In BIRŠTONAS, Lithuania and LOS ANGELES
There’s a door cracked open in this haven of serenity, an Eastern European spa hotel where robed guests walk carpeted hallways and employees speak in whispers.
But someone left Room 215 ajar, and the man on a love seat inside is throwing dice and shouting — noise from a frenetic backgammon game escaping the suite and traveling the halls.
“You better not do that! I dare you. I dare you! I’ll murder you,” he roars, and a small cluster of videographers and relatives piles in to witness the showdown. “I guarantee you I’ll hit you right where you stand.”
A fist pounds a coffee table and dice drop onto the board, enough trash talk to rattle the windows.
“Give me them dice,” he thunders. “Come on, let’s go! Gonna be sixes first.”
Double fours instead, and his opponent cackles.
“Sixes like that! Sixes!” he says, as if the door ever stood a chance.
Amid the music and cheers at Staples Center on the night of a Los Angeles Lakers game, the silent woman has come here in search of comfort and to watch her son, for most of what she loves is 6,000 miles away.
She has been going to basketball games for decades, back when she could scream with everyone else. But 15 months ago that changed, and since then so has most everything else, so the 50-year-old sits in the second row as the people surrounding her stand. Even when her son glides up the court, pivots and uncorks that off-center shot that took him from their back yard to the NBA, she waves her good hand and wants to join in the noise, wants it so bad — but even inside this vortex of commotion, where ticket-holders wear jerseys and people speak in shouts, the words swirl in her mind and yet she says nothing.
In the beginning
Years ago, Tina and LaVar Ball would dream out loud of an audacious future — their three sons would suit up for the Lakers; the family would move out of their cookie-cutter neighborhood and into a mansion — and if friends and relatives rolled their eyes at the absurdity, they didn’t give a damn.
This was destiny, they told themselves and others. And on top of that, they were ideal partners, yin and yang, complementary in every way. Tina was frugal and expressed herself in private, free-handing the Nike logo and inspirational words onto her sons’ bedroom walls. LaVar preferred extravagance and putting his mark out there for all to see, attaching two cursive Bs — “Big Baller,” the name of his private basketball coaching business in Chino Hills, Calif. — on the driveway gate when Lonzo was young, and it was around then that he would dangle his toddlers on a barbell.
Which of them could hang there longest? Who could jump down the most stairs or stay underwater or stand on one foot for the most time? Every day there was a champion, and tomorrow there’d be a new test. “Everything is just growing competition,” LaVar will say much later, and wife and husband liked to challenge each other, too.
Their relationship had been born of competition, Tina a basketball player on the Cal State Los Angeles women’s team and LaVar on the Golden Eagles men’s team, and one day LaVar made some wild comment — “You’re gonna think about me,” he says now, “whether it be good or bad” — and Tina laughed, and that was that.
Her dad was a tougher sell, though, naturally protective of his daughter and turned off by the young man’s bravado. But LaVar kept showing up, making Bob Slatinsky’s little girl laugh and talking about his devotion to family, and when Tina needed surgery on her appendix, Bob noted it was LaVar who brought her schoolwork to the hospital.
“You must see something really good in this guy,” Bob, now 75, would tell her at one point, and shortly after the couple married in 1997, they bought a house around the corner from where Tina’s parents lived, and LaVar had it painted white because his wife liked the buildings in Santorini. That meant more to him than the neighborhood rule requiring all homes be some shade of tan and, when the association kept hassling him about it, he ran for president of the group just to trash the sheet of approved colors.
“My dad’s always been loud,” says LiAngelo, the couple’s middle son. LaVar didn’t think much of limits or things like shame, and what he did believe was that all three of his sons had been born to play in the NBA. Tina went with it, though her ambitions were a bit more modest: She taught physical education at a middle school, ran local sports programs, made the costumes for a production of “Beauty and the Beast.” She liked to dance and laugh and tell stories, and if anyone had a shot of offsetting LaVar’s grandiosity with down-to-earth pragmatism, it was Tina.
