COLUMBUS, Ohio —
It could’ve been a season’s crowning moment if Chatsworth Sierra Canyon put on a show in front of thousands, if it bounced off the Nationwide Arena floor with a jubilant win over LeBron James’ alma mater.
Instead the Trailblazers trudged out with a 67-61 loss, headphones on and heads lowered, out the arena exit and into the 30-degree Saturday night Columbus chill.
It could’ve been their statement, a win over Akron’s St. Vincent-St. Mary reminding Southern California not to count out the Trailblazers as Harvard-Westlake and Corona Centennial surge.
Instead they slumped against the Fighting Irish on Saturday, passes flung away and fouls slowing the pace, coach Andre Chevalier reflecting “the basketball gods are not going to let you be disrespectful to the game.”
Isaiah Elohim won Sierra Canyon’s player of the game, presented by the tournament game’s organizer, Scholastics Play-by-Play Classics, following a valiant 24-point effort. But he held the trophy on the walk to the bus as one holds a trash bag on the way to the dumpster.
“I don’t really know how to feel,” Elohim mumbled after the loss. “I think it hurts a lot, to be honest.”
The hurt radiated off the Trailblazers’ faces in the tunnel. None more so than Bronny James, who slumped his head between his legs, headphones over his ears.
The narrative, as has been so often the case in the talented guard’s career, was set up for James before he touched the court Saturday: a senior-year return to Columbus to face his father’s alma mater. Sierra Canyon even held a shootaround at Ohio State, a college program James has frequently been linked to. And the Ohio lifers trickled into Nationwide Arena.
Traffic control worker Roy Pope hopped in his car after a shift and drove 60 miles from Dayton to Columbus to see the game, plopping into a front-row seat still in his neon-orange vest and beanie. Akron native Dustin McGlumphy brought son Darwin — wearing a No. 23 Cleveland Cavaliers jersey — and brother Durwin and his daughter, Aiyana. In the early 1990s, McGlumphy said, he flipped through a Portage Path Elementary yearbook to the shocking revelation that LeBron James was a classmate.
“I think it’s pretty cool,” McGlumphy said. “I watched [LeBron] 20 years ago, and now I’m bringing my kids to watch his kids.”
But the turnout of about 7,000 was half the attendance when a freshman Bronny James played St. Vincent-St. Mary in 2019. LeBron was there. His old St. Vincent-St. Mary teammates were there. The atmosphere was different, attendee Shawn Briggs said, widening his hands to indicate something grand.
On Saturday, LeBron didn’t show, and the arena was just … dead. Bronny James played a solid all-around game, but scored just seven points in a rough shooting night. The loudest the crowd got was the occasional smattering of “We-want-Bryce!” chants echoing around the arena, as the sparsely used younger brother didn’t see a minute of floor time against the Fighting Irish.
And when Bronny fouled out with a few minutes to play? Crickets.
“A lot of people were quiet, surprisingly,” Elohim said. “Normally, they would cheer for their team and boo us.”
The energy in an arena can’t determine how they play, Chevalier said. But after the Trailblazers started fast, notching a couple quick transition buckets to take a 13-7 lead, their offense stalled for the better part of three quarters. St. Vincent-St. Mary point guard Kevin Hamilton darted, dished and dictated tempo, and the Trailblazers couldn’t buy a jumper on the other end.
And just as Sierra Canyon was hanging around in the fourth quarter, Memphis commit Ashton Hardaway got a technical foul that led to a six-point swing, Chevalier benching him for the rest of the night. The game devolved into fouls, and the Trailblazers led a huge run with a full-court press that had the Fighting Irish on the ropes. Down 61-57 with a handful of seconds remaining, Elohim came up with a monster steal, snaking and driving and extending for a lefty layup to cut to two.
Except it rimmed out.
Elohim lay on the court after the game for a moment, yanking at his jersey when he got up.
“We didn’t do one thing that was conducive to winning tonight,” Chevalier said. “Or conducive to building a championship team.