In March, USC lightly snitched on UCLA. Back then, Lonzo Ball was a Bruin and not a Laker, and therefore, forbidden by NCAA rules from sponsoring products or using his likeness for profit. So USC gave UCLA a call to let them know their star point guard was featured on his family’s Big Baller Brand website, where images of Lonzo in BBB apparel were prominently displayed. Lonzo’s picture was removed from the site. Ball dutifully wore Adidas-branded UCLA apparel for the rest of the season and waited until after declaring for the NBA draft to release his signature $495 ZO2 Prime shoes.
I … I don’t think USC will need to snitch on Lonzo’s kid brother, LaMelo. I think everybody will see this ad for his new signature shoe—in which the high school junior drives fancy cars and eats cherries—without USC’s help.
The last time we saw LaMelo Ball cherry-picking, it was when he scored 92 points in a high school basketball game in February. Back then, Ball was considered a five-star recruit by ESPN, 247, and Rivals, but one recruiting service still didn’t consider him to be a top-100 player. That’s changed: Scout, the laggard last time, now begrudgingly ranks Ball the 21st-best player in his class.
Hypothetically, Ball is set to join UCLA in 2019. But he’s now in an ad for his own signature shoe, which (a) looks like a regular pair of basketball shoes got super into third-wave ska and (b) can now be preordered for $395 at Big Baller Brand’s website.
A Big Baller Brand spokesperson told ESPN’s Darren Rovell that LaMelo’s eligibility is up to the NCAA to decide. I have a funny feeling I know how the NCAA will decide. The NCAA’s website states that prospective athletes might affect their eligibility if they appear in a commercial or receive an endorsement before attending college. The caveat is that if the athlete is selected for the commercial for reasons besides their athletic talent, they might maintain eligibility. The company’s tweet specifically mentions that Ball is “the first high school player ever to have his own signature shoe,” so that’ll be a tough case to argue. I don’t see any way LaMelo ends up eligible to play college basketball if the Balls sell his shoe.
But it doesn’t seem like this was an oversight by the Balls. The article about the shoe release on Slam’s website indicates the family has been careful not to include the middle Ball brother, LiAngelo, in any advertising or promotional photographs because he’s currently a freshman at UCLA. Before reading that, I assumed the Balls were pre-emptively Cooper-ing middle child LiAngelo, the son that father LaVar has publicly said is not talented enough to make the NBA.
Perhaps UCLA isn’t the future for LaMelo. Other players, from Brandon Jennings to Emmanuel Mudiay, have found ways to play professionally in between college and the NBA without hurting their draft stock. If LaMelo is good enough, that’s a pathway available to him. It’s a move that would fit with this family’s philosophy. LaVar Ball has decided the best route in any situation is to keep everything within the family. Lonzo didn’t sign with Nike or Under Armour or Adidas, turning down million-dollar deals to jumpstart Big Baller Brand. LaMelo doesn’t play for somebody else’s AAU team, but the Big Baller Brand team, coached by LaVar. Their new reality show isn’t on any TV channel—you can watch it on Facebook. LaVar can barely stand the fact that somebody else is allowed to coach his sons at Chino Hills, as they’ve gone through two coaches in two seasons in spite of their major on-court success.
A few years ago, the Balls needed the NCAA system. Without the exposure that came with playing at one of the highest-profile schools in college hoops, Lonzo wouldn’t have achieved the fame he has now. But now, the Balls are household names. Rovell said earlier this year that a story on LaVar Ball was one of the top-five most-read stories on ESPN’s website in 2017. You realize how wild that is? ESPN writes stories about literally every sport. It covers the Super Bowl and the NBA and March Madness and everything. And the most read thing on their site was about a player’s dad saying stuff. Why do you think I’m writing this right now? Ball-family-related content pays the bills. I’ll starve if I don’t get up seven LaVar Ball thinkpieces this month.
Now that the Balls are famous, UCLA needs LaMelo more than he needs the school. Is playing overseas the best scenario for him? I don’t know. I certainly don’t think turning down big shoe money to start a family-owned company will end up being a wise financial decision. But the Balls clearly value self-control over everything.
The Balls can be a bit much. Their shoes are not worth $500, and LaVar is loud and annoying. But they’ve positioned themselves against shoe companies and the NCAA, entities that have made billions exploiting others. I find myself rooting for them, at least until LaVar shows up on television to individually list current NBA players he can dunk on.