On the surface, the squeaks on the hardwood, the bouncing basketballs and the coach’s voice reverberating around the gym sound like a typical high school practice in late October.
But this is no ordinary high school basketball team, and this is no ordinary high school.
With sons of former NBA players joining forces with other highly recruited players, Sierra Canyon, a private school near Los Angeles, has become a pipeline for future college and NBA stars.
The latest additions — LeBron James Jr., known as Bronny, and Zaire Wade, son of retired NBA star Dwyane Wade — have the program firmly in the national spotlight. Fifteen of the Trailblazers’ games have or will be streamed or televised live on ESPN networks this season.
And while Bronny, a freshman, and Zaire, a senior, may bring massive hype, they aren’t the only prospects. Sierra Canyon has started the season 10-0 and is nationally ranked.
“Where we all originally come from, a lot of us, we are used to being that guy, we had to pretty much take on everything,” senior Ziaire Williams, a five-star recruit who has multiple offers from major college programs, told CNN.
“But for this team, we talk about it all the time, just how we just need to come together and just get the win. Whether I have five and he has 25 or vice versa, it doesn’t matter as long as we get the dub. We really only have one goal, and it’s to win state.”
The Trailblazers are back-to-back California Interscholastic Federation Open Division state champions. And despite losing some very good players from last year’s team, this year’s squad is stacked.
There’s senior Brandon “B.J.” Boston, who is a Kentucky commit, as well as senior Terren Frank, who will play at TCU. There’s also an international presence, with 7-foot-3-inch junior center Harold Yu from China. Sophomore Amari Bailey is another five-star recruit with various college offers.
“The good thing about our team is the first five to the last person on the bench, we can all (go) off on any given night,” Bailey said to CNN. “We respect each other to the point where … I feel like we all just know that we’re so good that we’re going to have to make sacrifices, and we all came together because we want to win a championship.”
Added Wade: “I think everybody knew coming here that there’s going to be some sacrifices made. I think the biggest thing is, like, jealousy. But our team (doesn’t have) that.
“You would think maybe from the outside that there’s some jealousy or whatever going on. But everybody’s cool. Off the court, we all have good relationships. The guys that have been here, they’ve accepted us in.”
Earlier this month, Bronny, coming off the bench, scored a career-high 15 points, including the go-ahead basket, to lead Sierra Canyon to a 59-56 win over his dad’s alma mater, St. Vincent-St. Mary of Akron, Ohio, in Columbus. Among the crowd of around 13,000 at Nationwide Arena, cheering Bronny on were his parents, LeBron and Savannah James, who were courtside. The game was covered by media outlets across the country.
“He don’t really like the attention,” Sierra Canyon head coach Andre Chevalier said of Bronny, according to the Los Angeles Times.
“He wants to be a basketball player. I don’t think he wants to be dealing with the people. A lot of times he just keeps his head down and goes out to warm up and wants to do well. Every day he’s learning and every day he’s getting better. You see his confidence start to bolster and his head is coming up.”
‘They put pressure on themselves to be great’
Sierra Canyon began as a day camp in 1970, leading to an elementary school that was opened in 1978. Eventually it expanded to pre-kindergarten through 12th grade, with its first senior class graduating in 2009. Currently, it costs $37,700 for a year of tuition at the high school.
With the Hollywood Walk of Fame roughly 22 miles away, the school has attracted children of high-profile parents, such as Will Smith, Sean “Diddy” Combs, Dr. Dre, Kris Jenner, Jamie Foxx, Kevin Hart, Anthony Anderson and Berry Gordy.
It’s a place where academics, arts and athletics are valued. In a brightly lit gym, championship banners hang from the walls for the girls’ — also the reigning state champs — and boys’ basketball teams.
“I feel like what’s special here is how hard they work,” Boston said of his teammates. “Coach Andre keeps us accountable for all our mistakes. And he pushes us every day to be uncomfortable, and he wants us to get comfortable with being uncomfortable. I feel like that’s a big deal here.”
Previous Sierra Canyon basketball alumni include Marvin Bagley III, who went on to play at Duke and was selected No. 2 overall by the Sacramento Kings in the 2018 NBA draft.
From last year’s team, Cassius Stanley is now a freshman at Duke. Scotty Pippen, Jr., the son of Hall of Famer Scottie Pippen, is at Vanderbilt. Christian Koloko plays for Arizona. K.J. Martin, son of former NBA player Kenyon Martin, is bypassing college and attending IMG Academy to prepare for a future professional career.
When learning he has landed a big-name player, Chevalier, who has been the head coach at Sierra Canyon since 2017, describes it as “exciting” and “nerve wracking.”
“It’s all of those things in one,” he told CNN with a laugh. “There’s an expectation when this level of talent comes to the school.
“People always ask me, ‘Do you feel the pressure?’ For me, I don’t think that anybody puts pressure on me any more than I put on myself. I think for our kids the same. They have a high expectation, so they put the pressure on themselves to be great. So outside pressure means nothing to us because we are trying to live up to our own expectations.”
During the summer, the team took a two-week trip to China, for a team-bonding experience most high school programs don’t have a chance to get.
“It was a great experience,” Frank said. “It was different. The food is different out there. The people are different. The whole energy is different, especially in Hong Kong. We were there for the protests, and that was crazy to see.”
The trip also gave the Trailblazers additional perspective for their teammate, Yu, living abroad in the US as an exchange student.
“At first, it was hard,” Yu told CNN of his move to the US. “But (now) I know my teammates, I make friends here. Everything gets easier, and they help me a lot, like help me getting the culture here. I enjoy it right now.”
‘We all want to make each other better’
It remains to be seen if there will be a three-peat — or bigger success beyond the high school level — for these Trailblazers.
But if they fall short, it isn’t the be-all and end-all.
“At the beginning of every season, our goal is to win a championship,” Chevalier said. “That to us is what we’re striving for.
“But if we don’t achieve that and the boys feel like they had a successful year, they’ve grown as men, they’ve improved as basketball players, if those things are accomplished and they move on to college or move on to the next grade, and they’ve learned something in the classroom, I think for us that will still speak to success at the highest level.”
Said sophomore Shy Odom: “State is one of the goals, but as a group of guys, by the end, we all want to make each other better: players, people, men.”