Myron Medcalf, ESPN Staff WriterMay 25, 2023, 08:56 AM ET
- Covers college basketball
- Joined ESPN.com in 2011
- Graduate of Minnesota State University, Mankato
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LOS ANGELES -- As Kim Kardashian, Kendall Jenner and Bad Bunny walked to their $30,000 seats at halftime, large bodyguards stayed close. Kardashian stopped to chat with Rich Paul, the mega-agent of LeBron James and other NBA stars, while Jenner waved to friends as she passed. Bad Bunny, the Latin music superstar who set a Spotify record last year with 18.5 billion streams, trailed the two fashion icons.
That night, Crypto.com Arena -- where the Los Angeles Lakers were hosting the Golden State Warriors in Game 6 of the NBA's Western Conference semifinals -- looked like a Hollywood party, full of large men with earpieces, and shiny chains and rings worn by the VIPs who were there to watch LeBron James and his teammates eventually advance in the playoffs. Rappers Jack Harlow and Tyler, the Creator embraced one another. Lewis Hamilton, the Formula One star, stood and nodded to a screaming crowd when he was shown on the JumboTron. Blockbuster actors Michael B. Jordan and Leonardo DiCaprio cheered from the front row.
Two miles away, Craig Kelley, USC's chief marketing officer and associate athletic director, wondered how his school will handle home games when Bronny James -- son of Lakers superstar LeBron James, boasting more than 7 million Instagram followers and having recently committed to the Trojans -- arrives in the fall and some of the same celebrities decide they'd like to watch him, too.
Next season, father and son will be separated by a 2-mile stretch along Figueroa Street between the Galen Center, home of the Trojans, and Crypto.com Arena, where the Lakers play.
After the Lakers were swept by the Denver Nuggets in the Western Conference finals Monday, however, LeBron James told ESPN's Dave McMenamin, "I got to think about it," when he was asked to follow up on postgame comments that alluded to potential retirement.
LeBron also said he's still better than "95%" of the NBA, and sources told McMenamin this year's playoffs had been physically taxing on the 38-year-old, so perhaps his comments were more emotional than realistic.
Whether LeBron pushes forward with his dream to one day play with Bronny or exits the game this offseason as one of the greatest to ever step onto a basketball court, the intrigue and anticipation around his son's collegiate career will persist.
"There is an added tier here, an added level, for sure, with the family ties Bronny comes with and the friends that not only he has but that his family has, and the following that could follow him and come to games on any given night," Kelley told ESPN. "It's up to us to prepare."
There are no comparisons to the spotlight that will illuminate every Bronny bucket, pass, shot, win, loss, rebound, foul, free throw, turnover, miss, triumph and challenge in 2023-24. He is not the first athlete with a large social media following to play college basketball. He's also not the first child of a high-profile athlete to play at this level. But Bronny James is a member of basketball's royal family, a projected lottery pick in the 2024 NBA draft (per ESPN) who comes with bodyguards and a legendary father -- who at age 38 continues to compete at the highest levels of the NBA and has been open about his desire to extend his career a few more years just so he can play next to his son when he presumably joins the league in 2024.
With the attention, however, will come an intentional approach from school officials, local police and private security personnel to ensure that the 18-year-old is free -- and safe -- to enjoy his on-campus experience. At USC, Bronny will join a class that includes the children of dignitaries, actors and actresses, politicians and athletes. In college basketball, however, he will be a prince, drawing a crowd wherever he goes.
"Basketball-wise, you just need that big name to come there and bring that attention, and he's the perfect person for that," Chicago Bulls star DeMar Derozan, a former USC standout, said recently on Paul George's "Podcast P" podcast. "I think the way he comes in, the way he'll handle it and the attention he's going to bring, I think it's going to push USC to another level that we haven't seen."
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IN 2019, BRONNY joined his Sierra Canyon teammates at an event called Hoopfest in Dallas. The first day took place at a local high school, before the demand to see Bronny, just a freshman who came off the bench at the time, grew. That prompted organizers to move Sierra Canyon's game the following day against local powerhouse Duncanville to American Airlines Center, where the Dallas Mavericks play. Scalpers showed up outside the arena, selling tickets to the high school game before tipoff.