“We balance each other out,” he says, and that’s why their business idea seemed promising. By the time he was a teenager, Lonzo was dominating older players and had placed himself on the NBA track; weekends and family vacations were spent in gyms, evenings spent following LaVar’s strict routine. The couple noticed other pro athletes’ parents getting only a small piece of the endorsement pie, so they would subvert a process they deemed unjust by starting their own shoe and apparel line.
“Ain’t no backup plan,” LaVar would say, and the creative and thoughtful Tina would be Big Baller Brand’s lead designer and the company’s soul. LaVar, willing to say anything and play whatever character he needed to play in the name of promotion, would be its voice.
Years before LaVar told USA Today he “would kill” Michael Jordan in a game of one-on-one — one of many statements that propelled him to fame during an era when history is written by the loudest — he was telling friends that, when the time was right, that’s precisely what he’d say.
In February 2017, Lonzo was a freshman superstar at UCLA and a few weeks from declaring for the NBA draft, the credibility boost Big Baller Brand was waiting for. One day, Tina asked her dad to come over and repair their garbage disposal, and she and Bob talked as he tinkered before she disappeared into another room to work on a design. At one point she called for Bob, and he would remember walking in and seeing Tina jerk her head back, as if slinging hair out of her face, before collapsing on a sofa.
He called an ambulance and summoned LaVar, in the back yard with a group of young athletes, and he made it inside just in time to see his wife’s eyes roll back.
It is a Wednesday in late March, a little more than a year since Tina suffered a major stroke at 49. She has spent the past few months living with her parents, Bob and Catherine, and on this spring afternoon she leans on a cane, picks up a whiteboard and makes her way to their dining table.
“You know what we start with,” Bob tells her after they take their seats, and though she is right-handed, it is no longer reliable so Tina uses her left hand and a black marker to begin scrawling the alphabet.
“Okay,” she says, one of the few words she can use with regularity.
At various times as the days and weeks passed following the stroke, Tina’s family was told she might die, but then she survived; that she’d be left in a vegetative state, but then she awoke; that she’d never walk again, but then she stood. Feeling has slowly returned to her right hand, and she is considered healthy under the circumstances. But the incident left her with expressive aphasia, a condition that affects a third of all stroke survivors and — though Tina can visualize precisely the words she’d like to say — largely robs them of verbal communication. In other words, the matriarch of the most loquacious family in sports has lost her ability to speak.
On this day, she writes the letters quickly, and among aphasia’s cruelties is that this still feels easy.
“Patience,” Bob says, but she ignores him.
Decades ago, they’d sit at a table like this and Bob would spread a map across the surface and, long before LaVar’s daily household Olympics, challenge his two daughters to identify state capitals. He worked nights as a manufacturing supervisor, so he’d spend days working with his girls on reading or math problems, and he eventually taught Tina to play chess. The game overwhelmed her at first, so many pieces and movements, but years passed and progress was made, and eventually she checkmated her dad.
“People learn things by repetition,” says Bob, a burly but soft-spoken Detroit native. “And it’s patience.”
“Patience, patience, patience,” Tina says, playfully mocking him.
“That’s not a very good one,” he says of her Z, passing through it with an eraser.
Now it’s time for phase two, and sometimes that’s Tina listing colors or writing the alphabet in reverse. But she seems especially eager today, so Bob shakes up the routine.
“Show me a T,” he says, calling letters at random, and Tina watches his lips.
She writes it, cocking her head to the right so wiseguy Bob sees how easy this is. Though he prefers a methodical approach, he’s thankful the stroke left her confidence and sense of humor intact. He asks her to show him an A, then a K, then an O, then a Y. She writes and waits for the next letter, not realizing she has written a W.
“Y,” Bob says, drawing out the sound. “Yo . . . yo.”
“Yes,” Tina says, making the correction before bumping her forehead with the heel of her hand.
