Biologically speaking, a teenager’s brain is something of a train wreck. For starters, it’s low in myelin, the coating that allows various regions to communicate with one another. Meanwhile, the prefrontal cortex is developing at warp speed, so things that a child once took for granted—like the idea that their parents know what they’re talking about—suddenly seem ripe for reevaluation. Thus, in addition to acting on seemingly every impulse, a teen is programmed to break away from their parents. This is natural and healthy, but that doesn’t make it any easier for a parent—even a wildly successful and wealthy one, like LeBron James.
I mention this because James now has two teenage sons and, as happens for all parents who hit this point, the changes can be startling. “Hell yeah, it’s bittersweet to see your kids grow into their own,” he said when I brought it up this summer in his hometown of Akron, Ohio. At the time, James was sitting with his sons Bronny, 17, and Bryce, 15, and we were commiserating about brain chemistry and independence and all the rest. (I have two teenage daughters myself.) James went on to talk about his own experience growing apart from his mom, and how he now tries to focus on what matters most for his kids, “because it’s hard as hell to find happiness in this life that we’ve been brought into.”
While it’s impossible for any of us to judge someone else’s happiness, it would seem that, at 37 and entering his 20th year of pro basketball, James has done as much as anyone to achieve that ideal. He’s evolved into a statesman and advocate; become a billionaire; plowed money, time and infrastructure back into his hometown; lifted up childhood friends; brought titles to every team he’s played for; defied the ravages of time; and, along with his wife, Savannah, raised three children who seem remarkably normal, all things considered.
Now James is entering the next phase of his career, and his life, just as his oldest son prepares to embark on his own journey as an adult. Traditionally, this is where parent and child part ways, one receding from the spotlight as the other strides into it.
But James has something else in mind. He aims to stick around the NBA long enough to overlap with Bronny, who’s currently entering his senior year of high school. If they pull it off, it would make them the first father-son duo to play together in an NBA game, and only the fourth such pairing in the four major U.S. men’s sports (after Gordie played with Mark and Marty Howe in the NHL; and both Ken Griffey and Tim Raines played with their sons in MLB).
When James first floated the plan in February, telling The Athletic that “my last year will be played with my son” and that “it’s not about money at that point,” the NBA world set about interpreting. What did this mean for LeBron? For the Lakers? For league balance?
Of course, this scenario rests on a set of assumptions, including that Bronny, a 6' 2" combo guard who’s generally ranked in the top 50 of his class, will be good enough to reach the NBA. And, furthermore, that he even wants to play basketball for a living, which has been assumed but not yet stated.
Then there are the larger, 10,000-foot questions, like: How do you feel about a father putting such public expectations on his son? And: After all this buildup, what if Bronny doesn’t make the league? Or: What if he does, but it’s largely due to his father’s influence? Does that make this a feel-good story—supportive dad helps son reach his dreams—or a case of superstar nepotism?
Anyway, lots of people weighed in, from lots of angles, and by the time I caught up with the family in July, at a weekend basketball tournament, Bronny, whose every scrimmage and social media post was already being dissected, had moved even further into the public eye while the rest of us were left to wonder what, if any, grand scheme LeBron had in mind.
Twenty years ago, LeBron was the teenager transfixing the nation. After leading St. Vincent–St. Mary High to consecutive state titles he appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated under the tagline THE CHOSEN ONE. The story quotes Danny Ainge saying James would go first in the NBA draft, as a junior.
That year he met Savannah Brinson, who played softball at Buchtel, a rival high school, and knew little of the basketball phenom. A group hang at Applebee’s led to a date at Outback Steakhouse, and the two stayed connected through all that followed: the Cavs years, The Decision, the titles in Miami. In 2004, she gave birth to a boy, LeBron James Jr., followed three years later by Bryce Maximus. In ’13, the couple married. One year later, Zhuri Nova arrived.
Throughout it all, LeBron and Savannah retained ties to Akron. They raised the boys nearby, and Bronny—who never really has gone by LeBron Jr.—attended the Old Trail School. Like all parents, they set certain rules. No cellphones until you’re 13. No Instagram till 14. No playing football, for safety reasons. Savannah says they tried to be “very normal in an abnormal situation, if that makes sense.” They also had to be watchful and understand that “it’s a big, wide world out here, and we have to do our job to protect them.”
Bronny first entered the public consciousness in fourth grade, playing with his AAU team. He zipped around the court, heaving up threes and looking a bit like a tiny version of his father. By 11, ESPN reported he had scholarship offers from Kentucky and Duke . . . which rankled LeBron because, what the hell, the kid’s only 11?
The rest of it, though, LeBron loved. He coached. He cheered. He joined the boys for layup lines, thundering home dunks as they lofted up underhand runners. When Bronny dropped one of his first in-game dunks, at 14, Dad, mainlining on parental pride, burst onto the court from his baseline seat, flexing. After his team’s alley-oop, James sprinted onto the floor for a celebratory hip bump, doing so with such alacrity that he lost his shoe in the process. At the time, he drew fire from some critics, who labeled him an over-the-top sports dad run amok. (LEBRON JAMES WENT BONKERS, read one headline.) Others, though, saw goofy, paternal joy from a man who has had no relationship with his own father. (LeBron took his mother Gloria’s surname.)
Either way, the attention kept coming. “It was like the Beatles,” says Brook Cupps, whose son, Gabe, joined Bronny on the AAU’s Blue Chips in fifth grade. Gabe was from a tiny farming town, but suddenly his games were on YouTube, where an analyst broke down his prepubescent skill set. “It was something I’d never been exposed to,” he says. “All that pressure to perform.”
