The scene is absolutely surreal.
It’s a midday in Charlotte. The United States Basketball Association (USBA) is hosting the annual USBA Nationals at the Charlotte Convention Center, right in the middle of the Queen City.
The building, which has previously hosted events like the 2012 Democratic National Convention, has been transformed to accommodate thousands of players, parents and fans. On the exhibit hall, 13 basketball courts have been brought-in to host tournaments ranging from second grade to high school.
There’s a game on every court, but one of these games is not like the others.
Down on the farthest side of the complex, there’s a massive crowd that’s gathered around Court One. Several hundred people are packed into a limited area no larger than a small cafeteria. Most people are standing. The lucky ones, who arrived over an hour beforehand, are sitting in some of the limited seats along the baseline and on the nearest side of the court.
The majority of the crowd is kids– and they’re everywhere. Some kids are sitting next to the court, while others are standing on chairs, sitting atop a parent’s shoulder and even crawling under the legs of adults as they desperately attempt to get a glimpse.
An outsider with no knowledge of the situation might have questioned why a game featuring seventh graders would cause such a frenzy. The answer… LeBron “Bronny” James Jr. and his group of elite teammates with the North Coast Blue Chips are in town.
During the warm-ups, I’m constantly reminding myself that these are just 13-year-olds, because the talent that I’m watching is overwhelming. As the Blue Chips go through their lay-up lines, at least five players are dunking or close to dunking.
That’s when it happens…. Suddenly, a massive wave of excitement descends upon the crowd. People are yelling, camera phones are flashing, and the space around the court shrinks… And there he is, the G.O.A.T. himself appears.
LeBron James Sr. walks in from a side door at the Charlotte Convention Center as the crowd loses its collective mind.
All around the perimeter, there’s a gate that’s been set-up to keep fans on the far side of the court and away from the player benches. LeBron walks with his security detail, making his way over to a spot behind the bench where he will stay for the duration of the game.
Kids and adults are yelling,
“LeBron! LeBron! LeBron!”
“There he is!”
“I can see him!”
After a solid five minutes of pure delirium, something interesting happens. LeBron is still there; but surprisingly enough, the focus of the crowd shifts away from the NBA superstar. As the Blue Chips walk over to the bench concluding their warm-ups, the crowd is considerably less interested in LeBron. As the game begins, the shift is obvious, people really do want to watch this game featuring seventh graders.
Having the opportunity to see LeBron in-person is definitely a major thrill, but the crowd didn’t gather to see him. The mass of people arrived at Court One long before they even knew LeBron was going to show up. Sure, they certainly hoped he might arrive, but that’s not the primary reason they’re here.
In a moment of clarity, a young teenager who’s struggling to get a view exclaims, “Man, I don’t even wanna see LeBron. I just wanna see the game.”
And that’s when the truth hits me, for the hundreds of kids in the crowd, Bronny James and the North Coast Blue Chips teammates are celebrities too.
A foul occurs late in the game sending a Blue Chip player to the free throw line. Bronny lines up at the charity stripe and young kids are calling to get his attention.
“Bronny! Bronny! Bronny!’
And Bronny James isn’t the only young superstar on this elite squad. The Blue Chips are essentially a middle school all-star team with players from all across the country.
Meet Gabe Cupps (Ohio), Rayvon Griffith (Ohio), Rodney Gallagher (Pennsylvania), Jahzare Jackson (Florida), Ty Long (Ohio), Luke Montgomery (Ohio), Jayden Nicholson (Missouri), Khoi Thurmon (Ohio), Amire Robinson (Illinois), Grayson Steury (Ohio) and Mikey Williams (California).
After the game, while I walk to my car, I see Mikey Williams on his way to the concession stand. He is stopped by a group of about 10 kids hoping to get a picture with him. After he poses with each one of them, he can’t take another 10 steps without receiving another handshake or photo request.
Williams currently has an Instagram following of over 50,000. And just in case you forgot, he’s 13 years old and throwing down dunks like this:
I see a similar scene with Ty Long on my way out. He has a basket of fries in his hand and a group of young fans ask him for a photo. Long, acting as though he were a seasoned professional, turns to them and says, “Yeah,” and then motions to a friend and says, “Hold my fries,” as he prepares for the photo.
Bronny James is the source of the most attention. At the end of the game, kids are pushing past the event staff gathered around the court, hoping to get near the end of the handshake line to give Bronny a high-five and get a picture.
And all things considered, Bronny seems to be handling everything quite well. Bronny talks with his dad after going through the line, shortly after that, he’s back on the court getting-up shots with his brother’s fifth-grade team.
After the team finishes warm-ups, Bronny can be seen playfully throwing up half court shots and high-fiving kids sitting on the baseline. If Bronny’s feeling the pressure, he certainly isn’t showing it.
The circumstances are extraordinary, but it appears as though Bronny and his entire North Coast Blue Chips team are just enjoying the ride…. And what a ride it is.