SCNG Sports Person of the Year: Why we kept our eye on the Ball Family (sunglasses optional)

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There is no easy way to deliver this, so let’s just put it out there:

LaVar Ball, along with his sons Lonzo, LiAngelo and LaMelo, by virtue of what they did in the name of the Big Baller Brand from their modest Chino Hills home base, attaching themselves to basketball royalty at UCLA and with the Lakers, and detaching themselves from the norm in Lithuania, China and President Trump’s Twitter account, are the 2017 Southern California News Group Sports People of the Year.

If you somehow made it this deep into the story, we owe an explanation.

IMG_8720Cases could be made for Rams coach Sean McVay, running back Todd Gurley, quarterback Jared Goff or GM Les Snead, reflective of the team’s turnaround. USC blind long snapper Jake Olson (Huntington Beach/Orange Lutheran HS) and his inspirational story. Dodgers third baseman and Lakewood native Justin Turner, relief ace Kenley Jansen or rookie teammate Cody Bellinger for their Fall Classic run. Summer Olympics negotiator and L.A. native Casey Wasserman, for what he brought, or retiring Kings broadcaster Bob Miller, for what he left us.

They all brought the goods.

But the Ball family had the goods, bads and the uglies. It was a 21st Century version of Fred MacMurray and “My Three Sons,” without network censors.

There are some modern phrases we can also use to describe the impact as it played out.

SBNation.com used the term disruptors, pinning it specifically on the family patriarch. We’ve read TheRinger.com refer to Lonzo Ball as a “Superstar for the Reddit Generation.” TheComeback.com tied it together when it said “sports content producers need eyeballs right now, and they’ve found a savior in Lonzo and LaVar Ball.”

As ‘Gelo and ‘Melo joined in on a Facebook reality show, it seemed to reinforce another modern phenomenon in which fame can come before accomplishment, not so much as a result of it. Except the phrase “speak it into existence” became the family motto — as LaVar did as much to make Lonzo become a Laker, and is convinced the other two will follow.

Others picked up on that, right through to an announcement this week that Big Baller Brand is starting its own pro league, with Lonzo as the logo.

Speak it into existence. pic.twitter.com/dGu4sWGahg

— Big Baller Brand (@bigballerbrand) December 19, 2017

The ground rules for picking our “Sports Person of the Year” over the past 10-plus years goes straight to how it’s been done for decades at Time magazine – for better or worse, it is the person (or people) who has done the most to influence the events of the year.

If the $495 shoe fits …

Clearly, LaVar Ball could not have done this alone.

From December, 2017. Illustration by Jim ThompsonFrom December, 2017. Illustration by Jim Thompson

Oldest son Lonzo was the true Ball marker. He made UCLA and the Lakers relevant in the same calendar year. A one-and-done point guard for the Bruins team that started 13-0 and ended in a Sweet 16 appearance made Steve Alford look smart. Whether or not the Lakers felt they had a choice, they still chose him with the No. 2 overall draft pick, a team now led by Jeanie Buss, Magic Johnson and GM Rob Pelinka banking on this facilitator.

Before his 20th birthday in August, he was the NBA Summer League MVP in Las Vegas, then the youngest in NBA history to post a triple-double once the season started. He cut off his locks, left it to others to talk up his potential, and when last we checked in, he was listening to LeBron James’ take about some possible L.A. relocation plans.

ESPN was using him in commercials promoting their telecasts as “the Lakers’ new face of ‘Showtime’.”

On that resume alone, Lonzo Ball had the Sports Person of the Year credentials.

But this quickly became a package deal.

Middle son LiAngelo, who turned 19 in November, could have been completely overlooked in this Fab Four. He couldn’t get another CIF or state title at Chino Hills after Lonzo did, but he got into UCLA. Yet, before the Bruins’ first game, he decided to pick up some sunglasses outside of Beijing. An international shoplifting incident happened, a public apology, an indefinite suspension, and then a withdrawal from Westwood.

Youngest son LaMelo attracts attention on ESPN “SportsCenter” and ABC “World News Tonight” by knocking down 92 points in a February game as a junior playing for a high school he’ll never see again. He was driving a Lamborghini for his 16th birthday in August and had a signature shoe.

From November, 2017. Illustration by Jim ThompsonFrom December, 2017. Illustration by Jim Thompson

By December, Sons 2 and 3 were getting their passports ready for a 2018 trip on the Baltic Express, U.S. kid labor for a new overseas professional adventure into more global outreach for the brand.

