TEMPE – Walking into Desert Financial Arena Saturday, an unusual buzz rarely felt in recent years of Arizona State men’s basketball infiltrated the air.
More than 4,300 students packed into the Inferno, joining about 9,000 other fans to see the USC Trojans come into town. It was the second-largest student crowd since 2018, trailing only the 5,213 students who packed a game against UCLA, and they were on hand to see one player: LeBron James Jr., better known as “Bronny.”
The son of six-time NBA champion – and arguably the greatest basketball player of all time – LeBron James, Bronny is in his first year at USC and has been the major draw in the Trojans’ disappointing 8-11 start to the season.
Throughout ASU’s 82-67 win, the student section made Bronny feel its presence with a chorus of boos every time he touched the ball.
“We were just trying to get into his head,” said ASU sophomore student Genaro Garcia. “I think Bronny is going to be a great player when he develops more, but for today we’re just trying to get in his head.”
Bronny is one of many young basketball stars who have taken advantage of the newest era of social media influencers. Since Instagram and TikTok have become prominent over the past couple of years, basketball players are building their brands and gaining popularity before ever stepping foot on college campuses.
No one has received as much hype as Bronny has over the past couple of years. Across his Instagram and TikTok accounts, he has amassed more than 13.4 million followers.
“With the addition of social media in the last six, seven years via Twitter, TikTok, and Instagram guys like Bronny and Mikey Williams fit the platform. They came around at the right time,” said Frank Burlison, who is a member of the U.S. Basketball Writers Association Hall of Fame.
“So they became kind of grassroots of social media names in basketball when they were in seventh, eighth grade.”
The spotlight on Bronny has only shined brighter since he enrolled at USC.
In most of his road games, the stadiums have set attendance records for the season. Matthew Knight Arena in Eugene saw more than 8,000 Oregon fans show up when the Trojans visited and the CU Events Center in Boulder saw 10,000 Colorado fans come out.
When Bronny is in the building, even dating to his high school days in the Los Angeles area, it is not unusual for large crowds like the one at DFA over the weekend to pack arenas.
As a freelance writer and scout, Burlison has covered Bronny since his freshman year at Sierra Canyon High, a private school in Chatsworth, California. Burlison attributes LeBron Sr. for being a big reason why people come out to see him play.
“I know (USC) has big crowds. But when Bronny was at Sierra Canyon, him being LeBron James’ son was a big hook,” Burlison said.
In high school, most of the crowds gave a lot of praise to Bronny and his teammates. Since arriving at college, it has been a different story.
Before Saturday’s game in Tempe, USC traveled Wednesday to Tucson, where the ZonaZoo student section and the rest of the Arizona Wildcats crowd gave him the same booing treatment.
Following the Sun Devils win that improved ASU to 11-7, coach Bobby Hurley opened his postgame presser by praising the student body.
“Shoutout to our crowd and our students today,” Hurley said. “I’m really excited for the opportunity our players had to play in that environment.”
The intensity of the ASU crowd fueled the team’s 15-point win but did not do much to phase Bronny, who finished with seven points, four rebounds and five assists on 50% shooting.
Even though most of the jeers from the Inferno were directed toward him, ASU guard Jamiya Neal believes that the USC guard was able to drown out the noise.
“That just comes with the territory,” Neal said. “I’m sure he’s used to it now. He’s been in the spotlight his entire life and he handles it well. It does nothing for me, and I’m sure it does nothing for him. It’s just what it is.”
Neither Bronny nor USC coach Andy Enfield have commented about whether or not they are affected by hostile crowds on the road.
But as long as Bronny continues to pursue a basketball career, the hype will follow him and so will the rowdy crowds.