When a group of teenage girls tried to get a selfie with Bronny inside, a security team stepped in front of them and told them to move back. One of the girls seemed perplexed and another said, "Oh?" Surrounded by his traveling layer of protection, Bronny didn't even seem to notice. He laughed with his friends as it all unfolded behind him. Perhaps a familiar scene in Hollywood, college basketball is not known for hosting players with individual security details. But that's what Bronny will bring to USC.
The school is already a football giant, starring quarterback Caleb Williams, who could become the second player in collegiate history to win the Heisman Trophy twice. Basketball is making waves, however, and not just because of Bronny. Juju Watkins, the No. 1 women's basketball recruit in the country, arrives this fall, joining a list of stellar women's players in school history, including Lisa Leslie and Cheryl Miller. Isaiah Collier, the No. 1 recruit in men's basketball, and D.J. Rodman, who transferred from Washington State and is the son of Dennis Rodman, will play alongside Bronny next year, too.
Despite a run of five NCAA tournament appearances over the past eight seasons, including an Elite Eight run in 2021, men's basketball has rarely enjoyed sellout crowds. The program averaged just 3,860 spectators at the 10,258-seat Galen Center during the 2021-22 season, per the most recently available data from the NCAA.
This year, to contend with the star power, the school could create a separate entrance for celebrities and other VIPs who want to watch Bronny and USC men's basketball. It also plans to adjust security measures for players as general attendance increases.
Per Kelley, the ticket prices will rise, too. But a "Bronny tax" is not the plan. "I know it's going to be hard to believe, but with or without Bronny, the prices were more than likely going to go up by a few percentage points just because that's just the nature of the business," Kelley said. "Most teams are increasing their prices 2% to 3% annually. We've actually been flat for quite some time, and so we were going up in price just because the team has just gotten better. And you do add some notable name players."
This is not the first time the program has experienced a major shift in popularity. The team hadn't been to the NCAA tournament in four years when Harold Miner, nicknamed Baby Jordan because of his high-flying maneuvers, arrived in 1989.
"There were so few fans that the first few games of my freshman year, you could hear people talking in the stands during games," Miner, a 1992 consensus All-American who averaged 23.5 PPG in three years with the Trojans before the Miami Heat made him the 12th pick in the 1992 NBA draft, told ESPN. "You could hear conversations going on in the stands."
Miner, who is one of two USC men's basketball players over the past 40 years to have his number retired (DeRozan is the other), was a hometown hero who can relate to the frenzy Bronny will experience next season in a city full of celebrities, albeit without the TikTok and Twitter attention.
He said he knew his reputation had changed when he walked around Los Angeles and people began to call his name or ask for autographs, after he led the team to the NCAA tournament in the early 1990s. Considered one of the biggest stars in USC men's basketball history, Miner said he would advise Bronny to stay true to himself.
"All you can do is listen, go out, work hard every day and get better," Miner said. "But for yourself, just try to be the best Bronny you can be for you and just try to see where you can take this."
Police Chief Lauretta Hill, who leads USC's department of public safety, said her office is always concerned about the possibility that an athlete's popularity could impact their safety. But the school's experience with celebrities and others with high profiles means it will be prepared for his arrival, she said.
Last week, Sasha Obama -- daughter of former President Barack Obama and Michelle Obama -- graduated from the school. Her parents, and the Secret Service officers who accompany them everywhere, were in attendance. Princess Salma bint Abdullah, daughter of King Abdullah II and Queen Rania of Jordan, graduated from USC last week, too. She comes from a royal family with a net worth of $750 million. Natalia Bryant, daughter of the late Kobe Bryant, currently studies here.
Hill's department has a unit devoted to social media threats, and it also coordinates with the university's office of executive protection services, which handles personal security for high-profile students.
To Hill, Bronny's place in college basketball might be unique, but his presence on a star-studded campus is not, and that's a good thing. At USC, Bronny will stand out but also fit right in.
"We do have security plans in place for major events," she said. "We also have active threat management and assessment units. That threat unit is constantly monitoring social media for any types of threats or issues that may come up so we could change our posture if we needed to. We can scale up. We can scale down. We can address those issues or threats that may be out there."
She added: "We anticipate that we'll have a lot more attention to basketball because we also have the No. 1 female recruit coming and the No. 1 male recruit coming."
