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Every youth coach in every sport knows that in this great land of ours we are infested with a rancid parental species. These people are vocal, abusive, bullying, and just plain obnoxious. Rationality on the subject of their offspring is an abstract concept.
And then there is LaVar Ball.
LaVar Ball is a character out of fiction. I’m thinking Stephen King. He is the ultimate coach’s nightmare: a brash, relentless know-it-all; a thousand percent blowhard clown full of himself; an athlete of modest consequence who is living vicariously through his three talented sons.
Stephan Gilling lived with this phenomenon. He was the head basketball coach at Chino Hills (Calif.) High School. He took the reins last season and guided his team to a 30-3 record. They fell just shy of a state title. Oh, guess I should mention that his star players were LiAngelo Ball and LaMelo Ball, younger brothers of Lonzo Ball, who was then playing at UCLA. I don’t know exactly how much Mr. Gilling aged last season, but I’m guessing it was in the vicinity of 20 years. One year was enough. He was blown away by Hurricane LaVar, and when it was over, he said, “I’m feeling relieved about it.”
Lonzo had a very nice year at UCLA. He was a consensus first-team All-American. He led the nation in assists. The hometown Lakers made him the No. 2 pick in the NBA Draft. Everything seems to be proceeding as LaVar Ball had planned. Maybe.
Now in case you don’t know, Lonzo Ball is 6 feet 6 inches and on the slender side, listed at 190 pounds. He has a rare level of court vision. Scoring is not necessarily his game. He is the ultimate facilitator. Assessing his strengths and weaknesses, and acknowledging that he is a very different body type, the best stylistic comparison as a point guard would be the young Jason Kidd. Ball is an intriguing player, and in any normal context it would stop there.
But the word “normal” and the Ball family do not mesh. There is very little “normal” about being a son of LaVar Ball.
Take, for example, the game last Wednesday night between the Lakers and Washington Wizards. Under any, ahem, “normal” circumstance, this would have been just another early-season NBA game between a pretty good Eastern Conference team on the road against a building Western Conference team. It was most certainly not what you call “appointment television.”
Nope. This game had people interested because Wizards point guard John Wall had pretty much declared war on Lonzo, and this, naturally, aroused Poppa Ball, who launched into one of his rhetorical flights of fancy. In this sense, NBA commissioner Adam Silver may very well be happy to have LaVar around. Because of him, there was an uncommon amount of attention being paid to an otherwise routine blip on the annual NBA radar screen.
Yes, the Lakers won in OT and Lonzo had a significant role with 10 assists and eight rebounds. His 6 points were something of an afterthought. He was hardly the star of the game. Wall didn’t back up his talk with a big game (18 points, nine assists, 7-for-22 shooting). LaVar Ball acted as if the Lakers had just won Game 7 of the NBA Finals, declaring it a triumph for Lonzo. Lonzo, not the Lakers. That’s always the case with this guy.
Lonzo Ball is a talented, but quite flawed, player. He came into the league with a funny-looking basic shot that he somehow used to shoot 55 percent from the floor and 41 percent from the 3-point line at UCLA. People wondered, however, whether he could get away with that delivery in the NBA, and after four games there are questions: 31 percent shooting overall and 23 percent on threes.
History teaches us that the great ones can, and do, improve their questionable outside shooting status. Julius Erving did it. Magic Johnson did it. Yup, Jason Kidd did it. There is no reason why Lonzo can’t lock himself in a gym next summer and do it. But do it he must if he is to be even half the player LaVar Ball says he is right now.
Why is this such an issue? It’s because thanks to his dad’s bombast, Lonzo Ball entered the NBA with a gargantuan bull’s-eye affixed to his jersey. Patrick Beverley of the Clippers did the Velcro thing on him in his first regular-season game, telling him this is what he can expect over the next 81 games. Being a rookie is hard enough in this league. Being one whose very presence inflames the opposition for external reasons is, frankly, unprecedented.
Lonzo Ball has carried himself with public dignity in the year-plus he has been exposed to the national audience. He just plays and keeps his mouth shut. He even made a charming, self-deprecating Father’s Day Foot Locker TV commercial. Other than perhaps wearing the uniform of a team someone may dislike, I can’t see where he has given us any reason to dislike, let alone hate, him.
What I think we’d all love to know is what daily life is like for the Lakers. Do they act as if LaVar Ball does not exist? Do they bust Lonzo’s chops in a good-natured way? Do they ask him to ask You Know Who to tone it down because it actually complicates their team life as much as it does Lonzo’s own?
Back at the ranch, LaVar has ensured that Stephan Gilling’s successor will be spared the ordeal of listening to LaVar berate him for not giving LaMelo enough touches. Angered because Dennis Latimore jokingly (well, maybe not) said that the youngest Ball won’t be taking 50 shots a game, LaVar pulled him out of school and announced that he will be home-schooled and will confine his basketball playing to being a member of the AAU “Big Ballers,” coached by, well, I guess you can figure that out.
Chino Hills may now win fewer games. But Dennis Latimore will only age 365 days in the next year. There’s something to be said for that.
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