By Jason Keidel
He’s got the name and seems to have the game perfectly contoured for the NBA, California, and his home club, the Lakers. But, it’s hard to think of a rookie entering the NBA with a larger load on his shoulders than Lonzo Ball. Not because of something he’s said or done, but by others who share his name. Like his father, of course, who seems to garner (and covet) more air time than the actual player.
LaVar, father of Lonzo, is hardly shy, quiet, or stoic. He seems thrilled to chat with anyone willing to stick a mike under his chin.
The problem is that LaVar may be writing checks that Lonzo can’t cash. He’s already got his son on the Mt. Rushmore of all-time NBA players, comparing him favorably to anyone who’s ever dribbled a basketball.
In a strict basketball sense, it’s hard not to like what you see out of Lonzo, who does mimic Jason Kidd on the court. Similar in size and speed and sight, Ball gets the ball to the open man with more precision than anyone we’ve seen in a while.
It’s just hard to parse the player from parent. Not only has LaVar placed his son in the pantheon, he’s also launched this “Big Baller” brand, a sneaker of stratospheric price, around $500 per pair, if you care. Already LaVar has tripped over his tongue, demeaning his potential customer base by asserting that if you can’t drop five bills on sneakers, then you’re not a “Big Baller” – which means you’re not of athletic or cultural stock to deserve one. You don’t need a degree from Wharton to see that’s not the best marketing ploy.
Then LaVar made some misogynistic remarks, telling a female reporter from Fox Sports 1 to “stay in her lane” and implying that women need not worry about his outfit making women’s sneakers. As if women can’t play ball (forgive the pun). Tell his SoCal neighbors, Venus and Serena Williams, that they can’t sell some fresh kicks. Or a whole litany of women who are making good on the hardwood and hard court.
Some have praised LaVar for having the confidence in himself and his son to break from corporate convention, for telling Nike, Adidas, Converse, etc. to take a hike and cut out the middleman.
Great. But, it’s unwise to have such hubris in the cutthroat world of apparel, which has humbled many a smart, rich person. If you’ve ever watched the hit program “Shark Tank,” you’d know that even for clothing moguls like Daymond John, founder of Fubu, nothing is assured. Even for those hardwired into the business, many, if not most, new clothing lines never see a profit.
From a sportswriter’s perspective, LaVar is gold. He fills up a notepad or iPad with equal aplomb. But what’s good for us isn’t always good for his son.
LaVar also asserted that Lonzo won’t audition for any NBA club except the Lakers, who have the No. 2 pick in the NBA Draft. What if the Celtics want to take him at the top? It would be rather ironic to see the father, who’s saturated the world with his sermons, say his own progeny and prodigy doesn’t deserve to be No. 1.
None of this is a judgement or referendum on LaVar’s bona fides as a father or provider or anything that resides within the walls of the home. It seems pops has that covered. But this isn’t Verbum Dei or whatever high school stands tall in Los Angeles. This isn’t even UCLA, a fine school, fine program, and home to the Wizard of Westwood. The NBA is not only big basketball, it’s bigger business, not often kind to neophytes like LaVar Ball. Making it will be hard enough for Lonzo, sans the specter of his father lording over every move.
Magic Johnson spoiled the masses, making the transition look too facile. There’s only one Magic, who won an NBA title the year after he won the NCAA title. Not even Kobe Bryant came close to that kind of early eminence. The person to whom Ball is most compared, Jason Kidd, spent endless springs watching other teams win titles, until he finally broke through with the Mavericks, well past his prime, when he was no longer the best player on the court.
Ball played one year at UCLA, and in his last college game he got schooled by Kentucky and lit up by De’Aaron Fox (39 points) during the NCAA Tournament. And rather than seize upon a moment of modesty and introspection, while giving customary credit to the victor, LaVar Ball blamed the “three white guys” who played with his son for the loss. That simply won’t fly in the Association.
It’s hard not to like the idea of a father and son going into business, even one as grandiose as this. Indeed, Lonzo Ball can ball. But maybe he should become a better baller before his father sells him as Big Baller. And perhaps remember who the most important Ball, and Baller, really is.
Jason writes a weekly column for CBS Local Sports. He is a native New Yorker, sans the elitist sensibilities, and believes there’s a world west of the Hudson River. A Yankees devotee and Steelers groupie, he has been scouring the forest of fertile NYC sports sections since the 1970s. He has written over 500 columns for WFAN/CBS NY, and also worked as a freelance writer for Sports Illustrated and Newsday subsidiary amNew York. He made his bones as a boxing writer, occasionally covering fights in Las Vegas, Atlantic City, but mostly inside Madison Square Garden. Follow him on Twitter @JasonKeidel.