Why it will be tough but not impossible for LaMelo Ball to play college basketball

Yahoo Sports
LaMelo Ball apparently wants to play college basketball, but his path to NCAA eligibility won’t be easy. (Getty)
LaMelo Ball apparently wants to play college basketball, but his path to NCAA eligibility won’t be easy. (Getty)

If LaMelo Ball is truly serious about trying to play college basketball next year, there’s little doubt what his first step should be.

The youngest Ball brother must find an attorney capable of repairing the damage caused by his father’s unconventional decisions.

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Experts in NCAA compliance told Yahoo Sports that LaVar Ball may have forfeited LaMelo’s hopes of attaining college eligibility by using him as a pitchman for the Big Baller Brand and by hiring an agent to shop him to overseas pro teams. LaMelo, 17, and older brother LiAngelo, 19, spent nearly four months playing for a professional Lithuanian club this past winter before returning to the U.S. and joining LaVar’s fledgling professional league, the Junior Ballers Association.

Those potential violations of NCAA rules are certain to draw scrutiny when the NCAA eligibility center evaluates LaMelo’s amateur status. If he is not certified as an amateur, the onetime five-star prospect’s only option would be to appeal the decision and hope that the NCAA shows leniency by having him repay some money or sit out a specified number of games instead of rendering him permanently ineligible.

“It’s going to be extremely challenging for him,” said David Ridpath, a former compliance director at Marshall who’s now a professor of sports administration at Ohio University. “I’m 100 percent sure he won’t be immediately eligible. There’s a chance the NCAA allows him to play with a lengthy suspension and some monetary penalties, but I’m still hedging my bets. There’s probably a 50 percent chance he won’t be able to play at all.”

Whether LaMelo can become an amateur again became relevant last week when he revealed he was taking a hiatus from his professional career. He first announced that he has enrolled at SPIRE Academy, an expensive Ohio prep school where he will play basketball and work toward earning his high school diploma. He then said Friday that he intends to play at least a year of college basketball and is targeting the likes of Duke, North Carolina, Kansas, Kentucky and Michigan State.

Since SPIRE is not a member of Ohio’s governing body for high school athletics and does not compete against any schools who are, it can determine its own eligibility rules. Therefore the school can reap the benefits of taking a professional player and bonafide celebrity who stars on a reality show, drives a Lamborghini he received for his 16th birthday and boasts more than four million Instagram followers.

For a Division I college, getting LaMelo eligible as a freshman will be a far more onerous task. Some school surely will be desperate enough for elite talent to offer LaMelo a scholarship and help craft an argument on his behalf. But even lawyers who specialize in defending athletes in NCAA eligibility cases admit this one features more obstacles than most.

“I’ve never seen a confluence of so many issues in one case, but I still do think it’s workable,” attorney Don Jackson said. “Every one of these issues standing alone — agents, money from a shoe company, playing with a pro team, endorsements — I don’t think any of them would be an amateur career-ending infraction. When you have all of those issues colliding in one case, that makes it more complicated but I don’t think it makes it impossible.”

LaVar’s choices makes it difficult

LaMelo’s basketball journey appeared fairly straightforward as recently as 16 months ago when he began his junior year at Chino Hills High School.

The kid brother of Los Angeles Lakers point guard Lonzo Ball and then-UCLA forward LiAngelo Ball had already gained a massive social media following of his own thanks to viral videos of his impossibly deep 3-pointers, flashy no-look passes and unmistakable swagger. He intended to solidify his standing as one of the top guards in the 2019 class, follow in his brothers’ footsteps by heading to UCLA for a year and then declare for the NBA draft in 2020.

LaVar Ball and BC Prienai coach Virginijus Seskus have a discussion during a game in Lithuania last season. (Getty)
LaVar Ball and BC Prienai coach Virginijus Seskus have a discussion during a game in Lithuania last season. (Getty)

LaVar first jeopardized those plans in August 2017 when he demonstrated that he cared more about promoting his fledgling shoe-apparel brand than he did LaMelo avoiding potential NCAA eligibility issues. Not only did LaVar design Big Baller Brand shoes bearing LaMelo’s name, he also had his youngest son appear in ostentatious photos and videos advertising that the sneakers were available for pre-order at $395 a pair.

If LaMelo has been compensated in any way for endorsing his signature shoes, that would run afoul of NCAA rules. Prospects can promote commercial products prior to enrollment if it’s not for pay, but they risk their future college eligibility if they’re profiting off of their athletics reputation.

Assuming Big Baller Brand isn’t actually paying LaMelo directly for the use of his name or likeness, the NCAA eligibility center would have to decide if proceeds going to a company owned by his father qualifies as “for pay.” Multiple compliance sources told Yahoo Sports the shoes could be an issue for LaMelo if he tries to play college basketball.

“It’s certainly an obstacle for him, but that could be solved with a reimbursement and a suspension,” Ridpath said. “LaVar Ball is not short on money. If the NCAA comes back and says, ‘You have to pay $30,000 to charity because of the benefits you received from this endorsement,’ I think that’s something they would probably do willingly.”

A bigger impediment for LaMelo could be the family’s decision to have an agent represent him.

