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We All Know a LaVar Ball

At the heart of the media snowball that is the Ball family press tour is a loving father who only wants success for his sons. But the mental gymnastics required to get to that core are exhausting.

(Getty Images/Ringer Illustration)
(Getty Images/Ringer Illustration)

LaVar Ball has this tell. Envision the face you make after you post a piece of fire #content, but before you remember that engagement never happens as fast as you’d like. The face you make in that small pocket of time when you detach from the outcome completely. That’s the one.

In late March, the first time he went on First Take, Lonzo’s dad said all sorts of things that had no material impact on anything outside of those studio walls — things that couldn’t possibly happen in real life. We all saw him throw a pass to himself off the backboard in a pickup game because he picked up his dribble too early. So the idea that he’d beat MICHAEL JORDAN, IN HIS PRIME — like his idea that Steph Curry would “shoot UCLA out of the game,” or that Curry is “too little” for the point guard position, when he’s just about prototypical size at 6-foot-3 and 190 pounds — is little more than hot air and pride.

I know that, deep down you know that, and LaVar apparently knows it too. It’s right there on his face.

(Via ESPN)
(Via ESPN)

You could, if you pored over the segment enough times, read subtext into that sneer-smirk-head-tilt thing LaVar does. He does it when he’s joking (saying the Balls built Chino Hills) and when he appears to be serious but also could be joking (guaranteeing a Bruins national title … in November). You’re welcome to sift out your own meaning, but I think I can see in his face annoyance at the questions being asked and amusement at his own answers, which are almost always doubling down on an impossible stance. Not even he could believe what he’s saying, could he? There’s no way he doesn’t know he’s being fully ridiculous.

Watching LaVar talk about his sons or himself — or reading LaVar talk about his sons or himself — is like squirming in your seat while cringing or laughing through a series of premature mic drops. It’s all made possible by LaVar’s nonexistent capacity for shame, and a blind if admirable overestimation of his ability. The burden of proof is always on everybody else. The Balls, on the court or otherwise, are going to stay on the offensive: If the shot doesn’t fall, leave the hand up anyway — and shoot the next one too. So long as his three supremely talented sons — all top recruits, one of whom is headed to the league — continue this upward trajectory, he can talk as much shit as he wants. Whether or not it’s sustainable is a different question. Stories out of Chino Hills in The Undefeated and For the Win, as well as a particularly uncomfortable segment on Undisputed, paint LaVar as a loud and possibly destructive backseat driver — one whom precious few NBA executives may want within arm-swinging length of their organizations. But during a draft lottery watch party on Tuesday evening, LaVar called glass: “I told [Lonzo] he was gonna go to the Lakers,” he said, donning a purple-and-gold BBB Flexfit. “I’m gonna speak it into existence.”

But while the Ball family has made it clear that it’s L.A. or bust, the Lakers aren’t nearly as black-and-white with the situation. There are still 35 days and a lot of closed-door conversations between the eldest Ball brother and a spot in the Lakers backcourt. According to Bleacher Report’s Kevin Ding, the team’s draft board also has Markelle Fultz (duh), De’Aaron Fox, and Josh Jackson on it. And Magic Johnson can’t say which top prospect they’ll be taking, but he can tell you they’re excited. ESPN’s Ramona Shelburne reports that Lonzo isn’t yet keen on working out for anyone other than the Lakers, which might hamstring chances with other lottery teams if all they have to go on is highlight tape and headlines.

Let’s be clear: Barring meddling cosmic forces, Lonzo will be an NBA player. But if he doesn’t end up in Los Angeles, how far might he slide? And how much of that blame would rest with the preening patriarch of the Ball family?

I don’t know LaVar Ball, but I do know a LaVar Ball. Several, actually. Aside from the bluster about what separates Big Ballers (anyone who buys and/or wears Ball-licensed Big Baller Brand shoes or apparel) from small-to-non-Ballers ($495), he’s just a bullheaded, overbearing, but loving sports dad. He can’t stop talking any more than Lonzo could tell his father to quiet down. (And if you’ve proposed this as a course of action for Lonzo, I’ve gotta know: Who are your parents? Have you always been able to talk to them like that?)