“This is all starting to sound like one of those movies starring Bronson Pinchot as the team owner and Sinbad playing LaVar Ball,” L.A. sports-talk host Petros Papadakis quipped.

If the first year of Trump’s presidency forced many to reassess our souls and defend our values in regard to his bloviating from the Oval Office, the Ball experience constantly stimulated dialogue and did much the same in regards to digging deeper about our beliefs for proper parenting versus goal-setting, entrepreneurship and marketing versus self promotion and this insatiable manipulation of the media (mainstream, social and otherwise).

“If the question was: Who is the person that disproportionately moved the needle — especially relative to sports accomplishment —  LaVar is the winner and there is no one else even in the same stadium,” said Dr. Dan Durbin, the director of the Institute of Sports, Media and Society and professor at USC’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism.

“Trump has made sports a political hot button in ways that no previous president has.  And LaVar has even found a way to exploit that to keep eyes on the family drama.  But, really, the LaVar Ball story is most apropos for the era of reality TV.”

From April, 2017. Illustration by Jim ThompsonFrom April, 2017. Illustration by Jim Thompson

MORE PERSPECTIVE

Earl Watson, the former UCLA star point guard and NBA head coach, appeared earlier this month on one of the many TV sports chatter shows that found itself immersed in another Ball-related discussion.

Asked if he had a son with pro basketball promise, would he hesitate sending him overseas to play instead of pushing him to college, Watson replied: “My son is 2 years old and already knows the eight-clap — he has no choice but to go to UCLA. But that’s my son, and as his father I have every right to influence my child. What LaVar does, more power to him.

“We are in the business of stories — sports is nothing without stories. To me, this is a story we’re watching unfold that’s never happened. And it’s scaring everyone.”

From November, 2017. Illustration by Jim ThompsonFrom November, 2017. Illustration by Jim Thompson

In June, New York Times best-selling author Douglas Brunt came out with a novel titled “Trophy Son.” Told from the point of view of a young tennis prodigy with an overbearing father, it examined the darker side of the pressures to succeed and the costs involved in the pursuit of fame and celebrity.

Brunt, with three young children, admits the Ball family story hadn’t come onto his radar in New York until last month’s recent Twitter exchange with President Trump. The more he saw LaVar Ball do TV interviews, the more parallels Brunt could draw to the book he had just written.

“He does seem well-meaning – and I believe most parents of kids, whether they’re exceptional or average, no matter where they live, are not trying to do something bad,” Brunt said. “It’s just those who have disposable income, they’ll spend the extra money for lessons and drills and travel teams. “

Watching Ball “start to exhibit narcissistic tendencies, you get a sense that he believes his own nonsense. If he’s convinced he’s doing the right thing, he keeps looking for ways to validate it.

“Maybe so many of the things we see him do look wrong, but I don’t think he’s consciously being malicious. Maybe this thing has just started to snowball down a hill on him. It’s problematic.”

Brunt says when set out to do his book, “it was more an exploration of the changing youth culture, overbearing parents, overscheduling kids.” From that, he can see LaVar Ball “beyond a helicopter parent – he’s a general manager.”

There are dots to connect with Richard Williams and Earl Woods, and their kids turned out with mixed results. In the end, Brunt hopes the Balls succeed.

“If all his kids ended up playing for the Lakers, having fun, sharing his dream, what a great story that would be, right? I just hope his values are in the right places and these kids live a long, balanced and happy life after basketball.”

CAN THE MEDIA JUST KEEP UP?

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In June, Foot Locker made a Father’s Day commercial with some of the NBA’s top draft picks, talking about all those special moments with their dad.

It allowed Lonzo to throw it back at those who were already critical of LaVar.

“There’s that big day, when your dad berates your high school coach in front of an entire crowd for not getting enough touches,” Lonzo says, deadpan. “Or that special moment when dad sits you down and tells you where you’re going to college … copyrights your name to make it part of a family lifestyle brand … ”

Now, if only they’ll carry the Big Baller Brand shoes …

That’s just a glimpse of how the media may have tried to resist the Ball draw, but became an enabler. The same USA Today that created an ancillary website called Lonzo Wire “Keep Your Eye on the Balls” just to keep the timeline moving circled back to call November’s Ball-Trump Twitter feud the “dumbest sports controversy of 2017.”

