NBA: LaVar Ball, eccentric patriarch of basketball prodigies

Rob Woollard
AFP

Los Angeles (AFP) - Whether it's about Donald Trump, legends of the NBA or conventional wisdom, LaVar Ball is happy picking a fight with anyone over anything at any time.

In the space of two years, the larger-than-life hoops fanatic has risen from obscurity to prominence as the eccentric father of basketball prodigies Lonzo, LiAngelo and LaMelo Ball.

Lonzo Ball signed this year for the Los Angeles Lakers. LiAngelo is a rookie at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) set to follow his elder brother's path to the NBA. LaMelo is a high school student who might be the best of the lot.

But for all the athletic success of his children, it is 50-year-old LaVar Ball who has shown the greatest flair for grabbing the headlines, mostly through wildly extravagant claims that invite ridicule on sports websites and television.

This week, however, Ball has found himself in the crosshairs of the world's most powerful man, incurring Donald Trump's wrath after refusing to thank the US president for securing son LiAngelo's release after his arrest in China.

LiAngelo was arrested with two UCLA teammates for allegedly shoplifting in Hangzhou earlier this month while his team was in China for an exhibition game. They were jailed at first, then ordered confined to their hotel room.

Trump took credit for helping to engineer the players' release and return to the United States after raising the matter with Chinese President Xi Jinping during his recent Asian tour.

- 'Ungrateful fool!' -

Yet LaVar Ball reacted with indifference when asked by the ESPN sports network for his thoughts on Trump's role in securing his son's release. "Who?" he asked.

Trump responded angrily on Twitter. "I should have left them in jail," he wrote.

Undeterred, LaVar Ball then went on CNN on Monday to double down on his earlier remarks, again refusing to thank Trump, and using his appearance instead to tout his clothing company -- Big Baller Brand.

"Tell Donald Trump to have a great Thanksgiving because Big Baller is," Ball quipped in the interview.

That in turn triggered a predawn tweetstorm from Trump on Tuesday, with the president disparaging Ball as a "poor man's version" of notorious boxing promoter Don King before branding Ball an "ungrateful fool."

In many ways the Ball-Trump smackdown unfolded entirely predictably, the classic collision between unstoppable force and immovable object.

For anyone who has followed LaVar Ball's rise, the latest controversy came as little surprise.

- Always 'a master plan' -

Ball's sons first gained attention for their exploits in helping Chino Hills High School in Los Angeles go a whole season unbeaten in 2016. The team was acclaimed as the best high school side in the country.

LaVar Ball has compared himself to Joe Jackson, the domineering father of Michael Jackson and the Jackson Five who plotted his children's musical success. LaVar's wife Tina says her husband "always had a master plan."

"Some people want to invest in property, stocks, something," LaVar said in an interview with the Orange County Register earlier this year. "I always thought, 'I'm going to invest in something that's mine.'"

So far, the master plan is on track. Lonzo was snapped up by the Los Angeles Lakers earlier this year and although his professional career is off to an uneven start, he has shown flashes of precocious talent.

LaVar, however, has regularly drawn the ire of pundits with a stream of outlandish statements about his and his sons' talents.

In the past year alone he has claimed that he would have beaten Michael Jordan in his prime in a game of one-on-one -- Ball had a brief career in both professional basketball and football -- while stating bluntly that Lonzo is a better player already than Golden State Warriors superstar Steph Curry.

Better, in fact, than any other player in the world.

- Help or hindrance? -

Some have wondered aloud whether LaVar's overbearing personality and relentless courting of the spotlight might end up hindering his sons' development.

"The fact that everybody keeps talking about him, he seems to be accomplishing whatever he's trying to accomplish, because the things he says are so outlandish," Warriors coach Steve Kerr told ESPN in March.

"I don't think it's helping his kids. I think it'd be better for them if they can just play and have fun and not have to hear that every day -- but whatever."

As well as overseeing his sons' development, LaVar Ball is constantly promoting his Big Baller Brand of sportswear, selling basketball sneakers for an eye-watering $495 (418 euros) a pair.

"People say, 'Oh, LaVar's crazy,' Ball says. "Well, they thought Tiger Woods' dad was crazy. They thought Venus and Serena's dad was crazy.

"These are all great (athletes). So I'd say we're on the right path. I want them going for the highest."

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