All LaVar Ball is doing is building the family business

ByIan O'Connor ESPN logo
Wednesday, March 22, 2017

If you ask LaVar Ball about an approach best defined as a cross between Muhammad Ali's and Conor McGregor's, good luck. Ball was not a big fan of Ali's or boxing (his father was) and when asked about McGregor on Tuesday, the loudest bracket buster in America was, for a change, at a loss for words.

"He's a fighter, right?" Ball asked over the phone.

Yes, a mixed-martial-arts fighter who is talking his way into a gazillion-dollar boxing match with Floyd Mayweather, and who will be laughing his way to the bank afterward -- assuming he can laugh with a broken jaw.

And that's OK. LaVar Ball might be flicking figurative jabs at the likes of LeBron James and Charles Barkley, but he isn't throwing or taking any real punches, and he's not asking his three sons to do the same. But Ball is going to package and push his son Lonzo, the 6-foot-6 star of the UCLA Bruins, and his younger boys LiAngelo and LaMelo, to the max whether Steve Kerr or Steve Alford or Steve Harvey likes it, and he's going to do it with proclamations that would make P.T. Barnum blush.

Go ahead and call the Ball father another stage dad in a Kardashian culture. Go ahead and mock the man's forecast that Lonzo's funky release is destined to deliver great NBA things. Go ahead and use his wild claims to conclude that, you know, Ball Does Lie.

But don't say his approach, to date, is failing. The Balls are already half as famous in basketball as the Mannings are in football (and climbing), and their own Peyton, Lonzo, has been throwing more than his share of perfect passes downfield.

Question: If LaVar Ball is so bad for his oldest child, why is his oldest child thriving at a time when sudden-death stakes can make college players and coaches lose their minds?

Answer: LaVar Ball isn't bad for his oldest child, and he likely isn't bad for his high-scoring UCLA-bound sons in high school, LiAngelo and LaMelo. Lonzo has said that his father, once a marginal college player, has always been an outsize personality with a talent for saying outsize things, and that the only difference now is he's saying them for mass media consumption.

Maybe the old man didn't need to tell Fox Sports' Chris Broussard that LeBron James' sons will face tremendous pressure trying to live up to his game-night standards when they grow up. But it was a fairly benign observation from a dad who was admitting, finally, that he wasn't much of a player himself. In telling ESPN's Dave McMenamin he doesn't want LaVar Ball talking about his kids, James only notarized Ball's marketing plan.

But Lonzo notarized it first by playing an unburdened game of basketball. To watch him during the NCAA tournament is to watch an elite playmaker who isn't sweating the small stuff, or the big stuff, or any of the in-between stuff. He moves effortlessly about the court, which he apparently sees one frame ahead of everyone else.

LaVar said Lonzo doesn't play as if he's stressed out by his father's outlandish statements for a simple reason: He's not stressed out by his father's outlandish statements.

"This is about my boys trying to be the best players ever," LaVar said. "But I've been telling them since they were little kids -- sports is not pressure, it's just entertainment. You have to have a great time doing it."

In an interview with, LaVar Ball added to his previously published claims that he would've dusted Michael Jordan in a one-on-one, that Lonzo is already better than Steph Curry, and that Lonzo is already the best player in the world (at least in a five-on-five context) by taking on Jordan, Magic Johnson, Jason Kidd and UCLA's opponent Friday night in the NCAA tournament, the Kentucky Wildcats. Of course he did.Here is a sampling of his new material:

  • On comparisons of Lonzo to Johnson, Ball said: "Lonzo is more athletic than Magic, blocks more shots, and makes more steals. ... Lonzo is Magic with a jump shot."
  • On comparisons of Lonzo to Kidd, Ball said: "The way you compare him to Kidd is, he likes to pass and Kidd and Zo are light-skinned. But [Lonzo] is taller and longer, and he's got a better jump shot than Kidd. He's more athletic in how he jumps and catches lobs back door."
  • On his sons' upside, Ball said: "Michael Jordan is the greatest player of all time, but all three of my boys can go down as the greatest player ever. Lonzo is better than what Michael Jordan was doing in high school, and he's better than what Michael Jordan was doing in college. ... He's only 19. He's got to get past Jordan's six titles and get to seven to be the greatest player ever, and I think he can do it."
  • On UCLA's chances against Kentucky, Ball said: "I already said UCLA will win the national championship, and I'm not going backwards on it now. With Zo, the chemistry that UCLA has is better than what Kentucky has."

This is why the NCAA tournament is fielding a Sweet 17 this year -- 16 credentialed basketball programs, and an uninvited Ball State. UCLA did win at Kentucky in December, but some might point to that box score and suggest Ball State took a bit of a hit. In the battle of lottery-bound point guards, De'Aaron Fox finished with 20 points, nine assists and two turnovers to Lonzo's 14 points, seven assists and six turnovers.

