How LaVar and LaMelo Ball outsmarted the student-athlete industrial complex
The NBA’s most notorious father gave plenty of prophecies that failed to come true. But it’s hard to argue his plans for his youngest son haven’t worked out LaMelo Ball was enjoying a brilliant rookie season for the Charlotte Hornets. Photograph: David Zalubowski/AP Late last Sunday, as we the punters were still smarting from the chaos of the NCAA tournament’s opening rounds, came more distressing news from the NBA: LaMelo Ball, the Charlotte Hornets’ dazzling young point guard, was in danger of missing the rest of the season after fracturing his wrist. As upsets go this was way worse than Florida falling to 15th-seeded Oral Roberts. This was like if WandaVision wrapped its season after the third episode. No! The full picture was only just coming into focus! The third overall selection in last year’s draft, Ball was the feelgood story of this NBA season: basketball’s enfant terrible made good. Great, even. Consider: He no-look passed his way off the bench in 20 games. He became the first player in 60 years to lead all rookies in points, rebounds, assists and steals heading into the All-Star break – at the tender age of 19 to boot. Since his promotion to the starting lineup in February, Ball had been averaging 19.5 points, 5.8 rebounds, 6.2 assists and 1.7 steals. That production didn’t just rate favorably among the league’s top floor generals; it had lifted Charlotte out of the Eastern Conference cellar and into postseason picture for the first time in years. Not since Muggsy Bogues was leading the fast break with Alonzo Mourning and Larry Johnson have the Hornets been this, well, buzz-worthy. Then late in the second quarter against the LA Clippers, Ball soared to the cup with his left hand, tumbled hard and awkwardly to the floor on his right hand – and the record scratched. Whatever optimism that could be taken from him battling through to the final buzzer was flattened in a hail of Woj bombs. Still: unfortunate as it is to see Ball’s coming-out party end so soon, it could have been much worse. It could have ended with him slinking off in an LSU or a USC jersey. And we all know who we have to thank for sparing him that cruel fate: his dad. It is hard to believe it’s been six years since we were introduced to LaVar Ball – the gruff, carnival-barking NFL washout who could give Earl Woods and Richard Williams a run for their sports dad hyperbole. When LaVar went public with his master plan to not just place sons Lonzo, LiAngelo and LaMelo in the NBA but also build a shoe and apparel empire around them, basketball fans and gatekeepers mostly pointed and laughed at the outrageous claims the father made in the name of speaking his fever dreams into existence: that all three of his boys better begin their NBA careers as Lakers teammates – or else. That the Big Baller Brand would eclipse Nike and Adidas and UnderArmour. No question: this was comedy gold. When the thrill of Lonzo going second overall to the Lakers in the 2017 draft was quickly followed by LiAngelo’s international incident-inducing flameout with UCLA, suddenly all eyes were on the brace-face, Sideshow-Bobbed baby in the family, chucking away with abandon from 30 feet out or farther still. And when LaMelo’s Steph-like shot selection became a problem for his Chino Hills high school coach, and the hiring of an agent imperiled the boy’s years-old UCLA commitment, LaVar shipped his youngest to Lithuania and then on to Australia’s NBL for finishing. No question: this was an insane tactic even for the guy who said he could “kill” Michael Jordan in a game of one-on-one. After all, the pro prospects who break into the NBA from overseas tend to be, well, white Europeans not Black Americans. Brandon Jennings’s 2008 pact with the LBA’s Lottomatica Roma should have been the beginning of five-star recruits like him realizing that there was another way. But in the end, sadly, getting paid to play basketball and live in the Old World was nowhere near as seductive as getting shucked by the oldest con game in big-time sports: the NCAA. Give LaVar some credit here: He was right about his family brand being the value-add to the NCAA, not vice versa. And he was smart enough to appreciate the benefit of his teenage hoops prodigy getting handsomely paid to play against grown men before jumping to the NBA. Instead of being a prisoner to rudimentary college schemes, LaMelo became the ultimate facilitator for a disparate array of teammates, and all while alloying a mixture of coaching styles and philosophies. The intense hothousing didn’t just remake him into a surefire NBA lottery pick with an unselfish flare that has become his trademark; it made him even better out of the box than Lonzo – who only just became a more credible shooting threat this year, even as LaMelo came out swishing at a 45% clip. If LaMelo had gone to college and broken his wrist in the NCAA tournament rather than the NBA, the talk right now would be about how he could lose millions by dropping down the board in the upcoming draft. Indeed, one of the most striking parts of this year’s tournament has been Michigan’s Isaiah Livers, whose own NBA draft prospects could be dented by a foot injury, wearing a T-shirt hashtagged “NotNCAAProperty”. If LaMelo’s circuitous route to pro stardom doesn’t inspire the next generation of high school prospects, there are plenty of other examples. They could take a page from Darius Bazley, the G-Leaguer turned Oklahoma City star who bypassed a Syracuse commitment for an internship at New Balance. They could follow the Denver Nuggets’ RJ Hampton, selected 21 spots behind LaMelo, who also wound up in the NBL after improper contact with an agent complicated his college eligibility. They could be the guy on TV wearing the #NotNCAAProperty T-shirt during March Madness, or the guy hawking them for 20 bucks online while pocketing hundreds of thousands more to crash the boards in Israel or China. No, not all of LaVar’s prophecies came true. Lonzo is most certainly not better than Magic Johnson, LiAngelo couldn’t even hack it in the G-League and the Big Baller Brand is barely standing. And LaVar’s objectionable history with female journalists should not be forgotten. But no one can say he didn’t do right by his three boys, or save his best for the last one. LaMelo’s path to NBA superstardom may have seemed long, winding and ridiculous at the time. But now? In this economy? Any path that circumvents the exploitative student-athlete industrial complex is the right path. Sure, a player could always stumble along the way, but at least he’s guaranteed to have a lot more to cushion his fall than a T-shirt stuffed with so much irony.