LaVar Ball highlights a growing problem in America. But an unusual set of circumstances gives him a platform that few others have had.
I’ve been playing the same pickup hoops games every week since I’ve lived in Denver. Guys come and go, move on to nicer gyms, get jobs elsewhere in America, have kids and lose the freedom of two-hour glory day reenactments, but a few of us have been there for years. One of the regulars over that time is a guy named Mitch (not his real name), a mid-forties dad who comes out each week to remind everyone that it was different back in his day.
Nearly every week, Mitch comes and works up a sweat, shoots the shit, and heads out after an hour or two of reprieve from the grind of Everyday. But he also does something else – Every time Mitch comes, he brings his two high-school boys with him to play in games overrun with has-beens who don’t move like they used to.
The kids have grown both physically and as basketball players since they started playing, and it’s not by coincidence. Mitch pushes them. They don’t have their feet set when the ball arrives? Mitch lets them know about it. They don’t see an open guy cutting? Mitch wants to know why they’re so selfish. Games end and they stay to do shooting drills that are somehow more physical than the hackfest that we normally put on. But none of it is ever malicious. Mitch swears, and the kids reiterate, that he does it because they like it. They want to get better, and he’s a force that pushes them to do so. From the perspective of someone who spends a few hours a week with them, it seems like a healthy father-sons sports relationship.
But this type of dynamic is often not as healthy.
Lonzo Ball is a transcendent basketball player. He sees the floor better than anyone entering the NBA draft in at least a decade, he shoots from anywhere on the court, and he has an infectious style of play that is thoroughly enjoyable to be a part of. Even in a loaded draft class, he’d be the guy I’d take number one overall in a heartbeat. There’s really only one drawback to drafting him – His dad is an asshole.
LaVar Ball, father of the Ball brothers and CEO of washed-dad clothing line Big Baller Brand, is one of the worst people in America. In his less-than-a-year in the national spotlight, he’s managed to use his sons’ talents to boost his pseudo-celebrity, likely cost his oldest son millions in shoe endorsements, and released a high-priced apparel company that will be mocked by kids at TJ Maxxes and Goodwills across the country for years to come.
“I figure that’s what the shoe is worth. When you are your own owner you can come up with any price you want.” – LaVar Ball, having just learned about how business works
Everything LaVar has done has been under the guise of promoting his kids, a veil so thin that LaMelo is concerned about its eating habits. But it’s apparent that above all else, LaVar is a master in self-promotion, someone who seizes every opportunity to draw the spotlight to himself. It took him half of a college basketball season to get multiple appearances next to ESPN talking heads, and it hasn’t taken him much longer to make all of the talk about Lonzo’s upcoming draft date center around his dead-on-arrival apparel company.
When he goes on these talking-head shows, notice how little the discussion is centered on his kids’ abilities or what they are doing to improve in the offseason. Everything is a reaction to something outrageous he said about somebody else (Frankly it’s pretty disgusting, though not surprising, that ESPN plays right into this). He talks about beating MJ and Barkley, he talks about LeBron’s kids, he talks about how the white guys on his son’s team held him back. He has mastered shock and outrage in an era where anything less will get you swept up in the sea of everybody else – and if LaVar Ball dislikes one thing, it’s everybody else.
He’s trying desperately to be a star, and it’s working – In the short-term at least. But in the process, he’s potentially sacrificing the relationships he has with his sons. They all appear to support him, or at the very least, laugh him off. But Lonzo is about to be a professional athlete, working alongside men with families of their own. Do they want to come to practice and have to answer media questions about what LaVar said on Twitter last night? How will they feel when LaVar bitches on ESPN about his kid not getting enough touches? What will be the repercussions for Lonzo? Imagine getting a hotshot lawyer job fresh out of law school, only when you show up for your first day, your dad is in the lobby barking at your boss. In any other field, this would be an insane proposition. But in American sports culture, sports dads are accepted as a necessary evil.
The overzealous sports dad is neither new nor underrepresented. Kids sign up for travel baseball or soccer when they’re barely old enough to read, and from there, there’s no looking back. It’s weekend tournaments 3-400 miles away. It’s fundraising year-round so that you can get personalized helmets. It’s quitting your spring sport so you can focus on your winter sport in May. It’s dads who have flamed out and strapped on the entire Under Armour summer line adorning their team’s logo. It’s practices six nights a week that take precedent over anything else a family might consider doing.
