He has become the most fascinating and controversial sports father in America over the past few months, and while LaVar Ball is never short on words of praise for his three basketball-playing sons, their success is undeniable, and his confidence seems never-ending.
Yet there may be another element of Ball’s style that may have rankled critics who believe he’s placing an undue amount of pressure on his son Lonzo Ball, a freshman at UCLA who will be a top-five NBA draft pick in June.
LaVar Ball said some may be intimidated by the fact he’s a strong father, and strong African-American fathers, especially in NBA circles, are rare. NBA mothers are much more prevalent, such as Wanda Pratt, Kevin Durant’s mother.
NBA moms even have their own association. Such is not the case with NBA dads, and LaVar Ball believes his style may be unnerving to some because he is an outspoken African-American male.
“Look at LeBron [James], look at Dwyane Wade, they all had hard lives, [Kevin Durant], and that’s what makes everybody scary on the fact that I’m behind my son,” LaVar Ball told the Globe. “They weren’t interviewing all these other guys’ fathers, LeBron’s dad, KD’s dad, so they’re not used to that. Everybody gets all finicky and says, ‘LaVar’s going [to scare] these [teams away] from [drafting Lonzo].’ ”
The Ball brothers are from Chino Hills, an affluent town about 35 miles east of Los Angeles. LaVar Ball said he wanted his boys to understand the desire to succeed from players from more difficult backgrounds, but he also stressed that he is not outspoken about or confident in his sons out of necessity that they be successful in the NBA as a means of financial support.
“If you have a kid that’s got all this talent, they usually come from a lower-income neighborhood,” LaVar Ball said. “And maybe you have bad things going on so you have to get out of that quick. Somebody gives you $10,000 or $50,000, you’re gone. And you send these 18-, 19-year-old kids out and say, ‘Play basketball because that’s your ticket for us to get out of here.’ Me and my wife are not needy. We don’t need anything. There’s no pressure on [Lonzo], but if we were living in an apartment with 10 people and you give me $10,000 so we can get a house. ‘Keep going son, we need you to make it, so you can take us all out of this situation.’
“Like I told Lonzo, when you’re playing at the top of your game, you’re going to run into these guys who didn’t have much growing up. They go for the ball a little bit more hungry, a little more determined. This basketball stuff is a way out for them, so they play harder. That’s why you have to be good and play for yourself and know you are going to run into these guys on the highest level.”
The interview process before the draft will be fascinating for Lonzo Ball. He is the antithesis of his father, a young man who lets his game speak for itself. He credits his teammates, stresses his love for the game, and strives to flourish at the highest level.
LaVar Ball has no issue with his son’s mellow disposition, nor does it surprise him.
“We were raised in two different areas and you’re going to get two different people,” said LaVar Ball. “I was raised in South Central LA, but Lonzo’s attitude is not going to work out there. What I mean by that is if we beat you in South Central, we’re like. ‘Get your ass off the court, who got next? I wish somebody would try to beat us, ain’t nobody good enough.’
“But you’re raised in Chino Hills, you don’t need to say stuff like that. It’s not, ‘Who got next?’ It’s like. ‘I’ll just wait for the next one, I’ll be on my phone. Anybody want lunch?’ That’s how he was brought up in Chino Hills. He wasn’t raised in South Central LA. That’s where all the alpha dogs are.”
Are players built by their desperation and environment? In many cases, yes. But LaVar Ball wants Lonzo to carry that cutthroat attitude — think Kobe Bryant — without ever having to endure cutthroat circumstances.
“I told him, a guy is going to come for the ball a lot harder coming out of the ’hood,” said LaVar Ball. “I took him out to South Central when they were younger and they were watching guys playing basketball in the street. They are moving the goal out of the way when the cars go by. They were shocked seeing that. You got these beautiful lights in the backyard, you can turn them on any time you want. You got shooting machines, how could you not be better? If you’re willing to put the time and the work in, they got everything for you.”
LaVar Ball made another controversial statement last week, saying he wants his sons to sign a combined $1 billion shoe contract when all three reach the NBA. LiAngelo, a high school senior, is committed to UCLA, as is LaMelo, who is only a sophomore.