The agent issue

Unhappy with the coaching LaMelo was receiving at Chino Hills High School and the severity of the suspension LiAngelo was serving at UCLA after a shoplifting arrest in China, LaVar yanked both boys out of school in December 2017. LaVar then asked Lonzo’s agent, Harrison Gaines, to scour Europe and Asia for a professional team interested in signing the brothers as a package deal.

Erikas Kirvelaitis, communications director of Lithuania-based BC Vytautas, told Yahoo Sports in December that his club’s courtship of the Ball brothers began with a Twitter direct message he sent to Gaines. Only days later, Gaines and BC Vytautas officials brokered a deal for LaMelo and LiAngelo to play for the struggling club that competes in the Lithuanian Basketball League and Baltic Basketball League.

Article 12 of the NCAA rulebook is clear about what happens to basketball prospects who agree to be represented by an agent either orally or in writing. It says simply, “an individual who retains an agent shall lose amateur status” and “be ineligible for participation in an intercollegiate sport.”

“If the NCAA finds that you’ve signed with an agent or an agent has worked on your behalf, then outside of some limited exceptions in baseball and hockey, that’s usually bad for you,” said an athletics compliance director who works for a power-five school and requested anonymity. “Your only hope is to somehow get the NCAA to reinstate you, and I’ve gone through that before. It ain’t easy.”

Would a new NCAA rule help?

To counter that argument, LaMelo’s supporters would undoubtedly cite an upcoming NCAA rules change regarding basketball players’ use of agents. Players deemed as “elite” by USA Basketball will be able to retain an agent, without jeopardizing their college eligibility, beginning on July 1 of the summer before their senior year of high school.

“There will be an elite group of high school players that will be allowed to have agents and he would certainly fall in that category,” Jackson said. “If he signed an agreement of representation with an agent prior to the NCAA’s acceptance of that kind of arrangement, why would it be fair for other members of his graduating class to be able to have agents and for him not to?”

Of course, it doesn’t help LaMelo that Gaines began representing him before that rule change was even proposed. Or that he didn’t even comply with that rule since he hired his agent before his senior year of high school.

What would help LaMelo is if LaVar had the foresight to make sure his youngest son did not receive a salary in Lithuania and in the Junior Ballers Association. If LaMelo can prove he only received “actual and necessary expenses” — meals, lodging, transportation and medical treatment — that could offset some of the eligibility issues raised by the fact that he has played for a pair of professional teams in the past 12 months.

In an email to Yahoo Sports, Gaines echoed LaVar’s claim that BC Vytautas did not compensate either LaMelo or the Ball family, but he would not divulge LaMelo’s contract information. That’s something the Balls will undoubtedly have to do to quell NCAA skepticism that LaMelo played for two professional teams without being paid.

Complicating the matter further is the fact that LaVar’s Big Baller Brand owns the Junior Baller Association and became BC Vytautas’ most visible sponsor while LaMelo and LiAngelo were on the team. BC Vytautas played home games on a court teeming with BBB advertising, from logos at mid-court and under each basket, to signage surrounding the court. Even the referees wore uniforms with an unmistakably large BBB patch on the back.

There’s little doubt the NCAA would investigate how much revenue LaMelo helped the Big Baller Brand earn, whether LaVar transferred any of those funds to his youngest son or if he made any promises to do so. The NCAA would also surely be interested in looking into whether the Big Baller Brand received a sweetheart sponsorship deal from BC Vytautas in return for LaMelo and LiAngelo playing there for no pay.

LaMelo Ball was a five-star prospect before he left high school to play for a professional team in Lithuania. (AP Photo)
LaMelo Ball was a five-star prospect before he left high school to play for a professional team in Lithuania. (AP Photo)

The Marvin Bagley precedent

If the NCAA finds that only LaVar directly benefited and not LaMelo, there’s precedent for the eligibility center not balking at that sort of arrangement. Heralded NBA prospect Marvin Bagley played right away at Duke last season even though Nike reportedly installed his dad as coach of a prep school, sponsored the fledgling AAU program he launched and kept the money flowing as long as Bagley stayed Nike-affiliated.

“If that was fine because it was beneficial to the family business but didn’t trickle down to the son directly, why would LaVar’s arrangement be any different?” said attorney Jason Setchen, whose specialty is defending athletes in NCAA eligibility cases.

The most obstacle-free path for LaMelo would be to return to professional basketball after high school, but the unlikely pursuit of college eligibility does offer the Big Baller Brand some distinct advantages. Win or lose, LaMelo’s inevitable battle with the draconian NCAA would provide a torrent of publicity for the Ball family at a time when they’ve been uncharacteristically out of the spotlight.

While college eligibility might be a long shot for LaMelo, attorneys who handle these sorts of cases insist it’s not unattainable.

Setchen said his strategy to defend LaMelo would be to address every possible amateurism violation with him in detail to find out how much compensation he has received and from whom. Then Setchen would make a bullet-point list of each potential eligibility issue and try to find the best argument to nullify each of them.

“It’s not the usual case with just one item,” Setchen said. “There are precedents at some level that can be argued for each of the issues, but the totality of what he was doing might be too overwhelming and might ultimately result in him being deemed ineligible. I’m an optimist and a fighter, but it’s an uphill battle for sure.”

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Jeff Eisenberg is a writer for Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at jeisenb@oath.com or follow him on Twitter!

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