TBT: LaVar Ball on UCLA and his sons back in 2015 from
CHINO HILLS, Calif. — At 3:30 Friday afternoon, a few hundred people stood in line outside the Chino Hills High School gymnasium, some 50 miles east of Los Angeles, awaiting admission to a 7 p.m. game. They seemed oblivious to the storm that local meteorologists were calling “the worst rain event in the last six years” to hit LA.
The game was still 3½ hours away, and the doors to the gym would not open until about 30 minutes before tipoff.
Thanks to three brothers with otherworldly basketball skills, Chino Hills has become like a miniature version of the Lakers “Showtime” days of Magic and Kareem at the old Forum.
“It’s a show,’’ LaVar Ball said, surveying the scene he helped create as the father of Lonzo, LiAngelo and LaMelo Ball. “This is like the hottest thing going. They’re waiting in the rain to see my boys play this game. It’ll never happen like this again.
“I call this the ‘Ball Era,’ because before Lonzo got here, none of this was like it is now. Nobody even knew about Chino Hills. Now, as soon as you mention Chino Hills, the first thing that comes out of everyone’s mouth is ‘Ball brothers.’ When I said this was going to happen four, five years earlier, people thought I was crazy.’’
The oldest, Lonzo, started the show five years ago. He’s now a freshman at UCLA, where he’s the point-guard engine that makes the fifth-ranked Bruins (24-3) a favorite to go deep into the NCAA Tournament.
Lonzo, who averages 15.4 points, 7.6 assists, 6.1 rebounds and two steals, is projected to be one of the top four picks in the upcoming NBA draft, and not even Phil Jackson could screw up enough to pass on him if the Knicks have the chance to select him.
When told the Knicks could really use a player like Lonzo, LaVar said, “Everybody’s in desperate need of a guy like Lonzo. He’s the only one in the draft that can make everyone else better.’’
LiAngelo is a senior at Chino Hills, the school’s leading scorer for the last four years, and is committed to go to UCLA next year.
LaMelo is a smooth 15-year-old sophomore who’s possibly the most gifted of the three.
“Everyone wanted my boys to go to all these other schools and I said, ‘It ain’t the school that makes the dude, it’s the dude that makes the school,’ ’’ LaVar said. “They thought the boys are not going to get exposure playing at Chino Hills. I said, ‘If you can find a kid in Africa, you ain’t going to have no problem finding my boys off the 71 Freeway.’ ’’
Not when the boys are this talented (to wit, LaMelo scored 92 points on Feb. 8 against Los Osos High). Or when the father is LaVar, who’s hardly afraid of making bold proclamations about his kids.
Last week, as a guest on an LA radio show, LaVar was asked if Lonzo has a chance to be as good as NBA superstar Steph Curry.
“Heck no,’’ LaVar said. “He’s going to be better than Steph.’’
“I think he’s better than Steph right now; he just doesn’t have the credentials,’’ LaVar said now, warming up his engines. “Steph is 6-2, 6-3. My boy is 6-7. ’Zo is faster than Steph and he jumps higher. If Steph had to guard Lonzo one-on-one, he couldn’t hold Lonzo. I can’t wait for the first game they play together in the NBA. Then, when my son beats him, then what?’’
LaVar talks this way about all three of his boys. And, if you’re merely reading the quotes, it’s easy to view him as an obnoxious, pushy gasbag.
But to meet LaVar is to believe LaVar. His positive energy is so infectious that if he told you there would be no traffic at 5 p.m. on a Friday between Santa Monica and downtown LA, you’d believe him.
Rather than recoil from it and view it as adding pressure, the Ball boys embrace LaVar’s bravado.
“I’ve been living with it since I’ve been born,’’ Lonzo said. “Of course, I appreciate it. That’s my dad, man. Who wouldn’t want his son to be the best, you know? I love him and whatever he says, I’m going to roll with it.’’
LiAngelo said his father’s confidence “lets us know that he cares about us.’’
“He’s been talking like that for a long time now,’’ LaMelo said. “We know he’s got our back and we’ve got his back.’’
The boys’ mother, Tina Ball, a 6-foot blonde, has been married to LaVar for 20 years. They met at Cal State Los Angeles, where they both played basketball. Tina calls LaVar “larger than life, and he’s always like that. That’s who he is.’’
“He’s always told them they can be great,’’ she added. “Obviously, you just want your son to strive to be the best at what they’re doing. Someone has to be better than Michael Jordan. Why not you?’’
