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ONTARIO, Calif. — Sixteen miles from where he raised his kids, inside the arena beneath the San Gabriel Mountains, LaVar Ball sits down next to his wife, Tina, and son, Lonzo.
The three speak at their mid-court seats, and the three smile. In their eyes, on this Thursday night, they have no reason not to.
LaMelo and LiAngelo Ball — the sons of LaVar and Tina and the brothers of Lonzo — are once again hooping together. This isn’t a pickup game in the backyard, though. This is the Junior Basketball Association — a professional basketball league created by LaVar, the CEO of the Big Baller Brand.
“I’m sitting back right now,” LaVar tells Yahoo Sports. “Can’t you see me watching my boys play? This is love for me.”
He sounds like he’s finished talking, but, well, you know the drill.
“I’m not working,” he adds. “This is beautiful.”
Two years ago, this spectacle would have been unthinkable. That might even be an understatement. The Ball family has gone from the wacky, basketball-loving crew based in Chino Hills, California, to a polarizing brand.
The brand has become famous with its “Ball in the Family” reality show on Facebook, and LaMelo and LiAngelo playing in Lithuania. An aside on fame: It can do a number on folks, especially athletes. Its powers are relatively unknown.
After Thursday night’s event at Citizens Business Bank Arena, though, one thing is known: The Ball family has not frayed. It has not frayed through Tina’s major stroke, which she suffered in February 2017, forcing her to use a walker at this night’s game. Nor has it frayed through all of LaVar’s outlandish comments.
“Every time my family gets together, it’s good,” Ball says. “It’s like old times.”
Thursday night’s game was just like old times at Chino Hills, with the run-and-gun pace and the 3-point barrage. But this isn’t California high school basketball. This is LaVar’s league, a league hoping to attract one-and-done talent.
The Junior Basketball Association launched in June, and it houses eight teams that play weekly. Facebook televises the four-quarter, 48-minute games. There is a 24-second shot clock and an NBA 3-point line. There are official referees and trainers for players, many of whom forfeited their college eligibility to begin their dreams of playing in the NBA.
One of those players is LiAngelo, whom LaVar said would play in the summer league. It was always a long shot. While he waited on a call from an NBA team, he worked on his game at home. No call came, so he chose to join his father’s league and his brother’s team.
“This is just going to make me better every day,” LiAngelo tells Yahoo Sports. “I’m out here looking to play against great competition.”
After a pregame intro video, the national anthem and announced starting lineups in front of hundreds of fans (a league-best attendance to date), LiAngelo and LaMelo walk to mid-court. The ball is tipped between the Los Angeles squad and the Philadelphia squad, and the game begins.
Moments into the first quarter, LiAngelo Euro-steps into the lane and lays the ball in. By the end of the first stanza, LiAngelo’s Los Angeles team leads 48-40. His night is just beginning.
To dissect the origin of the Ball family’s fame, you have to travel back to November 2016. During a UCLA game against Portland State, a game in which Lonzo Ball played, LaVar was interviewed by ESPN.
“I’m calling it right here, right now,” he said then. “UCLA is going to win the national championship.”
The comment did not generate buzz like LaVar’s every word does these days, but it paved the way for the many comments since.
In February 2017, LaVar talked about LaMelo scoring 92 points in a high school game. A month later, LaVar said he could beat Michael Jordan in a game of one-on-one. In May 2017, he created the Big Baller Brand, which released a $495 shoe.
When Lonzo Ball was selected with the No. 2 overall pick in the 2017 NBA draft by the Los Angeles Lakers, he claimed he spoke it into existence. That same month, LaVar appeared on WWE. He then called out a female referee while coaching his sons’ AAU team, pulled his sons out of Chino Hills High School and took them to Lithuania to play professionally.
The saga did not end there. In April, LaVar pulled his sons from the Lithuanian team.
Asked what life has been like throughout it all, LaVar offers an ironic response: “It’s almost two years going by, and they’re still talking crazy.”
Recently, LaVar has been in the news because of his comments relating to the Los Angeles Lakers signing Rajon Rondo to a one-year, $9 million deal. And while he keeps things fairly conservative on this night, LaVar provides some of his usual flair.
What are your thoughts on what Puma has done, re-entering the basketball endorsement landscape?
“Where has Puma been all these years before I came on the scene? Exactly, nowhere. Guess what? Bring your own brand in, and it’ll open up some doors.”
What are LiAngelo’s plans going forward?
“He’s going to be on the Lakers, or he’s going to play with his brothers. That’s going forward. It don’t matter how long we take to get there. The bottom line is: My boys are gonna play on the same team.
Wait, you thought he was done?
“We’re giving [the Los Angeles Lakers] first right of refusal. If you want to win. If you want to beat the Golden State Warriors, you need them three Ball boys.”
Last December, LaVar first spoke of the league he currently watches. Players receive $3,000 a month. Each player on the championship team is supposed to receive a Cadillac.
It’s impossible to know whether the league has a sustainable model. Tickets to the games usually range around $35, which is why the Facebook viewership numbers heavily outweigh the in-person attendance numbers.
For some players, like former Simeon (Chicago) star Kezo Brown, this league is their last chance. For others, like Kansas City product JaMichael Morgan, it is an outlet to play the game they love. But is it a stepping stone to a more lucrative professional career or does it ruin the chance at a free scholarship? Ultimately, time will tell.
On this night, the Ball squad looks like the clear favorite of the league. Though LaVar has yet to guarantee this championship.
The second quarter of the game features an off-the-backboard dunk from LaMelo, which generates oohs and ahs from the crowd. These are two of his 25 points on the night, and in the first half his team led 85-65. He also added 19 assists and 17 rebounds.
As for LiAngelo’s play in the first half?
“He’s playing the way he always plays,” LaVar says at halftime, with cameras for the Ball’s Facebook show swarming. “He scores the ball. My man’s a pure scorer.”
LiAngelo is on his way to 53 points on 24-for-42 shooting. He also added 10 assists and 10 rebounds in his JBA debut.
Over the course of the game, LaMelo and LiAngelo show the chemistry they have always had and the chemistry LaVar has hoped for since he and Tina married. That was before the fame. Before the cameras. Before Tina’s stroke.
LiAngelo and LaMelo communicate on defense, which is subpar at best. They find each other on outlet passes. Never is this more apparent in Los Angeles’ 171-140 win than with two minutes remaining in the game. LaMelo receives an outlet pass with LiAngelo streaking down the left side of the court. The younger brother tosses the ball up, and LiAngelo flushes it.
The three sitting at mid-court beam as the ball flies through the net. Just like old times.
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