Amateur Athletic Union basketball has a tendency to be a topic of conversation only when discussing the supposed damage that its unorganized, highlight-driven brand of basketball has caused the game today, but on Wednesday in Las Vegas, an Adidas Uprising AAU game between the brand’s SC Supreme squad and LaVar Ball’s Big Baller Brand team became an event that transcended the conventional discussion about basketball at this level.
On the scene, things went haywire way before the ball was even tipped. The small Cashman Center was overflowing with fans trying to get a spot in the audience. The spectacle became a madhouse. At one point, police had to be called to barricade the doors of the gym. Bill Self said he’d "never seen anything like it."
Damian Lillard, Andrew Wiggins, and Lonzo Ball were courtside, and there was a report that even LeBron James intended to show up, but changed his mind after hearing about the chaos at the scene. Of course, I’m convinced that the entirety of both All-Star teams could have shown up, and it wouldn’t have been the night’s main story. People had descended upon the Nevada desert and fired up their livestreams from far away to see one thing: the matchup between Zion Williamson and LaMelo Ball.
Williamson is 17 and the second-ranked 2018 recruit in the country behind the legend of Marvin Bagley III. Over at SB Nation, Ricky O’Donnell has a good breakdown of Zion’s prior feats. Spoiler alert: He dunks a lot, and does it well. In Vegas, he converted his team’s layup line into his own dunking showcase.
LaMelo, of course, is the youngest Ball brother and the biggest personality of the three siblings. Famous for scoring 92 points in a game and taking half-court 3s like they are layups, LaMelo’s bashfulness — his game resembles his dad’s M.O.: erratic, attention-seeking, and weirdly effective — and social media presence (he’s got 2.3 million followers on Instagram) make him a compelling rising prospect in the internet age. He’s only 15.
(Quick aside: Devoting yourself to watching any member of the Ball family play basketball has become a masochistic act. By doing so, you’re immediately subjecting yourself to a microphone, iPhone, or camera being put in LaVar’s general vicinity and listening to him blab on about whatever he wants. Wednesday night, it was about how he was the "best coach ever" because he "said so," and that he and LaMelo could take on LeBron and Jordan.)
Zion’s squad ended up winning 104–92, but that hardly mattered. Let’s be clear: This was not a good game of basketball. It likely did not make any AAU detractors rethink their opinions. In fact, it had NBA players, namely Jared Dudley, using it to confirm their beliefs that this pipeline of basketball was "bad."
As the livestream, provided by the aptly named website Ballislife.com, peaked at nearly 80,000 live viewers and reportedly reached 1 million total viewers, the event continued to get more surreal in every sense. Fans nearly poured onto the court, their phones in hand, making sure to snap any moment when Zion went on a fast break or LaMelo pulled up from 3. The head coach of Zion’s SC Supreme team patrolled the sideline while carrying his child, who was fast asleep. And LaVar took a bathroom break that stopped the game. That really happened.
The sudden popularity of the event, and the ability for anyone to tune in resulted in some unscientific analysis and reactionary opinions about Zion’s and LaMelo’s futures in college and the NBA. Neither player has even turned 18, and the two of them could not be further apart in build and style, but that wouldn’t prevent us from pitting them against one another. It’s fascinating how the basketball world has adopted basketball recruits as celebrities no matter how far away they are from making an impact at the collegiate or professional levels. Recruiting has always been a cesspool of hyperbolic coverage, but now, players are entering the dimension of popular culture. A game we would have heard only rumors about is now one you can go back and watch however many times you want.
In Europe, soccer clubs begin scouting and signing players before they even turn 10. It’s part of the culture. Here, with basketball, the limits for how early a star can be born are being tested right before our eyes. Fueled by a packed arena, and a million viewers at home, those limits seem to be loosening. Whether that’s a good thing remains to be seen.