With or without the Ball family, the Lakers are finding themselves

ByRamona Shelburne ESPN logo
Thursday, February 15, 2018

NEW YORK -- He arrived early, long before most of the folks who'd bought courtside seats to watch the Lakers play the Knicks at Madison Square Garden on Dec. 12. People who sit in seats that good generally spend most of pregame warm-ups at the exclusive Chase Lounge, sipping cocktails or pounding appetizers. But LaVar Ball wanted to settle in early. His son, Lonzo, was making his debut in this iconic building, and as usual, LaVar had a message to impart.

Although Lonzo joined the Lakers with more hype than just about any rookie since current team president Magic Johnson (the No. 1 pick in 1979), his first season had gotten off to an uneven start. He'd dazzled with his playmaking ability but was shooting just 32 percent from the field (dead last in the NBA among players who took at least 10 shots a game). And when his shot wasn't falling, his confidence waned. So LaVar was staying close, talking to his son before and after games. He had to make sure the pressure and expectations didn't crash down on him -- because everyone had a lot riding on Lonzo Ball.

For the Lakers, he represents the franchise's latest savior. If he can grow into what Johnson and general manager Rob Pelinka hope he will be, the team finally has a torchbearer for the bridge between Kobe Bryant and its next era. If he flops, the Lakers' new regime would have to answer for choosing him No. 2 overall and find another way to restore the franchise to glory.

For LaVar Ball, Lonzo represents the first step in fulfilling his dream to build a Kardashian-esque empire around his three basketball-playing sons. If Lonzo didn't become a star, who'd want to be a Big Baller, much less buy any of their shoes?

But failure is not something LaVar Ball gives much oxygen to. If something isn't going the way he wants it to, the Big Baller goes on blast. Lonzo was struggling with his shot, aggressiveness and confidence, and in LaVar's mind, that was because Lakers coach Luke Walton wasn't coaching him the right way. LaVar didn't have a direct line of communication to Walton, and lobbying Johnson and Pelinka behind the scenes hadn't resulted in what he'd wanted, so he started criticizing Walton in radio and television interviews.

After a few rounds of cringe-worthy headlines, Johnson and Pelinka called him in for a meeting in late November and asked him to tone down his criticisms or, at the very least, come to them first.

Ball promised after that meeting that he'd try to "switch it around a little bit," but added, "I am going to say what I want to say, to plant a seed." And sure enough, just six days before Lonzo's debut at MSG -- less than a week after the meeting -- he again went on the radio to criticize Walton for not playing Lonzo in the fourth quarter of a game, despite reports that he'd been pulled to rest sore calf muscles.

The Lakers were exasperated. Lonzo Ball was getting asked whether he agreed with his dad's statements. So were his Lakers teammates.

LaVar Ball was undeterred. Big Ballin' ain't easy. People aren't always going to like what he says. But thus far he'd found that if he kept at it, he usually ended up getting his way.

This wasn't a time for negotiation or compromise. It was a time to dig in. And as I approached him at his courtside seats that night at the Garden, he drew the battle lines.

"You're wondering what side to be on," LaVar said. It was a statement more than a question that needed to be answered.

There was a time when Lonzo Ball's success was fundamentally tied to the Lakers' success. Johnson had staked his own Hall of Fame reputation on drafting Lonzo Ball. On the day Lonzo was introduced as a Laker, Johnson pointed to the jerseys hanging from the rafters and said he expected his would be up there someday, too.

The Lakers' other new additions, Kyle Kuzma, Josh Hart and Thomas Bryant, were introduced on the dais that day, too. But Lonzo Ball was the main attraction. He was the one who was invited to throw out the first pitch at Dodger Stadium later that night. He was the player Johnson challenged to break all of his Lakers records. And his father was the one who'd been granted a private audience with Lakers ownership before the introductory news conference.

Everything in the Lakers universe seemed to hinge on Lonzo Ball and, by extension, whatever his dad said or did. But a funny thing happened after LaVar Ball told ESPN's Jeff Goodman that Walton had "lost the team" after nine straight losses -- the Lakers found themselves.

