Wizards coach Scott Brooks wishes he had had a father like LaVar Ball
Yes, Ball can be over the top. But he’s also an involved, caring dad.
In this All-LaVar, All-The-Time news cycle, most of us missed the money quote about the Marine One of helicopter parents this past week. The day before his team played the Los Angeles Lakers, Washington Wizards coach Scott Brooks was asked what kind of impact a proud and oh-so-loud LaVar Ball would have on his eldest son, Lonzo. The Lakers’ No. 2 overall pick, after all, is busy enough trying to find his niche in the league without worrying about his mouthy pops giving opponents more motivation to school him.
Brooks thought. And thought. A former 10-year NBA journeyman point guard who taught Russell Westbrook all he knows about the position and now coaches John Wall, he finally spoke:
“My father left me at 2,” he said. “I would love to have my father around like [LaVar] is around and talk to him and pump me up with confidence. To me, that’s every son’s dream. … No question, he’s a little ambitious at times [with] what he says. But he’s around his son. And maybe he could temper it a little bit, but I would’ve loved to have my father do that.”
When earlier this month USA Today headlined a column “It’s official: LaVar Ball is the worst sports parent ever,” Brooks and I both thought: No.
The worst sports parent ever never shows up to the game. Never shows up for a graduation, a taekwondo test, piano recital, dinner — heck, your birthday.
He abandons you as an infant, or at 3 or 6 years old. And leaves you with a hole in your soul that you often don’t learn to fill with healthy instead of harmful things until later in life.
“You never get over it,” Brooks said when we spoke more about it this week. “Just a couple weeks ago, I thought about what if my mom was still alive or my dad was in my life. You always think about it.
“There’s so many different emotions. You’re pissed off. You’re angry. You’re sad. You’re hurt. You’re confused. But you have to figure out how to make it all work. I mean, I wished I had my father around to watch me play and support me like Lonzo has been supported.”
Since LaVar Ball penetrated the national consciousness almost exactly a year ago, predicting that son Lonzo’s UCLA Bruins would win the national title, I’ve gone back and forth about whether he is harmless entertainment or a Little Miss Sunshine cautionary tale, the latest warped stage parent to push his kids too far.
I’ve fallen over laughing when he high-stepped into a WWE ring or onto the SportsNation set, trailed by his half-smiling son. I’ve admired his gumption as an entrepreneur. Cutting out the middleman in an industry that has profited greatly and had undue influence on youth basketball (and on our kicks-obsessed children), LaVar Ball essentially told Nike, Adidas and Under Armour, I’m good. Big Baller Brand will compete with you.
I’ve also cringed when he’s told established female professionals to “Stay in yo’ lane” — and then failed to recognize the bad optics when he sold T-shirts on the triple-B website with that slogan. Or, after son Lonzo and UCLA went down to Kentucky in the Sweet 16, and LaVar Ball said, “Realistically, you can’t win no championship with three white guys because the foot speed is too slow.”
Most of all, I’ve wondered how much we are to blame for the man blowing up like Kim, Khloe and the rest of air-kiss L.A. What does it say about our media culture that a 50-year-old man who averaged a scant 2.2 points per game in his one year of college basketball becomes a bigger part of our coverage than most NBA draft picks?
He has a 6,000-plus-word Wikipedia page with 101 articles referenced and 60,000 more tweets about himself than Lonzo. Ball in the Family, a streaming Facebook reality show that also features younger sons LaMelo and LiAngelo, is laced with as much hilarity as absurdity.
But I’m with Brooks. All parents are flawed, and LaVar Ball is no exception. The ones who remain in their sons’ and daughters’ lives, who support, teach and love them, those are the keepers.
“He is, at times, outlandish and a little ambitious,” Brooks said. “But a lot of it I believe is having fun. I’ve never met him. I’ve never met his son. But I look at [Lonzo], he seems like a really respectful young man.”
Brooks went on, imagining sitting around the Ball family table at night. “I would imagine they have a lot of laughing going on in their household. Does he really think he can beat Michael Jordan? I’m sure his three boys are killing him over dinner, just killing him. ‘Dad. Really? You think you can beat Michael Jordan?’ ’’
I’ve known Brooks for 20 years. I covered him while he was with the New York Knicks. But it wasn’t until this week that I realized our full kinship.
“You’ve been through it,” Brooks finally said. “You didn’t have your mother. Your dad was …”
Until late in my teens when he got into recovery, my father was an active alcoholic. He tried to be there after my mom left my sister and me when I was 6 and she was 4. But until he got sober, his baggage couldn’t fit into a passenger jet.
When you’re about that life, you don’t judge LaVar Ball solely on his outrageousness or out-of-line blather. No, you see him as the parent you would have paid to have that involved in your life growing up — driving you to practice or IHOP, advocating for you every day.
Brooks was 2, the youngest of seven children, when his father, George Brooks, left. “I never heard from him since,” he said. “I don’t even know when he died. I didn’t know a lot – nor did I ever ask.
“I just figure he had his decisions to make and his life to live and he didn’t want me to be a part of it.
“It’s weird, never speaking about it,” Brooks said. “But as you know, you gotta find happiness. I just used my mom as my guide to happiness. I saw how hard she worked.
“When you don’t have a father, your mother becomes both, and then your buddies’ fathers become like your adoptive fathers. My high school coach was kind of my adoptive father. You just figure it out. You see LaVar, and sometimes he gets criticized and I’m like, ‘Wow.’ Him and his wife are raising three kids, and they’re all so respectful and incredible players. If you didn’t have a father, we all wished we had that situation.”
The data is numbing. One in four American children under 18 is being raised without a father at home, and many of those live below the poverty line, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Of kids growing up without their biological father in their home, 57.6 percent are black, compared with 31.2 percent Hispanic and 20.7 percent white. But fatherlessness doesn’t discriminate. Without a dad, you’re more likely to be poor, drop out and suffer from health problems and more susceptible to substance abuse. Boys are more likely to become involved in crime, and girls are more likely to become pregnant as teens.
As I was finishing writing, LaVar Ball called. A colleague had told him I was working on a column about him and he had read Brooks’ quotes.
“I grew up with a lot of kids without fathers and I saw what it was like,” he said from his home in Chino Hills, California. “I’ve been to the streets, where some places they think being a father is sleeping with the same woman twice and she gets pregnant and you gotta come around a little. No. You have a baby, you don’t get to just see that baby when you want to. You see them every day and you take care of them.
“A father isn’t there just when things are good,” LaVar continued. “You go through all of it. You be involved. And you stay involved. That’s what I was taught. I was lucky. My parents are still together. People say, ‘Oh, LaVar, back off a little.’ Why? When Scott Brooks said that, it made me feel good. Because people don’t know everything. And if they knew the alternative some of these kids are dealing with — no parent at all — they wouldn’t judge like they judge.”
About the only blessing you do have growing up without a dad, Brooks and I agreed, was that “you learn from it.”
“In the best-case scenario,” he said, “you don’t become bitter over it and you try to make better decisions with your own kids and your own family. Don’t become that person.”
You also grow up to understand that, despite all the half-cocked proclamations and actions, LaVar Ball is a loving father. And we all could use more of that.