The Los Angeles Lakers will pack up their bags in Miami on Saturday and fly to Atlanta for the third leg of their five-game road trip Sunday, but the team plane will be missing some precious cargo. LeBron James chartered a flight of his own on L.A.'s off day to fly to Columbus, Ohio, to see son LeBron James Jr.'s Sierra Canyon High School play his alma mater, St. Vincent-St. Mary.
As exciting as the Lakers' 23-3 start has been for James, Sierra Canyon's 7-0 start without James present for the games has made him feel like he's missing out. Until Saturday, that is.
"If you ask me what's been the only sucky thing about this season so far is that my son has played like six games into his freshman year and I haven't seen one," James said after the Lakers' win in Miami on Friday night. "I love what I do. I don't take this for granted. This is a dream come true. But missing my son, you know Bron Jr., missing [my other son] Bryce's first game the other day when we left for Orlando, his first game of the season. Missing my daughter at gymnastics and things of that nature, and I understand the business, but it sucks."
James' eldest son, who goes by Bronny, is a 15-year-old freshman on Sierra Canyon's nationally ranked boys basketball team.
The Lakers star takes a break from his steady diet of NBA consumption to stream Bronny's high school games whenever the schedule allows. Anthony Davis says he's seen James on the bus, in the locker room and on the plane catching a glimpse of Sierra Canyon on his phone or iPad.
"I mean, it's a great time for him," Davis said Friday. "He's kind of reliving his past, watching his son play and go through everything -- all the media and all the games they're playing on TV." This week marks the 17th anniversary of James playing on national television on ESPN for the first time when his St. Vincent-St. Mary team beat Oak Hill Academy, then the No. 1-ranked team in the nation.
"Obviously, everybody knows that St. Vincent-St. Mary is when people started to recognize me from a national standpoint," James told ESPN this week. "And my son is about to play a high school game versus my alma mater in our home state. The only thing that would have been more emotional is if my son was playing St. Vincent-St. Mary at the LeBron James Arena in Akron. That would have been, like -- that would have been too much."
The game, officially dubbed the GermainCars.com Ohio Play-by-Play Classic (8:30 p.m. ET, ESPN3 and the ESPN App), is being organized by Jeremy Treatman, the president of the Play-by-Play Classics.
Treatman, who was an assistant coach on Kobe Bryant's Lower Merion High School basketball team, recognized the interest in emerging prep stars nearly two decades ago and began hosting showcase games around the country to show off the nation's top talent.
One of those games involved James' St. Vincent-St. Mary squad flying to Philadelphia to face Strawberry Mansion in 2002.
"Probably one of the most exciting things that ever happened to me," Treatman told ESPN, reflecting on the chance to stage spotlight opportunities for both James and now James' son.
Back then, Treatman, who was just getting his feet wet in the field, having organized a game between Dajuan Wagner's Camden High School and Eddie Griffin's Roman Catholic teams, sent a proposal to St. Vincent-St. Mary coach Dru Joyce with visions of hosting James' team at a marquee venue such as Madison Square Garden, the Dean Dome or the Palestra.
Joyce, who is still the coach at SVSM and will be roaming the sideline Saturday, took to the Palestra idea.
"I said, 'Listen, you're going to go to Philadelphia. You're not just playing a game, you're going to go to Independence Hall, you're going to get the best steak sandwich you've ever had, you're going to meet the Eagles,' and we did all those things," Treatman said. "There's going to be a cultural education component to every event as well, and then it was like, they called up and said, 'We're going to do all these games with you,' and I'm like, 'Oh my god, this is really happening! Now I have to execute.' Which is the same way I reacted to this. Because even though I'm older and accomplished and have a great track record and reputation now, I still felt the same way."
Saturday's game will be played at Nationwide Arena, home to the NHL's Columbus Blue Jackets, in Ohio's state capital. The venue seats about 19,000 for basketball and Treatman expects around 13,000 fans for Bronny's homecoming.
Just like in 2002, Treatman worked up a proposal and had to get buy-in from both Sierra Canyon and St. Vincent-St. Mary -- and approval from James -- before the game could come to be. "I had heard from both sides that LeBron James knew about it, gave the approval and was excited to have his son play against his team," Treatman told ESPN. "He thought it was a neat idea, and that was sort of the premise behind the whole thing, welcoming back Bronny James to the state of Ohio. And that's why I chose to do it in Columbus instead of Akron or Cleveland, also, because I thought it was something the whole state of Ohio would embrace."
Even though Bronny is just a freshman who has come off the bench more games than he's started and LeBron was the top-ranked player in the country in 2002, Treatman says the interest for Saturday's game is even bigger than the event he organized all those years ago. As of Friday there were already 262 media requests for credentials, and James himself will have a party of about 75 people -- family, friends and business associates -- at the game.
James has a pregame dinner planned with his former St. Vincent-St. Mary teammates -- including Willie McGee, who is currently the athletic director at the school -- and is making a full day of it, sources told ESPN.
"It's a pretty big deal," Treatman said. "It's pretty exciting how serious LeBron is taking this. He's flying in between two NBA games and everybody he knows and is close with and all of his old St. Vincent-St. Mary teammates are coming. So it's like a reunion for all of us from the 2002-03 season. Me and Willie McGee, we've been talking about how exciting it is that we're all going to be back together again."
Treatman is already in discussions with both schools about making this game happen all four years that Bronny is in high school. He does, however, recognize how different the circumstances around this game are than when he brought LeBron James to Philly.
"Setting up the game with a ninth-grader being the headliner is definitely a lot different than an accomplished No. 1 senior in the country, especially one who, I mean, nobody has come through with more hype than LeBron James. Ever," Treatman said. "So it is very different from that regard. I kind of feel we're a little bit in the area of unknown."
What's certain is how rare this opportunity is for James to be in the same place with his family in the thick of the NBA season and have his son's schedule take priority over the Lakers'.
"I know just as a parent, I know it's really exciting," said Lakers coach Frank Vogel. "We sacrifice a lot in this profession, in terms of the family time and the things we miss out on with our kids. I'm definitely happy for him that he'll be able to do that."
Added Lakers center JaVale McGee: "It matters. It matters big-time, just knowing as a kid you'd be like, 'Damn, I wish my parent was there.' So I would never want my daughter, or I'm sure LeBron doesn't want his son, to feel like, 'Oh, my father never came to any of my games.' I'm sure it's a great feeling for his son to know my dad's coming to as many games as he can come to."
And for James, it's certainly worth the extra plane mileage and adding the extra stress of packing his NormaTec machine with him on his trip to Ohio to make sure he can get his legs ready for Sunday's Hawks game on the flight back.
"To go watch my son play ... and also versus my alma mater," James said, "it's a pretty surreal, come-full-circle, unbelievable thing."