- Senior Writer for ESPN The Magazine
- Columnist for ESPN.com
- Author of five books (3 NYT best-sellers)
The Ball Family Draft Night Extravaganza (heavy on the extra) began hours before the first pick, at a check-in table in the driveway of the family home in Chino Hills, California. Temperatures are taken, hand sanitizer is offered, waivers are signed, pens are separated in containers marked CLEAN and USED, and each signee holds the signed waiver near said signee’s face for a photograph, clearing the way for any and all likenesses to be used for the inevitable reality show spinoff. A young woman in a Big Baller Brand T-shirt bearing the slogan “Family Never Breaks Up” takes the photo with her phone, and we’re off.
The COVID-19 pandemic changed the NBA draft, turning it into a virtual, stay-at-home affair that promised to be quaint, heartwarming and maybe a little bit folksy. Families gathered in small groups, awaiting news only the television could convey, and joy ensued. Each of the potential draftees got a cap in the mail from all 30 teams, and instead of daps and a hug with commissioner Adam Silver after a walk to the stage, they got a backslap from their overeager uncle and a kiss from mom. But, in the case of the Ball family, which is not just any family, the night could be transformed into one more massive marketing opportunity. LaMelo, at 19 the youngest of the three Ball brothers, was about to be drafted, and the moment would be maximized.
In fact, this moment — not any of the moments leading up to it, and not any of the moments that might ensue from it — is the moment the family has been awaiting ever since LaVar Ball decreed that each of his sons would become professional basketball players. Lonzo, chosen second overall by the Lakers in the 2017 draft, is the starting point guard for the New Orleans Pelicans. LiAngelo, the middle son, played for the Oklahoma City Thunder G League team last year and is hoping to sign as a free agent in the next two weeks. But this is the moment of ultimate vindication, the night the youngest and most scrutinized son of Tina and LaVar would be recognized for his talent and the work that has made this possible. This is the moment everyone would stop talking about LaMelo’s winding path — from Chino Hills to Lithuania to an Ohio prep school to Australia, much of it in service of a brand and at the behest of the father — and focus on the result.
And so the cars, more than 100 of them, lined up in front of the Ball compound. LaVar roamed his property wearing Big Baller Brand shorts, a BBB long-sleeved T-shirt, BBB shower slides and black socks. Atop his head, the chef’s kiss: a BBB baseball cap, specially made for the occasion, with “I Told You So” inscribed across the front.
A BBB gift basket was strategically placed on a table in the vast entry, about midway between the stationary BBB logo on the gold-painted wall outside the house and the rotating BBB logo inside the chandelier in the living room. The basket, big enough for a good-sized picnic, contained three Big Baller Brand dish towels, four Big Baller Brand coasters, two Big Baller Brand coffee mugs, two Big Baller Brand pillows, one Big Baller Brand cutting board and one Big Baller Brand placemat. You’ve got to give it up for LaVar: There’s nothing like the crowd at a draft party to infiltrate that Williams-Sonoma/Crate & Barrel lifestyle space.
The crowd moved amoeba-like from patio deck to patio deck outside and from room to room inside the 16,000-square-foot house, making its size difficult to estimate. Let’s put the best guess at 250. It was, without doubt, eclectic: family, high school friends, corporate types, and multiple honchos of Roc Nation, the agency that represents LaMelo. Bubba from Bubba’s Tacos was working the grill on the lower level of the backyard. LaMelo made it a point to speak to everyone, like a groom going from table to table.
And more than 90 minutes before the first pick, at 3:33 p.m. PT, the east gate of the Ball compound opened and a white Rolls Royce Cullinan SUV (base price: $330,000) rumbled onto the property like a large feline. Its driver — identified only as “That’s the car guy, I don’t know his name” by everyone I ask — is greeted like a conquering hero. He stepped out of the vehicle and accepted the congratulations and well wishes from LaVar, who was followed by a peacock’s tail of car-loving men who appear in the driveway as if blown by the wind. Photographs are taken and videos are shot. There are desperate, plaintive calls for LaMelo, and within seconds he appears, smiling, shirtless and running uphill from the guest house toward the car, shuffling a bit to keep his gold Louboutin studded slip-ons on his feet. He and his father embrace, the suicide doors are opened, the leather interior is fondled and the stereo is tested to the threshold of feeling. With the pleasantries out of the way, LaMelo climbs into the driver’s seat, LaVar the passenger’s, and they take it for a drive.
The car returns a few minutes later, with LaMelo wearing the same smile he wore at the beginning. This vehicle is clearly a draft day gift, but when I ask The Car Guy who it’s from — Roc Nation? Puma? LaVar? — he sidesteps the question like any good car guy would. “They told me to bring it here to see if he liked it,” he says. I tell him, judging by the ecstatic look on LaMelo’s face, that he might need to find a way home that doesn’t include the Cullinan. As any good car guy would, he says he has prepared for exactly that eventuality. “I got a friend down the hill,” he says. “He’s going to come and get me if the car stays here.”
As we stand there, grown men continue to walk in circles around the vehicle, marveling at the geometry and the leather and the suicide doors. (Especially the suicide doors.) They reminisce about the time, roughly 30 minutes ago, when the sound system rocked so hard it bounced off the canyon below. They look at it like it’s food.
