Afraid of ridicule as a kid, Sierra Canyon coach Andre Chevalier is comfortable being 'hated'

COLUMBUS, OH - DECEMBER 14: Head coach Andre Chevalier of Sierra Canyon High School looks on against St. Vincent-St. Mary High School during the Ohio Scholastic Play-By-Play Classic at Nationwide Arena on December 14, 2019 in Columbus, Ohio. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)
Coach Andre Chevalier calls himself the "head of the snake" of the Sierra Canyon boys' basketball team. (Getty Images)

The new kid stuck out because he was trying so hard to blend in.

Andre Chevalier always tucked his hand in his pocket. Out of sight. Basketball shorts, though, do not have pockets. And when he was 12 years old, fresh after a move from Maryland to North Hollywood while trying out for the East Valley Trojans, coach Eli Essa couldn’t help but notice something peculiar about the short kid in layup lines.

The right-handed Chevalier laid up the ball, came back to the line and buried his left hand under his jersey, rolling it up to his waist. He did it again, after another shot, Essa remembered. And again.

The boy wanted to avoid the questions. The conversations. Chevalier was born without two fingers on his left hand, one middle finger protruding where three should be.

It was never an issue in Maryland. He grew up in a single-parent household in a low-income project in Prince George County. The neighborhood was family. And everyone, Chevalier's uncle William said, protected the boy.

But the move to California, with his mother, Shirley, ripped away that comfort and replaced it with insecurity. There were days, Shirley remembered, her son came home crying because of his hand. He never told her why.

“It was very hard as a kid,” the 51-year-old Chevalier said, “because kids are very cruel.”

He was afraid of being judged. Of being ridiculed. Of being seen.

Forty years later, Chevalier runs the most visible high school basketball program in the nation.

"I am the head of the snake so I’m hated. And it’s OK with me.”

Andre Chevalier on Sierra Canyon's basketball program national profile

In Chevalier’s six years as head coach at Sierra Canyon High in Chatsworth, the Trailblazers have built a national brand: an Amazon Studios-sponsored documentary series, preseason exhibitions in Europe and three straight Southern Section championship titles from 2018 to 2020.

Chevalier has molded five future NBA players, as well as the sons of current and former NBA stars LeBron James (Bronny and Bryce James), Dwyane Wade (Zaire Wade), Scottie Pippen (Justin Pippen and Scotty Pippen Jr.), Penny Hardaway (Ashton Hardaway) and Kenyon Martin (KJ Martin).

There's a unique spotlight on the small gym in Chatsworth. Michael B. Jordan has sat courtside. So have Floyd Mayweather. Kim and Khloe Kardashian. Drake even name-dropped the school in the 2021 song "Papi's Home": “Sierra Canyon parking lot lookin’ like Magic City parking lot,” a strange comparison to a strip club in Atlanta.

The star-studded platform has brought criticism — often surrounding the program’s use of transfers, with six new faces on this season's team after eight last year.

LeBron James congratulates his son Bronny on the Arena court.
LeBron James congratulates his son Bronny after Sierra Canyon defeated St. Vincent-St. Mary during the Chosen-1's Invitational on Dec. 4, 2021. (Jason Armond / Los Angeles Times)

Chevalier tries to ignore the negative attention. Yet he hears it. He is often pleasant, often funny. But when asked questions, his eyebrows furrow above a poker face, a man with two master’s degrees in education evaluating behind a guarded exterior. He trusts few.

Does he feel the program is hated?

“I know we are hated,” Chevalier said.

Does he feel personally hated?

“I am the head of the snake,” he said, “so I’m hated. And it’s OK with me.”

A week ago, The Times published a story on Sierra Canyon taking a transfer, AJ Swinton, from Virginia’s Oak Hill Academy. Why, Chevalier argued, does transfer discussion never involve the individual family’s circumstances? Why do positive aspects of his program continue to be overlooked: national schedules, tours to civil rights museums, frequent conversations about men’s mental health?

On Friday night, after his first game with Sierra Canyon, Swinton told The Times he transferred largely for a fresh start because his grandfather, who was from California, died of lung cancer.

“These kids are children,” Chevalier said. “Sometimes we lose sight of that, because we have our own agenda. They’re children. So talk about me. I’m the culprit.”

“Everybody focused on his withered hand … but I think there’s more to him than that. I think Andre’s a decent man.”

Jim Skrumbis, Sierra Canyon school president on basketball coach Andre Chevalier

Outside the lines, Santa Monica Crossroads coach Anthony Davis said, Chevalier is loving, a family man. His son Andre Jr. played football at Westlake Village Oaks Christian and daughter Ashley is a guard at Texas Tech.

“When you see him coaching,” Davis said, “you think he’s a different guy.”

Woodland Hills Taft coach Derrick Taylor said Chevalier coaches with a chip on his shoulder — the same he played with as a guard at Reseda Cleveland High. If Chevalier wasn’t pressured by defenses, he’d dribble with his off-hand to convince them he was comfortable. He was tricky, skilled, beloved by coach Bobby Braswell. But no college coach wanted a point guard, as Chevalier said, “with half a hand.”