Even weeks after the stroke, this would’ve seemed impossible. Her right side was paralyzed, and losing her independence eroded her spirit. She fortified it with marathon games of Connect Four with LaMelo, her youngest son, refusing to stop until she beat him. When she was eventually transferred home, Tina refused to have grab bars installed in their home or use a wheelchair. “Yechhh,” she says now when asked about the chair, which she’ll only sit in if someone takes her to the beach.
Relatives would occasionally find her alone in a room, not wallowing in self-pity but filling in an adult coloring book or combing word-search puzzles. After LiAngelo was one of three UCLA players detained in China last year for shoplifting, an incident that drew attention (along with several tweets) from President Trump, LaVar pulled his two younger sons out of school and signed them with a professional team in Lithuania. When Tina and her parents visited them in January, included in her bag was her whiteboard and flash cards.
Tina seems hellbent, in the same way LaVar is singularly focused on their sons reaching the NBA, on regaining as much as possible of what her life was. This leads to frustration, but her determination gives her sons and parents hope, and indeed Bob and Catherine decided months ago to respond to any achievement with over-the-top celebration. “Every day she accomplishes something,” Catherine says, “and we just go bananas.”
With Tina waiting, Bob goes on calling out letters.
“Show me an N, like ‘no,’ ” he says. “ ‘News’ . . . N.”
By the time she writes it and looks up, he’s beaming.
“That’s it!” Bob says. “Show me a J. Like ‘Jimmy.’ Or ‘jump.’ Jaaaayyy.”
She looks at him. In Tina’s mind, she is aware the letter J exists, but she cannot visualize it. The way Bob understands it, this is like searching a disorganized garage for a screwdriver: It’s here somewhere, but where?
“Jaaayyyy,” Bob says, but for now it is lost. “All right, then give me a G, like ‘gum.’ ”
She writes it almost without thinking.
“Now try a J,” he says.
“J . . .” Tina says, still unable to picture it.
“Like the one you used to always miss,” Catherine calls from the kitchen, and though the mental bridges between mind and mouth have been damaged, her mother’s words somehow cut a new path.
“Ohh! J!” Tina says, writing it on the board, and Bob gives her a fist bump and Catherine dances next to the refrigerator, and Tina rolls her eyes because she should’ve known it all along.
A world away
“When is my girl getting in?” LaVar asks in his hotel suite in Lithuania, and a reality show producer answers: Tina is scheduled to arrive very late the following night. So, he says, why not schedule an interview the moment she walks into the Vytautas Mineral Spa?
Because she will be exhausted. Because she and her parents will have been traveling for the better part of 24 hours.
“I coach Tina, like, you know, on a tough basis the same way I do my boys,” LaVar says, and indeed he views his wife’s ailment as a new opportunity to tighten the emotional screws until something breaks down — the weakness or the person. “. . . You can solve a stroke. It just takes time.”
If, on the other side of the planet, Tina is recovering with puzzles and daily repetition, LaVar believes in a different approach. He says it was initially his idea to prohibit Tina from using a wheelchair, not explicitly as a challenge but because, he says, Tina would be “tearing up our house.”
Rather than slow his gait when they’d go to lunch in Chino Hills, he’d point out she’s “moving like an old-ass lady” because she uses a cane or advise Tina to “put your damn foot forward and walk!”
“Keep moving slow; I’m gonna be inside with the AC blowing,” he now recalls telling her. “[Shoot], I’m not waiting all day for you to walk across the street; you better get to moving.”
LaVar will, during a one-hour interview, praise his wife’s fortitude and progress, but more frequently he brags about the harsh things he has told her over the past 15 months. His words draw shocked expressions from strangers, he says, and LaVar’s own mother often leaves the room when he speaks to Tina this way.
He does not apologize for this or much else, and he believes — or says he believes — Lonzo is the first but not the last of his sons to reach the NBA because of two things: LaVar’s unreasonable expectations and God’s plan, which apparently included giving Tina a near-fatal stroke.
