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Lonzo Ball and Magic Johnson will determine the Lakers' future

LOS ANGELES -- For months before the draft, Magic Johnson had been 80 percent sure the Los Angeles Lakers were going to select Lonzo Ball. In his gut, Johnson felt like Ball was special -- that he had the "it" factor needed to revitalize his hometown team, which was in the lottery for a fourth consecutive year. A big point guard himself, Johnson saw similarities in the 6-foot-6 Ball and his stylish, unselfish approach to the game.

But Johnson also knew that his own reputation -- and the Lakers' hopes of a rebuild that would put them back in the conversation as a destination for elite free agents the following summer -- were riding on making the correct call with Lonzo. He knew he had to meet Ball's outspoken father, LaVar, and decide whether all the hoopla and hysteria Lavar brought was really worth dealing with.

So on the Friday before last month's NBA draft, Johnson and Lakers general manager Rob Pelinka drove the hour and a half from Los Angeles to Chino Hills to see Lonzo -- and LaVar -- in their element.

For years, LaVar had waited for the Lakers to come calling about his eldest son. "I always felt it, that's why my name is LaVar, LA-Var," he says with a hearty laugh, delighting in the line he has just come up with. "It's not ridiculous, it's Ballicious!"

He laughs again. These lines, they just come to him now. He has been telling people Lonzo will be a Laker for 15 years, "speaking it into existence," as he likes to say, and now it was about to come true.

"A lot of people don't believe it because they're like, 'Man, how can LaVar have been so right all the time? It's not fair,'" he says.

He'll talk a big game (now that Lonzo is a Laker, he's getting "I Told You So" T-shirts printed; they'll soon be sold on the Big Baller Brand website). But when the Lakers came to his house, LaVar broke character -- or caricature -- and said the one thing professional hype masters never reveal.

"He just said it's marketing," Johnson says. "That's what he had to do to market not only his son but the brand. Before I met him I had already thought that. I already knew what he was doing."

But hearing it straight from LaVar's mouth helped put Johnson and Pelinka at ease.

As Johnson recalls, "He said, 'Earvin, look, I'm not following my son. I'm not going to be hanging out in L.A. I'm going to be training these young kids [his other sons].'"

"'As far as training my boy, this is as far as I can take him,'" LaVar says he told Johnson. "'I'll leave it up to you to take him further. You can get him better with the film time and the coaching. You can take him to another level.'"

"I trust you with my boy. I just got a great feeling that you guys are going to take Zo to a whole other level.'"

It was the closing sales pitch the Lakers needed to hear. Less than a week later, they chose Lonzo No. 2 overall.

SO MUCH OFLakers lore, the good part of it anyway, is about a kind of luck and the poetic license to call it "magic."

The down years, the valleys between dynasties, are forgotten quickly once a new torchbearer comes along to light the way.

If Lonzo becomes that next face of the franchise, if he lives up to what his father has said he is, and what Johnson hopes he is, the next chapter of that Lakers lore will write itself.

If he doesn't, they'll have to tear it up and try again.

In so many ways, this is a story about faith -- a father's faith in himself and his sons and Johnson's faith in his gut instinct on Lonzo, who will make his debut Friday afternoon at the Las Vegas Summer League. But most importantly, it's about the Lakers' renewed faith in their own exceptionalism.

The franchise has always had a special quality, with Hall of Famers such as Wilt Chamberlain, Jerry West and Elgin Baylor among their alumni. Then in 1979, the year Dr. Jerry Buss bought the team from Jack Kent Cooke, the Lakers won a coin flip to be in position to draft Johnson, a sophomore from Michigan State, No. 1 overall.

So many things had to line up for the Lakers to end up with the No. 1 pick in a year when a transcendent talent and showman like Johnson was available. First, they had to acquire that pick from New Orleans three years earlier, as payment for an aging Gail Goodrich. Then, Johnson had to stay in school an extra year to compete against Larry Bird of Indiana State in the NCAA tournament. New Orleans had to have a bad season and earn a high draft pick. Then, the Lakers had to win that coin flip with Chicago, the other last-place team.

