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Group Chat: The Lakers vs. LaVar Ball

A roundtable discussion on the intersection of media, the NBA, and the Ball family in 2018

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

ESPN sending a reporter to Lithuania to relay LaVar Ball’s hot takes on Luke Walton and the Lakers has drawn plenty of responses—from Rick Carlisle, the Mavericks’ head coach and president of the NBA Coaches Association; from the Lakers (sort of); from ESPN itself. The Ringer staff also weighed in, via a running discussion thread on Slack:


Kevin O’Connor: What exactly are these NBA coaches complaining about? The Lakers knew what they were getting into when they drafted Lonzo. Everyone knew it. And LaVar doesn’t need the media to say what’s on his mind. He has a show. He has Twitter. He doesn’t need media. LaVar is part of the circus, whether the coaches like it or not. It’s up to the Lakers to do something about it. Not the media. Because even if the media microphones get taken away, LaVar can’t be silenced.

John Gonzalez: I love every bit of this. LaVar is a maniac, but without LaVar we don’t get unhinged and unreasonable Rick Carlisle, and we definitely don’t get Luke Walton saying he pulled Lonzo ’cause his dad was talking shit. That’s a top-five NBA head coach quote of the past decade.

Pat Muldowney: (1) LaVar doesn’t tweet. He could, but he doesn’t. His feed is a marketing channel for the brand. (2) Has anyone watched Ball in the Family? It averages around 1 million views per episode on Facebook, which I can promise is at least 10 times inflated from the true views. We have a very warped perception of this guy’s organic reach–social relevance.

Gonzalez: Let’s also not forget that the Lakers are awful. Now and then they’re fun to watch, but mostly they’re awful. If we didn’t have the Ball family to kick-start story lines, what kind of narratives would we have? It would be largely boring. This is much more fun.

I guess what I’m saying is, Oprah-LaVar 2020.

Katie Baker: He’s an interesting mix of archetypes: the overbearing helicopter sports dad and the overbearing reality TV momager.

Paolo Uggetti: I agree with Kevin that he doesn’t need the media to get his message out (who does these days?), but there’s definitely an inherent level of legitimacy given when you send a senior reporter to shadow the Balls in Lithuania. I also think that LaVar gives weight to being on TV and being talked about on TV. To him, that seems to be more meaningful than being on Twitter.

Gonzalez: Basketball is entertainment. The Balls are entertainers. ESPN is an entertainment company. (The first letter of the acronym literally stands for entertainment.) OF COURSE ESPN SENT SOMEONE TO LITHUANIA.

Baker: Yeah, it seems like there are two broad questions/concepts here when it comes to semi-recent happenings: (1) The, as I think Pat put it in the other Slack, chicken-and-egg situation of “Is he newsworthy because he gets clicks, or does he get clicks because he’s pushed by the news?” And then, *2) how do we assess the nature of the Lakers’ (non)reaction and the red-mad and nude anger of the NBA Coaches Association/Carlisle?

Jason Concepcion: Asking ESPN, a media company that recently laid people off, to not cover a popular story is the shittiest of horse-shit takes. Attempting to quantify the amount of legitimacy the WWL adds to Ball by covering him is, similarly, a mug’s game. LaVar and his family are a story. The way his business—which is quite possibly a scam, and not at all an elaborate one—is aimed directly at the heart of the NCAA and the giant athletic companies that partner with it, is genuinely compelling. All of this is to say, Carlisle, who makes somewhere in the realm of $7 million a year to, in part, take criticism, is punching way down. Why not blame Magic Johnson and Rob Pelinka, the dudes who drafted Lonzo, knowing full well what they were getting into with LaVar. Why haven’t they come out and given a full-throated defense of their coach? Where are they?

Gonzalez: Coach/executive/owner demands better coverage from team/league TV partner is not a new story. They always freak out about this. It’s part of the predictable fun.

Uggetti: Gonz, I agree! I don’t think you can necessarily fault ESPN for sending a reporter there. People care about the Balls and whatever they’re doing, so that’s newsworthy. That coaches/Carlisle can’t comprehend that, and then proceed to pinpoint the blame on the news organization rather than the team, is troubling.

Concepcion: Conspiracy corner: The Lakers know LaVar is a con man who quite possibly is in the process of defrauding his customers and they drafted his son anyway because they’re the Lakers. This makes criticising him complex.

Justin Verrier: “Celebrity Said Thing” is 90 percent of media news stories these days, so I’m not sure why this is a big deal. Carlisle did the same thing (i.e., make comments to media) in order to push his own agenda.

Gonzalez: Actually surprised coaches/execs/owners don’t complain to TV partners more. When I worked at NBC Sports Philly, Joe Banner, the Eagles’ former president, asked the network not send me to Eagles games for a year because he thought I was too mean to them. AND THEY DID IT.

Baker: It’s funny and depressing that Big Baller Brand seems to be employing the brilliant business strategy of dismissing customer complaints as “small baller.” But I’d say that if NBA coaches and the infrastructure around them aren’t set up to handle a Sports Dad, no matter how outsized his influence has become, that’s pretty small baller of them.

As Gonz says, the best reaction in all of this has been by the target himself—Luke Walton.

Concepcion: Another thing! BBB smells like a con job. It walks and talks and acts like a con job. The fact that hasn’t been explored by anyone outside of the NY Daily News is weird. That’s something to criticize ESPN and others for. Now maybe there are stories in the works, who knows.

