LOS ANGELES — The line of cardinal-clad students snaked along Flower Street for more than two blocks, an unusual showing of Sunday morning enthusiasm for the unranked Southern California men’s basketball team.
But the teens took their places on the sidewalk and made sure they were more than two hours early, queuing up as they would for an exclusive sneaker release or as their older siblings might for a table at a hot brunch spot. They came dressed for the occasion in a sometimes-clashing assortment of jerseys: red-and-white Trojans jerseys with “James Jr.” on the back but also yellow Los Angeles Lakers jerseys and wine-colored Cleveland Cavaliers jerseys bearing the original “James.”
Such was the frenzy for a college debut that was months in the making: LeBron “Bronny” James Jr., the 19-year-old son of the Lakers star, took the court for the first time since suffering cardiac arrest during a team workout in July. Following consultations with medical experts at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, the Mayo Clinic and Morristown Medical Center who determined he had a treatable congenital heart defect, James was cleared to return in late November and rejoined his team for practice last week. The step-by-step buildup led to James seeing his first college action in an 84-79 overtime loss to Long Beach State on Sunday at Galen Center.
Coach Andy Enfield said James would come off the bench and be on a minutes restriction as he works into game shape, and the freshman guard finished with four points (on 1-for-3 shooting), three rebounds and two assists in 17 minutes. Long Beach State (7-4) spoiled James’s debut thanks to a game-high 28 points from Marcus Tsohonis. Vincent Iwuchukwu and Isaiah Collier led the Trojans (5-4) with 15 points apiece.
“I just want to say I’m thankful for everything: [to] the Mayo Clinic and everything they helped me with, [and] my parents and siblings for supporting me through this hard time in my life,” said James, who offered a brief postgame statement but did not take questions from reporters. “I just want to give appreciation for everyone who has helped me through this. Also, my coach and teammates have been with me since the start.”
Though USC understandably sought to soft-launch James into action, the student section — often home to tumbleweeds — was filled to the brim more than an hour before the 1 p.m. tip-off. James entertained the eager crowd with pregame dunks as a Drake song boomed over the sound system.
The Trojans have long been overshadowed by the crosstown UCLA Bruins and haven’t made the Final Four since 1954, but they clearly benefited from a “Bronny Bump” on Sunday: USC said it sold out the matinee against Long Beach State, a pedestrian Big West Conference opponent, and Enfield’s postgame news conference was a standing-room-only affair.
“[James] went through a very unfortunate situation, and he’s done an incredible job getting back to this point,” he said. “The extra spotlight or eyeballs, sometimes that comes with a guy like Bronny, but we have to get better as a basketball team and he has to keep improving as an individual player. That’s what we’re focused on.”
LeBron James, fresh off lifting the inaugural NBA Cup in Las Vegas on Saturday night, made good on his pledge to see his eldest son’s first college game. The 38-year-old father of three took a courtside seat alongside his mother, Gloria, and his daughter, Zhuri, across from Long Beach State’s bench. When he entered the arena shortly before tip-off, he hugged Lakers General Manager Rob Pelinka and then gave Bronny a love tap on the back as he stood alongside his teammates for the national anthem.
Bronny James, a 6-foot-4 four-star recruit who played at exclusive Sierra Canyon School just north of Los Angeles, received a standing ovation when he entered the game wearing a white No. 6 jersey with 12:58 to go in the first half. His father and grandmother stood with their cellphones in hand to capture the moment. His brief first stint on the court included flashes of aggressive on-ball defense, a rebound and a missed three-pointer from the top of the arc on his first shot attempt.
“I can’t wait to see him run out with his teammates,” LeBron James said Thursday. “Once he checks into the game, whenever that case may be, it’s going to be a big moment for our family. It will be a big moment for him. But it’s a big milestone for our family, for sure, and it’s another step for him on his journey in his basketball career.”
When he checked in again shortly before halftime, he soared for a chase-down block at the rim and cleanly dished to Iwuchukwu for an easy basket at the rim. James scored his first points midway through the second half, swishing a three-pointer to cash in on a transition opportunity. He didn’t hunt shots, preferring to make the extra pass to a teammate.
As USC clung to a narrow lead, fans began shouting for Anfield to put James back in for crunchtime. Their pleas were answered; James returned for the final three-plus minutes of regulation, coming up with a steal and splitting a pair of free throws in the final 30 seconds to help force overtime. The Beach took command early in the extra period, and James watched the final two minutes from the sideline.
“I thought [James] played very well,” Enfield said. “He defended at a high level, he rebounded, [got] two steals and two assists, made a three. I thought he was very solid.”
LeBron James, who is in his 21st professional season, has long harbored the goal of playing with his son in the NBA as basketball’s answer to baseball’s Ken Griffey Sr. and Ken Griffey Jr. Several of James’s NBA colleagues, including former Miami Heat teammate Dwyane Wade and Phoenix Suns star Kevin Durant, welcomed the younger James back to the court on social media.
“Watching Bronny walk out on that court gave me chills,” Wade wrote.
Before his health scare, James was seen as a possible first-round pick in the 2024 NBA draft, should he decide to turn pro after his freshman season. How his heart issue might alter his professional ambitions remains unclear. For now, there are more important considerations.
“It’s not just [seeing] Bronny at a game,” LeBron James said Wednesday. “It’s Bronny, period — to have the ability to be able to point at him and see him smiling and alive. It’s literally that simple, to have that moment with my son knowing the situation that happened earlier in the summer. I’m not saying I took it for granted before, but it puts everything in perspective for sure.”