And, of course, none of that would have even mattered had Magic not created a decade of winning for the Lakers, and a signature style -- Showtime -- that has defined the franchise and the city of Los Angeles ever since.

It was a remarkable series of events. As remarkable, if not more so, than the series of events that led Lonzo to be a Laker.

The question now is whether it will be as impactful.

The Lakers are back to dreaming big again -- about Lonzo's future, and about that of their franchise.

"You got a good young core [of players], who all are great," Johnson says. "I think Lonzo will help to make them guys better. It's going to be a fun team to watch. I think Laker fans will be happy."

While the Lakers have been relatively quiet this offseason, Johnson says they're just biding their time -- and trying to position themselves as a destination for superstars again.

Next summer, L.A. natives Russell Westbrook and Paul George could both be free agents. Then there's offseason L.A. resident LeBron James, who could be looking for a third act to his legacy. Of course, the Lakers' previous regime had similarly grand designs, but Johnson seems confident he'll have more magic to his pitch. "I think what's really important, is that now free agents will say, 'They got enough firepower now.' I think that's the key. We're talented enough that free agents will say, 'They got it going now.'"

If that sounds a little like speaking it into existence, well, so be it. Johnson's future -- and his legacy as an executive -- is tied directly to Lonzo. This was his pick, in his first year leading the Lakers. And he was following his gut. So maybe it's better to believe there was a little magic behind it.

"It's just amazing that it has all happened, the way it happened," Johnson says. "For [LaVar] to talk it into fruition. For him to even think it was a possibility. ... And now the fact that I'm in my first year? It's just amazing."

LONZO BALL WAS born in 1997, one year after Magic played his final game. What he knows of the Showtime era comes mostly from his dad and watching ESPN's recent 30 for 30 documentary on the Lakers-Celtics rivalry.

Those teams are mostly remembered for their exciting style of play and flashy lifestyle off the court. They were Hollywood and hedonism, with unstoppable no-look passes and skyhooks in between. History tends to ignore that those Showtime Lakers teams also played lockdown defense and were in incredible physical shape. Behind all that effortless Lakers cool was a fair amount of elbow grease.

But you sort of have to believe in the magic for it to happen -- or at least appear to happen. Skepticism ruins the trick and wastes a lot of energy.

Lonzo learned that early, listening to his father's belief in his ability to speak his destiny into existence. "When you live with someone that positive and that energetic, they can pitch you anything," he says.

And frankly, when you live with someone as relentless as LaVar, it's just not worth it to argue with him.

"Yeah," Lonzo says with a laugh. "You're not going to win, so you might as well go along." Over the years Lonzo has developed a way of dealing with his father's forceful personality. He'll turn his music up and escape into his own universe. He'll goof off with his younger brothers or friends who come over to the house to train. He'll go over to his girlfriend's house and hang out with her.

You get the sense he's amused by all this, not resentful.

"It's funny, especially how the media reacts," Lonzo says. "I know what he's going to say before he even says it. I could see it. Plus, we talk all the time, so I kind of get a good feel of what's about to happen the next time a microphone goes in his face. I already know."

After Lonzo was drafted, LaVar stole the headlines by guaranteeing the Lakers would make the playoffs in his first season, then tossing his purple and gold Big Baller hat into the crowd as he exited the Barclay's Center to a chorus of boos.

"When he threw his hat, they were going crazy," Lonzo says.

It was straight out of a WWE show. ("Speaking of that," Lonzo says the day after the draft, when the comparison is made. "Wink wink. Stay tuned." Sure enough, three days later, LaVar was at Staples Center at WWE's "Monday Night Raw," ripping off his shirt, staring down The Miz and working the microphone like he was a regular cast member. The Lakers watched, laughed and cringed all the way through, knowing this is how it's going to be.) Told that it seems like his dad is kind of enjoying this spotlight, Lonzo smiles and says, "Kinda? He definitely is."

If there's any question as to whether Lonzo is aware of how well his father has been the tail wagging the dog this past year, it was answered in a memorable Foot Locker commercial poking fun at his father's domineering ways, which was released right before the draft.

