10 min read

Ball in the Family

Once the premier college basketball program in America, the UCLA Bruins had fallen on hard times in the new millennium. While the Bruins attracted players like Kevin Love, Russell Westbrook, and Arron Afflalo, all great players that went on to great NBA success, UCLA has not been a perennial contender. Aside from a nice stretch between 2006 and 2008, where the Bruins made a Final Four and two Elite Eight appearances, the Bruins have been mostly seen as also-rans more than anything.

Despite the continued lack of success, the school does not want to detach itself from its historic past. 11 NCAA titles is something that goes a long way in the recruiting process. The problem starts appearing when that last title, 1995, is more than 20 years ago. The players that coach Steve Alford is now recruiting weren’t even alive when the Bruins last won a title. For all they know, they are no different than Illinois or Notre Dame: good teams that make the NCAA tournament but never really pose a threat to anything.

Looking to right the direction that UCLA has taken in these recent years, Alford has focused a lot of attention on recruiting the right players for his program. Having come on in 2013 following a disastrous end to Ben Howland’s coaching career with the Bruins, Alford had a lot of pressure to make things right as rapidly as possible. His first season at the helm was 2013-14 which means that come 2016-17, we are really starting to see what a fully recruited Alford team looks like and so far, Bruins fans can be happy with the results.

One huge recruiting coup was getting an in-state highly rated point guard by the name of Lonzo Ball. ESPN had him 4th overall in his class, 1st among point guards. Similarly, 247Sports had him ranked 3rd nationally and 1st among his positon. In high school, Ball made headlines with his high school team, Chino Hills High School, by going 35-0 and winning the California state title. The team placed emphasis on offensive quickness and outscoring the opposition. Often, they would literally play 4 on 5 on the defensive end with either Ball or his brother LiAngelo acting as a rover at the half court line to push the ball off makes and misses.

In his final two high school seasons, Ball used his team’s tempo and style to put up absolutely ludicrous statistics. As a junior, it was 25 points, 11 rebounds, 9.1 assists, 5 blocks and 5 steals every game. In his senior year his scoring dipped to 23.9 points per game but he added 11.3 rebounds and 11.7 assists. Ball won all the major high school awards for player of the year and was named California’s Mr Basketball. In recent memory, no California baller was as highly touted as Ball, and Alford managing to get his commitment was a major step in the right direction for the Bruins.

Of course, his team’s play style created a lot of doubters. Would Ball be able to play in a system that didn’t allow him to completely avoid playing one side of the game? Did Ball even have interest in doing anything but padding his stats? Safe to say that not many recruits ranked as highly as Ball ever came into their collegiate career with so many question marks.

With the first week of March Madness wrapping up, it’s safe to say that we have gotten a lot of our answers on Ball. The Bruins are moving onto the tournament’s second week thanks in large part to Ball’s efforts. In the Bruins’ opening matchup with the Kent State Golden Flashes, Ball contributed 15 points on 6 of 7 shooting in a well-balanced romp of the 14th-ranked underdog. Their round-of-32 matchup with the Cincinnati Bearcats proved to be much tougher. Down at halftime and with no assists to his name, Ball sparked the Bruins to a dominant second half, contributing nine assists in the back half. His final box score was a microcosm of what Ball can do on the court: 18 points, nine assists, seven boards and two steals.

While his tournament performance so far has been stellar, there will always be Lonzo Ball skeptics. He has proven his doubters wrong at every turn this season. The Bruins currently sit with a 31-4 record, sporting the nation’s highest-scoring offense and dishing out the most assists per game. Ball has been the catalyst for the Bruins’ potent offense. He’s also been highly efficient, shooting 55.6% from the field and 42% from three. Ball averages 7.6 assists every night to only 2.4 turnovers. He thrives playing a fast-paced system with the ball in his hands and has more than proven himself as a leader on the court. Recently he has been named to the short list for the Naismith Trophy, college’s biggest individual award. Despite all that, some people will never give him the benefit of the doubt because of something Ball can’t even control.

In sports, it is not uncommon to see helicopter parents. Those who take an excessive amount of interest in their children’s lives. You can go to a 5-year-old’s soccer game and see parents yelling at the refs or coaches for mismanaging their kids. Lonzo Ball’s biggest problem is that he was born to the world’s premiere helicopter parent: LaVar Ball. Like his son, Lavar was also a college athlete, playing one season for Washington State and then completing the remainder of his college eligibility at lower levels of competition. That much can be deducted from his Wikipedia page, much of which was likely written by LaVar himself.

