There are many different adjectives that can be used to appropriately describe LaVar Ball, the father of UCLA superstar Lonzo Ball and the prodigious Chino Hills High School basketball phenoms LiAngelo Ball and LaMelo Ball (the trio collectively known as the Ball Brothers). Perhaps the most accurate term to describe LaVar is “carnival barker,” a person who attempts to attract people’s attention by being loud, abrasive and distracting. And this year, as his sons garnered massive headlines for their exploits on the court, LaVar has made a point of barking as loud as he can off of it.
LaVar has commanded such massive press in the past few months that pundits are openly identifying him as a “household name” due to comments such as stating that his son Lonzo is better than Steph Curry, LeBron James and Russell Westbrook. He’s said that he would beat NBA Hall of Famer Charles Barkley in a game of one-on-one. And he even went as far as saying that he’d have beaten Michael Jordan back in his “hey day.”
While some find his antics humorous, others view him as being annoying, obnoxious and insufferable. There are even those who openly wonder if his public behavior will have any impact on his son’s performances, which is a fair concern. But, how that apprehension is being discussed is highly troubling.
In a USA Today piece exploring how NBA general managers feel about LaVar Ball and if they believe his antics would hurt his sons’ position in the draft, one GM said, “There are players who come from more challenging family situations who have [done] quite well in the NBA.”
Challenging family situations?
To be clear, while LaVar Ball may have been born and raised in South Central Los Angeles, he currently resides in an affluent suburb located in the southwestern corner of San Bernardino County, California, with his wife, Tina, and their three sons. He’s a proud, involved father and husband, so what exactly is “challenging” about that?
LaVar Ball isn’t being called crazy and challenging because he runs his mouth, he’s being called crazy because he represents everything the basketball business world wants to discredit.
When you think of great Black fathers who intensely cultivated talented professional athletes from a young age, such as Richard Williams (the father of tennis icons Venus & Serena Williams), Earl Woods (the father of Tiger Woods), and Roy Jones Sr. (father of Roy Jones Jr.), what made them so special was their unique attention to detail of all aspects of the sport. They not only trained their children to be exceptional athletes, but they also trained them to have a rare feel for the game and a tough mentality to match. LaVar Ball imbues his sons with all of those same things, but he excels in one area where those other fathers may have fallen short to the same degree: He has a shrewd and savvy business sense.
In case you don’t know or haven’t been paying attention, amateur sports have recently become a proving ground for billion-dollar corporate interests that heavily rely on the exploitation of young athletes, especially young Black men. And the aggressive, cutthroat battle to monopolize their talents is starting with boys younger and younger every year.
First, understand that, in many cities throughout the U.S., high school basketball coaches are fiercely recruiting middle school students. Several years ago, The New York Times published a piece that delved into how ruthless and relentless this practice was.
The courtship of junior high players by private schools has become so cutthroat that it has spawned tales of coaches’ throwing one another out of gyms, traveling across the country to recruit middle school prospects … in an attempt to gain better access to players.
Rhonda Green, whose son Samuel is a 6-5 eighth-grader, said that high schools first began speaking with her about her son when he was in fifth grade and already 5-11. She said that when Samuel was in sixth grade, he asked, “Why are these coaches asking me to come to the camps?”
Why are high school coaches going to such extreme lengths to lure adolescents? Mainly because high school sports have become big business. In the past 30 years, high school sports have witnessed an explosion in coverage, going from local access TV to being featured on ESPN in the 1980s. This exposure has provided secondary schools with the ability to construct deals similar to the pros (albeit on a smaller financial scale). Robert Boland, academic chair of the NYU Tisch Center for Hospitality, Tourism and Sports Management, told CNBC, “The money in sports is looking for the next generation and high school sports are huge economically.”
Not only are high school districts participating in TV deals, many high schools are even selling naming rights to bring in private-sector cash, which has become a growing national trend. While many schools claim it’s to combat budget cuts, the reality is that it’s a big part in making schools a lot of money. A Chicago Tribune report outlined just how absurdly profitable it’s becoming.
In the last two years, a northern Indiana high school sold the naming rights to its football field to a bank for $400,000, its baseball field to an auto dealership, its softball field to a law firm, its tennis court to a philanthropic couple and its concession stands to a tire and auto care company and a restaurant.
So, after kids are recruited from middle school and routed into money-making high school programs, the kids are informed that if they really want to play college/university ball, they need to play Amateur Athletic Union basketball, better known as AAU. These are teams comprised of specially selected players who travel around the nation playing other teams made up of talented NCAA prospects. In many ways, basketball camps and the AAU scene have subverted the importance of high school basketball as the best means to be scouted. Last year, Netflix released a documentary titled “At All Costs” that delved deeply into the financial interests of AAU teams and the footwear/sports apparel companies that sponsor them by providing them with shoes, clothes and lots of money (that never quite reaches the players’ pockets).
An SB Nation article investigating a prominent AAU scandal stated flatly, “For a solid 25 years now, AAU basketball has been a cesspool for corruption and deceit and conflicts of interest. Even as the NCAA’s taken notice, the problems have gotten worse, not better.”
This exploitative cesspool is where many young boys — your boys, our boys — are being funneled into everyday. It’s important to disabuse yourself of the idea that amateur sports are innocent fun filled with great coaches and mentors who want to build young boys into strong men. It’s truly a market of snake-oil salesmen and con artists who are looking to find a come up on a talented young man anticipated to be the “next big thing.” This is the scene that LaVar Ball is firmly acquainted with and he’s not interested in allowing his sons to be accosted by the system but rather using his own leverage and strength to manipulate the corrupt system in his favor.
From the time his youngest son, LaMelo, turned 4 years old, LaVar teamed him up with his two older brothers and made sure to coach them every step of the way. No outside influences or questionable characters, just him, his boys and the other players on the squad. He coached them until they reached high school, when he handed them off to a Chino Hills team that has been, for the past two seasons, the biggest draw in the nation, thanks to his sons. He created his own AAU team for his sons to play on and he got UCLA to commit to signing them all, even when Lonzo was a senior and LaMelo was a freshman.
Those aren’t the actions of a crazy man, those are the actions of a protective and smart father who wants his sons to maximize their talent but who also wants to take the lead in minimizing the risk they’re exposed to.
So, when Charles Barkley says, “Your son’s life is his life. … I don’t like when parents interject,” it shows a stunning lack of awareness on the part of Barkley, who graduated from Leeds High School in Alabama in 1981 at a time when youth athletes were not exposed to the level of normalized toxicity that exists today.
Donald H. Yee, a lawyer and partner with Yee & Dubin sports agency, wrote in an op ed for the Washington Times:
Why is this business model — unpaid labor, mostly by black athletes, generating riches for white administrators — still tolerated? Because most football and basketball players haven’t acted on the economic power they possess — and no one in the NCAA universe is eager to change that, either.
In the film “At All Costs,” which examines amateur athletes and the business of finding talented basketball players, Ramon Cartwright, the father of one of the young ball players, stated: “I’m a recruiters’ and AAU coaches’ absolute worst nightmare. I know my role —I’m a loud-mouth parent. The perfect storm for a coach or a recruiter is to have a single mom with this phenomenal ball player and the mom not know anything about the sport. That’s what they would prefer. Not with my kid.”
LaVar Ball is a lot of things, some good and some bad. And if he’s crazy, he’s just crazy like a fox leading his pups through the wild.