missing [other son] Bryce's first game the other day when we left for Orlando, his first game of the season. Missing my daughter at gymnastics and things of that nature, and I understand the business, but it sucks.”
The game, part of the GermainCars.com Ohio Play-by-Play Classic, pitted California’s star-laden Sierra Canyon High School — where Bronny is a ninth-grade reserve — against St. Vincent-St. Mary’s of Akron, a school that just happens to be the alma mater of LeBron himself. The game was orchestrated by Jeremy Treatman of Scholastic Play By Play Classics, a tournament management company. Not coincidentally, Treatman also put James on national TV way back in 2002 when he created a St. Vincent-St. Mary’s vs. Strawberry Mansion High showdown in Philadelphia. The game’s very existence marked the first of many now-and-then nostalgia-laden moments for James and his family.
Not your average basketball dad
Not long before the 8:30 p.m. tipoff, LeBron James walked out of a tunnel and into Columbus’ Nationwide Arena. As if a world leader was entering the building — and, in a way, one was — the crowd rose to its feet while James walked along the sideline toward his seat, his security detail close by.
More than 400 media credentials were issued for the game, with about a hundred of those going to photographers, and virtually every lens in the building was trained on James as he found his seat. Out on the court, Bronny warmed up with his teammates, Beats headphones on his ears.
“I cannot tell you how impressed I am with how composed [Bronny] was,” Treatman told Yahoo Sports on Sunday afternoon. “He was just a regular kid enjoying his time. [The hype] wasn’t affecting him at all. I’m so impressed with the James family and how they’re raising him.”
Then the game got going, before a national television audience. Pregame hype played up the circularity of the event — LeBron’s first nationwide exposure versus Bronny’s — but on the surface, there’s no real comparison. James was a senior; Bronny’s a freshman. James was a freak of nature, a point guard in a tight end’s body. Bronny is 14 years old, with years of growth still ahead.
Even so, Bronny lived up to the considerable weight of his name. He came off the bench to score 15 points, including a clutch finger-roll in the game’s final minute to give Sierra Canyon the victory:
BRONNY IS CLUTCH!
Go ahead bucket vs.his dad’s high school. 🔥🔥 pic.twitter.com/BZWZxdyieJ
— Complex Sports (@ComplexSports) December 15, 2019
“[Saturday] night, he was the difference in the game,” Treatman said. “He beat his father’s old high school and his old coach in his home state. He won Most Valuable Player. You can’t make this stuff up.” The Scholastic Play By Play Instagram account posted a photo with two generations of Jameses bringing home hardware, and James added a little commentary:
James then took a moment to get a photo with his St. Vincent-St. Mary’s teammates, part of the sprawling 75-member contingent of family and friends that he brought to the game:
… and then he was gone, out the door and onto a plane bound for Atlanta.
‘A surreal moment’
“It was a surreal moment, not only for myself but my family and friends,” James said of the Columbus evening. “They were talking about how things come full circle. Seeing my son out playing in our home state, versus my alma mater, playing in front of our family and friends — everyone was telling me it was almost like I was back in high school all over again watching my son play. It was one of the greatest moments of my life so far.”
Speaking after Sunday night’s 101-96 victory over Atlanta, James also waved off the expectation that he and his son would one day play in the NBA together: “The way my body feels right now, postgame, no, absolutely not,” he smiled. Then he went deeper, showing the kind of perspective few parents of talented children possess:
“Through the grace of God and grace of health, we’ll see [about playing with Bronny],” he said. “At the end of the day, it’s not promised my son can make it to this level. We don’t even discuss that. We don’t even get involved in it. We live every day by every day.”
James knows exactly what it’s like to live in a world where every phone and every camera is pointed at you whenever you walk into a room, and he’s doing his best to prepare Bronny to live in that world.
“It’s about being a great teammate, a positive role model to his little brother and little sister, and when he leaves the house, continue to uphold the James name with the utmost respect, because it’s not just about him,” James said. “When I leave the house, it’s not just about me. It’s about our family and what we’ve created.”
James: Giving what he never received
There’s no real mystery behind James’ desire to see his children play. It’s a biological imperative, of course, but more than that, James wants his children to have the kind of father figure he never did. His mother, Gloria, gave birth to him at 16, and his father, Anthony McClelland, was a casual acquaintance and an in-and-out-of-trouble criminal who never even met James. Without a father figure, raised by a single mother, James flailed until he discovered basketball.
“Wow, Dad, you know what, I don’t know you, I have no idea who you are, but because of you is part of the reason who I am today,” James said in a 2014 interview and Instagram message to his father. “The fuel that I use — you not being there — it’s part of the reason I grew up to become who I am.”
But when you’ve got the power to keep your kids from suffering, you take advantage of it. And when you want to show them you love them, you show up and cheer like crazy on the sidelines, no matter who you are.
“This right here,” James said after the Atlanta game, motioning to the media scrum and the Lakers’ locker room around him, “being in the NBA, is extra credit, as far as life. If you’re able to make it, it’s all cool and well and dandy. But there’s so much more to life, especially when you’re raising a family.”
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