It’s Lavar Ball’s world; we’re just living in it. The father of UCLA freshman and college basketball phenom Lonzo Ball has taken American sports media by storm in the first step on the inevitable road to national stardom. Even if you’re not a diehard college basketball fan, you may have heard of the elder Ball’s antics by now. With his oldest son tearing through the college ranks on the way to being a top pick in this June’s National Basketball Association draft, Mr. Ball has used the small bit of fame that goes along with his son’s rise to showcase his unusual family and promote the brand he has created for it. In doing so, he has heaped notoriety upon himself by foisting an escalating series of outlandish statements on a content-hungry public.
With UCLA eliminated from the NCAA tournament last weekend, Lonzo Ball will not be at tonight’s Final Four. But as Lavar would likely put it, tonight’s Final Four doesn’t have him.
Lavar’s game is this: he has three impossibly talented sons whom he has been training since birth to take over the NBA and our cultural landscape. Lonzo’s younger brothers, high school senior LiAngelo and sophomore LaMelo, have both already committed to UCLA. In addition to the clever “L” branding of his sons’ first names, Lavar has also sought to capitalize on his fortuitous last name by trademarking a triple “B” insignia and branding it on his own line of clothing. Lavar is his sons’ trainer, agent, marketer, promoter, and biggest fan. Within four years he’ll have a small army of Balls in the NBA—following their single years in Westwood—promoting their names and games on a global scale. It’s an ambitious long-term scheme that would make either Machiavelli smile or Orwell shudder.
All of this would be an interesting footnote to this season of college ball, rather than the primary story of this season of college Ball, if Ball were all. But Lavar is a man with a mouth as well as a plan. And as the season has worn on, Lavar has thrust himself upon the public with the help of a media environment now constructed to feed of eccentric personalities and outlandish comments. Two of Lavar’s statements in particular have garnered outsized attention, fueling the twenty-four-hour news-cycle for the sports debate shows filling the programming at ESPN and FoxSports1. First, Lavar proclaimed that Lonzo was better right now than reigning two-time MVP Stephen Curry. Then, as if desperately searching for the only basketball-related comment that could outdo that doozy, Mr. Ball told reporters that in his “heyday” he could have defeated Michael Jordan in a game of one-on-one. Jordan, of course, is the consensus greatest basketball player of all time. Lavar Ball averaged two points a game in college.
Once it became clear that Lavar was a one-stop-shop content machine, the media just couldn’t help itself. Suddnely, there was Lavar on the internet demanding a $1 billion shoe deal for his three sons. There was Lavar on television speculating about how Lebron James’s sons wouldn’t live up to the legacy of their father’s basketball greatness (which, of course, fed the media frenzy for another day when James responded that Lavar should “keep my kids’ names out of your mouth”). Then there was Lavar’s feud with Charles Barkley, which went to another level after Lavar dumped on Barkley’s current state of physical fitness. Barkley responded by wearing the jersey of UCLA first round opponent Kent State’s jersey on set and openly rooting against Lonzo’s Bruins. UCLA won that game and then the next, but before Lonzo and company played their Sweet Sixteen matchup against the University of Kentucky, Lavar couldn’t help but trash-talk the teenagers from the Bluegrass state, telling reporters that they could not “outrun my boy.” UCLA lost.
All of this, of course, is a pile of nonsense. Much of it is painfully easy to disprove. But true or not, Lavar’s stream of headline-grabbing comments has raised the Ball family’s profile immeasurably. Lavar’s aim is clear: “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.” Somehow, his clownish behavior and our perverse fascination is making that happen. Think about it this way: the father of a college kid who may not even be the first pick in the NBA draft has a near ubiquitous media presence without any record of accomplishment, solely because he’s willing to pick fights with celebrities and unapologetically assert the outrageous and untrue with self-confident panache.
And when you put it that way, maybe we didn’t learn that much in 2016.