But those dads don’t go head-to-head with Stephen A. Smith about who they could beat in one-on-one.
Others have pointed to Richard Williams and Earl Woods as less-devolved versions of LaVar, but those comparisons sully the names of Williams and Woods. Sure, they were vocal. But they consistently spoke about their children’s’ abilities and never made themselves the center of the story. In 2006, after Earl Woods passed away, Golf Digest noted that his relationship with Tiger was much more understated than the media initially characterized it as when Tiger burst onto the scene in the mid-90’s. The elder Woods was confident in his son’s abilities and made that very clear, but he never made the story about himself. LaVar, on the other hand, has been a trending topic on ESPN more days than not this week.
When kids are young, having a dad as a coach can be cool, so long as they approach the position with at least a little bit of self-awareness. Dads have, after all, been coaching their kids’ sports teams for decades – And taking it a step further, some dads have been in the spotlight going back to the 80’s. Marv Marinovich famously boasted about his son Todd’s workouts when he was as young as 11 or 12 years old.
So why is LaVar different?
It’s an easy cop-out to say that our current social media and news cycle landscape is a factor, but those things cannot be ignored. LaVar only continues his act because he gets a positive feedback loop from it. ESPN, so oblivious to what it’s become, can’t help themselves with personalities like his. They already employ 20 people who are paid handsomely to go on air and keep talking points alive, so why not throw some LaVar kerosene on that fire? It costs them nothing, keeps a conversation, albeit an intolerable one, going, and LaVar gets to boost his celebrity. Everyone, or at least ESPN and LaVar, wins.
Facebook and Twitter also play a big part in the LaVarification of sports. Someone like LaVar gives everyone an opinion, and these platforms give everyone the ability to express those opinions. When he comes out with $500 sneakers, people spout off about the morality of them, which leads to weeks of back and forth, and ultimately way-too-lengthy pieces like this.
But just because social media and ESPN are contributing factors, doesn’t mean that LaVar is the only dad with access to them. There are surely hundreds of other dads who, even if they’re not self-aware enough to know it, would love to be in LaVar’s position. But LaVar’s got a few other things working for him that they do not.
First, he was a mid-level athlete himself. His ability to beat Michael Jordan one-on-one is akin to Trump’s crowd size complex, but he did play a bit of college basketball himself. He was also an NFL practice player, giving him at least a vague familiarity with the machine that is professional sports.
But perhaps more importantly, he’s managed to raise three boys who are all good athletes, and who’ve had a system built around them since they were in middle school. Chino Hills High School, where all three brothers have played their high school ball, runs a system that is barely recognizable as a high school basketball team. They look for full-court outlets whenever possible and give each Ball brother a candescent green light from anywhere on the court. Few high school athletes have ever been put in such a position to succeed, but when it happens, they usually do.
The uniqueness of having not just one, but three, kids raised in the national sports spotlight cannot be overlooked in this either. Individually, none of them are High School LeBron. LiAngelo isn’t even a 4-star recruit, and yet when they’re analyzed as a package deal, they become just as captivating as LeBron was as a 16-year-old.
The other dads who have put their kids in the same position as LaVar has have rarely had any of these factors working in their favor, much less all of them.
A whole array of circumstances have contributed to the rise of LaVar Ball, but no matter how we got here, it’s pretty evident that he’s here to stay. His act was tired from the second he started it, but he’s tapped into people’s desires to discuss right and wrong – to let their position on a polarizing topic be known. Whether all of his sons go on to be NBA All-Stars, or they flame out entirely, we’re going to be hearing from LaVar every week for the foreseeable future.
Big Baller Brand will almost certainly implode, with LaVar too far up his own ass to realize its shortcomings. You can draw all the attention you want to something, but if it’s not something people want, they won’t buy it. And I can assure you that no one wants an overpriced t-shirt with a ridiculous logo sold by Lyle Lanley.
I hope for the sake of the NBA that Lonzo has a long, decorated career – I truly enjoy watching him play. But the sooner we can stop giving LaVar the attention he craves, the better off everyone will be.
Also published on Medium.