“The Lord said: I’m going to tuck her away in this hospital for a minute, LaVar, till you finish doing what you’re doing,” he says, going on to suggest that his wife’s affliction in no way disrupts their pursuit of success and that he never worried about her because, simply, he’s too lucky for his wife to die young.
“She’ll be a little — excuse my language — [messed] up, but she ain’t gonna die,” he says, and with a videographer maneuvering around the suite, it’s difficult to know whether LaVar truly believes what he’s saying or if it’s just good TV.
“Ball in the Family,” which airs on Facebook, recently completed its second season, and in Lithuania, no fewer than seven young documentarians carry walkie-talkies and wait to record LaVar’s every move. Many of them have been here since LaVar brought his sons in January, and in the months since they have found themselves chronicling everything from LaVar forcing his way onto the BC Vytautas coaching staff to his slow rides in the hotel’s glass elevator.
Because of his bold maneuvering, it’s almost easy to forget the relatively short life span of LaVar’s fame. Over a little more than a year, he has hyped Lonzo’s journey from UCLA to the No. 2 pick in the NBA draft; feuded with Charles Barkley and LeBron James; priced a Big Baller Brand sneaker at $495 per pair; appeared shirtless at a WWE event; refused to thank Trump after the president suggested on Twitter that he “should have left [LiAngelo] in jail” following the shoplifting charge; pulled LiAngelo out of UCLA and LaMelo out of high school to play professionally in Lithuania; suggested Lakers Coach Luke Walton is unqualified; and engineered the boys’ abrupt departure from the Lithuanian team because LaVar disapproved of the coach.
On less dramatic days, members of the video crew treat LaVar’s arrivals and departures from the hotel like an event. And when he’s in the mood for chicken wings or ribs instead of the salted fish at the hotel buffet, they load a van and follow him to BIR.BUR.BAR a few blocks away and require restaurant employees and patrons to sign waivers to appear on the show — or leave.
“It cause a lot of stress,” one of the employees says, and because LaVar has spent the past five months living like a mad king — in his own faraway castle, in extreme isolation but for family members and loyalists, devoted subjects who assemble in anticipation of him — it’s nearly impossible to tell what is authentic and what is staged, or even whether LaVar himself can tell the difference.
In his suite on this afternoon, during an interview he insists is recorded, LaVar sidesteps questions that would humanize him and offsets the occasional tender moment about his wife — “As long as she can smile, give a kiss and a hug,” he says, “I’m good” — with striking displays of cruelty — “That’s probably why she had the stroke, so she can be quiet for a minute.”
And whether he is still playing a character or has lost himself in it, soon LaVar will be coming home.
Frustration and hope
When Tina moved in with her parents, Catherine and Bob packed a desk with word searches and flash cards, held nightly card-game tournaments, went to the movies and told stories. By now, they’ve learned that most aphasia victims plateau in their recovery after the first year, but miracles have happened and the brain is weird, so how else to process how Tina responds when she hears songs she liked as a child?
“There’s a pawnshop . . .” Bob had begun a few days earlier.
“Pawnshop on the corner,” Tina would continue in a singsong voice, “of Pitts—”
It is enough to generate frustration and hope, and the only way for Tina’s parents to defeat the former is to submerge themselves in the latter, telling themselves and trying to believe that one day they’ll do or say something — with no hint at what that might be — that’ll ignite the right combination of brain cells and snap Tina out of this.
On this afternoon it’s lunchtime, and Bob has deputized Tina to be his GPS, so she points when it’s time to turn the Mercedes SUV left into the parking lot of a Mexican restaurant. “Okay,” she says, motioning toward a vacant space, and when the Mercedes SUV stops and they all unload, Bob and Catherine move slowly and walk in with their daughter. They slide into a booth, Tina and Catherine order the shrimp ceviche because they always do, and Bob speaks as if no stroke ever happened: about watching Lonzo from the second row the previous night at Staples Center, how Tina must miss her middle schoolers and younger sons, the tiny glimmers of progress that don’t always come quickly enough for Tina.
“What’s Dad’s famous word?” Bob says.
“Oh,” Tina says. “Patience.”
