Will LeBron James and his son Bronny play in the NBA together like Ken Griffey Jr. and his father did on the Seattle Mariners?
‘The Kid’ has been inspiring ‘The Chosen One’ for a long time
LeBron James’ 2003 NBA debut had the celebrity gravitas of a Hollywood awards show. The game, on the road and between the previously abhorrent Cleveland Cavaliers and the then-playoff contender Sacramento Kings, wouldn’t have been a blip on the NBA’s opening-night radar if not for the kid from Akron, Ohio, on a quest to be the greatest of all time. He had 25 points, nine assists and a few dunks, and Jay-Z, a couple of weeks removed from his Nov. 18 Black Album, was courtside. It was the MC’s visit to California’s slightly out-of-the-way state capital that officially made James’ launch an A-list sporting and cultural event.
But there was another superstar at James’ debut who didn’t inspire as much fanfare. It was Hall of Fame baseball star and ‘90s cultural icon Ken Griffey Jr. — the backward-hat-wearing swag icon and home run maestro. Fifteen years his senior, Griffey Jr., whether he knew it or not, had laid a blueprint for much of what James’ career would eventually become.
Griffey Jr. marched to his own beat. Maybe no other athlete besides Griffey Jr. understood the intense expectations and scrutiny that come with being deemed the chosen one before he’s old enough to vote. Before Skip Bayless was making a living criticizing James’ every move, there was a swarm of baseball purists looking to tear down the Griffey mystique. And much like James would learn to do, Griffey Jr. stared down the naysayers with unyielding poise and on-field greatness. Griffey Jr. wore what he wanted, stared down a culture that picked apart his every move and managed to somehow live up to the lofty expectations before him.
In short, Griffey Jr. is the baseball precursor to James. It would be the perfect full circle for James to cap his career the way Griffey Jr. began his. James and LeBron James Jr. could accomplish the improbable feat of becoming the NBA’s first father-son duo. Playing together in real games in real time.
In 1987, Ken Griffey Jr. was one of the most sought-after prospects in baseball history. Ken Griffey Sr. negotiated his son’s deal with the Mariners in 1987 — “The Kid” went at No. 1, and Baseball America called the pick “the best selection in the history of the MLB draft.” It didn’t seem likely that Griffey Sr., a veteran outfielder who was watching his production decline, would still be in the league after Griffey Jr.’s one-year stint in the minors. But not only was dad still in the league in 1990, he was available.
Griffey Sr., at 41, entered the 1990 season, his 18th, staring retirement in the face. The Cincinnati Reds, a team needing to shore up its roster to make what would eventually become a World Series-winning run, wanted to use his salary for younger players. Ownership gave him the option of either being cut or retiring. But, as they say, when one door closes, another one opens. Griffey Sr. saw his departure from the Reds as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to play for the Seattle Mariners with his son, whom he’d taught how to hit as a child, much like LeBron Sr. has helped hone his own son’s burgeoning greatness.
So on Aug. 31, 1990, versus the struggling Kansas City Royals, the father and son duo not only played together but also batted consecutively. Griffey Sr. was second in the lineup, hitting a single down the gap. Like father, like son, Griffey Jr. followed up with a single down the right-field line, creating an iconic moment of the pair on base at the same time. Did they at some point hit back-to-back homers?
Here’s what Griffey Sr. said about the game afterward: “This is the pinnacle for me, something I’m very proud of. You can talk about the ’76 batting race, the two World Series I played in and the All-Star games I played in. But this is No. 1. This is the best thing that’s ever happened to me.”
The two would play only a month together, but that first time would stick with Griffey Sr. forever. “I’m a proud dad, proud papa, yeah,” Griffey Sr. said in 2016 after his son was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame. “But I watched him play for that month and he really impressed me as a player. I’d seen Willie Mays play, I played against him. Junior, playing him was something special. He was something special.”
As James confronts the twilight of his own career — he is now coming off yet another NBA Finals loss to the Golden State Warriors — where he continues to chase Michael Jordan’s ghost, James has also been searching for a more holistic measure of his greatness. That includes his activism — and his role as a father, even when that includes cheering his son on at games
“I’m just trying to put my mark on the game,” he said in an interview with ESPN reporters a year ago, “and leave a legacy behind so I can inspire the next group of kids that want to play the game the right way.”
Here’s the thing about parenting: As we get older and our kids get older, our hopes and dreams for our children surpass our own. We as parents can still pursue our goals in life, but an eye is always on trying to ensure that we help our kids find the easiest paths to their dreams. And at some point, their wants become ours. Their aspirations become our aspirations for them, to the point that nothing else compares. That’s why Griffey Sr.’s quote about playing with his son being his biggest accomplishment is so visceral. It puts into context how we value our children’s achievements.
James has reached that parenting nirvana, as he explained to Kevin Durant in a February episode of his Uninterrupted show:
“I want to be there [for my son] and give him all the life skills. All you can hope is to give your kids enough life lessons to where, when it’s time for them to live their lives, they can flourish on their own.”
The son James is speaking of is his 13-year-old, LeBron James Jr., who is becoming something of a basketball prodigy. Viral videos of James Jr. have spread across the internet, showing a guard who slashes through defenses, mimics his father’s court vision and can shoot from anywhere on the court. He recently led his team to a middle school title.
The heir to the James throne appears primed to follow his dad’s footsteps into the NBA, and, if the basketball gods work in their favor, they could be in the league together. The James duo playing together, though, would require two unlikelihoods to take place: LeBron James Sr. would have to display otherworldly durability by playing until he’s 39. That’s six more years. And LeBron James Jr. would have to be good enough to enter the NBA draft at the age of 19.
But if any bloodline can produce odds-defying results, it’s James’. After all, at age 33, LeBron Sr. is as active, efficient and dominant as ever, dragging a subpar Cleveland Cavaliers team to the NBA Finals and scoring 51 points on the Golden State Warriors in Game 1. Furthermore, the NBA seems to be leaning closer to a change in the draft rules, opening a possibility for LeBron Jr. to perhaps enter the league straight out of high school like his father did, cutting the time needed for him to get into the league by a year.
James, like so many other black kids from the ’90s, reveres Griffey Jr. and understands his cultural impact. The two share a mentor, Nike’s Lynn Merritt, who was with Griffey Jr. at James’ first game and whom Griffey Jr. called a father figure during his Hall of Fame speech. And each year, James’ signature shoe features a “Swingman” version that functions as an homage to Griffey Jr.’s Nike shoe. The two shared a moment over the debut of the LeBron 15 version of the Swingman shoe. “[James] is a friend,” Griffey Jr. said. “To have a guy who’s arguably the greatest basketball player to say, ‘Hey, man, I appreciate what you’ve done,’ that means a lot to me.”
James followed with his own praise: “Griff was just such a inspiration to me. He’s probably looking at it as mutual respect, but I’m looking at him like, ‘Man, you inspired me so much.’ This is just showing my appreciation.”
James is a student of history, and he knows the cultural impact Griffey Jr. made, including the iconic moment of playing with his father, which is the moment most referenced when the idea of another father-son team-up is mentioned. While LeBron Sr. at first recoiled at the idea of his son in the NBA (“Right now, all I care about is him having fun. He doesn’t need added pressure from his dad.”), but as he’s gotten older and seen his son reach new skill levels, he has grown to embrace the idea of recreating the Griffey moment in the NBA.
“He’s got a chance,” James said with a wide grin while on his way to Quicken Loans Arena in March. “If he stays on this path he’s on, he’s got a chance. If … it seems like he can make it, we’ve got to [play together]. As soon as we do it, boom, you got it from here.”