“I spent a lot of time in my life trying to prove that I was good enough,” Chevalier said.

He became a Hall of Famer at Cal State Northridge, built his alma mater into a City Section powerhouse and won a Southern Section title as the girls’ basketball coach as Oaks Christian.

Coach Andre Chevalier and Bronny James, center, pose for a photo along with players and coaches.
Coach Andre Chevalier and Bronny James, center, pose for a photo along with players and coaches after defeating St. Vincent-St. Mary at the Chosen-1's Invitational. (Jason Armond / Los Angeles Times)

So the Xs and O's? Child’s play for Chevalier, Taylor said. The difficulty at Sierra Canyon, the Taft coach asserted, was “managing the circus.”

Yet Chevalier hasn’t changed his approach since he was hired, Sierra Canyon President Jim Skrumbis said. Yes, Chevalier has a toughness — but also what Skrumbis called “a deep, deep commitment to helping young boys growing into men.”

“Everybody focused on his withered hand … but I think there’s more to him than that,” Skrumbis said of the coach's story. “I think Andre’s a decent man.”

A man comfortable in his skin, as Braswell said.

“I think people probably saw that as being arrogant. But we were just trying to capture the moment.”

Andre Chevalier on Sierra Canyon embracing their national platform, particularly on social media

Sierra Canyon, Chevalier says, is a training ground.

His goal, taking over in 2017, was to build a college-level program. That didn’t just mean basketball. When Bronny James and Zaire Wade entered the school before the 2019-20 season, the hype around an already-national name skyrocketed.

“Everyone wanted to figure out how it was going to work out,” said Amari Bailey, that team’s star and now a freshman at UCLA.

Instead of running from the attention in the era of social media branding, Chevalier and the Trailblazers sprinted toward it.

“I think people probably saw that as being arrogant,” Chevalier said. “But we were just trying to capture the moment.”

Everything clicked that 2019-20 season, as Chevalier successfully blended Wade and James into a roster of top recruits to claim a third consecutive section title. But Sierra Canyon lost to Corona Centennial in last season’s Southern California Regional Open Division final, and is just starting to hit their stride in a 15-3 start to this season.

Fame comes with a price. Fans live, as junior and top scorer Isaiah Elohim said, “vicariously through us.” Any stumble, though, and the door is open for shots at the program’s virality.

“We’re going to do some things sometimes that’s new, and it’s not going to work, and you guys are going to talk trash about us,” Chevalier said. “And it will only make me better because I’ll make the adjustment, and we’ll be great at it.”

Her son, Shirley laughed, has always been entrepreneurial. As a kid in Maryland, he’d buy Now & Laters from a candy truck for 10 cents and flip them to classmates at school for 25 cents.

He was about making a profit, Shirley said. The product, the enterprise, is just bigger now.

“The team,” Chevalier said, “is my business.”

“Everything here is earned. No matter who I am.”

Ashton Hardaway, son of former NBA star Penny Hardaway, on playing time at Sierra Canyon

Coaching at Sierra Canyon, assistant Chris Howe said, is “extremely stressful.”

“Nothing but the highest level of elite performance is acceptable,” Howe said.

In March 2020, on TNT's "Inside the NBA" show, Dwyane Wade said he wouldn’t be attending Sierra Canyon’s state championship game because “my son [Zaire] isn’t playing and I don’t want to do nothing to the coach.”

That's a 13-time NBA All-Star seemingly calling out Chevalier, a high school basketball coach, on live television.

Chevalier’s reaction? Nothing, Howe said. He said nothing. Did nothing.

“Zaire wasn’t getting his numbers, and that’s what Dwyane Wade was complaining about,” Howe said. “But at the end of the day, if you look up on the wall, there’s a banner that has Z-Wade’s name on it that says ‘state champions.’”

Sierra Canyon forward Amari Bailey shares a light moment with Channel 2 sports anchor Jim Hill.
Sierra Canyon forward Amari Bailey, who is a freshman this season at UCLA, shares a light moment with Channel 2 sports anchor Jim Hill during the Trailblazers' media day in 2021. (Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times)

Chevalier offers no special treatment. Minutes are seized, not given; stars of NBA legends could be run for bad turnovers in practice until they throw up, Justin Pippen said.

“Everything here is earned,” Ashton Hardaway said at the team’s preseason media day. “No matter who I am.”

Sierra Canyon is not a regular team, Chevalier says. It's an experience. One that whips a Hollywood whirlwind of cameras and modern-day Internet fame around a group of kids just old enough to get their driver’s licenses. Chevalier is the eye of the storm, the reserved yet embattled mind tasked with keeping the ship afloat.

The fire from his youth still burns. The hand is on full display to the cavalcade of celebrity that rolls into the Trailblazers’ gym. Chevalier loves himself, now, he said. To death.

“I’m not looking for people to like me,” Chevalier said.

“I’m looking to be the greatest of all time.”

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.