In the Presence of the King: How LeBron Made Me Sentimental About Basketball at EYBL
For a moment, I thought that I had chosen exactly the exact correct moment in history to be in Indianapolis.
I, like so many winners in the midwest, was here to watch some teenagers play basketball. In my defense, these teenagers are pretty damned good at basketball. This would help me smugly say things like ‘oh, you guys are going to love Cade Cunningham. Trust me.’ Some time later, when Cade becomes the next big prospect for the NBA Draft, that little bit prophecy will come back up and make me look smart.
“Remember when Kyle said Cade Cunningham would be good? Good lord, what a genius. Does he have a Patreon?” they’d inevitably say, scrambling to log in to their PayPal account.
On the one hand, you could make the argument that these (essentially AAU) youth basketball tournaments are more useful than watching prospects on their high school teams, because they’re facing a higher concentration of quality players. On the other hand, you could argue that these games are fairly chaotic and that effort is going to vary, because there are multiple games per day for each team. No sample is perfect and we make due with what we have, and what we have is EYBL.
In Indy, the Nike EYBL (Elite Youth Basketball League) is played in a huge, modern athletic complex of eight basketball courts. It’s one of those places that’s designed to manufacture sporting events. A sort of sterile, industrial building where parent’s weekends go to die. It’s so chalked-full of playing surface that if you stand on one baseline, you can turn around and be standing on the baseline of another court, where a game is happening behind you. There are anywhere between three and seven videographers on every baseline. Each of them is getting rich.
Imagine yourself being there, for a second. Do a quick look around as if you’re wearing a VR headset. Every direction you just turned your head, there was a Nike swoosh. Huge, fairly ironic banners hang from the ceiling with swooshes as big as Hyundai Sonatas and bolded type: OWN THE GAME.
We could tease most everyone about their reasons for attending. Nike is fairly blatantly indoctrinating young players in hopes that they’ll be brand-loyal down the road. Sure, have this exclusive colorway of KDs. The videographers are here to make a buck off of some footage of a big dunk or a crossover. The college coaches come to be seen and ultimately to keep their jobs. I’m here to find compelling content.
All day, each of those courts is teeming with a wide variety of people, body to body like the main stage at a music festival. There’s less sweating and drugs, but similar crowdedness. Middle-aged college basketball fans in their school’s gear. Parents rocking shirts that say charming things like “EYBL Mom.” Former NBA players like Tim Thomas, Shareef Abdur-Rahim, Juwan Howard and Jermaine O’Neal. Towering teenagers in warm-up gear. Most people are taller than you. Everyone has on cooler sneakers than you. Everyone has AirPods.
I’d just sat down to make a few notes on my laptop when I noticed that I suddenly had an entire bleacher to myself. Not normal. Everyone had dispersed. It was like a beach where the tide had receded past the sandbar. Where the hell…?
From a distance I could see a wall of people with their backs turned to me. People perched as high as they could get, trying to see. Something especially huge must be happening on the other side of this wall. Had I somehow chosen the gym where Jesus would come back? I always figured it would be a gym.
Zacchaeus (from the written word, the Holy Bible) and I are mostly different. He was supposedly a “wee little man,” and I think I’m somewhere just above that. About 6-1 ½, well fed. He was a chief tax collector and notoriously wealthy. I aimlessly tweet a lot, make videos about a game and do some Ubering on the weekends. Today, we have the “struggling to see over a crowd to see a messianic figure” part in common.
I traced the entire perimeter of this crowd, looking for some kind of angle to get a glimpse, but the mob was like the slime-covered museum of art from Ghostbusters 2. That is, impenetrable.
My phone buzzes. “Bronny James is on Court 8.”
Okay, maybe I embellished a little bit. Maybe this wasn’t the most important place to be in all of human history, but in the basketball world, on a coffee-fueled, rainy Saturday morning, it felt like it was close. You know that feeling? It just felt like something was happening.