Muldowney: Is there any chance that the fear of public criticism of LaVar from the org could impact the team’s relationship with Lonzo?

Bill Simmons: Does anyone think ESPN, a company that’s laid off hundreds of people over the past two-plus years, sent a reporter, all expenses paid, to Lithuania to seriously cover the Billy and Daniel Baldwin of under-20 basketball players? THE ONLY REASON they sent Jeff Goodman was in case LaVar Ball said some crazy shit to promote this face-saving overseas debacle—and, of course, the man obliged immediately. It’s now the perfect 24-hour ESPN news cycle, not much different than the Wickersham Patriots piece, which at least made an attempt to seem topical and well-reported—they created a story from thin air and now they can dissect it for 24 straight hours on their various platforms. Nobody should stop covering the ongoing craziness of a dad of a no. 2 overall pick as he continues to threaten the league’s second-biggest franchise—that was a ridiculous suggestion by Rick Carlisle—but at the very least let’s stop helping him hawk his bullshit. LaVar is like a non-savvy, incompetent, buffoonish version of Kris Jenner. It’s not funny anymore. There’s something wrong with him, and it’s becoming a sad story. I feel bad for Lonzo. Even the Kardashians wouldn’t exploit their kids this egregiously. Fine, they totally would. But at least they’re smart about it.

Uggetti: That’s probably the saddest takeaway: Lonzo is being put into a corner where he has to both affirm his dad’s shtick and then back up his coach, too. Meanwhile, the Lakers are probably craving for the coverage about his bad shooting to return instead of this:

O’Connor: I feel bad for Lonzo, too. It reminds me of various political campaigns. Sometimes the nominee is at the podium, as his family stands in the background, smiling and laughing. They’re proud. Other times, they’re silent, stone-faced, with no emotion. There’s no pride or happiness. And it feels like that often with LaVar Ball. LiAngelo and LaMelo looked emotionless to me during the press conference in Lithuania. Lonzo is like that, too.

And that’s where, as Pat said, this could affect Lonzo. Teams need to determine whether the “media circus” attached to certain players makes them worth investing in. Tim Tebow wasn’t good enough for the NFL. Others have been shoved out of their leagues too. If things get bad for Lonzo, then maybe LaVar will change to prevent him being pushed out of the NBA. Either that, or Lonzo will become so good that the media circus doesn’t matter.

Muldowney: I don’t discount that LaVar could get his message out through social if he wanted to, but my original point was that we’ve never seen him effectively do this. His headlines have typically come from an ESPN interview, or appearances on First Take/Cowherd. Have any relevant stories originated from LaVar kicking something up from his own channels?

I work in sports and social, talk with Facebook regularly, live in Los Angeles, and subscribe to Ball in the Family on Facebook Watch, but I’ve still never watched an episode.

O’Connor: You could be right, Pat. Carlisle’s problem is the “media circus” around Lonzo. But it’s also possible that LaVar hasn’t tried all avenues because he hasn’t had to yet. He could have easily tweeted the things he said, rather than going to Goodman about it, and it would’ve gotten just as much attention or maybe even more. Should media outlets then not cover what he’s tweeting?

Simmons: I like Pat’s theory that Facebook is secretly funding these Lithuania games. If true, this would be the worst thing that Facebook’s ev—oh, wait a second.

Baker: What was also kind of strange was the timing of all of this—Lonzo was starting to really come into his own, then was injured for five games, and then after, what, the FIRST GAME BACK, these comments were made!

Side note: GUESS THE COACHES.

Concepcion: Tebow is a good corollary and a fine example of a hyped story that didn’t deserve the hype at all. Tebow was bad at football and later baseball, but we were stuck with him because he moved the needle. All of which is to say, there will be more LaVars and more Tebows, and ESPN, et al., will cover them. Now, it’s true that LaVar depends on national media to “get his message out.” But he got on their radar by building the family brand on his own.

#BLOGGERSDONTNEEDCREDENTIALS

IMO, the Lakers’ three options are: (1) Come out loudly in support of Luke and be prepared to do so again and again. (2) Lay the groundwork for cutting bait with Lonzo NOW because this shit isn’t going to get better. In fact, if and when the team improves, this is likely to get worse. (3) Gather evidence that LaVar runs a scam business and have Lonzo flip on his dad (he was a minor; didn’t know what was going on), thus X-ing BBB Daddy out of the picture.

Verrier: Final comments?

Concepcion: Rick Carlisle, Stan Van Gundy, and the NBA coaches union are small ballers.

Uggetti: Carlisle literally said ESPN should “back up the coaches,” which, no. But I guess this is what happens when you’re also corporate partners exchanging millions of dollars.

Baker: Even in the case of Jason’s no. 1 option above—the Lakers could have nipped this in the bud without even having to be that loud about it. Just a simple, dismissive, almost bemused response that they could then refer to in the future. But by waiting they’ve kind of missed the boat on that. Luke’s joke came closest.

O’Connor: The Lakers knew what they were getting into. It’s their job to handle it.

Baker: I feel like this should be where a Pelinka shines! If anyone understands the game behind the game, it’s Kobe’s guy …

(Side note, Kevin Clark just posted this in #NBA. … Kinda galaxy brain.)

Simmons: Just remember—every LaVar controversy distracts Lakers fans from the fact that they don’t have a 2018 first-round pick and there’s a 50 percent chance they might be helping build the next Celtics dynasty. If I’m Magic and Pelinka, the more LaVar the better.