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Kobe Bryant’s memory looms large for Sierra Canyon’s MacKenly Randolph

Sierra Canyon's MacKenly Randolph controls the ball during a win over Christ the King.
Sierra Canyon’s MacKenly Randolph controls the ball during a win over Christ the King at The Chosen-1’s basketball tournament at the Staples Center on Saturday.
(Jason Armond / Los Angeles Times)

The purple and gold, everywhere she looked — strobe lights, team colors, décor. The proud “24.” The pictures of him, of the great Lakers teams a decade ago.

Chatsworth Sierra Canyon sophomore MacKenly Randolph couldn’t help but think back, stepping onto the floor of Staples Center. Back to the early mornings and late nights in the hot gym in Newport Beach, where Kobe Bryant would have her and her Team Mamba peers run up and down the court until their breath ran ragged. Back to the smiles, the fun she had with his daughter Gianna.

For Randolph, Saturday night’s opportunity to play at Staples in the Chosen-1’s Invitational meant a little extra.

Izela Arenas scores 19 points, MacKenly Randolph gets 17 points in a 85-40 Sierra Canyon win over Brentwood.

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“It brought back memories; good memories and the bad memories,” Randolph said. “But you have to push through regardless.”

The Chosen-1’s basketball tournament meant a little extra, in one way or another, to most every girls’ and boys’ player on Sierra Canyon and Fairfax High, two of the four Nike Elite schools that participated. The event was sponsored by LeBron James and the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame.

Bronny James had a chance to make his own mark on the same floor his father runs in Lakers games, leading the Sierra Canyon boys to a 71-53 win over Ohio’s St. Vincent-St. Mary’s, LeBron’s alma mater. Juju Watkins got to put on a show in front of family and friends in a Trailblazer girls’ victory over New York Christ the King 69-52.

Sierra Canyon guard Bronny James shoots over Darrian Lewis of St. Vincent-St. Mary.
Sierra Canyon guard Bronny James shoots over Darrian Lewis of St. Vincent-St. Mary during the Chosen-1’s Invitational High School Basketball Showcase at Staples Center on Saturday.
(Jason Armond / Los Angeles Times)

Others had a chance to simply play the game they loved in front of legends. James, Chris Paul, Russell Westbrook, Carmelo Anthony and other NBA stars past and present were in attendance.

Randolph just wished there could have been one more there.

———

Sierra Canyon girls’ coach Alicia Komaki hasn’t talked with sophomore Randolph about the helicopter crash, close to two years ago now, that killed Bryant, Gianna and seven others involved with Team Mamba.

But when told of Randolph’s words — how big it was for her to be playing in Bryant’s longtime stomping grounds — Komaki nodded in recognition.

“For the most part, I kind of let her run through her own feelings there,” Komaki said. “That’s a really non-understandable situation.”

It’s non-understandable for Randolph’s father Zach, too, a former two-time NBA All-Star for the Memphis Grizzlies who became close with Bryant after retiring in 2018 and MacKenly joining Team Mamba.

Watching his daughter Euro-step through Christ the King defenders from a row behind the courtside seats, Zach reflected on the two of them driving down to Orange County four times a week for practices.

Sierra Canyon's MacKenly Randolph passes under pressure against Christ the King.
Sierra Canyon’s MacKenly Randolph passes under pressure against Christ the King at Staples Center on Saturday.
(Jason Armond / Los Angeles Times)

“Her and Kobe was close, and Gigi,” Zach Randolph said, looking onto the court. “It’s amazing to be here and watching my daughter play at Staples … this is something you’re always going to remember.”

Playing in an NBA arena for the first time — noting the fun of the music, the big Jumbotron and a large crowd that grew steadily as the day progressed — Randolph bruised her way to 15 points and seven rebounds. With time winding down in the fourth quarter and Sierra Canyon holding onto a cushy lead, Randolph made acorner three off a pass from Watkins to put the game out of reach.

Watkins, one of the best players in the class of 2023, made her season debut for Sierra Canyon two days earlier after being held out because of CIF transfer eligibility rules. She emerged as the star of Saturday night, scoring 39 points with 10 rebounds.

After one audacious Watkins pull-up three on a fastbreak, the Lakers’ Trevor Ariza, sitting courtside, glanced around and scratched his head in disbelief. Watkins described Ariza as like an “uncle,” and the Los Angeles wing said he’d been watching her play since she had a ball in her hands.

Bronny James helps Sierra Canyon boys’ team defeat his father’s alma mater while Juju Watkins has 39 points in girls’ team defeat of Christ the King.

“Every game I’ve watched her, she keeps getting better,” Ariza said.

Watkins hails from Watts, and said she wanted to put on a show being back home. She found out an entire booth was reserved for about 20 of her family and friends.

“I didn’t even know they were here until like 10 minutes ago,” Watkins said, smiling. “To be here tonight on this platform and this big stage, with a lot of people I know surrounding me and then the girls who look up to me — that’s just a fulfilling feeling.”

Even more eyes were on Bronny James, who didn’t look a bit rattled by the spectacle of national television, strobe lights and Laker girls dancing during quarter breaks. With Sierra Canyon playing without senior Amari Bailey, who is considered week to week with a foot injury, Bronny stepped up as the Trailblazers’ leading scorer with 19 points. He made three of his four three-pointers, bringing the elder James to his feet on more than one occasion.

Lakers star LeBron James, left, congratulates his son, Bronny, after Sierra Canyon defeated St. Vincent-St. Mary's.
Lakers star LeBron James, left, congratulates his son, Bronny, after Sierra Canyon defeated St. Vincent-St. Mary’s at Staples Center on Saturday.
(Jason Armond / Los Angeles Times)

After the game, Bronny was given a brief slice of media availability for the first time this season, saying it felt “special” to play at Staples.

“Gained a lot of confidence from that,” he said. “Playing in arenas — it’s just an experience you can’t take [for granted].”

The Fairfax boys, meanwhile, heard that advice from Westbrook. When they walked into the locker room, senior Manny Duany said, they saw Westbrook “chilling” and talking to Reggie Morris Jr., the current Lions coach who coached Westbrook at Lawndale Leuzinger High.

“I was like, ‘Woah!’ ” Duany said, smiling. “Westbrook is my favorite player.”

Similar experiences abounded on Saturday night. When Komaki pulled out the whiteboard in the Staples locker room, there was a Lakers play drawn up, complete with identifiers like “LBJ” and “RW.” Sierra Canyon boys’ senior Ramel Lloyd said he wished all his team’s games could be played there.

Juju Watkins becomes eligible and helps Sierra Canyon win tournament championship in Texas.

Apart from the usual circus that surrounds Sierra Canyon, programs like Fairfax embraced the moment.

Tanja Reese, sitting alone in Section 108 wearing a Lions T-shirt, said her daughter Suryah Grant was so excited that she couldn’t sleep Friday night.

Justin Calvino, father of the Lions’ Sage Calvino, said the “whole house” became about this Saturday. Calvino’s family took up nearly an entire row; when she missed a free throw in the Fairfax girls’ game against St. Vincent-St. Mary‘s, her little sister complained, “At home, she makes all of them!”

Randolph had family there, too, with Zach and her little brother watching. It was a huge accomplishment, she said, to play in an arena where her father had once battled against greats.

She was excited, same as everyone. But the people she missed were just as present on her mind as the spectacle of it all.

“Mentally, I had to lock in and be ready for the challenge,” Randolph said. “Kobe and Gigi, Alyssa [Altobelli], Coach Christina [Mauser] … I would’ve wished they had the opportunity to come in here and watch me, or even play with me.”


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