LaVar Ball’s master plan is working. He speaks freely about wanting three boys. He believes the boys’ size and prowess were inevitable.
“With [my wife’s] size and my size [6-6, 320], we were going to create some monsters,’’ he said.
“Each one of my boys is better at their age than the other one,’’ LaVar continued. “Gelo was better than Lonzo at 15. Now Melo is better than both of them at 15. I make ’em like phones — each one is better.’’
This is LaVar’s description of his three boys:
- Lonzo: “Lonzo is the playmaker. He will do whatever it takes to win. He never has a bad game, because if he only has one assist, he might have eight steals, 12 rebounds, 18 points. Or he might have 12 assists and two points.’’
- LiAngelo: “Gelo is a shooter, a scorer. He can shoot the 3-pointer and he’s got the biggest body where he can post up in the paint. He’s 6-6, 240 playing the two guard. Nobody can guard him.’’
- LaMelo: “Melo is my hybrid. He can play like ‘Gelo, where he’s shooting the ball a lot — as you could tell with the 92 points he scored — or he can run the team like Lonzo, as he’s been doing all year.’’
The night LaMelo scored the 92 points, LiAngelo was out with a leg injury, so LaMelo was flying solo for the first time at Chino Hills.
“It was his stage to do what he does,’’ LaVar said.
LaMelo dedicated the game to a Chino Hills classmate named Lexi Anderson, who was in need of emergency heart surgery. After the game, he tweeted: “92 points #love4lexi.”
His tweet was the catalyst to help launch a GoFundMe page to raise money for Lexi’s medical needs, which include a heart transplant. Five days after the LaMelo tweet, more than 300 people donated $30,246 of a $100,000 goal.
Lonzo called his youngest brother’s 92-point performance “just Melo being Melo,’’ and added how “proud’’ he was of LaMelo raising awareness about his gravely ill classmate.
“He knew that if he went off in that game, it would draw a lot of recognition to not just himself,’’ Lonzo said. “I credit him for putting her first and then going out there and scoring all those points.’’
It wasn’t well received by everyone. LaMelo launched 61 shots in Chino Hills’ relentless shoot-till-you-drop offense, and opposing coach Dave Smith told the Los Angeles Times that LaMelo’s performance was “a joke.”
“When only one kid shoots every shot but one in a quarter, that’s not right. That’s not, as coaches, what we’re supposed to do,” Smith told the paper. “They have a chance to score a layup and they turn and pass the ball out so another teammate can score. That’s not good.”
Stephan Gilling, in his first year as the Chino Hills head coach, has known the Ball family since before LaMelo was born, and he recognized something special immediately.
“When I saw in ’Zo when he was young, he just had this presence and something in his eyes,’’ Gilling said. “He was so confident as a young kid. With him being the first brother, I knew that trait was going to carry on to the next two.’’
Especially LaMelo, who has a smooth, confident style about him that makes it look like he’s loafing. He’s simply so talented, he looks like he can do anything he wants on the basketball court.
On that rainy Friday night against JSerra Catholic, a 105-74 Chino Hills blowout, LaMelo scored one basket when he passed the ball to himself off the backboard for an uncontested layup. On another play, he casually flipped a no-look underhand alley-oop to LiAngelo for a power dunk.
The same way LaMelo does for Chino Hills, Lonzo has taken his version of “Showtime’’ to Pauley Pavilion.
“His decision-making has been on point since Day 1 here,’’ UCLA coach Steve Alford said. “He’s always been pass-first. You’re looking at one of the best assist guys in the country, if not the best assist guy in the country. As far as running the show, nobody does it better than Lonzo.’’
Alford’s son, Bryce, Lonzo’s starting backcourt mate, added, “A guy that has [558,000] Instagram followers and with the hype that surrounds him, he could easily be a cocky dude, a bad dude. But he’s one of the nicest guys I know. For him to be the talent he is and the person he is, that’s what really makes him special.’’
UCLA needs to enjoy Lonzo while his magic lasts, because he’ll soon be gone, to the next level, trying to do special things in the NBA.
“The one-and-done for us — all my boys will be one-and-done — it’s not for the money,’’ LaVar said. “We want the one-and-done for the competition. My boys want to be the best ever.’’
You’ll get no argument on that from the Ball boys.
“This is a really exciting time, because it makes the game fun when it’s your family and your brothers are playing good and you’re doing well,’’ LiAngelo said.
“We’re just doing what we love,’’ LaMelo said. “Basketball.’’