Asked about Fox's matchup with his son, LaVar Ball said: "He can't mess with Zo. You can have 40 points and Lonzo can have two points and make the game winner, and I'm going with him. You had more points, but look at who won the game. I guess [Fox] really didn't outplay him. It's a team sport. All my boy is worried about is his team winning."

For this reason, Ball identifies his son as the No. 1 overall pick in June's NBA draft. He concedes that Fox's speed reminds him of John Wall's, but adds, "I don't know if he'd be in the top five of the draft for me. I want a bigger, stronger guy."

And this is where you'd normally fret over the position LaVar Ball is putting his son in before he faces Kentucky, and then before he faces NBA grownups who will want a piece of Lonzo as much as Barkley wants a piece of his old man. But you have to watch how the kid handles himself on and off the floor. Where is the tension in Lonzo's body? Where is the angst on his face?

We generally know only what public figures let us know about their private lives, so it wouldn't make sense to paint the Balls -- LaVar and his wife, Tina, herself a former college player, and their three boys -- as the picture of all-American bliss. But on camera, anyway, it sure seems like the Ball brothers are entirely comfortable with their father's act. Or maybe they realize it's not an act, just a sensible strategy in a culture that forever rewards self-promotion.

A personal trainer by trade, LaVar Ball told USA Today he expects to get his three sons signed to a contract with a sneaker giant worth $1 billion. Though it's hard to imagine how such a deal would work (LiAngelo and LaMelo still have years of amateur eligibility to protect), Ball's claim reminded me of a conversation I had with Richard Williams, father of Serena and Venus, at the 1999 US Open. Richard had raised his tennis prodigies straight out of Compton the new-fashioned way: by making them chase deflated, 10-cent balls he purchased at the local store, rather than by sending them through a tennis academy and/or the traditional USTA feeder system.

We were walking through the food court one day talking about Venus and Serena, who was days away from winning the first of her record 23 major titles, when the subject turned to Richard Williams' stated plan to buy Rockefeller Center for $3.9 billion. "If I fall a few hundred million short on Rockefeller Center," he asked, "did I fail?"

If LaVar Ball helps get Lonzo a sneaker deal more than $900 million short of a billion, but still $10 million more than a tempered father/spokesman would've landed, did he fail?

The senior Ball said he grew up as one of seven kids in a middle-class home in South Central Los Angeles, the son of two working parents, including a father who did some bodyguard work for Sylvester Stallone. ("We used to babysit Stallone's son, Sage," LaVar said.) Lonzo's dad said he is bold and loud because "that's how South Central alpha dogs are," and that Lonzo's lower-volume personality is a product of his less challenging childhood in Chino Hills.

"Usually a kid with that type of talent comes out of a lower-income neighborhood," LaVar said, "and then you put all this pressure on an 18-year-old kid to make it and get us out of there. But I don't need Lonzo to hurry up and move me out of Chino Hills. I'm not tired of all these hills and pools.

"This is something me and my wife created for our boys. The main setup is basically for my boys to be wealthy. I want their kids' kids to be trust-fund babies. That's the bottom line on all this. ... Steve Kerr said I'm not helping them by talking, but here's the thing: I've already helped them by feeding them, clothing them, setting up the shooting machine for them. Not by talking."

Ball isn't about to let the doubters, the haters, or even the NCAA stop him. He's got a web site,, that peddles shirts and hats, including some in UCLA colors (though without the school logo and name). The NCAA forbids a student-athlete from profiting from his or her name, image or likeness, and the governing body asked for Lonzo's picture to be removed from the site. But the fact that the site still exists is a victory against a largely white NCAA power structure of administrators and coaches cashing in at every turn while restricting a largely black and unpaid labor force.

Before they hit the NBA or the NFL, players are the only participants banned from making a buck in the revenue sports. If LeBron James and LaVar Ball were on speaking terms, LeBron could tell him about the time he was suspended from playing high school basketball by amateur-hour guardians of amateur sport for accepting two sports jerseys from a store.

"Why is it OK for someone else to make all this money off my kids?" LaVar Ball said. "How do I exploit something that is mine? I created these boys. This is my family business. ... We are going to build this empire for the family."

They're going to continue to build it at UCLA, too, even if Alford returns to his Indiana Hoosier home. The Ball patriarch said he loves Alford, and Alford has thrown roses at the old man's feet, too. But as far as LiAngelo and LaMelo are concerned, LaVar said, "We're going to stick with UCLA even if you put Bobo the Clown in as coach."

Some have tried to dress LaVar Ball in a big red nose, polka-dot pajamas and big, floppy shoes, but the costume doesn't fit. He has proved to be smarter than many of his critics give him credit for. As sure as Muhammad Ali learned how to promote himself by watching Gorgeous George, Ball has learned how to create and control the news cycle by watching ESPN and other relevant outlets that place high value on look-at-me (or in his case, look-at-us) content.

Now it's time again to look at his gifted, oldest son. You can find Lonzo on the Sweet 17 court Friday night, facing Kentucky. He'll be the composed point guard playing for the de-facto coach of Ball State, a father who clearly has a method to all of his March madness.

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