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Prienai is a picturesque little town in southern Lithuania, tucked along the banks of the Neman River, surrounded by plush forests and … oh, forget it. The Ball family doesn’t care much about scenery, or the way the bridge lights up each evening or how locals played an active role in gaining independence from the Russians a couple decades back.
No, LiAngelo and LaMelo Ball are headed to Prienai because there is hardly anywhere else to go, at least when it comes to basketball.
LiAngelo quit UCLA. LaMelo quit Chino Hills (California) High School. Their father, LaVar, has his Big Baller Brand sneaker business to run, all while plotting to get his younger two sons into the NBA, where his eldest, Lonzo, is a rookie with the Los Angeles Lakers.
So into the Lithuanian pines they go, two teenagers on contracts with Vytautas Prienai, a professional team in a league with a history of developing NBA players (Toronto’s Jonas Valanciunas and Boston’s Aron Baynes, among others). Their dad and his reality show film crew will certainly follow.
This week on “Ball in the Family,” the guys attempt to eat a bowl of cabbage borscht before discovering the closest In-N-Out franchise is 5,500 miles away.
Hey, they wanted to be professional basketball players and that is, as it should be, their right. The NCAA isn’t for everyone. LaVar Ball is a devoted father who believes he is doing what’s best for his kids. They, in turn, love and swear by him. Deciding on this path is certainly unorthodox, but each person deserves the right to make his own choices.
It’s their family. It’s their life.
It’s just time for LiAngelo, LaMelo and, perhaps especially, LaVar to be exactly what they signed up to become … professionals.
That means going to work. That means not making excuses. That means proving yourself worthy of the job. That means actually sticking it out for the season, not running off when the going gets even remotely tough.
That probably means taking a good, hard look at the good, hard life of a Lithuanian and realizing the blessings and opportunities presented to them. And then seizing it.
“Vytautas made the most sense as LaMelo and LiAngelo work to develop as professionals and set a foundation for their careers,” their representative, Harrison Gaines, told Yahoo Sports’ Shams Charania. “It was critical to find a situation in a competitive league that works with both of their short- and long-term goals.”
One of those goals should be proving to the NBA, if not everyone else, that this is serious and not just the latest LaVar-orchestrated antic.
LaMelo is a highly touted prospect committed to UCLA who instead dropped out of Chino Hills High after a dispute with the coaching staff. LaVar was supposedly going to home-school him, but instead LaMelo turned pro. He’ll be eligible for the 2019 NBA draft and there is plenty to lose playing against grown men in the Lithuanian and Baltic leagues. LaMelo is 16. The two point guards currently on the Vytautas roster are 28 and 32. This isn’t the Nike AAU Peach Jam tournament.
This is the hard road. A season in Westwood would have been the easy one.
LiAngelo is not considered an NBA prospect at this time, no matter what LaVar says. “He should transfer to a mid-major and stay for four years,” one Eastern Conference executive said. He was supposed to play for UCLA this season, but was suspended after he and two teammates stole from a Chinese shopping mall before the Bruins’ season opener in Shanghai. Their brief jailing set off an international incident, which included the presidents of the United States and China taking time to discuss the case. It ended with LaVar refusing to thank Donald Trump, infuriating the president and securing more publicity for the Big Baller Brand.
UCLA suspended LiAngelo and the others indefinitely, which was too much for LaVar. He pulled his son out of school and said he’d enter him in the 2018 draft. This, apparently, is his route to get there — a few months in a 1,500-seat gym on the banks of the Neman, with some road trips to Estonia mixed in for good measure.
First, they have to show up though … report date is January. Then they have to prove they can live far from the comforts of California. Finally they have to handle stern coaching, rough competition and life in a situation where they hold little to no influence, unlike UCLA.
Playing time will be earned. Coaches will be under no obligation to bend to their will. Opponents will affix a target on their backs if they manage to get on the floor.
Nothing will be simple. What they had was simple.
If nothing else, it’s an opportunity for each to show the NBA that they are more than spoiled products of an overbearing stage dad and a grassroots basketball system gone mad. It could also spell disaster.
Whatever. It’s off to Lithuania. This was the best option they could muster, which says it all about how dire things had gotten. No more pampering now. No more easy street. The upcoming months in Prienai call for cold and clouds and plenty of snow.
Winter has arrived for the Ball family. Everyone is watching to see if it survives until spring.
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