Like Zacchaeus, I had to go above and beyond to try to get this sight-line thing figured out. I had to climb the tree and see this shit. Shimmying along the edge of the crowd, I vastly lowered my standards and found a spot on the floor. I am 33-years-old and I sat cross-legged on the baseline, full-frontal hugging my backpack because there was that little space, in front of a row of middle-school aged kids to watch a throwaway youth circuit game. Somewhere, a single prideful tear runs down my father’s face. This is the reward I hand to my parents for their years of sacrifice.
As we know, LeBron is one of the most visible sports dads out there. He follows Bronny everywhere, and in that crowded complex, it was demonstrated how much his gravitational pull reaches beyond the court. In the corner of the gym, carefully set up by the wall and insulated by layers of lanyard-clad, crisply dressed Nike-head-to-toe personnel was the king himself. Fluorescent pink shirt. Backwards Nike ACG cap. Sweatshirt tied around his waist. LeBron 11 lows on, because, obviously. (LeBron either has the easiest time getting dressed or the most difficult.) He sat in a half-circle of family, and we all faced him, swearing fealty. We, his subjects, gathered around a basketball court with three sets of mini-bleachers and attempted to be in his presence. He was hoops caesar.
LeBron’s been in our lives (in some fashion) since about 2001, when I was roughly the same age as the kids on this court. He was the most hyped and celebrated high school basketball player of all-time, and his ascendance to the throne was well-timed: it happened just as the internet was stretching its legs. He was basketball’s version of the Truman Show. Of the players in the conversation for greatest ever, LeBron was the first to be more or less born on the grid. We watched him grow up, and now he’s got a son that resembles an adult human being. An adult human being that can almost drive.
Every timeout, four stalky security guards come onto the court and stand at full attention as if we’re observing the tomb of the unknown soldier. Again, this is a youth basketball game in May featuring young men who aren’t old enough to see R-rated movies alone. This did not happen in the other games.
Strive for Greatness is a U15 team, meaning players 15-years-old or younger. It’s made up of some of the best players in his class. They’re playing a team called Bates Fundamentals. Bates Fundamentals features a wispy, 6-foot-8 player named Emoni Bates, who at 15-years-old is already being hailed as the most electrifying talent since at least Kevin Durant, and maybe since a certain someone who also happened to be sitting in the same gym. He’s thought to be the first player who will re-break the seal keeping high-schoolers from jumping straight to the NBA.
I’m seeing him for the first time, but it only takes a minute or so see what the fuss was about. That really is one of the true tests: being able to spot the right player without knowing what they look like or what number they wear. A couple tight left-to-right crossovers, a behind the back dribble and layup, and I had identified Emoni Bates.
I don’t have the advanced stats in front of me, but I would put Bates’ usage rate at somewhere in the 95% range? He’s constantly got the ball in his hands and the defense can do very little about it. He’s as quick as the SFG guards. He’s as tall as the SFG bigs. They’re fouling him nearly every time down, and his point total just continues to climb. Ten. Twenty. Thirty. Forty.
He’s knifing to the rim and stopping on a dime to softly place floaters. He’s posting up 18-feet away from the rim, one-dribble stepping beyond the three and hitting over the top of his helpless defender. Jaxon Kohler, SFG’s buzz-cut, fundamentally sound traditional big guy, attempts a seemingly wide open layup. Emoni swoops in from nowhere to eradicate it.
A kid next to me says ‘he is fucking sick.’ First of all: language, young man. I will grab you by your ear and take you to your mother. Second of all: yes, he is indeed fucking sick, although he seems to be very much aware of it.
Emoni stalks around the court, attacking the rim and stepping into the middle of the action constantly. He is nothing even remotely resembling ‘shy.’ A scuffle happens within the first couple minutes of the game, and he’s right there, front and center.
He moves with a presence and an authority that seems a little too suspiciously put-together for someone his age. I’m not suspicious of his actual age. I’m floored by how fortunate he is to have been accelerated so far beyond his peers, and I have to say: it looks like something I’ve seen before.
