LOS ANGELES – The kid forged in fire put his head down in an all-out sprint, making a beeline for the rim, his story at USC taking flight as his feet left the hardwood.
Bronny James’ face remained expressionless on Sunday afternoon, bereft of any emotion on an emotional day, because the thousands of eyes tracking his move were nothing new and never have been. He fired up pre-game jumpers with a scrum of cameras on USC’s baseline tracking his every move, the same lenses that have eyed him since he was a freshman in high school at Sierra Canyon. Showed no emotion after he checked in for the first time against Long Beach State, his titanic father proudly recording courtside, no emotion even on a truly emotional afternoon where a packed-out crowd at the Galen Center buzzed with his every touch of the basketball.
And late in the first half, as Long Beach’s Jalen Jones went up in transition, those thousands of eyes tracked James hurtling down the court like a runaway freight train, skying and packing a layup in a ridiculous chasedown block. And still, in a moment of triumph after a stoppage seconds later — no emotion.
“He’s built for this,” USC senior guard Boogie Ellis said postgame.
It was the first highlight in a remarkable return, just over four months since his shocking collapse from cardiac arrest in a summer workout. Eyes popped and mouths gaped when father LeBron strolled in during the national anthem Sunday, he and daughter Zhuri and son Bryce all there to witness the return of a family member who could have very well never seen a basketball court again. And James proved he was indeed built for this — scoring just four points but playing dogged and unfazed in key late-game minutes, acquitting himself to another pressurized arena in his collegiate debut.
That’s the good. Let’s start there, before turning to this — USC, in that pressurized arena, imploded upon itself Sunday in an 84-79 loss to a Long Beach team that never bowed and the Trojans destroyed themselves.
A 15-point halftime lead was erased, and the attention around James’ debut peeled raw ugly flaws that have doomed USC in a rocky 5-4 start. They shot 20-of-36 from the free throw line. They turned the ball over 19 times against just 17 assists. They shot 7-of-31 from the three-point line, and continued a season-long struggle with complementary shot-creation against a swarming Long Beach defense in the second half.
James might be built for this, sure. But is USC built for him?
“Extra spotlight or eyeballs, sometimes that comes with a guy like Bronny, but we have to get better as a basketball team and he has to keep improving as an individual player — that’s what we’re focused on,” coach Andy Enfield said. “We don’t focus on the amount of media that are here in this room right now.”
Chants of “Beach!” echoed among gleeful 49er fans on route to the exits, a buzzing first-half crowd silenced by a gutsy Long Beach team. Senior Marcus Tsohonis detonated for 23 second-half points to pull Long Beach back from the brink, the game devolving into an ugly slopfest in waning minutes, late threes finding only iron.
After a huge late steal, James had an opportunity to give USC a three-point lead with key free throws. He made just one, however, opening a window for Tsohonis to elevate for a tough bucket over Ellis to tie. And with time ticking away in regulation, a longball to Ellis sent the senior guard hurtling downhill towards the rim — only for him to inexplicably throw a last-second pass to Isaiah Collier for a shot easily swatted away.
“I don’t know why he didn’t take the ball to the basket,” Enfield said postgame, seeming to position his senior leader ever-so-slightly under a bus. “I don’t know why he passed it … for whatever reason, our leading scorer passed the ball with one second left.”
And despite blazing freshman Collier’s best efforts in OT, drawing free throw after free throw on bulldozes to the rim, he shot just 5-of-12 on free throws – and was blocked on a late drive with just seconds left to all but seal the game. Tsohonis finished with 28 points on 7-of-14 shooting, a virtuoso performance from a senior stalwart. Vincent Iwuchukwu finished with 15 on 7-of-8 shooting for USC.
The Bronny era at USC begun off the hardwood, too, with a packed-out media room. James sat down postgame for a quick statement, saying he was “thankful for everything — Mayo Clinic, everything they helped me with, parents, siblings, supporting me through this hard time in my life,” adding thanks to coaches and teammates. He departed quickly, unsurprising for a player who never spoke to media his senior year at Sierra Canyon, leaving Enfield to field a chaos of multiple reporters talking over one another at every question.
“Bronny handles the spotlight extremely well,” Enfield said postgame.
But will USC?