Bronny James, Zaire Wade And The Southern California High School Hoops Circus
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Football and baseball traditionally dominate the talk about high school sports in Southern California, but not this year. It's been like a carnival at basketball gyms across the region thanks in part to kids of NBA royalty who are lacing it up for local schools. Matt Dangelantonio from member station KPCC in Los Angeles reports on a school where celebrity sightings and TV crews have become the norm.
MATT DANGELANTONIO, BYLINE: It's senior night at the Feinberg Family Pavilion, home of the back-to-back-defending state champion Sierra Canyon Trailblazers. It's a standing-room only crowd, and ESPN is in the house broadcasting nationwide.
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DANGELANTONIO: Just before tip, the gym suddenly falls pin-drop silent, and cameras start to flash as the unmistakable 6-foot-8, 250-pound frame of Lakers star LeBron James strides across the gym to courtside seats dressed head-to-toe in Sierra Canyon navy blue. He's here to cheer on his oldest son Bronny, a 6-foot-2 freshman at Sierra Canyon who's already throwing down tomahawk dunks that have drawn comparisons to his dad's.
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UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER: Throw down for Bronny James, an incredible highlight.
DANGELANTONIO: And if that's not enough to pique your interest, retired NBA star Dwayne Wade's son Zaire is a senior on the team, too. Wade and LeBron won back-to-back NBA titles together with the Miami Heat. The Sierra Canyon squad also features two of the nation's top 10 recruits - seniors B.J. Boston Jr., who has committed to play at Kentucky next year, and Ziaire Williams, who is still mulling options like Duke and UCLA. First-timers at a Sierra Canyon game might be surprised by the spectacle of it all. But for the regulars, it's just another night at the gym.
JAN SOBEL: For the past six years, there's never been a normal night.
DANGELANTONIO: Jan Sobel's son David is the assistant athletic director at SC, and she's been following the team since they started playing in 2009.
SOBEL: This is not high school basketball. This is college basketball.
DANGELANTONIO: And Los Angeles Times reporter Eric Sondheimer agrees. He's been following high school basketball here for 40 years.
ERIC SONDHEIMER: I go to games, and I see cameras everywhere. There's documentary crews following players and teams. And they love it. They want to be - get attention.
DANGELANTONIO: Sondheimer says the growth and reach of social media combined with an influx of high-profile talent has led to opportunities for schools like Sierra Canyon to play on a national stage. The Trailblazers have played games in eight different states this season, several of which were part of nationally televised tournaments. Sondheimer says the extra exposure and having kids of NBA stars on the roster is big, but the fastest way to becoming a high school basketball juggernaut? Win the transfer game. And Sierra Canyon has done just that.
SONDHEIMER: Some of the top players this season came in from Georgia, Florida, Massachusetts, Nevada. They're just coming here looking to get attention, looking to play against top-caliber competition.
DANGELANTONIO: And it's not just Sierra Canyon drawing big-name recruits and transfers. Three of the top 10 high school teams in the country are from Southern California, according to the online publication MaxPreps. No other state has more than one team on that list. But despite the national attention, Sierra Canyon parents like Tiffany Townsend say the school community hasn't forgotten its roots.
TIFFANY TOWNSEND: Sierra Canyon really is like a small family. Like, we all support each other. And obviously it's great that we have, you know, great athletes here to support. But we would be here anyway. I would be, at least.
DANGELANTONIO: And for aspiring basketball stars like SC middle schooler Colin Shelly, the games are an opportunity to fine-tune their own skills by watching top prospects.
COLIN SHELLY: I learn everything about how they play and how everything works, so it's really entertaining to watch and learn.
DANGELANTONIO: In the hopes that one day he'll be the one sporting the Trailblazers' navy blue and white on national TV. For NPR News, I'm Matt Dangelantonio in Chatsworth, Calif.
(SOUNDBITE OF STEVE LACY'S "ONLY IF") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.