A Chaotic Night At The Bronny James Experience
2:51 PM EDT on November 4, 2022
A profile of Bronny James in The Athletic this week said lots of top college coaches are holding back on recruiting the kid while contemplating “if Bronny, the player, is worth Bronny, the circus.” A couple nights before the story's publication, I took my son to see James and his Sierra Canyon team—which also has his brother Bryce and lots of spawns of NBA veterans—face a squad from perennial local Catholic League powerhouse DeMatha. We got plenty of the player and too much of the circus.
The 5,000-seat arena at Wise High School in Upper Marlboro, Md., was packed, at $15 a ticket. I doubt I've ever paid that much to watch a high school basketball game. I know I’d never paid anything to watch a high school basketball game this early into football season before; local teams (including DeMatha) hadn’t held their official tryouts yet. I felt a little sleazy about subsidizing the AAU-ization of high school sports through a big-money preseason event, but I assuaged that guilt by telling myself I was introducing my kid to a long-standing D.C. tradition. After all, our hometown is also the birthplace of the high school hoops showcase.
Back in the spring of 1954, Elgin Baylor played a series of exhibitions during his senior year at D.C.’s Spingarn High School. Those games had a deeper purpose than merely letting hoops stars hoop, however. Because of the city’s completely segregated school system, all-black Spingarn only played other all-black schools. So Baylor never played against a white player, and never got the attention his talents deserved. But Sam Lacy, the legendary sports columnist of the Afro-American Newspaper, a publication for the city’s black population, partnered with a local sports promoter to put on what was billed as a “mixed-basketball battle." The game pitted Baylor and his black teammates against a squad of white prep players led by Jimmy Wexler, the star at all-white Western High, whose D.C. scoring records Baylor had just shattered. Baylor and his mates routed the white team, which was called the Academic All-Stars.
Then there was the DeMatha vs. Power Memorial matchup in January 1965. More than 12,000 spectators packed the University of Maryland’s Cole Field House and saw what is often called "The Greatest High School Game of All Time." DeMatha, coach Morgan Wootten’s fledgling D.C. Catholic League dynasty, upset Power Memorial, 46-43, and ended the New York school’s 71-game winning streak. That was the only loss Power Memorial’s star center Lew Alcindor suffered in high school. The kid turned out OK despite the loss to DeMatha, going on to win three NCAA titles with UCLA and six NBA titles and becoming the league’s all-time leading scorer while known as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. The showcase game’s success, financial and otherwise, turned the practice of pairing preps from different cities from rare to commonplace.
It occurred to me while watching the Sierra Canyon team warm up that in 2003 I had seen Bronny’s father, LeBron James, play in the Capital Classic, an annual showcase that began in 1974 and pitted a team of national all-stars against the best the local schools had to offer. LeBron passed me in the hallway of the arena that night; although he was one of the largest humans I’d ever been that close to, he appeared to be walking on air.
The mood in the Wise gym before the DeMatha game—the featured contest in what was scheduled to be a two-day event called the "DMV Showcase"—was very different than that of any other basketball game I’d been to. When Sierra Canyon came out of the locker room, the James brothers were greeted with the sort of boiling-lobster squeals from the packed crowd that I’d heard at a Jonas Brothers show at their peak. There were also good-natured heckles for Scottie Pippen’s son, Justin; Penny Hardaway’s son, Ashton; and Derek Fisher’s son, Drew. Phones came out all over the arena during warmups. (Mine included. I shot distant video of Bronny taking a bounce pass from Bryce and dunking, though from what I remember, not quite as effortlessly as Dad did back in 2003. Despite "We want Bryce!" chants from the crowd, Bronny's brother stayed on the bench all game.)
The talent on both sides was ridiculous. DeMatha guard Jaden Winston clamped down on Bronny and put in a 360-degree scoop shot worthy of a Ja Morant highlight reel. The Stags sprinted to a nine-point lead in the fourth quarter, and the run peaked when DeMatha’s Chris McElveen dunked on Bronny’s head.
With three-pointers and free throws from Bronny, Sierra Canyon clawed back to within a point, 52-51, with 1:58 left. Everybody in the gym felt lucky to be there. But during a timeout and with the gym buzzing about the fantastic finish that was sure to come, I saw a wide-bodied security guard who had been hovering around the Sierra Canyon team all game step in front of the bench and order Bronny’s squad to hurry off the floor.
The Sierra Canyon players obeyed with speed and obvious fear. DeMatha coaches and players followed their lead and sprinted for the exits. There were no announcements from the public address system about what was taking place. Suddenly, mayhem reigned among those left behind in the gym.
According to a source, Wise High School staffers reviewed security cam footage and other videos and determined the trouble started when two young spectators appeared to be readying to fight. The videos showed a police officer approach the pair, at which point the officer was asked by another spectator if the would-be combatants had "a gun." The Sierra Canyon security guard heard "gun" and on his own immediately ordered the team out of the gym.
Defector was allowed to view, but not publish, a video from a camera in the gym showing the moment when Sierra Canyon's security guard whisked the team off the court, which caused a panic. According to a source, the footage from the beginning of the tumult was briefly online the night of the game, via the school's stream, but for unclear reasons it was pulled down. The videos I've seen shared online only show what was going on after the teams had fled, and from my perspective do not reflect the intensity inside the gym in those seconds. A source told Defector that no gun was ever seen in any of the videos, and TMZ Sports reported that police found no guns.
I was sitting in the upper deck directly above the Sierra Canyon bench. Earlier in the evening, noticing how crowded the grandstands around us had gotten, and remembering the lack of metal detectors at the entrance, I had morbidly joked with a buddy about what we’d do when a mass shooter showed up.
“I’m staying here,” he said at the time.
And so we did. Not that it mattered if we had an escape plan or not. All visible exits jammed up immediately. My son was in another section of the gym when all hell broke loose. Since there was no cell service or working internet available in the gym, I couldn't reach him. After several minutes of confusion and no visible violence, word got passed around that the game was called and everybody still inside should leave. I found my son on a street near the school after all the worry, safe but too happy about being caught up in the rampage for my liking. An hour or so later, the Illinois-based promoter of the DMV Showcase alerted participating teams in a statement that the second day of the tournament was also canceled because "we are uncomfortable putting ourselves in the situation for something to potentially happen again."
I still haven’t decided whether watching Bronny, the player, was worth putting up with the circus. My kid would've been willing to live through it all again and again. But, man, now both of us can’t wait for D.C.'s high school basketball season to start.
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