Even though LaVar did not coach Lonzo’s high school team, its style can be traced back to the elder Ball. Wanting Lonzo and his two brothers, LiAngelo and LaMelo, to play together, LaVar created his own AAU team. It is where the brothers first began to play the way they would in high school and by all accounts, the AAU squad pulverized their competition. The team’s mantra? “No shot is a bad shot”.

When it came time for his sons to play high school, LaVar had strong opinions that Chino Hills HS should play his AAU squad’s style because it had been so successful and the high school’s coach agreed. So while LaVar may not be on the team’s staff, he is pretty much the founding father of the much-debated Chino Hills HS style.

There is something to be said about living vicariously through someone. It’s quite obvious that LaVar is very proud of athletic accomplishments given how often he cites them in the media. Seeing his eldest son reach ever higher levels, heights LaVar obviously wishes he could have reached, probably does come into play when considering how LaVar has been promoting his son. That said, since Lonzo has become a tantalizing NBA prospect, LaVar has said some pretty questionable things publicly. Here are some examples.

On his son’s potential marketing deals:

“A billion dollars, it has to be there. That’s our number, a billion, straight out of the gate. And you don’t even have to give it to me all up front. Give us $100 mil over 10 years.”

On Lonzo’s future NBA home:

“My son will only play for the Lakers”.

On Lonzo’s ability to perform in the NBA:

“To me, ‘Zo is the best player in the world. … I don’t know if he can beat (LeBron James and Russell Westbrook) one on one, but I know he can beat them 5 on 5.”

On the potential of his other two sons:

“All three of my boys are going to be one-and-done” (it should be noted that LiAngelo is a 3 star recruit who will likely be pinned to the Bruins’ bench when he arrives in college next season).

He’s also gone on record saying he could have beaten Michael Jordan back in his prime and that he could beat Charles Barkley. Those things don’t have an impact on his son other than making it even harder to cheer for him. Barkley has gone on record as firmly cheering against Lonzo because of his father’s tongue and he is far from the only one in that camp.

In a way, I get it. As a father myself, no one in the world compares to my daughter. She started walking before she was even one; she must be the strongest and smartest girl in the world. Every parent feels an inherent sense of pride in their kid. The difference between that and going to ESPN, USA Today or any other media outlet and telling the world your child is better than the world’s best NBA players is that most people have a filter stopping the latter action. LaVar Ball has no such filter. It appears that he has taken the “no publicity is bad publicity” road. If he’s thinking purely in the sense of getting Lonzo’s name spread around, he’s probably right but in a realer sense, these words are going to have some pretty negative impact for his son.

The first is obvious, Lonzo is going to come into the NBA being fairly disliked through no fault of his own. In every interview he’s done, Lonzo has downplayed his father’s words as simply a dad being proud of his son. He has come across as intelligent, well-focused and generally pleasant. To the thousands of basketball fans who only digest the broad strokes that ESPN gives them, none of that matters. Lonzo is a cocky asshole whose father has been fluffing ever since he was a child and now he thinks he’s on top of the NBA world. His ability to fill a box score will be called stat padding, he will be branded as a me-first guy even though Lonzo has won at every level he’s played.

On a much realer, tangible level, Lonzo will be coming into the NBA with a gigantic target on his back. You don’t think LeBron James, Russell Westbrook or Steph Curry, who LaVar has also claimed is worse than his son, won’t be looking to embarrass Lonzo when they meet up? Most rookies have some breathing room to make mistakes simply by being young. LaVar has essentially stripped that away from Lonzo. His every mistake is going to be highlighted by everyone and NBA players now have extra incentive to push Lonzo into making those mistakes.

As you read this article, I make only one request of you. Please don’t judge Lonzo Ball for the words of his overbearing father. Watch his game and make a decision on his basketball playing abilities simply for what you see on the court. Separate his last name from his skills, and you will see an extremely talented basketball player with a chance to become something special at the next level.

If I could have it my way, someone would kidnap Lonzo, put him through a witness protection program and in 2017-18, an unheralded rookie named Ronzo Spalding would be taking the NBA by storm with his basketball versatility.

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