The team won 12 of its next 16 games between Jan. 7 and Feb. 8, its best stretch since 2013, and mostly without Lonzo Ball -- who missed 12 of those games with a knee injury. This surge was led by Kuzma, Hart, second-year man Brandon Ingram and former lottery pick Julius Randle, who started playing the type of unselfish, up-tempo game the Lakers thought they drafted Ball to bring to the team. Walton also finally cajoled the group into playing elite defense (the Lakers were third in defensive efficiency during that 16-game span, behind only the Celtics and Spurs) by benching anyone -- even his stars -- who lacked effort on the defensive side of the ball. And on Feb. 8, the Lakers made a huge trade, sending Jordan Clarkson and Larry Nance Jr. to Cleveland, clearing enough salary-cap space to chase two elite free agents this summer or in 2019.

All of a sudden, the Lakers had found a winning culture. Pelinka even found 20 tickets for the team to see "Hamilton" on a February off night in New York so they could experience some actual culture. They were probably too young to fully appreciate Lin-Manuel Miranda's musical, but Pelinka hoped they'd at least tap into the theme of a group of young, idealistic men in the Revolutionary War, determined to create a better country.

"We have so many young guys, and we're trying to build a great core and a great organization," Hart said. "Sometimes when you're so caught up in your world, you don't really see other things. So it's great to see other people in their worlds, take things ... from 'Hamilton,' and bring it back to your world."

For Hart, the musical's message was particularly relevant. He started the next night in Brooklyn and proceeded to have three straight double-doubles.

"One of the bigger songs is, 'I'm not going to waste my shot,'" Hart said. "You don't want to throw away those opportunities."

Lonzo Ball said it was the first play he'd ever been to, but he was surprised by how much he liked it. "I told everyone, if our history class was like that, a lot of people would be more informed."

Did he get the main theme of the show?

"Pretty much," he said. "Take your shot."

None of this is to suggest Lonzo Ball has wasted his shot with the Lakers or is no longer essential to their future. He is. But in the span of a month, he went from the center of the universe to one of several planets in the solar system. His father, meanwhile, might as well be in another galaxy, spending most of his time in Lithuania, where his two younger sons, LiAngelo and LaMelo, are playing professionally, hosting awards shows, hawking Big Baller Brand water and comically threatening that Lonzo won't re-sign with the Lakers if they don't add his younger brothers to the team.

"No reaction," Lonzo said of his father's threat. "I always just play. He always talks. It's always been the same way."

The Lakers shrugged, too. They've been playing great with Ingram running the point and new acquisition Isaiah Thomas coming off the bench to provide scoring punch. Lonzo Ball is still their point guard now and in the future -- Thomas' contract expires after this season, and he is looking for a long-term deal that doesn't fit with the Lakers' plans. But the spotlight isn't quite as bright anymore. The need for him to play the savior doesn't feel quite as urgent.

"What I'm gonna worry about is these 15 guys and the direction that we're heading in," Johnson says. "That's what I've been worried about from day one, and that's what I'm gonna continue to worry about."

Although it can be hard to remember now, with LaVar making threats from across the globe, the Lakers always wanted to be supportive of the Ball family's business. Some in the front office even enjoyed the hoopla that LaVar was so adept at creating for himself, his boys and the family brand. This is Hollywood, after all.

"I got a special relationship with LaVar," Johnson says. "I think he understands ... I just want the best for him. For his son. I told him, 'I've been down this road that your son is about to go down, so you got the best person sitting here. So what I need you to do is just worry about the business side. Let me take care of the basketball side.'"

Their original plan was to let LaVar be LaVar. Say whatever you want. Do as many interviews as you want. Sell your shoes. Market your sons. All good. Big personalities didn't scare Lakers governor and co-owner Jeanie Buss. She'd begun her career in tennis, dealing with assertive tennis parents like Richard Williams and Stefano Capriati.

But they knew where they wanted to draw the line. The Lakers wouldn't allow the Balls' Facebook Watch show, "Ball in the Family," to film games for free, as other NBA teams have. According to sources, AEG (a minority owner of the Lakers, which owns and operates Staples Center) charged the production company that produces the show when they filmed at games.

And when Lonzo Ball wanted to buy 20 premier-level tickets to every Lakers home game for his extended family, a source said he was charged $150,000, the same amount as any other customer for those seats.