LaVar Ball, a personal trainer by trade, has developed his own line of products called Big Baller Brand, athletic apparel that he dons at his sons’ games.
“The famous line for the Big Baller Brand is ‘built for this,’ and everybody is not built for this [life],” LaVar Ball said. “Some people like to get off that road a little quick. My boys are built for this because I told them basketball is having a passion to do something and it’s just entertainment. It’s not life-threatening. It’s not pressure.
“They got the genes, me being able to stay at home with them all the time. They’ve never had a baby sitter, I’ve always been with them. To get that toughness in them, you fall down, I ain’t going to pick you up, get up on your own.”
The basketball upbringing of the Ball brothers is unusual. They stayed away from AAU play and attended the local public high school in Chino Hills, instead of being lured to parochial or private basketball powers in the area.
“If you’re that good, they’ll find you,” said LaVar Ball. “They find guys in Africa. They can’t find you up the 71 freeway? It’s easy.
“I try to raise them strong and not baby them. My boys ain’t scared of nothing, that’s what I tell them. When you get my boys, you know what you’re getting, and they’re willing to live with the price of taking those shots. Everybody always says, ‘LaVar wants this.’ I don’t need the money. I got exactly what I want in life, which is a beautiful wife and three loving sons. I don’t need anything else.”
The criticism hardly deters LaVar Ball. Instead, it seems to encourage him. He believes strong father figures are scarce in sports. And he’s reiterated he has no plans to cash in on Lonzo’s success. Instead, he’ll just promote his next-oldest son, LiAngelo.
“[Being a strong father] means a lot to me because like I said, my boy wouldn’t be where he’s at without me. If I’m not a good role model or good leader, who does he have to count on?” LaVar Ball said. “I’m always going to stay here in Cali. I can go visit [Lonzo in his NBA city]. He can have a condo out there and always have something to come back home to in California, but stay where you play. I’m not saying, ‘Hey, I need you to buy me a big house and I’m going to be around you every single moment. Nah, I’m good.’ Go watch my boy play and worry about the other two. I’m not going to up and leave. I’ve got [LaMelo] here. I’ve got [LiAngelo] here.”
Union working for the players
The National Basketball Players Association late last year worked out a seven-year agreement with the owners, maintaining labor peace for the long term as both sides are benefiting greatly from the new television deal that has raised the salary cap past $100 million.
The situation is like night and day from five years ago, when many players seemed disengaged with the negotiation process until the lockout. The players eventually voted out union executive director Billy Hunter, with many players claiming they were not informed of many steps during negotiations.
“I want to emphasize that this was something that absolutely required participation of the players, and to my absolute delight there was no problem whatsoever being thoroughly engaged with negotiating this peace,” said NBPA executive director Michele Roberts. “Not only did we have players appearing at meetings, there was never any difficulty getting the players engaged. It was a player-driven process. Players were not used as props, they were engaged in giving us direction.”
In the new collective bargaining agreement, players now have full control of their licensing rights. That brings added responsibility in negotiating deals with companies, instead of perhaps just asking the league for more of a percentage of licensing fees.
“Being driven by our players and the process, they wanted to have a little more control, a lot more control of the [marketing] process,” said NBPA chief marketing officer Jordan Schlachter. “Taking these rights back gives us a lot more opportunity to do a lot more things with the union. We’ve known for the past couple of years we were [going to take the rights back] and the transition is a big part of it.
“The NBA has done a really good job of growing the game and building the game and capitalizing on player images too, but we just think there’s more that can be done. The current agreement we were under just limited that ability.”
The NBPA was the lone union among the four major sports that did not have complete control of its licensing.
Said NBPA president Chris Paul, “It’s about understanding what your value is, and I think us as players are a lot more educated in the business of the game.”
Thunder again are making noise
Andre Roberson has spent the past four seasons playing with Russell Westbrook, witnessing firsthand the frequent triple-doubles and also fitting into an Oklahoma City system that has moved forward without Kevin Durant. The Thunder have an opportunity to catch the Clippers for the fifth seed in the Western Conference, which seemed an unlikely finish when Durant bolted for Golden State.
