Donald Trump vs. LaVar Ball: Who's right? Who's wrong? Who cares?

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Dan Wetzel
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You don’t need to be Miss Manners to understand that if your son is under any measure of Chinese detention and then is no longer under any measure of Chinese detention, you ought to be profusely thankful for anyone who had any role, great or small, in making the not-under-Chinese-detention part happen.

Say thank you. Write a note of appreciation. Send a comp pair of ZO2 Primes, the signature sneaker of Los Angeles Lakers guard Lonzo Ball, you know, just in case you might have access to such things.

LaVar Ball couldn’t manage to do that, so let’s start there in the mind-numbingly stupid war of words between he, the outspoken, egomaniacal family businessman and reality television star, and Donald Trump, the outspoken, egomaniacal family businessman and reality television star.

Trump said he spoke to Chinese president Xi Jinping about getting LiAngelo Ball and two UCLA teammates, Jalen Hill and Cody Riley, out of China last week after the three were arrested for shoplifting at a mall in Hangzhou, China. The three were there to play a game for UCLA.

Presumably, Trump did talk to Xi about this. What’s undeniable is that LiAngelo and the others soon flew home. They had been under de facto house arrest in the team hotel. At that point, you don’t sweat the details. Your kid got out. Take the victory. The polite, classy thing is to just say thank you and get on with life, even if Trump was being childish by wondering out loud if he was going to be properly thanked. Of course, polite and classy don’t exist much anymore.

“Who?” LaVar Ball told ESPN. “What was he over there for? Don’t tell me nothing. Everybody wants to make it seem like he helped me out.”

And we were off. LaVar couldn’t act in a decent, adult manner, probably because these days acting in a decent, adult manner is considered a sign of weakness, the prime example of which is none other than Donald Trump’s presidency.

Who’s right in the Donald Trump vs. LaVar Ball feud? Who cares? It’s great comedy. (AP)
Who’s right in the Donald Trump vs. LaVar Ball feud? Who cares? It’s great comedy. (AP)

Trump took LaVar’s bait and then took to Twitter, and just when you thought White House distractions and wedge issues couldn’t get any dumber, here you go:

“Now that the three basketball players are out of China and saved from years in jail, LaVar Ball, the father of LiAngelo, is unaccepting of what I did for his son and that shoplifting is no big deal. I should have left them in jail!” went tweet No. 1.

“Shoplifting is a very big deal in China, as it should be (5-10 years in jail), but not to father LaVar. Should have gotten his son out during my next trip to China instead. China told them why they were released. Very ungrateful!” went tweet No. 2.

It would be great if the President of the United States was capable of taking the high road and/or do his job without demanding he be patted on the back. LaVar’s sin is the original one here and Trump could have just mumbled to his staff about what a clown the guy was and gone on about his day since there is literally no issue of less importance than this one.

That isn’t Trump, though, and everyone knows it. Hell, that’s probably how he won the election. It’s a reality show, always. A Donald Trump-LaVar Ball Twitter feud is some good, fine entertainment. It won’t decrease steel imports or improve your neighborhood school or help diffuse the North Korea situation, but it’s what everyone will be talking about (instead of the aforementioned).

Trump is about aggrandizement, and if he isn’t getting it from some ungrateful basketball dad, then he is going to react. Maybe that’s all LaVar wanted to do. If so, it worked. LaVar is deep in the Donald’s head. That and a nickel will give you a nickel.

LaVar’s contention is that Trump had less to do with getting LiAngelo out than Trump wants everyone to believe.

As boorish as LaVar has acted here, he’s actually probably correct about that. Trump’s claim he spared these guys from 10 years in prison is unlikely to be true. The Chinese reveal nothing, particularly about the criminal justice system, but it took UCLA and the U.S. consulate about 36 hours to spring the players from a detention center to a high-end hotel. At that point, the case was almost assuredly being handled not as a serious crime but as an “administrative action” which called for a fine, maybe a couple weeks in the hotel and/or maybe deportation.

“Without instructions from above, they [would] not let the students out easily,” Wen Yu, a lawyer based out Guangzhou, told Yahoo Sports at the time, noting how fortunate the case was moving for the players.

“I feel they won’t be jailed again,” said Teng Biao, visiting scholar at the U.S.-Asia Law Institute at New York University.

Trump didn’t even hear about the case for days after that path was set.

So LaVar has a point. Trump is probably overstating his role, painting himself a hero when he really just rolled in at the end.

And … so what?

Your kid is home. If Trump helped at all, then say thanks and count your blessings, because it’s a) the right thing to do and b) LiAngelo and his knucklehead buddies enjoyed the enormous privilege that comes with fame and access to power (whether that is UCLA or the White House). And sure, they probably weren’t headed for 10 years, but when dealing with China, probably isn’t something you want to gamble on.

Just know that as Thanksgiving week comes, there’s a family in Detroit with no fame, no power, no bully pulpit capable of starting social media wars with the president, that wishes anyone would pay attention to the case of their son, their brother, their father.

His name is Wendell Brown, a 30-year-old former Ball State football star, father of one and teacher. He’s been sitting in Chinese detention for 14 months total and four months since a trial was held over a 2016 bar fight in Chongqing. Many maintain he’s innocent and say the trial proved it, unlike those UCLA Bruins who admitted their crimes.

Still, there is no verdict. And no White House help. The days just grind on.

Wendell Brown teaches Chinese children how to play football during his tour in China. (AP)
Wendell Brown teaches Chinese children how to play football during his tour in China. (AP)

In a blue-collar neighborhood of Detroit, where money is tight and influence is scarce, where no one’s brother is a star rookie for the Lakers, Wendell’s mother, Antoinette, has nothing but a mother’s endless supply of hope and prayer that anyone – anyone – will attempt to help them.

They’ll never ask “who?” They’ll always say “thank you.”

“If Trump helps us, if he helps Wendell, I won’t stop thanking him,” Antoinette Brown promised. “I’ll thank him and thank him and thank him.”

In an America now seemingly devoid of decency, where grace is gone and Twitter slap-downs rule, at least there are still people like her, forgotten but perhaps not yet finished.

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