All through last week’s LaVar Ball spectacle in Las Vegas, college basketball coaches lamented to me about how much of a circus the Adidas Summer Championships — and by extension the entire summer AAU circuit — had become because of this one man.
This singular character had become a space through which all basketball conversations were filtered. College coaches cursed his name and the bad headlines he brought upon the summer basketball circuit at a time when.
Coaches spoke about where they were on the night of the epic overflow-crowd game betweenas if they were talking about the Kennedy assassination. They spoke of LaVar Ball as if he were a cancer, someone who brought nothing but malignancy to everything he touched, who needed to be excised and tossed away.
But there’s a nasty truth when we try to describe LaVar Ball as a total aberration in our world, as a singular presence whose actions reveal nothing at all about the state of basketball in 2017, or, for that matter, about the state of our world:
As much as we want to describe LaVar Ball as a disease, the truth is he is more the symptom of a much larger, much more dangerous disease.
And as much as we say we hate LaVar Ball, the truth is we also deserve him.
LaVar Ball is the ultimate symbol of the malignancy that’s affecting modern-day America. He’s all sizzle, no substance. He’s reality television culture distilled into one obnoxious sports dad. It was no surprise that Big Baller Brand television cameras followed around his every move in Las Vegas; reality television culture values the obscene and the contrived drama more than anything else. Several college coaches I spoke with compared him to our president. These coaches weren’t making political statements. They were pointing out that what LaVar Ball represents — a man with few accomplishments of his own, who captures our attention with bombastic (and often funny!) statements about his and his sons’ greatness, who is a fiery car crash we must gawk at as we drive by — is eerily similar to the chaotic, entertaining, infuriating soap opera that has overtaken American politics. LaVar Ball is not the attraction. He is a sideshow, more profane entertainer than AAU coach-slash-father.
But in 2017 America, the sideshow has become the main event.
Every coach and journalist I spoke with in Las Vegas said the LaVar Ball Show was like nothing they had ever seen on the recruiting circuit. It was bigger than when LeBron James was a teenager already anointed as The Chosen One. (Some said that James would have been a bigger attraction than LaVar had social media been around in the early 2000s; I dispute that, because James has always been a man of substance, and the Twitterverse is not a place that puts a huge value on substance, instead lifting up the snarky, the contentious and the absurd.) I watched grown men take selfies with LaVar Ball while his team was warming up. Not one grown man. Dozens of grown men.
How appropriate that LaVar Ball’s most recent antics — having a female referee removed from a game after giving Ball a technical foul, then getting a second technical foul from another referee and refusing to leave the court which resulted in his team losing the game, then going on aafterward — happened in Las Vegas. No city in the world has more glitz and less substance than the Sin City. The 64-story hotel owned by LaVar Ball’s political corollary, Donald Trump, is a fixture of the Vegas skyline.
This isn’t just some holier-than-thou media rant, tut-tutting the masses for their embrace of profanity.; the media are part of the problem. If there’s one thing about modern media that’s bad for our world, it’s not left-wing or right-wing bias. It’s not fake news. It’s that modern-day journalism is driven by clicks. We’re all click whores. LaVar Ball brings out the clicks because he brings out our worst instincts. We love to criticize him as much as we love to be seen criticizing him.
I’ve defended LaVar Ball plenty in recent months. I believe he’s— someone who married his college sweetheart, and who has devoted his life to raising three talented, confident and respectful sons — and I believe he’s a marketing genius who understands that in 2017, no headline is a bad headline. But last week I reached my breaking point with him. I was admittedly behind the curve; I’m someone who enjoys the spectacle of sports, who thinks our sporting scene needs more Conor McGregors and Bryce Harpers and Terrell Owenses, talented show-offs who talk trash while they kick your butt. I like when human drama is added to the storylines of sports. I like conflict. That mindset — that very America-in-2017 mindset — led me to defend a man who has become increasingly indefensible.
But I’m not going to defend LaVar Ball any more. The great Jay Bilas said it best. “Instead of being in on the joke, he has become a joke, and it is no longer funny,” Bilas recently wrote. LaVar Ball is no longer funny. Last week was when I finally realized he is something more insidious.
But the bigger point isn’t about the evils of LaVar Ball, rather what the evils of LaVar Ball reveal in all of us. Last week on his FS1 show, Colin Cowherd called LaVar Ball a fad. He compared Ball to the fidget spinner, the hot children’s toy of 2017 that will be forgotten by 2018. This is a facile comparison. Maybe LaVar Ball will be forgotten by 2018 if his oldest son stinks it up in his rookie NBA season. (Fat chance. Lonzo Ball is an absolute stud, and he plays for one of the most newsworthy franchises in sports in what happens to be his hometown.) But if LaVar Ball disappears, it doesn’t matter. Another LaVar Ball will spring up in his place. The fast-talking, no-shame media creation is the weed of our modern media climate. Pull one out of your lawn and three more will spring up in its place.
LaVar Ball is a complicated man. He’s not just some one-dimensional pro-wrestling heel, even if he likes to portray himself that way. He is a good father and a devoted husband. He is also an ego-obsessed, misogynistic jerk whose every move seems to be about creating — and, increasingly and unwittingly, destroying — his family’s brand. He’s a huckster. Like our president, he’s a marketing genius who doesn’t seem to have qualms with ripping others to shreds for his own gain.
But when it comes down to it, LaVar Ball is just a sports dad. He’s no different than Kris Jenner, the matriarch of the Kardashian clan. There is nothing of import here. If we stop paying attention, LaVar Ball will go away.
Mark my words: LaVar Ball is no fad. He’s a dumpster fire. He’s a hot-burning dumpster fire we can’t help but gawk at. We’re the ones who give this dumpster fire oxygen to breathe. The story of this summer-long basketball circus is not about stopping the worst instincts in LaVar Ball. It’s about stopping the worst instincts in ourselves. That will prove to be much more difficult.