NBA rules necessitate that there always had to be a separation of the Lakers' brand from the Big Baller Brand. Any favoritism could be construed as additional compensation for Lonzo Ball. And just letting LaVar be LaVar was a lot more than many other NBA franchises would tolerate.

But when fans started emailing and calling the Lakers complaining about Big Baller Brand deliveries or customer service, genuine concern started growing within the building. In January the Better Business Bureau released a report, giving Big Baller Brand an F after receiving numerous complaints about delivery and fulfilment issues and shoddy customer service.

That same week, LaVar went on blast, calling out Walton from Lithuania.

According to sources close to the situation, Johnson called an associate of LaVar's and strongly admonished him. Publicly, though, the Lakers said nothing.

"Look, we had lost nine in a row and you didn't hear nothing from me, right? I was supporting Luke through all nine in a row," Johnson says. "So now, LaVar comes out and says something, and everybody asks, 'Why didn't you say nothing?'

"I'm not gonna respond to people saying different things. [Walton] already had my vote of confidence. There's never been a question about his job security here. But everybody else was trying to make a big deal out of it. I was good with Luke, I was good with Jeanie. So I said we should do nothing because if we react to this, now anytime somebody says something about the Lakers, we gotta react.

"We know what we have, we know who we are. And the team responded, and we're better. So I'm happy we just didn't jump out there."

But it was hard to hold their tongues. According to team sources, the Lakers were angry and disappointed with LaVar Ball over those comments. They felt as though no other franchise would be as accommodating and supportive as they had been, only to be rewarded with a constant disrespect and drama. Or, as one official put it, "He reaches out with one hand and slaps us with the other."

Mostly, though, the Lakers were concerned about the effect on Lonzo, who was essentially being asked to choose between his father and his coach. Lonzo tried to split the defense when asked whether he agreed with his dad's assertion that Walton had lost the team, saying he'd "play for anybody."

It was not a good quote. But how many 19-year-olds would be able to come up with a better one? Anything stronger and he'd be going against the father who raised him, trained him and is now running the shoe company, Big Baller Brand, that Lonzo chose over guaranteed deals of $10 million to $15 million from Nike, Adidas and Under Armour.

Lonzo is unequivocally loyal to his father and his family. He's also constantly reminded of how important that loyalty is.

Take, for example, the $5.2 million house the family bought in Chino Hills, referred to as the "Ball Estate" in the Facebook Watch show "Ball in the Family." Property records show it was purchased by an LLC in August and transferred into Lonzo Ball's name in late December. That LLC's name? Family Always Matters.

When asked whose house it was, Lonzo Ball said it was his dad's.

But property records show it in your name?

"Who knows?" Lonzo Ball said, walking away. "All I know is that they live there."

Purchases like the house are possible mostly thanks to Lonzo's rookie deal, but some aspects of the Ball family business have been unmitigated successes -- most notably the Facebook Watch show. It has been filled with incredible content: LaVar launching a new shoe company, LiAngelo's arrest in China and departure from UCLA, Tina Ball's ongoing recovery from a stroke, LiAngelo and LaMelo playing in Lithuania -- and LaVar being LaVar.

Each episode of "Ball in the Family," which is now in its second season, has drawn over 1.2 million views, with individual episode highs of 26.8 million for the first-season premiere, 10.2 million for the second-season premiere, and 14.9 million for an episode with Lonzo's birthday party. There is also a private Facebook group devoted to the show with nearly 29,000 members. While there is no word about a third season yet, Season 2 was just extended to 24 episodes, which will run longer (approximately 20-25 minutes vs. 15-20 minutes) than previous episodes, based on viewer feedback. In short, fans wanted more of the Ball family.

This kind of brand value and stickiness is incredibly valuable online. Facebook used the show to launch its new Watch platform in August, and it has easily been one of the most successful shows thus far. It is fast-paced, funny and heartfelt at times, and it's produced by Bunim/Murray, which also does "Keeping Up with the Kardashians."

It also has been quite lucrative for the Ball family. According to multiple sources close to the situation, the family was paid "millions" of dollars to do the show.