Lonzo says he never consulted with his father before shooting the ad, which featured several draft picks honoring their dads for Father's Day. He read the script, thought it was funny and later sat with his father as he watched it live for the first time.

"My dad saw it when it aired," Lonzo says. "He saw it and just started laughing. He was like, 'Well, you didn't lie.'"

ULTIMATELY, THOUGH, THIS isn't about magic or marketing. It's about whether Lonzo can play.

If Lonzo lives up to the faith the Lakers have shown in him -- a tough proposition for any rookie, let alone a 19-year-old area native in his big-time hometown market -- everything else they're dreaming of is possible -- the superstars next summer, the return of Showtime, all of it.

If he doesn't, a lot more than their faith in him and Lakers exceptionalism will erode.

Lonzo seems fully aware of what's riding on him.

"That's what it comes with. When you're that high of a pick, they're invested in you," he says. "If you don't want to have a lot of stuff put on you, I guess don't be a high pick."

The Lakers will get their first glimpse of him on the court this week in Vegas, and while it's far from the type of spotlight and stage he'll experience once the real games begin, it's going to be one of the most anticipated summer league debuts in years. Lonzo says he can't wait.

"I just want to play," he says on the day after the draft. "I haven't played in a long time. I think I'm in shape. If there's a game tomorrow, I'll play."

Off the court, he has handled everything the NBA and the Lakers could throw at him. Lonzo moved through the endless media responsibilities of his first days as a Laker with little wasted motion, giving short answers that convey confidence but little else.

He arrived at his introductory media conference on barely more than 45 minutes of sleep, having stayed up until 4 a.m. after the draft because his younger brother LaMelo kept him up on their flight back to LA. But he seemed energetic and accommodating to question after question.

"I'm fine," he joked during a lull in the action. "Just need to keep eating sugar."

Lakers controlling owner Jeanie Buss handed him a bag of Sour Patch Kids during their visit. He found some cherry gummy snacks in the green room at Spectrum SportsNet, where he taped a special interview with the Lakers' TV network. At the Dodgers game, where he was throwing out the first pitch, he found some Cinnamon Toast Crunch in the clubhouse.

"I've stayed up a couple days, but not like this," he says. The closest he has come was a weekend at UCLA when he binge-watched the MTV series, "Teen Wolf."

"I had to catch up on my episodes," he says. "And we had the weekend off from practice, so I just stayed up."

AFTER THE DRAFT, LaVar Ball didn't go to the Dodgers game to continue basking in Los Angeles' hopes and dreams for Lonzo and the Lakers. After the introductory media conference, he did what he told the Lakers he would do: He stepped out of the spotlight.

LaVar drove back home to Chino Hills to take care of his wife, Tina Ball. She still has a long ways to go in her recovery from a stroke this spring. But she's home now, and LaVar says she was doing well, recovering from another surgery while Lonzo and his dad and brothers were in New York for the draft.

"They put that last little cranial part back in her head so she doesn't have that dent now," LaVar says. "It's not scary. It's going to get done. She knows what's going on. All I got to do is smile and wink at her and she knows."

Lonzo says his mother knows he has been drafted by the Lakers but can't talk or communicate yet.

Her fingernails are painted purple and gold -- and have been even since before he left for the draft in New York.

It's not something any of them talk about publicly, even though her condition is always on their minds. Johnson and Pelinka got to meet her when they visited the family house, and they both said it was touching to see how they cared for her.

"Anybody would do the same for their family," LaVar says.

But it's still hard to process what's happening with Tina compared with the rest of her family. She was in the hospital recovering from surgery on her skull the same night her eldest son was being drafted No. 2 overall by the Lakers?

It's incredible how everything has come together just as LaVar said it would, but it's hard to forget that Tina wasn't there to enjoy it. Pain and joy, fear and hope, all in the same moment.

Lonzo Ball exists in two worlds right now.

So much joy at a dream fulfilled. So much real-life sadness and pain to deal with.

So many hopes riding on him. So much faith already bestowed upon him.

"That's how it's supposed to be," he says.

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