NEW YORK – Lonzo Ball slipped out of a warm New York afternoon and into the cool confines of the Barclays Center on Thursday afternoon wearing black dress shoes that perfectly matched his NBA draft night black-on-black suit-and-shirt combo.
Meanwhile members of his family took turns carrying a bag, the contents of which were a perfect encapsulation of his future (the Los Angeles Lakers as the second overall selection), his present (part of a self-promoting, wing-and-a-prayer family business) and hopefully a break from his past (the relentlessness of his father, LaVar).
The bag contained a fresh pair of custom-created, white, purple and gold size-13 sneakers. These were the Lonzo Ball signature shoe, courtesy of the Big Baller Brand, the fledgling shoe and apparel company created by LaVar.
The shoes were laid under a curtained banquet table reserved for the Balls in the so-called green room. No one else could see them.
The moment Philadelphia picked Markelle Fultz No. 1 overall, Lonzo kicked off his dress shoes and slipped on the sneakers. He knew he was going to be a Laker. LaVar claimed he had heard it from Jesus and “the words of Zeus” (presumably Magic Johnson). If for some reason he wasn’t picked, the footwear change would be reversed, no one the wiser.
“We didn’t have any other teams made up,” Lonzo told Yahoo Sports later. “I just had these. Just put them under the table.”
Once NBA commissioner Adam Silver called his name as the Lakers’ selection, up went Lonzo and the shoes. They stood out. They looked sweet. You can’t buy that kind of publicity – well, maybe Nike could, but not the Big Baller Brand.
Maybe it sells a pair or three. Maybe they remain too expensive ($495). Maybe it’ll take Ball turning into the kind of player that the Lakers believe he can be for product to start moving in any significant numbers.
Whatever happens, this was one more example of LaVar Ball, in his own way, not missing a single beat, not wasting a single opportunity to sell and market and promote.
And now it’s time for the father to step back a bit and let his son go to work.
Love LaVar or hate LaVar or simply be entertained by LaVar, the man was an unrelenting force of self-promotion over the past few months. He talked and talked and talked. He said Lonzo could do more for a team than Stephen Curry. He swore he, LaVar, could defeat Michael Jordan in a game of one-on-one.
At first he said he’d sign an all-inclusive shoe deal for all three of his sons – Lonzo’s two younger brothers are headed to UCLA in the years to come – for $1 billion. After everyone laughed, he upped it to $3 billion. Needless to say, Nike didn’t bite.
He was impossible to ignore, which was the point. In the process, he turned his son into the most famous college basketball player in the country and the talk of the pre-draft hype. He refused to let Lonzo work out for anyone other the Lakers in an effort to force the pick. He was everywhere. It never ended. On Thursday, LaVar was wearing a black tie with “BBB” (Big Baller Brand) in purple lettering and seeking out ESPN microphones.
Lonzo loves his dad, but he gets the criticism. When someone asked him if wearing signature shoes that aren’t with a traditional brand and retail for nearly $500 a pair puts “a target on your head, so to speak?”
“According to the media, I have a lot of targets on me,” Lonzo said with a smile. “So probably.”
It isn’t just the media. Moments after he was picked, Philadelphia’s Joel Embiid tweeted a request to his teammate, Ben Simmons.
“Please dunk on him so hard that his daddy runs on the court to save him,” Embiid wrote.
LaVar Ball is hardly the only father to take an active role in promoting and controlling his son’s career and draft prospects. In the NFL, Archie Manning was famous for it. And plenty of what LaVar did, such as discouraging teams from picking his son and choosing where to work out, is done every year, it’s just a private tactic of agents.
None of that matters now. The die is cast. The target is set. The Balls wanted to make themselves a story and they succeeded. Now it’s time for LaVar to let Lonzo play his game and sell his shoes.
The learning curve for a rookie point guard is considerable enough. It is even tougher trying to do it with all eyes on you, in Los Angeles no less. When the rest of the NBA is going to seek out the chance to humiliate you, then it’s like playing uphill.
Lonzo didn’t appear troubled by any of it on Thursday. He didn’t beg for guys to go easy on him, or understand his dad. This was the plan. This was the pitch. This is the burden.
It’s just time to move onto the second phase and try to alleviate some of the pressure that is on Lonzo’s slight shoulders. UCLA coach Steve Alford said that across last season in Westwood, LaVar was never an issue, and hardly around other than games. A return to that during the Lakers season would be advised. Let Luke Walton and Magic Johnson be the voices in his ear.
That would likely please Lonzo Ball. He was in a back hallway of the Barclays now, wearing his new kicks in his new team’s colors, wearing his own shoes from his own family business. He wasn’t blinking at any of it. He was about to be shuffled off to go on “Jimmy Kimmel Live” and he understood that would be good publicity for the business. Yet he sounded ready to see the sideshow come to an end. The real work is here.
“Just want to get on the court,” Lonzo said.
The son is ready. Dad would be wise to let him go be his own man for a bit.
More NBA draft coverage from Yahoo Sports:
• Process pays off: Sixers take Fultz No. 1 overall
• Fashion statements aplenty at 2017 NBA draft
• Troubling new report about Phil Jackson, Knicks
• The mocking draft: Ranking picks by quirks
• Knicks owner to spend draft … playing the blues