‘He made his own clone.’ LeBron James’ high school teammates offer thoughts on Bronny
The legend began in the Ohio youth leagues at the local park, the first iteration of the St. Vincent-St. Mary State Championship Fab Five takes shape in the Akron cold.
For a year, a 6-year-old was on his and LeBron James’ team, Willie McGee recalled. The boy played only in blowouts. Hadn’t met all year. A “mascot,” McGee called him.
But in one of the last games of the season, a young James drove right in the middle. Rolled the ball across the court with a goal in mind. And the boy picked it up, threw it with all his might and scored his first bucket.
“It was like ‘man,'” McGee said, “‘only LeBron could do that.'”
LeBron only. This passing, the ability to uplift those around him, was his greatest strength from an early age. McGee will tell you. Ditto for Dru Joyce III, Romeo Travis or Brandon Weems, the kids who went from playing youth courts to winning three state championships in St. Vincent-St. Maria.
“They tried to recreate it with different players at different times,” said Travis, now an assistant coach at SVSM. “But there could never be another LeBron James.”
“Except,” Travis continued, “he made his own clone.”
Fair or not, Bronny James has been following one of the nation’s top-studded high school basketball programs since he enrolled as a freshman at Chatsworth Sierra Canyon. Since then, the world has had a glimpse of his talent with a 15-point effort this year to win James’ alma mater St. Vincent-St. Mary in Columbus, Ohio.
Who will be the next James?
He returns to Columbus for a game against SVSM on Saturday as a highly acclaimed senior prospect. And 20 years after their final season, these Fighting Irish greats will have a chance to see Bronny in the same position they knew his father — the nation’s most famous high school basketball player, who is selling a gym in Ohio.
“It’s surreal to be honest … I just can’t really describe it because I know where we’re coming from and how hard LeBron has had to work to get where he is,” said Weems, now the assistant general manager from the Cleveland Cavaliers.
LeBron James and those SVSM teams from the early 2000s have stayed in touch and have had conversations about paternity, McGee said. Especially letting their children decide what they wanted to be in life. let them be their own men.
But due to his nature and talent, Bronny’s path has approximated that of James at the same age.
“That’s pretty cool [Bronny’s] I got to experience some of the things that I got to experience,” James told the Los Angeles Times on Tuesday. “But at the end of the day, he makes his own path and creates his own legacy.”
And for the men who knew the path of LeBron James better than anyone, watching his legacy grow from those early Akron days, both of those statements are true. Because LeBron James’ former teammates see clear differences in the similarities.
One child combined dominant size and athleticism with a natural sense of play. A child combines a productive shot and grip with a natural feel for the game.
The St. Vincent-St. Mary teams got off the bus and oozed confidence from their Adidas jerseys, knowing they had the best player on the floor every time, Travis said. They had the trump card. The Ace. The 6-foot-7, 225-pound steamroller with unparalleled athleticism and a pro’s vision.
“It’s like taking the test knowing you have all the answers,” Travis said.
LeBron James was dominant in the transition. A playmaker on defense. A superior passer and finisher. His perhaps lonely weakness as a preparatory candidate? Shot selection, according to Travis.
“He felt like he had to prove he could shoot jumpers,” Travis said. “Sometimes he saved the defense with hard jumps just to say he can shoot.”
And Bronny, former James teammates have said, is undoubtedly the better shot at this point.
At 6-3, Bronny is not his father’s height. His bounce is amazing, his hangtime is remarkable but not as impressive as James’s. But he shares a lot of his father’s IQ, Weems said.
“He sees things that other players might not see and that’s a gift from LeBron,” Weems said.
LeBron James was the country’s undisputed top contender. Bronny isn’t at that level, despite being sixth in ESPN’s 2023 California rankings. But he’s talented enough to play in the NBA, Weems thinks – whether it’s after a freshman year or multiple seasons.
“He will continue to grow and become more athletic,” said Weems, now in his seventh year with the Cavaliers. “So I think other front offices think the same way.”
Basketball, for the St. Vincent-St. Mary Teams, McGee said, was entertainment. But it was also a food menu. They had a collective goal of going to college, getting a free education, and helping their families. And taking center stage was LeBron James always looking out for everyone else.
“He understood from a young age that he had some God-given talents and some gifts,” Joyce III said. “And a large part of it was about changing the outcome of its environment. To make life easier for his mother and family.”
But during the few times that LeBron James fought, it went largely unnoticed. As St. Vincent-St. Mary lost to Roger Bacon High in his junior year in the state championship game, it wasn’t widely viewed as the end of the world, Travis recalled.
“I would say there’s more pressure on Bronny than LeBron,” Travis said. “Just because of the social media presence — how would your failures become so public.”
Bronny now has 6.8 million Instagram followers, more than Jeff Bezos and Tiger Woods. Each lowlight generates comments. Also every highlight.
“I couldn’t begin to understand what it was like to be the brother, the son, of a great man,” said Dru Joyce II, the LeBron James at St. Vincent-St. Mary and still stays there. “Trying to follow in his footsteps and having to deal with all the comparisons, the talk.”
The possibilities for Bronny, former James teammates have said, are endless. But from now on he has decided to play basketball. And after taking on a bigger offensive role his senior year, he led the Trailblazers to a 7-1 record this season, which begins Saturday.
“This may be a temporary thing,” McGee said. “That might not be his all… I think he’s going to be a DI athlete, he’s going to play professionally, but is that what he wants to do? Does he want to do this forever?”
“You don’t get that far, you don’t reach that high status in high school, but — no matter what your last name is — if you don’t love the game,” McGee said. And Bronny, lying quietly on the floor, plays with irrepressible glee: the pull-up threes, the roaring dunks.
Bronny is wearing the No. 0 in honor of his favorite player Russell Westbrook, ESPN reported during the broadcast of Monday’s game against Christ the King. Not his father’s number 6 or 23.
“He wants to create his own lane – I think he did a great job with that,” Travis said of Bronny. “…Most people either love him or hate him. And I’m just grateful that he was able to push through all of that negativity and become his own man.”
McGee said there will never be another LeBron James. Never again a kid that could make that pass in that youth league game. Never again a child who could repeat his story.
“But [Bronny]’ McGee said, ‘may be the best person he can be.’
This story originally appeared in the Los Angeles Times.