The City Game focuses coverage on the game of basketball at the amateur levels in and around the city of Chicago; Chris Pennant is a contributor to WARR.com
How does LaVar Ball define success?
That’s what I’ve wondered since attending the Junior Basketball Association All-Star Game that took place in Chicago on August 3. It’s been just under a year since the first recorded introduction of LaVar to the general public (see this article for more), and the man behind the mouth has had a career trajectory similar to the daily price of Bitcoin.
Papa Ball seemingly willed and spoke into existence his eldest son, Lonzo, into playing for the Lakers, and as a rookie he drew favorable comparisons to Jason Kidd (and might’ve helped enticed LeBron into joining LA). He drew warranted criticism for infamously telling Fox Sports producer Kristine Leahy “stay in yo’ lane,” but wound up putting the phrase on a t-shirt. He took the less-traveled path of packing his other sons up to Europe, then broke from tradition entirely by starting his own semi-pro league on American soil.
Common sense tells us that the Junior Basketball Association was going to lose money in its first season, it’s the norm for any small business start-up, much less one completely funded by its founder.
The financial profile for the league can make an eyebrow raise: the JBA doesn’t have any current sponsors outside of Big Baller Brand, games are shown on Facebook Live, and players are reportedly earning $6K for the two months of play in the league plus 60 percent of their jersey sales, roughly $384,000 in expenses. Add in cost of advertisements, arena rentals and the other summer basketball options available to the average consumer, and the league might sound like an ill-advised attempt to chip away at the NCAA’s position.
LaVar Ball’s JBA Actually Helped a Young Player Get a Contract Overseas (12Up.com)
But we don’t really know how LaVar defines success. It can’t be defined by revenue or growth at this point (see the preceding paragraph). It can’t be by an increased profile — how much more of the spotlight can be directed onto him? So what will count as a victory for LaVar Ball and his Junior Basketball Association?
Starting from the bottom
The inaugural edition of the JBA All-Star Game might not have been the star-filled affair that LaVar would have liked, but there were some good signs. Game time was scheduled for 7:30 pm; at 7:20, the line for day-of tickets stretched out the door and nearly into the parking lot, with people still arriving.
The crowd at West Garfield Park’s Quest Multisport was diverse by any measure: young men in line sported throwback Kobe Bryant jerseys alongside a man and woman dressed in attire more geared toward dinner reservations at Gibson’s. Next to teenagers in authentic JBA jerseys (there’s that 60 percent of revenue), a woman in the front row of the bleachers donned a wide-brimmed hat with fuchsia lights wrapped around it.
Two young men I spoke to who have been fans since the brothers were at Chino Hills High School came out just to see “‘Melo and ‘Gelo” play. Even without the advertising resources of the other professional basketball leagues, the JBA seems to have done well in garnering interest, even from casual fans.
The more difficult part will be keeping that interest, and that requires entertaining play.
The All-Star game itself has its moments: the West employs a half-court press, giving LaMelo a chance to show off his talent for fancy no-looks and outlet passes, while Deon Lyle, star player of the Chicago Ballers and starter at UT-San Antonio, shines for the East. However, there are far too many deleterious periods of play. Turnovers and missed three-pointers abound.
LiAngelo Ball starts the game 0 for 4 and fails to convert two easy put-back layups. The crowd seems restless throughout, waiting for that stretch of back-and-forth action that will affirm their choice of activity that evening. When it finally comes, after consecutive fast-break dunks and a long three by Lyle, the crowd is ready to shake the bleachers apart like a raucous high school gym. Instead, they descend into hoots and jeers after an East player – the largest on the court, by far – can’t quite elevate enough to finish a dunk and bricks it.
Phone cameras are whipped out to share the embarrassing moment across social media, and like that, the energy dissipates. There are a few more alley-oops and crossovers sprinkled in, but the rest of the contest is nothing too special. I left with seven minutes to play, the stands already half-empty. The West ended up winning 202-189, with LiAngelo Ball sharing co-MVP honors with Lyle.
LaVar Ball in many contexts can be considered a success. Lonzo is the established point guard on the most recognizable franchise in the NBA, and basketball fans across the globe are already dreaming of him 90-foot lobs to LeBron James this coming season.
When he wanted to start a new basketball league, he didn’t have to pitch angel investors for seed money, he just started the league himself, how many people have the wherewithal and resources to do that? Big Baller Brand is humming along, no matter the price of their flagship shoes. Articles have already come out favorably comparing the JBA’s financial treatment of young athletes (only players between the ages of 16-21 or those working toward a GED are eligible for the league) with the practices of the NCAA.
But what happens after the end of the playoffs? Is the business model of the JBA sustainable with their current level of attendance? Tickets for regular season games cost between $20 and $99, a source of derision for the league’s critics. And what about when the Ball brothers move on to other teams?
While LiAngelo is a competent three-point shooter, he looks like a football linebacker up close and he looks to have reached the apex of his basketball skills. LaMelo, on the other hand, is already 6’5 at age 16 and has not yet begun to fill out his frame, he stands to be an enticing future prospect for NBA scouts. This alone makes him the main draw for a lot of casual observers, and unless LaVar flat-out makes him stay, he’ll be playing against better competition soon. Will people continue to watch the JBA without one of their most exciting draws? Will LaVar himself keep pouring money into the enterprise if his sons aren’t competing in it?
It’s impossible for any of us to say what will make the JBA a successful enterprise. Perhaps LaVar Ball is looking to break the current mold of amateur sports and force the NCAA to compensate their student-athletes. Perhaps he really wants to build a competitor for the NBA. Perhaps he wants to further his own personal brand.
The only one who knows what goal he has in mind is LaVar himself, and we usually don’t have to wait long for him to tell us what he’s going to do next. However, as is evidenced by the nearly-full table of Big Baller Brand merch at the end of the evening, both he and the JBA have a long way to go.
Chris Pennant is a Chicago-based sports writer and freelance announcer. In his spare time, he coaches roller derby and searches for good sneakers and good music. Follow him on Twitter @kwandarykitten; Follow We Are Regal Radio on Twitter @regalradio1 and on Facebook under “We Are Regal Radio”