THE DRAFT BECOMES real about 30 minutes before the first pick, when about half the crowd descends into the lowest level of the three-story house, where the massive television room will serve as draft HQ. The tacos have been eaten, the Cullinan has been ogled, and something has changed in the air.
With his mother to his right and his father to the left, LaMelo sits in the middle of the couch wearing a black suit with a white shirt. (At one point earlier in the evening, Jermaine Jackson Jr., the point guard at LIU-Brooklyn and son of LaMelo’s trainer, leaned over the second-story deck railing in the backyard overlooking the family’s three Rottweilers and the pool with the red-and-white BBB logo on the bottom and said, “If Melo gets picked No. 1, he should just jump into the pool with his suit on.”) On the back of the suit jacket is a gold replica of the winged tattoo that runs across his chest. He wears a gold necklace with a pendant depicting the same winged tattoo. Headphones cover his ears.
Seven minutes into the pre-draft show, the commentators began talking about LaMelo, and this is when it becomes evident that LaVar, despite all of his eccentricities, is just like any other self-respecting middle-aged father, which is to say he is obsessed with the volume level of the television. He announced to the room that he needed more volume to hear the men talk about his son, mostly because he couldn’t hear above the sound of his own voice. As the discussion veered from LaMelo’s exquisite playmaking to his at-times questionable shot selection to LaVar’s potentially deleterious impact on his son’s draft status, father and son (now sans headphones) sat on the couch in silence. Neither changed expression. Neither looked at the other. They’ve heard it all before, and even LaVar has learned to ingest the speculation as if it were directed at someone else. It’s not that they’re emotionless; they’re just able to disregard the idea of being emotional.
The room is cave-silent leading up to the first pick. This is all finally happening. LaMelo puts his headphones back on. His head bops as Silver walks to the lectern. Within seconds the world, and this room, will find out whether LaMelo Ball, the young man who has answered every question about being the No. 1 pick by saying, “I feel I’m made for this,” will be chosen No. 1 by the Minnesota Timberwolves.
Silver speaks. LaMelo tilts the headphones from his left ear.
Anthony Edwards, Georgia.
The room stays silent. There is no air left. Everyone looks to the couch for guidance.
LaVar begins to clap. He is bouncing forward, clapping with vigor. He is laughing. He yells, “Good job, Anthony!”
A few people cheer along with LaVar. LaMelo abstains. It is 70 degrees outside, a cloudless, windless Southern California night. Someone says something about snow, and how LaVar doesn’t enjoy it. The determination to cheer for Edwards appears to be more meteorological than anything else.
The Golden State Warriors go on the clock, and the tension returns. This pick could be problematic. LaVar once called Warriors coach Steve Kerr the Milli Vanilli of coaching, suggesting that Kerr’s success is something of a X-and-O lip-sync. There’s a thought in the room that Kerr probably isn’t eager to wade into these waters, and that a team with established stars — including at point, with Steph Curry — isn’t the ideal spot for LaMelo to begin his NBA career.
James Wiseman, Memphis.
This time, a nod from LaVar. LaMelo remains imperious and headphoned, and you get the feeling this is playing out exactly as he expected.
By now, the best NBA reporters have tweeted out the certainty that LaMelo will be taken by the Charlotte Hornets at No. 3, but the news doesn’t seem to have reached the couch. The clock winds down, Silver returns to the podium and the night is complete.
LaVar and former NBA point guard Jermaine Jackson, LaMelo’s trainer and the man who guided him from sideshow to this moment, conduct the ceremonial handing over of the Hornets cap. LaMelo is smiling, the spell broken, and the cheers bounce off the walls. A young team in an up-and-coming city with good weather. All boxes checked.
LaVar gets up from the couch, helps Tina to her feet and tells Lonzo and LiAngelo to sit alongside their brother on the couch for the post-pick interview. This is LaMelo’s day, but it’s also LaVar’s day, and what better way to exemplify that uniquely BBB “I Told You So” attitude than to step aside and let his three sons tell the world for him? They trudge forward, grown men not interested in causing a fuss, and sit next to LaMelo, who is wearing a Hornets cap in such a way that ensures not a single hair will be impacted.
They wait, and wait. A technical glitch causes the interview to be ditched, and nobody — especially not Lonzo or LiAngelo — seems bothered. LaVar, quiet no longer, is accepting congratulations and telling the room, “Tell MJ: Here we come! Tell MJ we’re coming!” LaVar punctuates his proclamations by raising both arms in the air. Michael Jordan, the man LaVar famously claimed he could beat in a one-on-one, is the owner of the Hornets and now his son’s boss. LaVar tells me the world might finally get to see that one-on-one, but first he has to discuss the business side with Jordan: pay-per-view, guaranteed money, that kind of thing. He laughs and says, “Hey, if people are willing to pay to see 50-year-old Mike Tyson fight, why not?” He likes the idea of Jordan guiding his son. “Greatness recognizes greatness,” he says. “I always told my boys, ‘Someone has to be better than the best — why not you?'”
As he is telling the room to tell Michael Jordan that he’s on his way, LaVar’s attention is redirected to the television. Lonzo and LaMelo are on the screen, along with a graphic telling the world they are the first brothers ever to be drafted in the first three picks of the NBA draft. He nods as he watches, and there is an unexpected pause when the screen cuts to a commercial.
“Would you look at that,” LaVar says. “Nobody ever done what I did.”
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