Westbrook, meanwhile, is an MVP candidate, putting together one of the most remarkable statistical seasons in NBA history.
“Just taking pride in this organization and carry it like it’s my own,” Roberson said. “We’re kind of rebuilding a little bit, and we’re trying to take this team back to the top where it should be.”
Not only did the Thunder lose Durant, but general manager Sam Presti made the risky decision to trade longtime power forward Serge Ibaka, an impending free agent, to the Magic for Victor Oladipo, Ersan Ilyasova, and rookie Domantas Sabonis. While Ibaka largely was uncomfortable in the Orlando system and was later traded to the Raptors, Oladipo and Sabonis have become starters alongside Roberson, Westbrook, and Steven Adams. All have had to compensate for Durant’s absence.
“A great coach like Billy Donovan is putting guys in the right position to be successful,” Roberson said. “That always comes in handy and just going out and playing ball and taking the pressure off. Every year I try to grow [offensively] as well as master my defense. Russ is doing a good job of finding guys [with passes] and putting guys in the right position, as well.”
The question when playing with Westbrook, who is leading the league in scoring and is third in assists and 10th in rebounding, is when to pick your moments to score. There are nights when Westbrook fires shots on seemingly every possession, and there are others when he involves teammates early and focuses on distributing. How do you know which Westbrook to expect?
“You can kind of tell in a game, because he does a great job of controlling the game,” Roberson said. “That’s one of the reasons why he’s the best in the league. He finds guys at the right time and you just have to be able to play off of him. You’ve got to learn that because he’s such a fast guy and it’s hard to read him at times and that makes him who he is, he’s unpredictable. So you’ve got to always be on your toes and be ready to shoot. I thought I was pretty fast, but he’s faster.”
Just because Brad Stevens has said he’s not interested in leaving the Celtics for the Indiana University job, that doesn’t mean he won’t have an opinion on the Hoosiers’ next coach. Stevens has quietly admired Butler coach Chris Holtmann. Stevens did not know Holtmann well when he took over for handpicked Stevens replacement Brandon Miller at Butler, but he still follows Butler closely and has noticed Holtmann’s accomplishments in the Big East.
With Dwyane Wade out for the season with a fractured right elbow, the Bulls have to contemplate what to do with the rest of their season, and the final few weeks are not likely to include much of Rajon Rondo. Rondo was pushing for the organization to make a playoff push, but general manager Gar Forman and team president John Paxson seem to be confusing the veterans with their rotation choices. Cameron Payne was acquired from the Thunder as a potential point guard cornerstone, but he is struggling from the field and in distributing the ball. The Bulls’ desire to play Payne has unseated second-year guard Jerian Grant, who was acquired from the Knicks in the Derrick Rose deal. The Bulls are likely headed toward a major rebuild in the offseason, and that means trading All-Star forward Jimmy Butler, who is approaching his prime and wants to win now. Chicago is lacking prospects and keepers, so look for management to reignite talks with the Celtics once the draft approaches . . . To no one’s surprise, University of Washington point guard Markelle Fultz declared for the draft after sitting out the final four games with a knee injury. With the Huskies not headed for postseason play, Fultz, the consensus No. 1 overall pick, decided to sit and prepare his body for the draft process. Meanwhile, projected first-rounder Ivan Rabb of Cal sat out the team’s NIT game with a foot injury after playing just four days prior in the Pac-12 tournament. Don’t be surprised if draft prospects decide to skip conference tournament or lesser postseason tournament games to avoid risk of injury. And as teams are eliminated from the NCAA Tournament, expect a steady stream of players declaring for the draft, especially freshmen. The top 10-12 draft prospects are freshmen.
The Spurs received excellent news as LaMarcus Aldridge, who was expected to miss an indefinite period after suffering a heart arrhythmia, returned to the lineup on March 15. The forward, who missed only two games, is one of seven players to average at least 19.1 points and 8.3 rebounds since the 2006-07 season.
What makes Aldridge’s numbers more impressive is his longevity. He has played in more games than any other player to maintain these averages.