At a casual practice in the Huskies’ 1,300-seat gym before their postseason opener on Friday, which they later won, the Balls’ particular personalities were on full display. Lonzo, nursing an injured finger, exuded a senior’s maturity, his motion economized in a low-key scrimmage. The burly LiAngelo, practicing with the intensity of the football player that he once was, jumped up from an interview as the scrimmage wound down and insisted that it continue with him. The wispy LaMelo, a design cut into his two-tone hair, acted every bit the youngster that he is, sprawling in exaggeration as if hurt and pouting when urged to get up.
Before the season, Baik was conflicted on whether to dictate the offense as coaches do or cede considerable control to the Balls. One of his assistants, acquainted with the boys since their childhood, persuasively made the case for allowing them to approximate the unrestrained style of play associated with Amateur Athletic Union teams. They were effective on that level when playing alongside other Huskies, and the approach transferred seamlessly to Baik’s team.
“It was something ingrained in them since when they were young,” Baik said. “They’re just so good at doing it, we’ve just embraced it.”
Court-length passes are welcomed. Long-distance field-goal attempts are not so much tolerated as encouraged. LaMelo claims he has missed from 30 feet only to hear an unexpected command from the bench: Keep shooting.
“These guys are so fearless,” Baik said, “they don’t think a 40-footer is a bad shot.”
Still, Baik imposes himself intermittently. There have been “difficult discussions” with the Balls, he said, when milking the clock to protect a lead was the wiser tactic. In the 1-point win that saw Chino Hills unseat the previous No. 1-ranked team, Florida’s Montverde Academy, in December, impatience caused the Huskies to nearly fritter away a lead of 14 points.
Still, Baik said he is at ease with rolling the ball out and attaching only a few strings to it.
“It’s a simple system,” he said. “It’s a matter of committing to it.”
But it is not for everyone. Baik said that he fields inquiries from other coaches about how to implement the pedal-to-the-metal format, but he tells most of the callers, “You can’t emulate what we do because you don’t have the personnel.”
Meaning, they do not have three fitness fanatics driven by a personal trainer, a 6-foot-6 former football standout, LaVar Ball, who doubles as their father. (The Balls’ 6-foot-tall mother, Tina, is a former college basketball player.)
Near the Balls’ residence is an incline that they call The Hill. The standard workout for the brothers consists of a mile jog on flat ground, followed by six timed sprints up the slope. A typical week contains three days of running and two more lifting weights in the family garage. Some sessions are required even after a strenuous practice under Baik.
“Running is good for you,” LiAngelo said.The brothers maintain that they do not plead for relief at home.
That endurance enables Baik to get by with a short bench. The Balls commonly play start to finish in contested games, even if that means Baik is subjected to complaints about running up scores.
Equally impressive is their instinctive communication on the court. Lonzo has fetched rebounds and, with his back to the Huskies’ basket, blindly flung over-the-head passes downcourt, knowing LiAngelo or LaMelo would be there to receive them.
Directing it all has been Baik, 37, a Pasadena, Calif., native whose rise has been as uncommon as that of Chino Hills High, a 15-year-old public school riding high in a sports realm long dominated by private schools. Baik rarely sees fellow Asian-Americans at coaching clinics, conventions or on opposing benches. As a youngster, he said, he often was told “you are not supposed to be playing basketball” simply because of his ethnicity.
Entering his teens, Baik elected to focus on tennis. But one day, he finished off a forehand and dropped his racket after being struck by the realization that his love for the sport was lacking. He headed directly to a basketball court, and now said he relishes dispensing advice to younger Asian-Americans entering the profession.
“It’s definitely surreal,” he said of the season.
In the team huddle before his team faced Montverde this season, Baik surprised himself by becoming teary-eyed.
“What am I doing here?” he thought. “A little-known school from Chino Hills?”
Then he told the Huskies that they belonged. Two hours later, they had earned the No. 1 ranking. Two months later, everyone knows who they are.