Dru Joyce II knew what he was in for as soon as LeBron James spoke up.
Back in February 2002, the name Carmelo Anthony existed mostly in the “magic of the unknown,” as James’ former teammate Romeo Travis put it, to most of St. Vincent-St. Mary’s High in Akron. But James, who’d played USA basketball over the summer with the mysterious 6-foot-8 kid from Virginia’s Oak Hill Academy, knew.
The night before the vaunted matchup between James and Anthony that helped transform modern high school basketball, the two were chopping it up in the same hotel room, Oak Hill coach Steve Smith remembered. And went at each other’s necks the next night.
“Hey, Coach Dru,” St. Vincent-St. Mary’s coach Joyce remembered James telling him, “he’s really good.”
That was the moment 20 years ago when Joyce knew he needed to be worried, James and Anthony trading dunks and 30-point games one special February night to follow.
And 20 years later, a 38-year-old James ducked through the side door in Sierra Canyon’s Chatsworth gym Monday night to see the next generation of James take on Anthony’s son Kiyan and New York’s Christ the King High.
But the reunion, ending in a 62-51 Sierra Canyon win, was nothing like the original.
That February 2002 game was televised on a now-defunct network formerly broadcasting in a few states across the East. This game was on ESPN2, Kim Kardashian sitting courtside in a camo suit and dancing during a timeout, a flock of cameras following Kiyan Anthony and Bronny James’ every move as their dads sat courtside.
“It just speaks volumes about the game of high school basketball and how it’s matured and grown into something that can have a national presence,” Joyce said.
Twenty years after playing him, a still-awestruck Travis spoke of the then-18-year-old Carmelo Anthony like an ethereal basketball deity, calling him the most skilled high school player he’d ever seen.
But there was no magic of the unknown suddenly revealed at Sierra Canyon on Monday night. This was destiny, Bronny’s and Kiyan’s highlight reels spread across the internet since they were in middle school. No sense of mystery as to Bronny’s out-of-the-gym hops and Kiyan’s silky scoring ability.
And with the eyes of a standing-room-only gym and countless media outlets following, the pressure they’re under is a generation different too.
“I feel for Kiyan and Bronny … they don’t play well, people will go, ‘Ahhh, they’re not very good,’” said Steve Smith, Carmelo’s former coach at Oak Hill Academy, who sat courtside.
And through the first half, it seemed as if the naysayers would come again, Bronny missing a few shots and Kiyan looking a year too young at 15, scoring just eight points off the bench against a stout Trailblazers defense.
After a monstrous tomahawk by Bronny, an 18-year-old senior, in the first quarter that had his dad gleefully yelling, No. 0 went quiet for much of the first half. The Trailblazers held Christ the King to 17 points in taking a 10-point halftime lead.
But after all the hype of a Bronny-Kiyan matchup, Trailblazers junior Isaiah Elohim seized the night and didn’t look back.
Early in the third quarter, Christ the King’s Brandon Williams elevated for what could’ve been an earth-shattering slam —except Elohim met him at the top and threw his attempt back. A couple plays later, he went to his bread-and-butter mid-range jumper and loudly clapping his hands on the way down the floor.
It was a quiet first couple games for Elohim, one of the most talented players in the country slowly ramping back up to speed after he hurt a knee at the end of last season. There were dark moments, he said. But he’s near 100% now — and with 17 points Monday night, cementing himself as Sierra Canyon’s best option for a go-to bucket.
“I’ve always felt like I’m the best player in anything that I’m doing,” Elohim said, asked how it felt to assert himself with James-Anthony the featured matchup. “Every game that I go to.”
Bronny, though, has had a flair for the moment all season. And even in a relatively quiet game, he made third-quarter magic: ridiculous layup, alley-oop slam, corner three. Elohim added a couple of buckets in the fourth, 7-footer Majok Chuol chipped in a few tough layups, and the Trailblazers closed the door.