I am not a fan of LaVar Ball, father of former UCLA standout Lonzo Ball. He’s boorish. He’s rude. His mouth runs non-stop. He’s the stereotypical stage parent, appearing to live vicariously though his children. And he’s commandeered way too much media attention. If you’re looking for someone to defend LaVar Ball, I’m not the guy to do it. What I think is interesting is breaking down why we’re so captivated by LaVar Ball, the media commodity and how it influences how we see LaVar Ball the man.
I like the idea of LaVar Ball, but I dislike the actual LaVar Ball.
When it comes to big time athletics, particularly as it pertains to the NCAA, the athlete has little to no voice. Players are locked into letters of intent, no matter if the coach that recruited them leaves. Even if you disagree with paying players (and that is something that should be discussed), it’s hard not to look at the revenue that athletes make for their schools and the NCAA and not shake your head. When revenue for the NCAA hits the billions and coaches are paid millions, it’s harder to sell the idea of a diploma being a fair trade off.
So the idea that a parent of a star player becoming an outspoken advocate for their child and point out the NCAA hypocrisy isn’t that far from what you might expect. Granted, the way LaVar Ball threw Lonzo’s UCLA teammates under the bus wasn’t a great look, but a dad rooting for his kid is understandable. And when you look at how many fathers, particularly African-American dads, aren’t present in their kids’ lives, it was refreshing to see one that was almost too involved.
Because we live in a world that has decided to “Embrace the Debate,” Papa Ball was perfect. The more he was on TV, the more he had to get on TV. Producers had to book him. Media types had to interview him. I’ve seen the LaVar type before. The guy that could beat Michael Jordan one one one. The guy that could run faster than Usain Bolt. The guy that could sing better than Luther Vandross. And if he couldn’t do those things, his kids certainly could. Ball was an almost trainwreck. With every appearance, you could sense that, if he just kept talking, he was going to say something incredibly stupid.
Nike. Adidias. Under Armour. Those apparel companies dominate the athletic footwear market. And LaVar Ball and Lonzo turned them down. The Balls decided that the way for Lonzo to enter into the sneakerhead market was with a pair of $500 shoes that reminded me of the Kobe Bryant X. Personally, I had no intention of purchasing a pair of those shoes. Even if they were $50, they weren’t for me. But, I get it. Instead of locking in with one of the established companies, why not gamble on your son’s viability as the next basketball shoe legend? Ridiculous? Absolutely, but so was Nike when it signed Michael Jordan 30 years ago. In theory, a great move, but…
LaVar Ball has mastered, and I believe wholly by accident, the ability to stay relevant without a lot going on. We live in the age of the Kardashians and hot takes and by being more and more outlandish, Ball became must see TV. Almost to the point where you could easily forget what a great freshman season Lonzo had for UCLA. And like clockwork, the media began to dig deeper into what made Papa Ball tick and what impact he was having on Lonzo’s draft stock, his future NBA potential and just as a growing/developing young man. We became armchair psychologists as we watched LaVar talk and talk.
The problem is, we don’t know people. Not really. We barely know our neighbors (has there been a serial killer that wasn’t a “nice, quiet neighbor?”), so are we to really know the people we see on TV? Even skilled interviewers can only get as much information as the interviewee is willing to give. But that doesn’t stop people from having an opinion. Kristine Leahy of Fox Sports opined that LaVar Ball wasn’t only the worst kind of sports parent, the pushy, yell at the coach kind, but he was abusive. Why? Because Lonzo remained mostly silent during joint interviews and all three of the Ball boys play basketball. “Did they even have a choice?” asked Leahy.
And this is where things go off the rails. We, none of us, know what goes on inside the Ball family. We have no idea what there dynamic is and anything spoken about it is just speculation. Does anyone question Archie Manning’s motives when the sons of the former NFL QB play football? So, it’s dangerous to try to guess what’s going on with other people you don’t know. LaVar Ball, which should have been to no one’s surprise, took exception to the characterization that he was abusive. As a father myself, I would feel the same way.
As Fox Sports 1 has done more than any other outlet, LaVar was invited on Colin Cowherd’s radio show last week. Knowing Ball is just as likely to give you a crazy, made for social media sound bite and knowing there’s animus between he and Leahy, the execs at FS1 had to be salivating at the potential for… something. And the interaction didn’t disappoint. Ball made it a point to not even look at Leahy as he talked to Cowherd, being rude, disrespectful and completely dismissive. Again, I’m not defending his jackass behavior. My thought was if you don’t like the host or co-host of a show, why go on? But, LaVar Ball appears to be addicted to TV appearances and moronic statements as I am to Mt. Dew and Twizzlers.
To breakdown the Ball/Leahy interaction as good vs. bad is disingenuous and intellectually lazy. There were a lot of things at work, starting with: when did trainwreck journalism become standard operation procedure? As a producer or network executive, you had to know there were going to be fireworks and it appears that the folks at Fox got what they wanted. In the aftermath, two other issues, that we hate to discuss, became two elephants in the same room: racism and sexism.
I watched the clip of the Cowherd show a dozen times. And with each viewing, my opinion of LaVar Ball gets worse. There’s no excuse for his behavior. And I don’t intend to offer one. What struck me is how quickly the heated interaction turned from uncomfortable to Leahy’s “are you threatening me?” Ball was certainly being a jackass, but threatening? I didn’t see it. For myself, and a lot African-American males, it was a reminder that being loud and argumentative can be interpreted as threatening. Ball, again being rude, didn’t say or do anything that he hadn’t done to previous interviewers. “Stay in your lane” simply isn’t a threat.
Leahy, to her absolute credit, handled herself well. Not many people can stay that calm with someone being that ridiculous. But was everything LaVar Ball directed at her because she was a woman? I know he said that he didn’t want to market Big Baller Brand to women (dumb) and he hinted that he somehow controlled having three sons instead of daughters (dumber). I don’t think Ball singled Leahy out just because she’s a woman. Ball just started talking and stupid came out. Kristine Leahy held her ground against a boorish lout and she be commended, not because she’s a woman, but because she’s a professional and she did her job.
Lavar Ball is going to continue to say stupid things as long as someone puts a mic in front of his face. We can bemoan that all we want to, but it’s clear that his TV appearances move the rating needle. Is he a mad genius that has figured out how to manipulate the media? Doubtful. Is he just an idiot with a talented son? Likely. But as he continues his media blitz, remember that no one is ever as bad as they seem on TV. Not even a loudmouth jackass with a talented son.