How Long Beach State prepared for Bronny James' debut and won

ByMyron Medcalf ESPN logo
Monday, December 11, 2023

Long Beach State tried to stay cool.

The Beach were about to play the biggest college basketball game of the weekend, thanks to Bronny James, who was set to make his Division I debut for USC five months after suffering cardiac arrest during a workout in July.

The lines outside Galen Center -- where the school announced a sellout on Friday once the freshman star's debut was announced -- snaked down the street. Tickets on the secondary market had sold for hundreds -- and in some cases, thousands -- of dollars. LeBron James, Bronny's dad, was rumored to be attending. Still, the Beach believed they had settled down by the time tipoff approached.

As the national anthem echoed through the speakers in the arena, however, the Los Angeles Lakers superstar entered the building, and the entire roster turned their heads.

"LeBron is about 6-foot-9, 240 pounds. ... Of course we all noticed him," LBSU junior Jadon Jones, who finished with 18 points and eight rebounds after LBSU upset USC 84-79, told ESPN. "The crowd erupted as soon as his face was on the jumbotron. We saw Rich Paul there."

When Bronny entered Sunday's game early in the first half, the crowd cheered. The USC fans rose to their feet whenever he touched the ball. And they roared after his chase-down block on Jones. He followed the play with an assist to Vincent Iwuchukwu, his USC teammate who had also suffered cardiac arrest in 2022 during a team workout.

And just like that, the Trojans fed off the energy and entered halftime with a double-digit lead.

Facing Bronny & Co. in that building was going to be more difficult than Long Beach State had imagined.

"We just didn't fight early in the game," said longtime LBSU head coach Dan Monson.

Nearly 72 hours earlier, Monson forgot he was in a room full of Gen Z kids. He told his players that they weren't "the Washington Generals."

He was, of course, referring to the old nemesis of the Harlem Globetrotters, the flashy assembly known for its trick shots and dribbling maneuvers in the 1960s and 1970s. The Generals rarely won when the two teams played. Monson's point was that Long Beach State had a chance against the Trojans.

There was just one problem.

"None of them knew what I was talking about," Monson said.

But he also reminded them that Sunday's game could be memorable.

"There are a lot of games that come and go and you're not going to remember them," he said he told his team. "This is one of those games, for good or bad, you're going to remember the rest of your life because of the circumstances. You have to play with emotion, but you can't be emotional."

When he tried to revive the Washington Generals metaphor again at halftime, his team finally seemed to get it, and returned for the second half with renewed energy. Then Bronny made his first shot: a 3-pointer from the wing with 13:10 to go in the game.

All the talk about staying focused and poised seemed to disappear with the crowd on fire.

As the Beach looked around the arena and heard the noise, they realized they had entered an environment unlike anything they had seen in the past.

"I had to call a timeout," Monson said. "I had to settle that down a little bit. When he hit that 3-pointer, the crowd was at a decibel level few arenas will get to this year."

As play continued, though, he also noticed a strange change come over his team's opponent.

In the first half, the Bronny hype had driven the Trojans and fueled an emotional charge. In the second half, however, they began to show signs of fatigue. Maybe the pregame pageantry had been a lot for USC, too, he wondered.

Just like that, the game started swinging in LBSU's favor, and regulation ended with USC -- a 13.5-point favorite entering the game -- heading to overtime with the Beach, a stunning reversal.

"Our first thing was just to stay calm," Jones said about his team's comeback.

The Beach understood the crowd would be large and the atmosphere would reflect the moment. At the same time, they weren't really worried about Bronny, who finished the game with 4 points, 3 rebounds, 2 steals, 2 assists and 1 block in 17 minutes off the bench. The Beach figured it would take time for him to adjust in his first college game. Veteran Boogie Ellis and freshman Isaiah Collier, the projected No. 1 pick in ESPN's latest NBA mock draft, were the bigger threats.

"To be honest, Bronny wasn't our biggest priority in the scout," Jones said. "He's a good young player. But he's still a freshman in his first game."

Ellis and Collier tried to carry their team through overtime, but the game ended with Long Beach State pulling off the upset and winning its first game at USC since 1987.

Monson didn't focus on the result as he went through the handshake line. The game, he said, was a celebration of Bronny's recovery more than anything else.

"I told Bronny after the game, 'Congratulations,'" he said. "What he's been through is way bigger than this game. To see him back out there and his proud dad there and his mom, that's way more important than anything else."

Once they finished celebrating the victory, the Beach showered, got dressed and hopped onto their team bus for the 40-minute ride back to campus, thinking about the way they had played spoiler on Bronny's big night, and how they could use the win to fuel success the rest of the season.

"They got ahead of us quickly," Jones said. "But we were able to calm the storm."

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