Is Lavar Ball helping or hurting his sons’ NBA dreams?
If you’re not already familiar with theBall family, bear with me for a few moments.
First, pick your favourite up-and-coming prospect in English sport. Let’s go with Marcus Rashford, for example.
Now imagine if Rashford’s burgeoning fame was being overshadowed by that of his own, wildly outspoken father, who let’s say, had set up his own sportswear brand selling £1,000 trainers, was being granted half-hour interviews on Sky Sports and hell, maybe even appeared on WWE RAW.
Now maybe this is a bit out there, but perhaps even imagine if Rashford’s dad tried – and succeeded – to get a female official removed from her duties mid-game after a call went against his son, or if he publicly called for his son’s head coach to be sacked after a poor run of results.
If you haven’t already guessed, as far-fetched as it sounds, these scenarios (and many more) have already unfolded within the Ball family since they rose to fame in 2016.
Indeed, we are now reaching the point where it appears the actions of 50-year-old Lavar, the loud-mouthed patriarch of the Ball boys, may be hurting his sons’ chances at NBA stardom far more than he is helping them.
Target on his back
Lavar’s oldest son, Lonzo Ball, has at least made it to the NBA. The 20-year-old was selected by the Los Angeles Lakers as the number two overall pick in the 2017 draft, but has struggled to adapt to the league’s relentless pace so far, like many rookies do.
But he has has settled well, and displayed a level of professionalism far beyond his years to keep himself as far away as possible from his father’s attention-seeking antics.
‘Most parents would know where to draw the line with their enthusiasm; not so, Ball Sr’
From the outset, though, Lonzo was a marked man – and much of this was down to his father. His much-anticipated NBA debut in October was spent being hounded by LA Clippers’ Patrick Beverley – who claimed the tenacity of his play came down to one reason.
“I just had to set the tone. I told him after the game that due to all the riff-raff his dad brings, he’s going to get a lot of people coming hard at him.”
John Wall, the Washington Wizards’ All Star, echoed Beverly’s sentiments: “His dad has put him in a situation where players are gonna target him.”
Whilst many parents would be rightly proud of their offspring’s achievements, most of them would know where to draw the line with their enthusiasm; not so, Ball Sr.
Where he did unquestionably overstep the mark however, was his suggestion that Lakers’ coach Luke Walton, beloved by fans and his fellow coaches alike, should be replaced in January. The oldest Ball claimed “You can see they’re [the players] not playing for Luke no more.”
Whilst Walton dealt with the remarks professionally, other NBA coaches – most notably Coaches’ Union chief Rick Carlisle, took umbrage with Lavar’s comments.
“Luke Walton does not deserve that. Two years ago, he took a veteran team and led them to 24 wins in a row, which is an amazing accomplishment. He earned the Laker job. To have to deal with these ignorant distractions is deplorable.”
Shoplifting, Lithuania and Donald Trump
Despite all the distractions, at least Lonzo has proved himself by making it to the big league.
His two younger brothers, 19-year-old LiAngelo and 16-year-old LaMelo, are on even rockier ground as they look to achieve their NBA dreams.
Both began the 2017 NCAA season in November committed to the prestigious UCLA Bruins, with LiAngelo scheduled to be on the roster for this season and the younger LaMelo an early commitment, ready to suit up for the Bruins in 2019.
Now, just a mere couple of months on, the younger Ball brothers, at this point two of America’s most famous teenagers, are living in a remote village in Lithuania, sacrificing their UCLA careers before they even began by playing professionally for Vytautas Prienai–Birštonas, of the Lithuanian Basketball League. You really could not make this stuff up.
A quick stat for perspective: 16-year-old LaMelo Ball has 3.1 million Instagram followers. That’s approximately 200,000 more people than the population of Lithuania.
LiAngelo Ball played a part in derailing his own UCLA career after he was caught on CCTV shoplifting from a Louis Vuitton store during the Bruins’ pre-season tour of China, an incident that required presidential power to be resolved.
When the college suspended LiAngelo indefinitely, Ball Sr. took his son out of the programme altogether, although doubts had already been raised as to whether he was an NBA quality prospect to begin with.
But that’s never been the story for LaMelo. Ever since he got to Chino Hills High School, the youngest Ball brother has excited scouts up and down the country, and had firmly cemented his status as one of the brightest prospects in the class of 2019. He was committed to UCLA and as close to a nailed-on future NBA player as someone his age could be.
‘The Big Baller Invitationals have been truly farcical events’
But shockingly, in October 2017, Lavar made the decision to pull LaMelo out of school and put him into ‘home schooling’; essentially, taking full ownership of LaMelo’s basketball future, and in doing so taking him out of the most conventional route to the NBA, via high school and college.
This decision was questioned at the time, but most thought LaMelo would get back on track once he got to UCLA in 2019.
But nobody foresaw the unprecedented, frankly bizarre journey to Vytautas Prienai–Birštonas that Lavar had planned for his two youngest sons.
It was predicted, sensibly, that the teenagers would struggle in a professional league (the LKL) against hardened veterans, in a nation where basketball is the sport of the people and taken very seriously.
Neither registered a single point on their debut, they struggled for any real game time in January and have even been criticised by their own coach Virginijus Šeškus for their failure to adapt to the team’s style.
Of course, there is the argument that being thrust into professional games against fully-grown men could speed up the development of the brothers, although quite how they are supposed to learn when they are not given significant playing time is anyone’s guess.
Ball Sr’s influence just makes things more complicated. Since the arrival of the family, he has managed to convince Vytautas to withdraw from the Baltic League, of which they are reigning champions, and instead compete against semi-pro and youth teams in invitational matches, dubbed “Big Baller Invitationals”, after Lavar’s sportswear brand.
These have been truly farcical events. For one, the gulf in quality between Vytautas and their opponents has been laughable, with Vytautas regularly anilhating their opponents by tallies of up to 50 points, with the Ball brothers shooting the basketball an absurd amount of times in the process.
‘This is such a unique situation, spearheaded by a truly unique character in Lavar Ball, that there is no real historic precedent’
And then there is the crazy level of sponsorship. Lavar’s Big Baller Brand logo is plastered literally everywhere – on the court, on the players jerseys, even on the referee’s uniforms. Videos of the brothers’ highlights are posted instantly and everywhere you look, it is impossible not to see the BBB logo staring back at you.
In their most recent Invitational game, Lavar even assumed head coaching responsibilities for the team himself.
Really, the signs do not look good for LiAngelo and LaMelo’s NBA future, as their struggle for meaningful game time looks likely to continue, with Vytautas currently dead last in the LKL and not in a position to experiment too much.
But in truth, all of this is such a unique situation, spearheaded by a truly unique character in Lavar Ball, that there is no real historic precedent to compare it to.
I would not be at all surprised to see the entire Ball clan end up joining the NBA fraternity, because so far, for better or worse, almost everything Lavar has predicted has seemingly come true.
As the man himself loves to remind everybody: “I never lose.”