What does LaVar Ball do for a living? What is his job? Does he have any work, apart from putting his kids’ feet up for sale? What does he do with his days, other than live off the sweat of his sons? Free prizes to anyone who can answer the question: What has LaVar Ball ever done?
You have known this man before. You have watched him in other sports, huckstering his prodigies, heard him braying and taking credit for their gifts, as if he personally engineered their molecular DNA. As if the children and their mother had little or nothing to do with his brilliant science project. You have seen him at tennis matches and on pool decks and in football stadiums, talking overly loud while youngsters stand at his side, sweetly meek and strangely quiet, and that’s why you know how this story ends. It ends with the kids paying a price.
Ball displays no discernible talent for anything other than replicating himself and injecting his failed ambitions into his handsome offspring, Lonzo, LiAngelo and LaMelo. As a player he averaged just 2.2 points and 2.3 rebounds and couldn’t even make his free throws (he shot 40 percent) in a single season at Washington State before dropping down to Division II, and he didn’t hang any banners there either.
Here’s how desperate he was to be an athlete of some kind: After he was done with basketball, he shifted to football. He returned a few kicks for the London Monarchs and was still hanging around as a practice squad player for the Carolina Panthers in 1995. He never played an actual down in the NFL, which provoked the following lyric from Shaquille O’Neal’s dis track: “Dudes talking loud, I don’t understand/Walking around like they the true Big Baller Brand.”
Maybe the fact that he has never been in charge of anything is why he has to act like he’s in charge of everything. As an AAU coach, he marches around acting as silly as a field marshal giving orders to ducklings. At the Adidas Uprising Summer Tournament in Las Vegas this week, he drew a technical foul, demanded the female ref who gave it to him be removed, then got a second technical and pulled his team off the floor and forfeited. Afterward, he said the woman ref needed to “stay in her lane,” and, “She got caught in a bad place messing with me.” Which wasn’t even close to the most embarrassing thing he said. That came when the man who has never done anything in his own right, whose supreme achievement in life is that he once got to change clothes at a New York Jets practice squad locker, had the nerve to add, “She ain’t got enough on her résumé.”
LaVar Ball’s act has never been just harmless hype. It’s not just posturing and bluster and promotion but rather the uncontrolled power surge of a man who needs to matter — so much that he wrecked a high school summer tournament for boys. He simply isn’t willing to stand aside in his sons’ careers and let things happen without him and his say-so.
It’s possible that Ball is indeed a new marketing genius who will create a mini-talent agency and merchandise empire out of his three Big Baller sons. His unmet demand for a $1 billion deal from a shoe company — and his creation of a $495 sneaker — may be an overreach — or may be an attempt to secure proprietary rights rather than ceding control and the lions’ share of cash-in on his sons to manufacturers. Nothing wrong with that, if you can make it work.
The problem is that it sets up a lousy dynamic. Lonzo Ball is a rookie with the Lakers, LiAngelo is about to be a freshman at UCLA, and LaMelo is 15. What happens when one of them wants to say “No”?
Then there is the secondary question: Are adulation and money enough compensation for playing out your adolescences and family dramas on TMZ? When the children become the main breadwinners in a family and the parents go on the payroll, things get weird, whether you’re talking about Hollywood or the NBA or the tennis tour. What if LiAngelo decides he would rather not work out? What if LaMelo burns out? What if Lonzo decides he needs different representation? When does the business relationship switch off and the family relationship switch on? At the Thanksgiving table? Exactly how much unqualified support can a father offer to a son when there’s a signature sneaker brand on the line?
There is a price to be paid. You have seen it before, with Marv Marinovich and Mike Agassi and Jim Pierce and all the other fathers who turn play into a duty and their kids into the family firm. Who forgot that a parent’s main duty is not to tell a child to keep going but that it’s enough for the day and it’s time to rest. For Andre Agassi, the price was dabbling in crystal meth and a ruined disk in his back. For Jennifer Capriati, it was heroin and a shredded shoulder by the age of 28; for Todd Marinovich, the robot QB, it was both meth and heroin and a tanked career. For Kobe Bryant, it was a complete rupture with his parents, whom he apparently hasn’t spoken with in three years, over money.
Even when there are no meltdowns or bankruptcies or restraining orders or buried resentments, there is a price. When an ambitious parent with no other role hangs over a prodigy’s shoulder, there is a weight. And sometimes it can feel like a sack of rocks.
Right now the Ball sons seem modest and levelheaded, and all are in position to get free educations at UCLA, which is no small victory for their parents. Some families manage to survive prodigy-dom in a healthy way. Some even thrive: Venus and Serena Williams far surpassed every prediction made by their father, Richard. But it’s worth noting three things. While Richard Williams created some problems for his daughters with his remarks and high profile, he did some big things right. He refused to plunge them into the pressures of public performance prematurely; he had a rule that there was no talking about tennis once they left the court; and once they turned pro, he did not act as their coach, agent or manager. It was a recipe for long-term health.
LaVar Ball comes on like he is nothing we have ever seen before. Maybe that’s true. But right now, he’s acting like someone we all have met a million times.
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