Eventually Gabe adjusted and by high school saw it as a positive—“like he’d been swinging a heavy bat the whole time,” as his dad puts it. But Gabe’s experience was inherently different from his backcourt mate’s, for he was on the periphery of the spotlight. And Bronny? The recruiting website on3.com recently declared him “the most famous high school basketball player ever.”
Indeed, when Bronny joined Instagram, in 2019, he amassed a million followers in under 48 hours without really doing anything other than being Bronny. He’s now up to 6.4 million, despite posting only 17 times. If he decides to go to college—we’ll get to that later—his endorsement deals under the new NIL laws will likely break records. Industry estimates peg his value at upward of $6 million a year.
This fall Bronny will play his senior season at the Sierra Canyon School in Los Angeles, where the family moved after LeBron signed with the Lakers in 2018. He will be joined by Bryce, a sophomore. The weekend I visit, they are all returning to Ohio for The Battle, a youth basketball showcase at St. V’s featuring a number of top prospects. Really, though, it’s a James family event. Bronny will play with the Blue Chips in the U-17 division—the tournament format allows him to reunite with his old team—and Bryce with Strive for Greatness, a U-16 squad LeBron sponsors.
For the boys, it’s a chance to hang with teammates, show out on the court and, for Bronny in particular, advance his profile. For LeBron, it’s more complicated.
The father looks at his two sons. They are wilting. “Hey, we need some air over here.”
An assistant blots Bronny’s face, holding a tiny fan that flutters impotently in the face of the sweltering heat.
It’s 3:30 p.m. on the Friday before the tournament, half an hour into a photo shoot in the empty St. V’s gym in downtown Akron. And it’s an anniversary of sorts: 20 years since that first SI cover. Today, LeBron has chosen to wear a cutoff T-shirt with a print of that issue.
At the moment, Bronny and Bryce are posing in outfits planned by their stylist. Green shorts match green bleachers, which match green-trimmed shoes. But the sweat is intruding. LeBron grimaces. One of James’s crew—there are, by my count, 11 people on hand, including a PR rep, the head of his foundation and a makeup artist—brings over an industrial-sized black fan. A torrent of air fires forth.
By now, Bronny is practiced at posing, and he cycles through various facial expressions. Bryce, who is gangly and wears glasses, looks more nervous, unsure what to do with his long arms. Fold them? Hang them by his side? He shakes them out between poses.
Gloria says that much of her son’s parenting is driven by the absence in his own life—“he’s always been adamant that he’d never be that [kind of] father,” she says—and it shows. Throughout the afternoon, LeBron is attentive. He picks a piece of lint off Bryce’s shirt. He models poses. His children watch, then imitate.
When a down moment arrives, LeBron is in motion. He grabs a ball and demonstrates a move at the top of the key, using a lighting rig as a defender—behind the back, spin move, feint, then attack with a lefty layup, narrating all the while. He grabs a yellow legal pad and starts scribbling down notes. (He shoots righty but writes left-handed.)
Meanwhile, league dynamics churn on. One day earlier, on June 30, Kevin Durant demanded a trade, then the NBA free-agent window opened and all hell broke loose. Now, dominoes are falling. During the course of the afternoon, the Jazz trade Rudy Gobert to the Timberwolves for a massive haul. Every few minutes more speculation emerges about Durant or Kyrie Irving, who is reportedly hoping to join James in L.A. (It was four years ago this weekend that James himself signed with the Lakers.)
Once upon a time, LeBron might have been glued to his phone. But those who know him sense a change—he thinks big picture, looking outside the game. So, at least for the moment, dad stuff comes first. The notes he’s been scribbling throughout the afternoon? They’re not trade scenarios but drills for the Blue Chips practice he’ll run later in the afternoon.
Presently, the three head to the far basket, each with a ball, and fall into an easy rhythm: One shoots; the others mimic. They could be any dad and kids at the Y, only this dad is hitting over-the-backboard bounce shots from out of bounds. Wobbly lefty jumpers give way to underhand spinners and volleyball-set shots and, finally, dunk attempts. Bryce, off one foot, cradles a one-hander. Bronny explodes for a two-handed, one-step jam. Then LeBron, with the alpha-dad move, brings the full force of his 250 pounds crashing down on the rim, hanging for a moment. “All right, we’re good,” he proclaims, motioning to the boys. All the while, his personal videographer films, preserving the type of moments he wishes someone had captured from his own childhood.
LeBron’s upbringing is well chronicled: He and Gloria going it alone, moving from couch to couch until she landed a $22-a-month apartment. Relative stability followed by intense fame. Gloria says she was not perfect, but she tried. She repeated certain mantras, “like being humble and being positive and appreciating things and not letting circumstances dictate who you are or where you go in life,” she says. She also tried to gird him for what might come. “One thing I said a lot was ‘Be careful what you wish for.’ ”
You can never know the situation another parent faces. The swirl of influences and factors. Every case is different. But for most this plays out on a micro scale. Not so James. He and Savannah must parent in front of the world, even more so than most celebrities. Because, really, how many humans are as globally recognizable as LeBron? A dozen? Maybe fewer?
So far, the James family has taken a novel approach, both overtly public and intensely private. LeBron posts Instagram videos of the family: Taco Tuesdays, dad and sons shooting hoops in the driveway, dance parties, birthdays. He tweets out the boys’ highlights, with all-caps enthusiasm. In 2019 cameras began following Bronny and his Sierra Canyon teammates for Top Class, an Amazon documentary series. Even that choice of schools meant visibility; Sierra Canyon holds an annual media day, appears on ESPN and travels for international exhibition tours. Bronny has already lived much of his life in front of a camera.