It’s time for Lonzo Ball to ‘fire’ LaVar
While Zo is still a Laker, he now has to deal with the damage his dad caused
Nearly two years after being drafted by the Los Angeles Lakers, Lonzo Ball is facing the most critical juncture of his basketball career. As he approaches the next phase in his journey, Ball might have to make a choice that successful stars such as Floyd Mayweather Jr., Beyoncé and Michael Jackson made on their path to greatness:
LaVar Ball is not technically his son’s agent. That title belongs to Harrison Gaines, the founder of SLASH Sports and Entertainment, who also represents Lonzo’s brothers LiAngelo and LaMelo. But Gaines worked with LaVar Ball to create the Ball Sports Group, so it’s clear who’s calling the shots and managing Lonzo’s career.
After a lengthy hiatus, LaVar Ball emerged this week with comments that not only pissed off a lot of people in the NBA but will also have an impact on his son’s career.
During an interview with an Arizona radio station on Tuesday, LaVar Ball blamed Lakers coach Luke Walton for turning his son “into a loser,” even describing him as “the worst coach he ever had.” Then he called the station back and said, “They should have gotten rid of Luke a long time ago.”
On Thursday, LaVar Ball criticized Magic Johnson during an interview on Skip and Shannon: Undisputed, calling the Lakers’ president of basketball operations “just a face.”
“I don’t think his say-so is like his say-so,” LaVar Ball said of Johnson. “I’m trying to figure out who’s in charge. That’s why the system is crumbling down. I don’t know what’s going on over there.”
"Magic, from my point of view now, listening to him talk, he's just a face. I don't think his say-so is like his say-so. … I'm trying to figure out who's in charge [of the Lakers]. The system is crumbling down." — @Lavarbigballer pic.twitter.com/F6P7iwAp95
— UNDISPUTED (@undisputed) February 7, 2019
LaVar Ball even had time to criticize LeBron James during the Thursday interview, first answering “yes” when asked if his son was better than James, and then stating, “LeBron getting older. I’ll make Zo better than LeBron if I’m coaching.”
— UNDISPUTED (@undisputed) February 7, 2019
How is Lonzo Ball, once he comes back from his ankle injury in a few weeks, not affected by all of this? How does he enter a locker room where his playing time is dictated by the coach his dad just tried to dog walk, his future is controlled by a legend whose management skills his dad just besmirched and his presence is influenced by the best player in the game, whom his dad just called old?
In LaVar Ball’s alternate universe, the best-case scenario is that the Lakers ship Lonzo to Phoenix, where he can one day play alongside younger brothers LiAngelo and LaMelo.
The problem with that scenario: While LaMelo, who’s playing at SPIRE Institute in Ohio, is projected to be an early second-round pick in a 2020 ESPN mock draft, LiAngelo has as much chance of playing in an NBA game as LaVar has in his claim that he could beat Michael Jordan one-on-one.
Maybe, for LaVar, this isn’t about basketball. Maybe, in this day where everyone’s “building a brand,” this is simply making the Balls into the sports version of the Kardashians.
If that’s the plan, great, because the public buys into what LaVar Ball is selling. Millions watch each episode of the Ball in the Family social media show (produced by the makers of Keeping Up with the Kardashians). Thousands line up when the family’s apparel brand opens up a pop-up shop that’s supposed to showcase a shoe that you may or may not receive.
And his sons, despite never having much to say, are social media megastars. Lonzo has 6.1 million followers on Instagram and LaMelo 4.2 million. Even LiAngelo, whose life would be completely different if his last name were Bell, has more followers on Instagram (2.4 million) than seven NBA All-Stars (including Kemba Walker and Karl-Anthony Towns).
But, unlike the Kardashians, the Ball brothers have talent. Lonzo Ball’s one year at UCLA earned him the No. 2 pick in the NBA draft, and with his high basketball IQ, he can one day be a solid NBA player.
LiAngelo Ball, while not NBA material, was a great high school player who earned a college scholarship to UCLA.
And LaMelo Ball has grown — he’s now 6 feet, 6 inches tall — and developed his offensive game to a point where he, if he ever learns how to play defense, might be the most successful basketball player in the family.
Yet LaVar Ball’s inability to be a spectator and enjoy his sons’ success has hurt all three.
First, LaVar pulled LaMelo out of Chino Hills High School after feuding with the team’s coach about the way his son was being used. Five months later, LaVar pulled LiAngelo out of UCLA because he was unhappy with the indefinite suspension of his middle son after he was caught shoplifting in China. It’s clear, watching some of the episodes of Ball in the Family, that LaMelo and LiAngelo would have preferred to remain in California to play in high school and college rather than being forced to prematurely launch their professional careers in Lithuania.
Now LaVar has caused irreparable damage for Lonzo with the hometown team he always wanted him to play for, the Lakers.
Will Walton, whose coaching ability was questioned by LaVar, be inclined to play Lonzo fewer minutes? Will Johnson, whose ability to navigate the team was challenged by LaVar, look to rid himself of the Balls at the first available opportunity? And you know what happens if you dare cross the King.
Everything LaVar said this week might be simply dismissed, ignored or forgiven. But as long as Lonzo’s a Laker, they will never be forgotten.
Which all leaves Lonzo Ball in a tough place.
He’s only 21. He and his brothers have worldwide success, which is largely due to how LaVar has positioned them. Honestly, no one’s talking about Lonzo right now — based on his inconsistent game, which has shown just flashes of brilliance — if not for the hype created by LaVar.
So the devotion to his father is strong. LaVar, living in a $5.2 million mansion in Chino Hills, has made Lonzo and his brothers rich, marketable and known around the world.
But Lonzo, and potentially LaMelo, have talent that can take them to another level. Marginal players in the NBA get contracts that pay them tens of millions of dollars, and players slightly better than that get even more. Otto Porter signed a four-year contract worth $106 million, which proves there’s crazy money to be made, without the sideshow.
If you’re a team, you have to ask yourself: Do I want to deal with the antics of LaVar Ball?
There are people at Chino Hills, UCLA and now the Lakers who probably regret the partnership.
But if Lonzo is concerned, this Instagram Stories post definitely didn’t appear to show it:
🗣 SOUND ON
Lonzo’s got a message. 😏 pic.twitter.com/oFnAvmmHhH
— SLAM (@SLAMonline) February 7, 2019
Lonzo remains a Laker, with all the repercussions that will come with it. But, at some point in his career, Lonzo’s going to have to take a stand.
The fathers of Beyoncé, Mayweather and Jackson all placed their children on the path to success.
The dismissal of their fathers didn’t derail their continued elevation to greatness.
While Lonzo can’t technically “fire” LaVar, a decision to silence his dad could prove to be the most pivotal move of his career.
Doing so might even benefit LaVar.
A little family tension directed at LaVar just might provide a ratings increase for the reality show that would make the Kardashians envious.