By DERON SNYDER
You want to say LaVar Ball is crazy and there’s some truth to that.
But he did draw 1.6 million viewers for the inaugural game of the Big Baller Brand Challenge in Lithuania. That’s the tournament he created and convinced his sons’ team, Prienu Vytautas, to host.
I guess the team is nuts, too.
Vytautas shifted around its entire season to accommodate Ball. It skipped the Baltic Basketball League in favor of the tournament, a series of five friendly matchups against other Lithuanian clubs. It slapped the BBB logo on the halfcourt circle and restricted area arcs.
Even the referee uniforms featured the logo, which makes you think visiting squads shouldn’t expect a fair shake. Given that Vytautas promised extensive playing time for LaMelo and LiAngelo Ball, they’re probably not worried about foul trouble.
The club’s motivation is clear and not surprising. According to ESPN, the Ball brothers are expected to generate about 100,000 euros ($120,000) in revenue for their team, including an undisclosed amount from Facebook, which is streaming the BBB Challenge.
For a low-level franchise that reportedly struggles with finances and plays in a small village (10,000 people) and tiny arena (1,700 capacity), LaVar Ball has been a godsend.
For one of the NBA’s most gloried and storied franchises, he’s been something else altogether.
Ball’s mouth has been his meal ticket, but Lakers president Magic Johnson is suffering from an upset stomach and coach Luke Walton is ready to puke. Ball has put eldest son Lonzo Ball – the Lakers point guard and the No. 2 overall pick last year – in an awkward situation between the team and his father.
“You can see they’re not playing for Luke no more,” Ball told ESPN this week as the Lakers were on a nine-game losing streak. “Luke doesn’t have control of the team no more. They don’t want to play for him. … Nobody wants to play for him. I can see it.”
What he can’t see is how those comments have changed everything.
Before now, it was easy for the Lakers to ignore Ball’s carnival barking as he attempts to build Big Baller Brand (which on Monday received an “F” from the Better Business Bureau). Lonzo seemed unaffected and most of the chatter had nothing to do the team.
When Ball crossed the line in late November, complaining that Walton wasn’t coaching Lonzo correctly, Johnson and Lakers GM Rob Pelinka met privately with the father. They asked him to tone it down or come to them first if had concerns. They began enforcing a previously disregarded policy that prohibits media members from the postgame holding area for players’ family and friends.
But like a mouth to a flame, Ball is going to find a microphone – or a microphone will find him.
He’s obviously unwilling to cease his criticism and he turned it up a notch in the last salvo, causing the coaching fraternity to rail against him (and the media that publicize his commentary). Just as troubling for the Lakers, Lonzo didn’t refute his father’s direct attack on Walton.
“I’ll play for anybody,” Lonzo told reporters when asked if he was fine with Walton as his coach. That wasn’t even a lukewarm response compared to fellow rookie Kyle Kuzma’s answer when asked the same question.
“Luke is my guy,” Kuzma told reporters. “I love playing for him … we stand by Luke.”
Johnson and Pelinka would squeal in delight if Lonzo said that. Instead, they’re left to wonder if Ball’s derogatory comments are affecting Lonzo or, worse, co-signed by him.
Here’s where Ball has made a drastic miscalculation while turning his family into the NBA’s Kardashians: A player must be extraordinarily gifted for a team to accept any accompanying nonsense.
And he can forget about his fantasy of all three sons suiting up for the Lakers. Even if LaMelo and LiAngelo are NBA material – iffy for the former, hardly for the latter – Johnson has endured enough drama with one family member on the team. He certainly doesn’t want to triple Ball’s ammo.
The Lakers have won two in a row since the nine-game skid, including Tuesday’s victory against Sacramento when Lonzo demonstrated his ability to dominate without scoring. He had 11 points, 11 rebounds … and as many steals as points (five). His shooting was typically disastrous, 2-of-10 overall and 1-of-7 on 3-pointers, dropping his season averages to .349 and .298, respectively.
Notwithstanding errant marksmanship, Lonzo is a good player. However, he’s not worth the headache if his father keeps yapping about the coach and whoever else in purple-and-gold might be next.
The marketing acumen and ability to command attention are impressive. Ball predicted Lonzo would be a Laker and, voilà, the dream came true. Now buyer’s remorse from Johnson is a growing possibility, as is an eventual separation.
Yes, Ball’s money moves are paying off at the bank.
But repeated diatribes could lead the Lakers to close their account.