The way the fans stormed the court, you’d have thought it was a nail-biting finish between ACC basketball rivals Duke and North Carolina.
Instead, it was a blowout game between sixth-graders. And in attendance was basketball’s biggest star.
When the game began Friday afternoon, roars from the crowd echoed throughout the Charlotte Convention Center as NBA superstar LeBron James entered surrounded by his security detail.
James wore shorts, a bright orange T-shirt and a black shooting sleeve wrapped his right arm. But the 11-time NBA All-Star wasn’t there to lace up and play.
This time, the Cleveland Cavaliers’ star was in town to support his sons.
James flew to Charlotte to watch Lebron James Jr.,12, and Bryce Maximus James, 10, in the United States Basketball Association National Tournament, which started Tuesday. The overflowing crowd for Lebron Jr.’s game was so dense security barricaded the court for the entire game – not for any one of the other 14 courts.
James stood for most of the game and showed varying emotions. A black bucket hat pulled down to his eyebrows, he clapped enthusiastically for big plays. And when LeBron Jr. took a hard fall in the fourth quarter and went to the bench to recover, his father walked over, patted his son’s golden-tipped hair and offered encouragement.
Most fans were surprised to see the Cavaliers’ 6-foot-8, 250-pound small forward in person.
“He looks so much more different than he does in ‘(NBA) 2K,’” one young fan said from behind the barricades, referring to the popular video game.
James Jr.’s team, the North Coast Blue Chips (Ohio), beat the G.C. Ballers (Ga.) 66-15. He scored four points, all from free throws. Reportedly, he has scholarship offers from Duke and Kentucky.
But many fans couldn’t help but stare at the elder James. Cameras flashed and kids reached out in hopes of receiving a high-five from the NBA star, who had his own seating section behind the scorers’ table. The four-time MVP’s management team notified USBA that he would arrive Thursday, but he didn’t show up until shortly before tipoff Friday at 4 p.m.
And from the moment they learned he was coming Friday, USBA organizers prepared for his arrival.
“Collectively, our staff at USBA and his security detail made sure he had the safest and best route to get in and out of here,” said Jason Capel, vice president of development at USBA and a former North Carolina basketball player (1998-2002).
“But at the end of the day, he’s a dad and he’s a parent and we wanted to make sure the environment was just as good for him and his family like everyone else.”
When the game ended, some in the crowd – mostly kids – rushed the court hoping to meet James. Security was briefly caught off guard, and there were seconds of chaos, but James and the Blue Chips exited safely.
“Lebron is the best player in the world and he’s a guy a lot of these kids look up to, and people just want to get close to him, Capel said. “But there is a way to go about doing that and there is a level of control that we have to maintain because he is someone that you can’t get that close to unless he engages first.”
Capel said he expects James to be in attendance again Saturday for the conclusion of the tournament.