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Column: Bronny James is seeing the downside of being a nepo baby

Los Angeles Lakers guard Bronny James applauds a basket
Bronny James in an NBA Summer League game against the Sacramento Kings on Saturday.
(Nic Coury / Associated Press)
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Experience is said to be life’s best teacher. However, it seems our culture believes suffering is the only experience worth learning from. It isn’t, of course. Pain is just easier to remember. Still, if we’re paying attention, we can also learn a lot while experiencing joy.

Opinion Columnist

LZ Granderson

LZ Granderson writes about culture, politics, sports and navigating life in America.

For example, on June 27 — while riding the euphoria from hearing his name called in the second round of the NBA draft — Bronny James learned that public scrutiny takes no days off. I’m sure he’s been aware of that from watching his father deal with criticism — both fair and unfair — for 20 years. Now he’s learned it for himself in presumably one of the happiest moments of his life.

And in case Bronny wasn’t paying attention last month, that lesson is being taught again during Summer League as his quiet debut — 4 points on 2 of 9 shooting — was followed up by being kept out next game for a slightly swollen knee. Not exactly the kind of start that will silence naysayers, though one could argue a teenage second-round pick shouldn’t have naysayers to begin with. This is the other side of nepotism. The side that doesn’t get talked about and few think about unless they go through the fire themselves.

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Being second-guessed is the kind of lesson that will follow Bronny in team losses as well as celebrations and victories. Talk of him being a local high school kid who gets drafted by his hometown team was never going to be in the cards for someone with his name. Whether he was the top pick in the draft or the last, people are going to assume he had an unfair advantage.

A storyline about making history as his father’s teammate was instantly supplanted by criticism that he only got there because of his father. Not just the night the Lakers drafted him either. That was said about him in college and similarly he was second-guessed in high school. That’s the trade-off for being the son of LeBron James — all the public benefits of access and the private burden of comparison. And not just comparison to his father but to every player drafted after him or not drafted at all.

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Compounding this reality is the Pollyannaish chorus about sports being some sort of meritocracy as if talent were the reason Colin Kaepernick couldn’t find a new job in the NFL. Dear gentle reader … certainly in a town full of “nepo babies” who are quick to grab a new name for independence but slow to release the benefits that come with the old name, there must be an appreciation for someone facing the criticism head on.

Not that he has much choice.

Besides, money is but one form of currency. Family connections are another. Some people spend, some people save — either way, you can’t take it with you. So maybe LeBron decided to do some spending and use his connections for his son’s benefit.

If I were in his position, I would have done the same thing, and I’m hardly alone. In fact, in certain industries nepotism has long been the currency of choice.

A 1959 Washington Daily News study found nearly 100 members of Congress had their spouses, children or other family members on the payroll. Even after federal anti-nepotism legislation passed in response to John F. Kennedy appointing his brother Bobby as attorney general, relationships are still leveraged to aid family members in Washington. President Clinton placed his wife, Hillary, in charge of a healthcare task force, and Donald Trump brought in his daughter and son-in-law. Having an NFL executive of the year as a grandfather certainly helped Sean McVay get his foot in the door. Having a legendary coach as a father helped Denver Nuggets coach Michael Malone as well as Philadelphia assistant coach Coby Karl.

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So, yeah, Bronny James benefited from his father’s name. He also carries the weight of his father’s name. And on the day he was drafted, arguably one of the happiest moments of his life, he learned that weight is most likely never coming off. Accusations of nepotism will shadow his career until he shines on his own. And even then, he’ll be second-guessed.

That’s the trade-off of life … and one hell of a life lesson.

@LZGranderson

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