Emoni is not LeBron. Let me just be clear about that: he’s not. There’s never been a 15-year-old that’s effortlessly dominated all aspects of the game the way LeBron did at that age, and you’d be within your right mind to argue that there’s never been a player to do that in the NBA the way that LeBron has, either. But Emoni’s talent for scoring is in the same echelon as LeBron’s gifts were then, and he’s ahead of him as a shooter.
For the first quarter, LeBron stays dormant as a spectator. Arms crossed and leaned back in his folding chair, he’s watching the youngsters go up and down, not saying much. As the game stays close and Emoni continues to flambé the entire SFG roster, Bron starts to lean forward a bit. By halftime he’s standing and enthusiastically clapping. The Lion of Akron could only lie in the weeds for so long. At halftime he chats with Ziare Wade, Dwyane’s son. No one dares approach them, but of course, we all watch.
By the early goings of the second half, LeBron is in full obnoxious dad mode. It’s a tolerable shade of obnoxious, but he’s nonetheless flexing his arms when Bronny scores and coming all the way out onto the court as the players run the other way. I briefly imagine the scene that would ensue if one of the officials had teed him up. Would the crowd have revolted? Would Nike have put a horse head in that ref’s bed? I wish it had happened.
Up and down the baseline, sometimes on the court, LeBron is hardly a fly on the wall. He’s screaming after every play, sometimes screaming at the exact same time as Bronny’s coach. I’d imagine being the coach of LeBron’s son’s youth team is like being Steve Vai’s son’s guitar teacher.
Bronny (LeBron James Jr.), on the other hand, is more understated. It might be a response to the only environment that he’s known his entire life, but he’s unbothered by the crowd, very in the flow of the offense and sharing. He’s a gliding, relaxed sort of player who seems wired to create for his teammates and take his offense as it comes his way. Not forcing it or recklessly attacking, but not afraid, either. He’s not the hurricane of a physical force that his dad was at the the same age, but again, it’s important to remember that no person has ever been that.
Still, in a moment, it dawned on me how far we’ve come with LeBron. From basketball’s adored, beloved son, to estranged tyrannical basketball villain, to redeemed hero, to now your typical animated, outspoken sports dad. A huge, accomplished and imposing presence, but a present, engaged dad. He apparently, (finally?) allowed Bronny to open an Instagram account yesterday. The account amassed over a million followers in a day. It’s difficult to parse the impact of what this does to these kids. To navigate the insane expectations that LeBron did and find himself here, especially when you consider where he came from — it’s wild. The elder James has protected the younger, but even he seems caught up in the idea that his son could travel a similar road. When LeBron unveiled Bronny’s account, he referred to him as “the heir to the throne.” I squirmed a little bit, when I saw that.
When the game ended, the crowds dispersed again, filling that huge room, and it felt like everyone finally saw that it was okay to put their attention back on their own lives. Emoni and Bronny have a long way to go and a lot to prove. They’re blessed with a head-start, but, as the crowds already indicate, they’re already saddled with the expectation of going the distance.
I admit, I am hugely grandiose and sentimental when it comes to these types of moments. A few years ago, my wife and I went to see Gillian Welch and David Rawlings at the Palace Theater in Louisville, and John Paul Jones (Led Zeppelin) was playing mandolin with them. At the end of the set they played “Going to California.” I leaned over to my wife (who is way into music but not as on top of names, etc.) and said “do you realize that we just saw a living member of Led Zeppelin play a Led Zeppelin song?” I live for this stuff.
It was a surreal scene. It was a moment where written and unwritten were colliding, and it crystallized a little more in my mind how remarkable it is, what LeBron has done. I almost felt like McNulty, sitting on the bridge, watching the cycle start over in Baltimore. My guy Kevin O’Connor loves to say “don’t take LeBron for granted.” It’s become something of a joke, and something that Kevin’s leaned into but likely still feels wholeheartedly, but I think he’s right. As gifted as Emoni is, LeBron is arguably the most singular force we’ve seen in basketball. I was there to watch these phenomenal talents play, but seeing King James in this context made a sobering impression on me: this thing has an end.