June 16, 2024

It’s not just the name that’s familiar.

Watching Bronny James sprint down the court for a right-handed chase-down block brought immediate flashbacks to his namesake father’s highlight-reel plays. But on Sunday, less than five months after collapsing on the court during a workout, the moment belonged to Bronny.

The USC freshman made his much-anticipated college debut Sunday after suffering a sudden cardiac arrest in July. In front of a packed Galen Center crowd, James had four points, three rebounds, two assists, two steals and a block in 16 minutes, but USC (5-4) blew a 15-point halftime lead in an 84-79 overtime loss to Long Beach State.

Despite limited practice time after being cleared for basketball activities just two weeks ago, James found himself on the court for the final 3 minutes, 32 seconds of regulation as the Trojans tried to fend off the Beach (7-4). He came up with a clutch steal that helped USC preserve a one-point lead, but split two free throws that left the door open for Long Beach State’s Marcus Tsohonis, who tied the game with 3.9 seconds left on a turnaround jumper in the paint.

Tsohonis led the Beach with 28 points, including 11 of 13 free throws. USC struggled from the line, missing 13 free throws in the second half and overtime.

Lakers star LeBron James, right, pats his son and USC guard Bronny James on the back.

Lakers star LeBron James, right, pats his son and USC guard Bronny James on the back before his debut with the Trojans on Sunday.

(Jason Armond / Los Angeles Times)

Freshman Isaiah Collier had 15 points, three rebounds and five steals and senior guard Boogie Ellis had 14 points and four assists.

Signing Collier, the top recruit in the country, energized interest around the program this season, leading to more than 6,000 people attending USC’s home opener this season, but James’ much-anticipated debut brought it to a new level.

USC added a second row of courtside seats. The VIPs included Lakers general manager Rob Pelinka. Media seating overflowed into two additional rows of seats. A line of students snaked down Flower Street hours before the game. Sprinkled among the cardinal and gold USC shirts were LeBron James Lakers and Cavaliers jerseys.

The NBA star drew a loud cheer when he strolled into the arena as the national anthem began. Holding his daughter Zhuri’s hand, LeBron James greeted Pelinka, who was sitting near the baseline and tapped his son on the back. Cameras crowded in front of the four-time NBA champion as he took his seat.

But one night after adding to his incomparable NBA resume by leading the Lakers to the first NBA Cup championship, the elder James looked like a normal proud dad as he took out his phone, stood up from his seat and recorded the moment his son checked into the game for the first time.

Fans yelled each time James touched the ball. He quickly established himself as a defensive presence by causing a deflection on his first defensive possession. On the possession after his soaring chase-down block, James notched his first assist, lobbing the ball to Vince Iwuchukwu for a two-handed dunk. LeBron James popped out of his seat and pumped his fist.

The basket was a connection between teammates who shared similar harrowing experiences. Iwuchukwu suffered a cardiac arrest July 1, 2022 during workouts at USC. The former five-star prospect returned to the court five months later and finished with 15 points and six rebounds Sunday.

James had participated in only two full-contact practices before making his in-game debut after collapsing during an on-campus workout on July 24. The 19-year-old underwent surgery to correct a congenital heart defect.

USC coach Andy Enfield tried to temper expectations for the freshman this week, acknowledging that it would take James time to solidify his role in the rotation. Fans were not as patient. With USC trying to avoid the upset late, fans were clamoring for the Sierra Canyon alumnus.

USC guard Bronny James stands for the national anthem before playing against Long Beach State.

USC guard Bronny James stands for the national anthem before playing against Long Beach State.

(Jason Armond / Los Angeles Times)

“Put in Bronny!” one yelled.

“We love Bronny!” another shouted.

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