“Do we have any?” Catherine asks.
“I don’t,” Tina says, sighing as her parents force a laugh.
The plates arrive, and Tina uses her left hand to start into the ceviche. She has regained some feeling in her right hand, though it’s sometimes tingling, other times discomfort.
“Better than nothing,” Bob reminds her.
“Ugh. Yes,” she says.
“But it turns to pain. Sharp pain.”
“Yes, okay, but . . .”
“But you live with it,” Bob says.
“Yes. Live . . . it. Live . . . it.”
“Live . . . with . . . it,” he says, a gentle proctor.
“Yes. Live . . .”
“Live . . . with . . .”
“Live . . . with . . . it,” she says. “God
The exchange is both uncomfortable and inspiring, and how many thoughts — everyday, forgettable things she might’ve once taken for granted — are drifting and trapped in her mind? Are there specific things that Tina, whose life has changed in every meaningful way, wishes she could say?
“Yes! YES!” she says, her eyes widening because it is a most fundamental itch, perhaps the most basic part of a person’s identity, that no one can possibly scratch. “God bless . . . ugh!”
“She’d love to tell you,” Bob says, and before long they’re discussing her upcoming visit to Lithuania and what Tina will feel when she sees LiAngelo and LaMelo for the first time in months. What will that moment be like? What would she tell them, and LaVar, if she could?
Tina thinks about it, and for no perceptible reason, her lips move.
“Yeah, um . . . look . . . here,” she says. “I . . . can . . . do it . . . on . . . my . . . own.”
Catherine’s mouth opens, Bob’s eyes flood, and Tina laughs because she surprised even herself. They raise their cups and say a toast, for today hope has pulled the upset against frustration.
“To Miss Tina Ball,” Catherine says.
“And that’s what makes me keep on trying,” Bob says.
The wait continues
The Mercedes pulls through a gate, and Bob parks it in the circular driveway.
“Do you know anybody that lives here?” he asks his navigator.
“Yep,” Tina says, noticing the changes a construction crew has made since she was last here. “Beau-ti-ful.”
“Big,” she says, and though Bob had planned on shifting the vehicle in reverse to head home, Tina opens the passenger door and starts climbing out.
She grips her cane and walks away from the house, toward a fountain, while Catherine hurries to unlock the front door. Bob, ever protective, notices Tina and calls toward her.
“You’re going to have to walk back,” he says, and she ignores him. “Tina, the door’s open. Tina!”
“Chill!” she says, and when she reaches the fountain, she turns to face the house and smiles.
In this moment, it is clear the Ball estate, as they call it, is more than an eight-bedroom mansion on 31/2 acres. It is a finish line LaVar, during a rare quiet moment, says his wife deserves: the culmination of a long-term plan and a shared vision, and though the two primary residents — one who’s all voice with questionable substance, the other who’s all substance with no voice — imagined it in a different way, this is the symbol of a future Tina and LaVar once wanted. They would do what it took to get here, and though these days it’s unclear which of them seems to have lost more of who they were, she’s now standing in a place they once vowed to reach.
“Sac-ri-fi-ces,” Tina says, looking toward the gable wall and the massive “BBB” — the primary logo of Big Baller Brand — attached to the stucco, as distinctive and loud as the man who insisted upon it. “But yeah.”
She begins the walk toward the front door, leaning on the cane as she carefully plants her right foot, and eventually she reaches the porch and enters the foyer. She likes thinking of the entire family gathering here, spending holidays together, Tina and LaVar growing old and watching their family and company expand. The voices will echo off walls that look inspired by those in Santorini, the noise surely overwhelming at times, and the idea of it makes Tina smile.
With the rest of the family a few weeks from returning to California, she walks toward a corner and lowers herself into a chair. Bob stands and Catherine sits across from their daughter, whose eyes continue scanning the room.
“Nice,” Catherine says.
“Nice,” Tina says, and for the next little while, neither of them will say a word, content to sit here and enjoy the quiet while they still can.