The Ball family also has brought quite a bit of prosperity to the Lithuanian club that signed LiAngelo and LaMelo, Vytautas. While LiAngelo and LaMelo are making only 500 euros a month -- a fact revealed by Alvydas Vaicekauskas, the mayor of Prienai, during an appearance on a Lithuanian talk show -- the brand value alone has been invaluable.

Live streams of the team's games have drawn millions of views on the website Ballislife, a Facebook partner. Proceeds from those live streams, as well as increased ticket sales and Big Baller Brand's five-figure sponsorship, have helped the club pay off its old debts, get money for new players and pay their current players consistently, according to Lithuanian journalist Donatas Urbonas.

"Big Baller Brand made a donation for the club," GM Adomas Kubilius said in an email. "The donation helped to solve" the debts to players. Kubilius said the club already has discussed how it will "bring back" the money to the company.

Although Big Baller started as a shoe company, it is unclear how much the brand has made actually selling shoes and apparel. ESPN's Nick DePaula tracked pre-orders through the Big Baller Brand website of the initial ZO2 Prime design (priced at $495) and found that fewer than a thousand were sold before it was "remixed" by Brandblack designer David Raysse in September. The company has been successful with pop-up shops, drawing thousands of fans to events in China and the United States who mostly buy apparel to be signed by one of the Ball sons.

Production costs for the shoe are difficult to estimate, because LaVar Ball said in May that he was making them to order so he didn't have "5,000 pairs sitting around in a warehouse." Typically a minimum order for a new shoe line would be between $3 million and $5 million, according to shoe-industry veteran Kenny Carroll, who met with Big Baller Brand business manager Alan Foster last spring when he was looking for a company to manufacture the shoes. Without a minimum order, Carroll said, it's difficult to ascertain how much Big Baller Brand spent up front in production costs. Typically, Carroll said, factories would charge more per unit without a minimum order.

Regardless, what the Better Business Bureau report made clear is the company has had problems delivering its merchandise to customers in a timely or accurate manner. It also has been sued by a local manufacturer, Closet Connection, which alleges that Big Baller Brand failed to pay them for silk screening, embroidery and fulfillment services.

"It's pretty simple. My clients provide services to Big Baller Brand, and Big Baller didn't pay," says Michael Sayer, the attorney for Closet Connection.

In a countersuit, filed in January, Big Baller Brand alleged that Closet Connection was late in delivering merchandise, which caused it to have to pay $50,000 in refunds and suffer additional damages like the "F" rating from the Better Business Bureau. Sayer calls those claims "outlandish." A hearing is scheduled in San Bernardino County Court in May.

The Facebook Watch show chronicles some of these production and delivery issues with Big Baller Brand, when Lonzo Ball has to wait for hours at the BBB headquarters in Los Angeles to sign his shoes. Director of customer service Joe Kang calls it a "snag" and calls FedEx to see what the problem is.

"We promised the customers today would be the day the shoes get shipped out, so hopefully the shoes come in," Lonzo Ball says in the show. When the shoes finally do arrive, and Ball is able to quickly sign them before he leaves on a road trip with the Lakers, he says, "I put everything into it. I could've went with Nike, could've went with Adidas. I turned it all down just to bet on myself and show ... you can make your own way."

This is the core of the Big Baller Brand ethos. Do it your way, double down when challenged, disrupt institutional ways of thinking. It's a resonant brand in an era when musicians are breaking with their labels to self-publish, actors are starting production companies and athletes are filming and selling their own documentaries.

Resonant brands are incredibly valuable to online media companies like Facebook. So, too, are resonant personalities like LaVar Ball.

But what do they do for a basketball franchise trying to restore itself to glory after four straight years in the lottery?

Does the circus around the Balls affect the team on the court?

Was it worth it to draft Lonzo Ball, knowing all the drama his father has brought with him?

Johnson said he has no regrets.

"No, not for one minute," he says. "He's everything we thought he would be and more. And I'm talking about Lonzo."

As for LaVar?

As the LLC name suggests, Family Always Matters.

"He's marketing their business, so, hats off to him. Keep doing it," Johnson says. "Just make sure that you allow your son to grow and us to go through our lumps and our bruises like we're going through, and things are gonna work out. Things are gonna work out for the Lakers and for Lonzo."

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