Games of throne
From left, Amari Bailey, sophomore guard; Tookey Wigington, sophomore guard; Shy Odom, sophomore power forward; and Bronny James, freshman guard, at a home game in January.
Photo: Michelle Groskopf
There was a time, not long ago, when it would have been unusual for Drake, the father of a 2-year-old, to post a photo of himself wearing a sweatshirt with the logo of Sierra Canyon, a private high school in the unfashionable outer reaches of the San Fernando Valley. There was also a time when one of the world’s most famous people announcing that he was tying his brand to a prep school would have been a defining moment in the lives of every teenager there. Not so at Sierra Canyon, which has recently become the most Instagrammed high school in America.
“Honestly, I forgot that even happened,” said B. J. Boston, a senior who plays on the varsity basketball team, the Trailblazers — the reason for Drake’s interest. Boston is considered one of the country’s best high-school basketball players and had transferred from Georgia to spend his senior year in L.A., but he was not the primary reason for the hype. Last May, LeBron James and Dwyane Wade, who had formed the NBA’s first super-team in Miami a decade ago, announced they were sending their sons, Bronny and Zaire, to Sierra Canyon to play basketball together. Since then, more and more celebrities were showing up courtside at the team’s games, even on nights when they could have caught the Clippers or Lakers at Staples Center. The Trailblazers sold out arenas from Dallas to China (where they took a two-week August trip through Jiaxing, Jinhua, Lishui, Suichang, Shangyu, and Hong Kong, just before the NBA’s own preseason brand-building tour was sucked into debates over the protests there). In early January, when Sierra Canyon played Minnehaha Academy at Minneapolis’s Target Center, home of the NBA’s Timberwolves, they drew 17,000 fans — more than had watched the Timberwolves play the Golden State Warriors two nights before. Sierra Canyon has as many assistant coaches as the Lakers (six), has flown as far as an average NBA team (more than 40,000 miles), and will appear on ESPN 15 times this season.
All of which meant a tag from Drake prompted little more from the team’s players than a debate over his place in the rap pantheon. “He’s my favorite rapper,” said Terren Frank, a senior whose father, Tellis, had also played in the NBA.
“Stop it, Terren,” Zaire Wade said.
“Drake is definitely not a rapper,” said Ziaire Williams, ranked No. 7 on ESPN’s list of the country’s best seniors, one spot below B. J. Boston.
“I like Drake. I just can’t listen to him all day,” Boston said.
“Who said all day?,” Wade said.
“Okay, I can’t listen to him, period,” Boston said. Wade, a Drake defender, thought that was going too far. He suggested they all needed to go back and listen to Drake’s early stuff, from 2010, when they were 8 years old.
Zaire Wade, senior guard.
Photo: Michelle Groskopf
It was lunchtime at Sierra Canyon, and the four seniors were having Double-Doubles from In-N-Out. Across the 40-acre campus, the scene looked much as it would at any elite high school in L.A.: a student using his backpack as a pillow on a picnic table, a girl walking down the hall in tears with a remorseful-looking boy at her side, somebody fixing a skateboard. It could’ve been Harvard-Westlake or Crossroads, where the children of celebrities mingle seamlessly with the offspring of Hollywood executives and others from the city’s elite — a finishing school for the entertainment world’s next generation. Sierra Canyon’s board of trustees has included the head of Nickelodeon, L.A. Reid’s wife, and Will and Jada Pinkett Smith. And even without the NBA kids, the Trailblazers’ roster includes the son of a record executive who helped launch the Wu-Tang Clan; the son of a former professional basketball player in China; and the son of Pookey Wigington, a comedian with a weekly show at the Laugh Factory on Sunset Boulevard. (Wigington’s sons go by Snookey, Wookey, Zookey, and Tookey; the last is a backup guard for the Trailblazers.) Hall of Fame running back Jim Brown’s daughter Morgan scored the game-winning goal in the girls’ soccer team’s first playoff game last week
But the addition of Dwyane Wade and, especially, LeBron James to the school’s PTA heralded a new level of fame. Over the past decade, the NBA has turned Los Angeles into its home away from the court, with basketball becoming another arm in the city’s vast entertainment-industrial complex — music, film, television, hoops. Seemingly half of the league’s players retreat there in the off-season to play pickup and strategize post-basketball careers, as LeBron did long before joining the Lakers two years ago. Or they retire in L.A., somewhere along the 101, as Wade and his family did last year. (He is married to the actress Gabrielle Union.) It’s not just that LeBron appeared in Trainwreck and is rebooting Space Jam. He has his own digital-media studio and his own Hollywood production company, as does Wade, and both dads have camera crews making documentaries about their basketball-playing sons.
And just as these fathers had maneuvered to direct the course of the NBA by negotiating their own trades and group free-agent signings, the high schoolers had become a youth super-team. The crowds weren’t coming to Sierra Canyon to catch a glimpse of LeBron, or at least not only that. They were there to watch a dynasty introduce its next generation. “Don’t disrespect Bronny!,” a young fan screamed during one game after someone in the crowd threw a Starburst that hit Bronny in the back. During a stop on Sierra Canyon’s tour of China, Zaire Wade walked over to sign a poster of himself that a teenage girl had made. When he gave her a hug, she started weeping. Bronny is only a freshman and comes off the bench for Sierra Canyon, but he already has 4.6 million Instagram followers, which would make him one of the 20 most followed players in the NBA. Before his freshman season even started, and shortly after his 15th birthday, a sneaker-company executive declared him “the most influential high-school athlete of all time.”
The kids, meanwhile, are trying to navigate lives as semi-normal teenagers. “I can’t do Shakespeare,” Williams said over the Double-Doubles. “I’m looking at it like, What is this?”
“Nah, bro, you gotta watch videos on it,” Wade said. He had been consulting a cartoon retelling on YouTube and pulled up a clip describing Hamlet waiting for the ghost of his father to appear. “Are you at the part where Hamlet’s going crazy?,” he asked.
“When he’s talking to himself?,” Williams said.
“No, he’s talking to Polonius, Ophelia’s dad,” Wade said. “Y’all need to catch up.”
“Who’s Ophelia?,” Frank said.
“Ophelia’s the girl that Hamlet likes, remember?,” Wade said. “So when Polonius found out Hamlet liked her, he was like, ‘Oh, you can’t go with him.’ ”
All four of the seniors around the table had transferred from elsewhere, which made the environment at Sierra Canyon, where several of them were taking a yoga class, something they were still adjusting to. “It’s like High School Musical,” Wade said.
“Kids act like they like each other, but they really don’t,” Boston said, turning to Wade. “Tell ’em what you told me this morning.”
“It’s like, out here,” said Wade, who had recently moved from Miami, “everybody has a certain expectation of what you got to be. If you ain’t up here where I expect you to be, you ain’t nobody.”
“L.A. is lit,” Frank, a native, said defensively.
“I’m not saying it’s not lit,” Wade said. “But everybody’s got their own agenda.”
“It’s all competition out here,” Williams said.
“Oh my God,” Wade said, “so much jealousy.”