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THE REACH OF LeBron James is clear to anyone who tries to tell a story about Bronny. Off the court, beyond his business deals and achievements, one of the NBA superstar's greatest feats is his ability to shield his son and allow him to mature and blossom without exposing him to more attention.
Bronny has famously never granted an interview, outside a brief news conference at the McDonald's All American game in March. And if you call anyone attached to him, they'll likely decline to talk about him. A high school administrator agreed to a conversation about the future USC signee but then decided against it. An official at a school that played Sierra Canyon told ESPN that his school does not talk about opponents. There were coaches who didn't return texts, and others who demanded that everything they said be off the record. Even those who did talk for this story did so with caution.
From outside the circle, it seems extreme. But for a family led by the greatest basketball player since Michael Jordan, who was a star long before the advent of social media, it all makes sense. As does selecting USC, a school that can offer Bronny the opportunity to grow as a player, the protection his profile will demand and enough famous classmates to make him seem somewhat normal. That's an experience he would not get at most places.
"If you go to Lexington, Kentucky, you're going to stand out," said Todd Boyd, author of "Young, Black, Rich, and Famous: The Rise of the NBA, the Hip Hop Invasion, and the Transformation of American Culture" and a professor at USC. "It's not a place you associate with famous people. If you go to Durham, North Carolina, or Lawrence, Kansas, you're going to stand out. Eugene, Oregon? You're going to stand out, because these are not places we associate with celebrities and famous people.
"I mean, Bronny is going to get a lot of attention. People know him from social media. He will get attention when [LeBron James] comes and sits courtside to watch him play. That's going to get attention. All these things are going to get attention, but it's not new [in L.A.]."
Cleveland High (Reseda, Calif.) head coach Dagem Asfaw was an assistant with Strive for Greatness, Bronny's grassroots squad, at a tournament in Kentucky last summer when a young fan spotted Bronny and his team attempting to leave through a back door for safety precautions. Within minutes, 30 kids were trying to get to the staircase to see Bronny, before his security team handled the situation.
Asfaw had to deal with the same logistical challenges when his school hosted Sierra Canyon in November. There were secret entrances and exits, and a special section the school created just for that evening.
LeBron attended, although Bronny did not play in the lopsided win for Sierra Canyon. Still, the school sold 60 VIP seats for $100 apiece, seats occupied by notable folks, such as Big Boi from the rap group Outkast.
"I didn't really tell anybody [LeBron James] was going to come besides principals and administrators," Asfaw said. "So it was packed. A lot of the people, a lot of the students ... they wanted to see Bronny play. But there was also this mystique in the air with people saying, 'Is LeBron going to show up?' And LeBron ended up showing up to the game, which was amazing."
That's the same scenario USC hopes to accommodate in the fall. And there will be times next season when a Los Angeles basketball fan has a chance to catch both Bronny at a USC game and his father at a Lakers game, not only on the same night, but on the same street.
The Lakers' 122-101 win over the Warriors in that Game 6 showcased a glimpse of what USC men's basketball might experience when the Galen Center becomes one of the sport's most popular venues.
It all starts with LeBron James, who lingered by his locker after the game, his legs wrapped in ice. He mentioned to teammate Anthony Davis that his younger son Bryce's AAU squad had faced tough competition in its most recent tournament. Then he stood up, turned to his locker and pressed play.
The groovy bassline of soul singer Bobby Womack's "Across 110th Street" began to boom through a waterproof speaker, echoing above any conversation in the room. In that song, Womack sings, "You don't know what you'll do until you're put under pressure."
No college basketball player in America understands that line more than Bronny, who plays under a giant microscope that will continue to follow him everywhere he goes next season.
"We're at USC in Los Angeles and this is the biggest stage you get," USC coach Andy Enfield said. "We've got the No. 1 basketball market in the country here. We've got the Lakers and Clippers right down the street. We've got UCLA across town and all the other great colleges and high schools, the AAU programs here. So it's a big, big basketball city.
"When we recruit players, we say, 'Hey, you're coming into the No. 1 basketball city in America and you're going to be in the spotlight.' And now with Bronny's situation, the spotlight probably intensifies. And so you embrace it, enjoy it and you go do something about it."