Basketball

LaVar Ball ensures Lonzo Ball’s NBA career will be boom or bust; which will it be?

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The triple B’s on Lonzo Ball‘s $495 signature sneakers stand for Big Baller Brand, but there are a few other B-words they could also stand for.

Like bravado. Or bombast. Or bluster. Or, quite simply, bulls—.

Yet there’s another B-word that fits Big Baller Brand even better, and that word may determine Lonzo’s NBA success and his father’s parental legacy.

That word: Burden.

What’s most amazing about Lonzo Ball’s weeks-old NBA career with the Los Angeles Lakers is that the hype has little to do with his game. That’s too bad, because the 19-year-old possesses once-in-a-generation basketball skills. The elite point guard size, the elite point guard vision, the elite point guard passing skills, the elite point guard confidence: Squint your eyes and Lonzo Ball looks a lot like the last point guard in purple and gold who captured the league’s imagination: Magic Johnson. Magic has made the comparison himself. Others have said a young Jason Kidd.

But we’re not paying too much attention to that basketball stuff, not really. Instead, we’re paying attention to Pops and his slightly unhinged, always amusing interviews. Lonzo Ball does the playing, LaVar Ball does the talking: That seems to be the Ball family motto.

In the past few weeks, LaVar Ball has done the following:

It has been a whirlwind of self-promotion and trash talk that feels like the perfect sporting analogy to Donald Trump and the 2017 media landscape. It’s as fun as it is maddening, and it’s also created a fascinating dynamic for one of the most anticipated NBA debuts in recent memory:

LaVar Ball may be the biggest parental burden a rookie has ever carried into a professional sports league.

And that burden will affect Lonzo Ball in one of two ways: It’ll bury him to all-time all-hype-no-substance status … or it’ll elevate him to all-time great status.

I don’t see many in betweens.

And I believe it’ll end up being the latter.

The burden LaVar Ball has added to his eldest son’s shoulders is what will make LaVar Ball either the greatest sports dad of all time — or the worst.

Look: Every player whose name is called on draft night is a big-time talent. You’re not among the 500 or so NBA players on Earth without an enormous amount of God-given talent and an enormous amount of time spent honing that talent. But what really will end up separating a Lonzo Ball or a Markelle Fultz or a De’Aaron Fox or a Jayson Tatum or a Justin Jackson is the ability to handle the big-time pressure that comes with an NBA career. Yes, I’m talking about the pressure to perform in clutch game situations, but more than that I’m talking about the long-term pressure of sustaining a standout career in the face of fame, fortune and 29 other teams fighting to reach the same mountaintop.

And what LaVar Ball has done in his constant swaggering and grandstanding is take the normal pressure on a lottery pick’s shoulders and increase it a hundredfold. Even without LaVar in the picture, there would be an enormous amount of pressure on Lonzo. The talent is real. He’s the most unique point guard package to come into the league in a generation. Add that to the fact he’s playing for one of the NBA’s two all-time marquee franchises, and he’s doing it in the town where he grew up and starred for UCLA, and the pressure really starts growing. Ratcheting up that pressure more is the fact Ball sometimes gets compared to Magic, who just so happens to be his new boss.

The big-time pressure would be mounting even if his father were a mild-mannered accountant. But LaVar Ball is not some mild-mannered accountant. He’s a trash-talking marketing machine who has never seen a microphone he doesn’t like.

All this equals one big, fat target on Lonzo Ball’s back.

LaVar Ball’s media charade is all about building a brand. Lonzo clearly doesn’t take it as seriously as we do in the media. In the reality television era, it was inevitable we would get a sports dad like LaVar Ball, someone who understands the importance of keeping your name in the headlines even when people mock you.

As much as there is a risk in LaVar Ball putting this burden on his son’s shoulders, there’s a reward in it as well. Maybe Lonzo Ball becomes Todd Marinovich, the poster child for an overbearing sports dad ruining his child.

But maybe all of LaVar Ball’s bravado and bombast and bluster helps his son become Tiger Woods, a once-in-a-generation athlete raised to stare down otherworldly pressure and not only rise up to it, but surpass it.

A generation from now, Lonzo Ball will not be remembered as a mediocre NBA talent. It’s boom or bust: His father has made certain of that. I believe Lonzo Ball will become something special. But the only thing I know for certain is this boom-or-bust reality show will be spectacular to watch.
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