Maybe, just maybe, the NBA is on the cusp of the best rivalry since Magic Johnson versus Larry Bird, or Michael Jordan versus the world. The two latest participants are certainly sounding like it.
Markelle Fultz and Lonzo Ball are likely to be the Nos. 1 and 2 picks in the NBA draft this week and, like Magic and Bird, the two could not be more different — and that extends to their parents. Whereas Lonzo Ball’s father is outspoken and boastful, Fultz’s mother, a government worker, is quiet. “I was raised to be respectful, cordial, not loud,” Ebony Fultz told The Washington Post’s Kent Babb, who wrote an excellent profile of Markelle Fultz ahead of Thursday’s draft.
LaVar Ball may be smart as a whip and adept at hoops hype, but “respectful, cordial, not loud” have not described his demeanor since his son burst on the scene at the start of last season. LaVar has talked trash about Stephen Curry and Michael Jordan, predicted that Lonzo (and his other two sons) will win NBA titles, and pumped up his own Big Baller Brand apparel company, complete with a shoe that goes for nearly $500.
LaVar Ball is a reality show just waiting to happen. Not Ebony Fultz.
“It’s just an upbringing kind of thing,” she says.
Best to leave it to the kids, although Lonzo has already set the bar high, saying in March, “I feel I’m better” than Fultz. Markelle isn’t having it, even if it might be good for the NBA. “We just don’t talk about what we’re going to do,” he said.
Both young men stand to make a fortune with a shoe/apparel deal, too. While Lonzo is already (possibly) cashing in on those $500 sneakers, Fultz inked a multiyear deal with Nike late last week. But before doing so, he apparently entertained the idea of signing with Big Baller Brand, of all companies. In an exchange relayed by The Post’s Babb, the young prospect discussed the idea with his trainer, Keith Williams:
Williams: You sure you don’t want to sign with them?
Fultz: I was thinking about it, but then I would make him money, though.
Williams: Or lose them more money.
[Babb asks if there was serious consideration for Team Fultz to join Big Baller Brand]
Fultz: I don’t know, honestly.
Williams: I don’t think they’ve got money to sign nobody.
The fact that Fultz ended up with Nike isn’t surprising. In late May, Fultz was already wearing Nike shoes, socks and shorts at the workout attended by several writers, including Babb, in Northeast D.C. On the night of the draft lottery, a Nike representative called Williams in part to ask about Fultz’s impressions of a sneaker design the representative referred to as the “F2G Soldier” — a play off Fultz’s motto “Faith to the Grind.”
In some ways, Fultz signing with Nike was a big loss for Under Armour, the apparel company headquartered in Baltimore. Fultz is a D.C.-area product whose AAU team, the D.C. Blue Devils, was affiliated with Under Armour, and another local star, Kevin Durant, snubbed Under Armour to re-sign with Nike in 2014. If Under Armour wanted a big-time local prospect, there were some sensible factors when it came to Fultz, and they missed out on him. Still, Fultz signing with his rival’s small, family-owned apparel company, Big Baller Brand, would have been the most stunning possible move.
So where does the Fultz-Ball rivalry go from here? On the court, the scant evidence shows there hasn’t been much real basis for comparison, with Fultz playing high school ball in the Washington area and Lonzo Ball going to school in Los Angeles. Unlike Magic and Bird, who met in one of the most hotly hyped college basketball championships of all time, Fultz and Ball met up in an early February game that UCLA won, 107-66. Fultz had 25 points, five rebounds and five assists; Ball had 22 points, six rebounds and five assists. When the teams faced each other in March, Fultz was out with a sore knee; Ball had 19 points, seven rebounds and eight assists.