NEW YORK — Here was Lonzo Ball, the heralded rookie point guard of the Los Angeles Lakers, setting foot inside the basketball cathedral that is Madison Square Garden for the first time. And there, in four courtside seats fittingly situated a few chairs down from the Garden’s celebrity row, was Ball’s mother, father and two younger brothers — all decked out in their now ubiquitous Big Baller Brand gear.
The trip to the Big Apple was a crowning moment for the family’s fledgling basketball empire. They opened the brand’s popup store in Manhattan. Younger brothers LiAngelo and LaMelo signed professional contracts to play in Lithuania. And Tuesday night, Lonzo had one of his better performances on one of the game’s biggest stages in a 113-109 overtime loss to the Knicks.
But while the trip reinforced that the business side of the Ball family’s empire is booming, the basketball side remains very much up in the air.
Just don’t tell that to LaVar Ball.
“Any time my son plays, it’s a great feeling, on the fact he gets to play, and I get to watch him play,” the family patriarch said, before flashing his now famous grin. “I can’t never lose.”
Let’s start with Lonzo, who did lose Tuesday night despite finishing with 17 points, eight rebounds and six assists against the Knicks. The 20-year-old has found himself in the middle of a maelstrom from the moment he was taken with the No. 2 overall pick by the Lakers in June’s NBA draft. Labeled the heir apparent to Magic Johnson by the legend himself, Ball has had a decidedly up-and-down opening two months to his rookie season — a roller coaster that’s only been made more dramatic by the never-ending scrutiny around his every move.
He has seemingly approached every situation with the same demeanor: replying to questions with short, succinct answers, politely responding but revealing little.
“I think it shows a lot about the type of person that he is, because he’s got a lot of pressure on him, and that’s just from being a starting point guard for the L.A. Lakers as a rookie,” Lakers Coach Luke Walton said. “I’ve said before, it’s the toughest position in our league to play, and there’s a ton of responsibility that comes with that, and he’s done a great job of handling that, and obviously with how big he is in the social media world that exists now, everything that he does gets scrutinized by everybody. I think he’s handled himself very, very well.”
Regardless, Ball is shooting just 32.7 percent from the field and 25.8 percent from three-point range. He has been outplayed by Kyle Kuzma, the forward the Lakers selected 25 picks behind Ball. At this point, Ball would struggle to make the all-rookie second team from what has been a promising draft class.
It’s been enough of a jumbled start to wonder if the lofty projections placed upon him after a brilliant freshman season at UCLA will prove to be too high.
For his younger brothers, there are far more questions than answers. LaVar Ball yanked LaMelo out of high school after a dispute with his head coach. He then pulled LiAngelo from UCLA after the middle son was suspended indefinitely following an arrest for shoplifting during the Bruins’ season-opening trip to China.
This week, the two brothers agreed to play for a team in Prienai, a town of roughly 10,000 people in Southern Lithuania.
“I think it’s a good situation because I thought of it,” the ever-modest LaVar Ball said. “I think it’s a great situation.
“I only think of what’s best for my boys, and they understand I never steer them wrong, and I don’t think I’m going to start steering them wrong now.”
Is he concerned about the culture shock that could come with playing in Europe — a transition that has waylaid plenty of talented Americans in the past, let alone a 19-year-old that was an overmatched recruit at UCLA and a 16-year-old in need of seasoning?
“No,” he said. “It’s not a big transition. It’s very low, on the fact that we’ll play basketball anywhere. It’s a big transition if you go to the clubs all the time, if you’re used to fancy whims and cars.
“But if you just want to be in the gym? What the hell’s the difference?”
But what about the fact that players as talented as Brandon Jennings — who forged a long NBA career, and once scored 55 points in a game — struggled mightily in Europe?
“Those guys went over with different intentions,” LaVar Ball said. “They’re not going over there to have fun. When you look at it like that and go, ‘Ooh. I get to practice. I get to compete. I get to play in front of a crowd.’ That’s all you want.
“All gyms are the same to us. They’re inside, two goals … just have some fun.”
What remains to be seen is if his sons will have any fun in Europe at all — or if they’ll have enough time there to do so. LaVar Ball said he and his two younger sons will be going to Lithuania in January, but few expect them to last the remainder of the season. Some aren’t sure they’ll last a month.
LaVar said he chose to send his sons to the Lithuanian club because they would, “Let my boys play, and do what they do.” But that isn’t generally how the sport is conducted in Europe, where the culture of controlling coaches and long, hard practices runs counter to the way the sport is conducted in the United States. He has already had frequent problems with his sons’ coaches.
Still, the experience will undoubtedly produce quality content for the family’s Facebook reality series, which is already into its second season. It will allow the family another chance to try to grow its fledgling brand outside of the country, like when LaVar Ball launched popup stores in Shanghai and Hong Kong last month. And given the team’s reported financial issues, it’s likely it will be more accommodating than a typical European club to take advantage of the attention.
What remains to be seen is whether the Ball boys will be able to attract attention for their play on the court, as opposed to the circus their father creates off it.
LaVar Ball believes his two sons teaming up will take care of the basketball part.
“By themselves, they’re okay,” he said, “But together, they can’t be stopped. They’re awesome.”
The Ball family has mastered being a publicity machine. Becoming a basketball empire is going to take far more work.