LaVar Ball achieves his goal with three pros, but was it done at LiAngelo’s and LaMelo’s expense?
The brothers signing with Lithuanian team is part of the ‘better plan,’ but it’s a huge gamble
Boston College guard Jerome Robinson leaped onto the scorers table in the aftermath of the Eagles’ upset of top-ranked Duke on Dec. 9, raising his arms in triumph. His teammates were equally jubilant, only their euphoria disappeared within the thousands who rushed the Conte Forum floor.
Here’s what I thought as I watched that scene play out:
LiAngelo and LaMelo Ball will never experience such a moment.
And they can thank their dad, LaVar.
At the time the Eagles pulled off their upset, LiAngelo Ball was five days removed from LaVar Ball pulling him out of UCLA. And that move came two months after LaVar pulled his youngest son, LaMelo, out of Chino Hills High School.
“I got a better plan for this,” LaVar boasted.
That “better plan” became clearer Monday, as both sons signed contracts to play with Prienu Vytautas, the club team that competes in both the top division of the Lithuanian league and the less competitive Baltic League. The contract is through the end of the season, but both sides have the chance to opt out after a month if things don’t work out playing for a last-place team.
The brothers will trade their comfortable lives to stay in a luxurious spa while playing in a non-English-speaking southern Lithuanian village of about 10,000 people for a team that has reportedly been experiencing financial problems.
So this is what we have:
Prienu Vytautas gets to use the Ball brothers to help prop up a struggling franchise.
LaVar Ball gets to use Prienu Vytautas to help in the launch of their signature shoes because, hey, if you’re gonna sell a basketball shoe, you should probably be playing basketball.
And LiAngelo and LaMelo Ball?
Even if it only lasts a month, they just get used.
I know what some people will say: that LaVar Ball is doing what’s best for his sons. That if your lifelong dream was to be a professional athlete, then this is the best move. That athletes in other sports such as baseball are allowed to skip college and pursue a professional career, and why should the NCAA be the only entity to profit off the skills of college athletes?
If LiAngelo Ball showed the slightest resemblance to LeBron James, and LaMelo demonstrated hints of being as good as Brandon Jennings (who went to Europe after a high school career where he was the Naismith Prep Player of the Year), I’d applaud the decision.
But LiAngelo, even before he was busted for shoplifting, was not expected to play much this year at UCLA. LaMelo, who once missed 20 three-pointers in a sectional playoff game loss, still had to justify the No. 7 ranking bestowed on him by ESPN in the Class of 2019.
Financial details of the contract for the brothers aren’t known, but they won’t be making millions. If they were, I’d be the first to tell LaVar Ball, “Job well done.”
Instead of working on their craft in school, LiAngelo Ball, 19, and LaMelo, 16, will likely leave their fancy new Ferrari and Lamborghini (maybe LaVar Ball gets them shipped over, or buys them new cars) and the new family mansion behind for life in a village where their new professional team will play in a basketball gym that’s smaller (1,700 seats) than most of the high school venues they helped sell out.
The plus: The Ball brothers get to play in perhaps one of the few places on the planet where basketball is the main sport.
The minus: When LiAngelo and LaMelo report to the team next month, they’ll have to sacrifice:
- Warm weather (it’s going to snow on Thursday and Friday in Prienai, Lithuania, with highs in the mid-30s).
- In-N-Out Burger (in terms of recognizable fast-food options, the closest McDonald’s is about a 45-minute drive away).
If LaVar Ball placed his boys in Lithuania to show the world how good they are, we’ll get a chance to see that quickly.
“It’s a grown man’s league,” said Bilal Benn, who averaged 14.5 points a game for Naglis Palanga after a college career at Niagara and Villanova. “We played a game against Žalgiris, and their big guy fouled me so hard that the bottom half of my body started burning. They will foul the s— out of you.”
It’s not likely we’ll see the run-and-gun brand of basketball that once helped LaMelo score 92 points in a high school game. “In Lithuania it’s a slower, more team-oriented game,” said Tremmell Darden, a former Niagara star who’s played 13 years in Europe (one with Žalgiris Kaunas, Lithuania’s top team). “If they don’t have the proper mindset going over there, it’s going to be tough. If they go over there complaining about what they don’t have, they’ll be home real quick.”
Players, especially American players, will get tested. And guys do fight. Just ask former NBA players Loren Woods and Robert Pack, who both responded to aggressive play with punches while playing for Žalgiris in Euroleague games.
Beyond adapting to the style of play, the Ball brothers will have to adapt to entirely different lifestyles.
Luxury buses and plane rides will be replaced by old vans. “One trip, we had to keep stopping because the van kept overheating,” Benn said.
Modern gyms and workout facilities give way to, on lesser teams, inadequate weight rooms.
And food options will be so limited that LaVar Ball might want to hire a cook for his sons.
“The food over there will be tough — pork is the main meat in many of their meals,” Darden said. “I had to call home and get some recipes from my grandmother because I got sick of eating at the same three places all the time.”
When Benn got a taste of the fried chicken cooked in the restaurant of the hotel where he lived, he asked to have it prepared every day. “They made some banging chicken,” Benn said. “That really surprised me.”
Could Darden or Benn have seen themselves playing overseas as teenagers?
“I played in Lithuania when I was 30,” Darden said. “I can’t imagine going overseas to play at 16 or 19.”
Benn, who played his first year professionally when he was 23, agreed. “When I was 16, I wasn’t ready to leave my grandma’s sight.”
With limited social options, how can the Ball brothers expect to spend their free time?
“My life during my rookie season [in Turkey] was simple: I played a lot of PlayStation, and I hung out with one American on my team and the Americans on the women’s team,” Darden said. “I left Turkey thinking, ‘I can’t do another year like this by myself.’ ”
Darden was lucky when he invited his girlfriend to come live with him in Belgium the following season, and she accepted (the two are now married).
Think LiAngelo’s and LaMelo’s girlfriends, both introduced during the Ball in the Family reality show, are going to leave the comforts of California for the cold winters in Europe?
Yes, LiAngelo and LaMelo are rich (which could ease some of the harsh adjustments).
And, yes, life in Lithuania will make for a great backdrop for the Ball in the Family series, which is a big part of LaVar Ball’s “better plan.”
But is being shipped to Lithuania really in the Ball brothers’ best interest?
An alternative plan for many parents would have been to leave LiAngelo Ball at UCLA and force him to understand that there are repercussions for stealing sunglasses, even if you’re fortunate enough to avoid prison.
An alternative plan would have been to allow LaMelo to grow his game on a high school level while gaining confidence competing against his peers.
An alternative plan would have been to allow the brothers to walk on the cloud the Boston College players have been on after beating the nation’s top team for the third time in school history. From the kids at the end of the bench who may never play a game this season to sophomore guard Ky Bowman — who had 30 points, 10 rebounds and 9 assists — the elation experienced in that moment will remain for the rest of their lives.
Sadly, LiAngelo and LaMelo Ball will never experience that ecstasy.
Some might argue that all LaVar Ball is doing is following the game plan of Kris Jenner, who has guided a talentless family into a brand that’s collectively worth nearly $400 million.
If that’s the endgame, I salute LaVar Ball.
But it’s a huge gamble, with two teenage kids being maneuvered like pawns. In the end, the television series and the sneakers might earn them millions. I just worry that, 10 years from now, LiAngelo and LaMelo will look back on their teenage years with regret for a lost opportunity in a game they clearly love so much.
For the sake of LaVar Ball and family harmony, let’s hope this “better plan” works.