I’ve seen him being overly invested on the touchline at U7 youth league soccer games; I’ve heard him bark from the bleachers that two of me wouldn’t add up to half the basketball player his son was. I’ve seen him brute-force his son from left field to shortstop because said son had the proper — nay, the perfect — tools for that position, even though Kevin had terrible hand-eye coordination and two left feet. I’m also pretty sure I explained to him once that Sammy Watkins was not the next Randy Moss. And then he beat me in checkers.

He has also called in to your local radio station to complain about someone else’s son getting more calls than his own, and has cried racism over lack of playing time.

All embarrassing, all fine. Ideally a father moves heaven and earth, or at least shakes a fist angrily at both, for his child, regardless of how he might look to the outside world. President Truman threatened to punch a Washington Post critic over a negative review of his daughter’s soprano performance, on White House stationery no less. Hot air and pride, then, aren’t necessarily harmful, or even more than mildly inconvenient, until they are.

On Wednesday, LaVar went on The Herd to talk about Big Baller Brand, and was pressed by cohost Kristine Leahy about how the brand could possibly be successful without marketing to women. LaVar said — without making eye contact — “Stay in your lane. I don’t even worry about her over there. … I don’t look over there ’cause she scares me. … Leave me alone.”

Sure, this is childish, and more than a little sexist, but it’s also stupid. Partly because “stay in your lane” is a thing both evolutionary psychology and common sense say is probably safest not to say to a woman, especially a blond, white woman, on her own show, as a black man trying to build a brand. But largely because there’s this:

(Via <a href="https://bigballerbrand.com/collections/womens">BigBallerBrand.com</a>)
(Via BigBallerBrand.com)

None of this is too troubling if your moral reasoning is limber enough: He already sells apparel marketed to women! Why is he even carrying on like this? This is just so LaVar, right? Classic LaVar. “Lol.” Also, “stay in your lane” is something you might say to any nosy person intruding upon your conscience and/or telling you about yourself when you feel it’s not their place to do so. But the context doesn’t quite bear that generous reading out. After aggressively suggesting Leahy mind her own business — again, on her own show — LaVar warned that if “you act like that, guess what: Something’s coming to you.”

It will be argued multiple times over the coming days that Ball didn’t mean this as it’s going to be taken — as a man threatening a woman. In March, Leahy called LaVar’s parenting into question in a way that was very Cowherdesque, saying that Lonzo was scared of his father, so maybe “she scares me to death” is just an apt, incisive clapback.

It could be that “something coming” was in reference to some sort of karmic retribution, and not anything LaVar would actually do. Either way, he stands to benefit from choosing his words even 10 percent more carefully.

Thinking about LaVar requires endless bargaining. LaVar seems to want, more than anything, the very best for his family. It’s just that he has a knack for finding the worst possible platform to stridently express that intense care. I am not here for scaly-ass Kobe IX knockoffs that come creased out of the box, but I am here for black-owned businesses, like Big Baller, in white-dominated industries, like sportswear. While history does buttress LaVar’s argument that the best NBA players generally have scrub-ass basketball-playing sons, I also think you deserve whatever follows when you publicly mention another man’s barely teenaged kids. Likewise, what he said on The Herd was disrespectful to women in the broadest sense, but then again, LaVar reacted to Leahy as LeBron reacted to LaVar. You don’t criticize family from afar.

All this back-and-forth leaves me exhausted and somewhere near the middle: There are plenty of reasons to root for LaVar, but rooting for LaVar would suck. There’s just no telling whether he’s an all-time sports dad, an ankle weight, a court jester, none of those things, or all of them. The Ball Press Tour has been alternately hilarious, galling, and exhausting these past few months. But now, with Lonzo’s NBA dream all but realized, and with millions of dollars on the line, we’ll soon know just who the real LaVar Ball is.