2017 is the year of the charlatan; the showman. Shadow people were everywhere this trip around the sun, staging this electoral coup or that; always bombastic and puerile; plunging our institutions into chaos. Of those double-agents, the least insidious and most entertaining is LaVar Ball.
The loud-mouthed father from Chino Hills, Calif. made headline after headline spouting one inane thing or another, but as his L.A. Lakers golden child Lonzo mounted his sail for the NBA, LaVar gained in power as the wind that would carry him. Lonzo has struggled, at times looking pedestrian in a league of bigger, stronger, and faster men. Yet his father has never faltered, his belief in his son bordering on delusion; the kind of delusion we Americans expect out of our fathers.
LaVar was a college athlete himself, and then journeyman pro hitting practice squads for the New York Jets and others. He wanted a tribe of boys he could shuttle into the league he never got a chance to play in, a textbook case of a helicopter dad deciding his kids’ futures ad hoc. But, A-Yo, all three of them have the kind of once-in-a-gene-pool talent that makes going to the NBA possible. A remarkable feat in itself. And the guy planned it. His wife, Tina, was a college basketball player, tall and thin as a reed, when LaVar eyed her walking in a pair of heels, “How many tall girls wear heels?” he told ESPN Magazine for a story in which he and his son Lonzo were on the cover. “I liked that.”
He doesn’t believe a word he’s saying, his cheshire grin that of a man who’s in on the only joke that matters: American heritage. He’s raked all kinds of shit from the tongues of the slobbering sports media. That he could beat Michael Jordan in a one-on-one; that his son is better than Stephen Curry. He’s had rows with Charles Barkley and Stephen A. Smith. He’s made his own son a target in a league filled with folks who love targets. And yet his celebrity is born in the crucible of talk media’s desire to crown someone a fool. In that way he is Donald Trump as sports father; as visionary; as barbarian. He is whatever we need him to be to see his kids flourish.
When his second son LiAngelo was accused of stealing Louis Vuitton sunglasses in China, he and emperor Cheeto went head-to-head. Trump alluded to the notion that he helped the Ball family out, negotiating his son’s release from a Chinese prison. LaVar would have none of it, “What was he over there for?” he said. “Don’t tell me nothing. Everybody wants to make it seem like he helped me out.” Not to be outdone, king petty took to Twitter (his favorite sounding pad) to get the froth going:
But Ball is a disciple of Trumpism, not a foil. They use the same tactics to achieve maximum results: They disguise simplicity as honesty, one of the oldest tricks in the bible of American populism. In this age, this is the strongest weapon there is. So Ball could not be dethroned by a mere tweet, instead it made his legend billow all the more.
But Ball is a disciple of Trumpism, not a foil. They use the same tactics to achieve maximum results: They disguise simplicity as honesty, one of the oldest tricks in the bible of American populism.
Now the sports father who no one can get to shut up has been complimented by Jay-Z as a man with a “vision.” He’s been on the cover of magazines. The Los Angeles Lakers—one of our storied sports franchises— was forced to institute a gag rule on media interviewing non athletes and coaches after games. He changes things, then, in that way. We still live in an America that has no idea what do with a loud black man. Someone who flouts its tepid rules of borrowed aristocracy. But, oh, in 2017 do we love them.
And that’s what we admire most about Lavar Ball. He’s making his bid for dynasty. Instituting a plan 20 years in the making. A plan only he believed would even have a chance of working. Big Baller Brand is making inroads on terrain only fools would think to enter: the NBA. Because, ladies and gentleman, if this works it would be one of the greatest entrepreneurial coups in the history of capitalism. All he needs is his son Lonzo to become a star. But if not him then LiAngelo. And if not him then LaMelo.
After the China fiasco, Lavar yanked LiAngelo out of UCLA and had he and his younger brother sign pro deals to play in Lithuania, which is probably a no for NBA front offices of the future. Maybe he’s gone too far this time, or, maybe, those kids will take his heritage farther than it was ever thought to go. And, for real, that’s what 2017 is all about. How long and how far can we take this joyride? How fast can we go?