When many of us were first introduced to all this in March, it was our story headlined: “The Ballfather: LaVar Ball and his 3 sons intend to change basketball forever.”

LBall_bakAs LaVar Ball became ripe for TV and radio appearances, the first sign things were changing from charming to chafing was an incident in May on the FS1 Colin Cowherd Show, where he told news reader Kristine Leahy to “stay in yo’ lane” as she tried to question his motives.

No surprise: Big Baller Brand soon was selling “‘Stay In Yo Lane” T-shirts. Leahy said she was starting to get death threats because of that episode.

By July, Jay Bilas wrote a piece for ESPN titled: “LaVar Ball crossed the line and isn’t worthy of our attention,” and ended it as calling him “a misogynistic buffoon unworthy of my time.” This, after Ball chased off a female referee during an AAU game he was coaching, as he refused to leave the court and forfeited a game. And before he tore his shirt off at a WWE event at Staples Center as part of the act.

In October, USA Today’s Nancy Armour wrote in a column under the headline: “It’s official: LaVar Ball is worst sports parent ever.”  But then there was a piece in the New York Post by George Willis: “Beyond the antics, there’s some credit LaVar Ball deserves.”

On an episode of ESPN’s “Pardon the Interruption,” co-host Michael Wilbon couldn’t take it anymore.

“All the networks — including this one — that put a microphone in front of him for minutes at a time … That’s editorial malpractice. Because we don’t need to know what LaVar Ball says anymore. …

“I find what LaVar Ball does now loathsome at times. … To see this, particular for me, a father — for a black father to do this, to put his child in professional harm’s way. This incredible target. There’s now people in the league who hate your kid because you behave like a self-absorbed jerk. And networks like ours help him. It’s worse than reality TV.”

By that time, Wired.com offered an insightful review of the “Ball in the Family” Facebook reality show:

“The pursuit of self-actualization is a baroque endeavor (for the show) that unfurls the lives of NBA rookie Lonzo Ball, his brothers, and their incendiary father, LaVar. The fulfillment of one’s potential stands paramount to the rhythmic machinations of reality TV, and the thrills of shock are traded in for riskier, at times messier, themes: moments of awkward adolescent love, brotherhood in transition and vulnerability disguised as rigorous scrutiny from a tireless father figure. Thanks to the ubiquity of Facebook, the family’s travails loop endlessly in households the world over—a centralized narrative unto one’s self.”

From December, 2017. Illustration by Jim ThompsonFrom December, 2017. Illustration by Jim Thompson

THE LAST LAUGHS?

As most of L.A. was focused on Game 2 of the World Series on Oct. 25, the Lakers were posting an overtime home win over the Wizards — John Wall could have won it with a shot at the buzzer in regulation, but Lonzo Ball’s defense helped prevent it.

LaVar Ball was puffing his chest with pride courtside. Washington coach Scott Brooks was asked after the game about Lonzo’s dad. His thoughtful answer gave us another moment to think about.

“I was the youngest of seven, and my dad left when I was 2, and my mom raised all of us on her own,” Brooks said. “You’re growing up in that situation, you have some anger, you have some sadness, but you have to figure out a way through it…

“(Lonzo Ball) has a father and a mother that support him. To me, I think everybody is missing the boat. Does he say some crazy things? Ya. Does he really believe he can beat Michael Jordan in a 1-on-1? No.

“But I can guarantee that over dinner, his sons are killing him for saying things like that, and they’re having fun. To me, laughter is an important part of life. I think they get it. I think they probably laugh a lot, and a lot of the time they are laughing at us.”

www.facebook.com/LaVarBBB/www.facebook.com/LaVarBBB

PREVIOUS SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA NEWS GROUP/LOS ANGELES NEWS GROUP SPORTS PERSON(S) OF THE YEAR:

2016: Retired Dodgers broadcaster Vin Scully

2015: UFC fighter Ronda Rousey

2014: Clippers coach Doc Rivers

2013: Dodgers outfielder Yasiel Puig

2012: Dodgers ownership team of Mark Walter, Stan Kasten and Magic Johnson

2011: AEG president and CEO Tim Leiweke

2010: New Orleans Saints running back Reggie Bush

2009: Thousand Oaks teenage sailors Zac and Abby Sunderland

2008: Dodgers outfielder Manny Ramirez

2007: Galaxy midfielder David Beckham

2006: Dodgers general manager Ned Colletti

2005: USC running back Reggie Bush and USC quarterback Matt Leinart

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