Don’t expect anybody at UCLA to try to talk LaVar Ball out of his ill-advised decision to yank middle son LiAngelo out of school.
The Bruins should instead be grateful they now have a means of escaping a troubled marriage with the Ball family that has caused far more stress and aggravation than it’s worth.
Long before LiAngelo’s arrest for shoplifting in China last month, UCLA has been scrambling to put out fires sparked by LaVar’s boorishness and bravado.
The 2016-17 college basketball season began with LaVar guaranteeing that eldest son Lonzo would win a national title at UCLA and ended with him insisting starting “three white guys” made it impossible for the Bruins to contend for a championship. In between, LaVar also repeatedly used Lonzo’s likeness to promote his fledgling shoe-apparel brand, a choice that suggested the threat of the NCAA ruling his son ineligible didn’t particularly faze him.
UCLA coach Steve Alford put up with LaVar’s thirst for publicity without public complaint because Lonzo was worth the hassle. The future Los Angeles Lakers point guard established himself as an NBA lottery pick in his lone season in Westwood, elevating UCLA from a 15-win mess the year before he got there into a 31-win powerhouse that played with pace and panache.
As LaVar’s fame mushroomed faster and faster thanks to public spats with Steph Curry, LeBron James and Michael Jordan, the potential problems for UCLA were easy to spot.
LaVar had already publicly touted LiAngelo as a one-and-done talent like his older brother, yet most NBA scouts and talent evaluators viewed the 6-foot-5 guard as a marginal prospect who would be fortunate to crack UCLA’s rotation as a freshman. How was loud-mouthed LaVar going to react to his middle son coming off the bench and playing scant minutes in marquee games?
UCLA initially had incentive to find some way to appease LaVar because of the presence of a third Westwood-bound Ball brother. Consensus five-star guard LaMelo Ball isn’t quite as promising as Lonzo was at the same age, but he’s a gifted enough scorer and passer that UCLA had to weigh the risks of jeopardizing his commitment.
Everything changed in August when LaVar announced the Big Baller Brand was releasing a signature shoe for LaMelo in a series of tweets that clashed with the NCAA’s principles governing amateurism. One of the tweets featured a picture of the youngest Ball brother wearing a Big Baller Brand shirt and displaying his $395 shoes. LaMelo also starred in an ostentatious rap video intended to advertise the shoes.
That decision raised two obvious questions: Did LaVar still intend to have LaMelo play for a year at UCLA before attempting to turn pro? And if so, would LaMelo even still be eligible to play college basketball?
“I think [LaVar] just cost his son a chance to play college basketball,” a veteran compliance official who asked to remain anonymous told Yahoo Sports in August. “The receipt of money based on name/image/athletic skill and his father acting as a marketing agent would impact his amateur status and collegiate eligibility.”
LaMelo’s potential eligibility issues gave UCLA less reason to put up with any complaints from LaVar about LiAngelo’s playing time, but that unexpectedly became a non-issue. LiAngelo and fellow UCLA freshmen Jalen Hill and Cody Riley were arrested last month in China for stealing from three high-end stores days before the Bruins were set to open their season against Georgia Tech in Shanghai.
The morning after Chinese authorities dropped the charges against the three players and gave them permission to return home, UCLA announced it was indefinitely suspending the trio while the school’s office of student conduct reviewed the incident and assessed what punishment it merited. LiAngelo, Hill and Riley have missed eight games so far and have not been allowed to practice or travel with the Bruins.
When LaVar downplayed the significance of the shoplifting incident by complaining that the media tries “to make a big deal out of nothing sometimes,” you can bet folks at UCLA were seething over his attitude. This was an embarrassing saga that received global attention, jeopardized UCLA’s reputation in a critical foreign market for the school and required the intervention of two world leaders to resolve.
It’s not yet clear whether UCLA considered using the shoplifting incident as impetus to dismiss LiAngelo and sever ties with the Ball family. Regardless, LaVar took the dilemma out of the hands of UCLA administrators when he grew impatient for LiAngelo’s punishment to be over and on Monday pulled his middle son out of school.
LaVar’s handling of LiAngelo is misguided at best and delusional at worst. Not only does he miss out on the chance to earn a UCLA diploma, he now faces an uncertain basketball future trying to prove he is worthy of a roster spot in some far-flung country overseas.
Honestly, the question isn’t even “draft-worthy.” It’s where in the world does he play? Don’t think he’ll end up selected to go to the G-League. Euro teams don’t want 19 year olds. China is….well, probably not an option. Pickings are slim. https://t.co/2Oj3HzgrmM
— Sam Vecenie (@Sam_Vecenie) December 4, 2017
The brief statement Alford released Monday left little doubt UCLA won’t try to convince LiAngelo to change his mind.
“We learned today of LiAngelo Ball’s intention to withdraw from UCLA,” Alford said. “We respect the decision he and his family have made, and we wish him all the best in the future.”
And with that, UCLA has the chance to be done with the Balls for good. The Bruins would be wise to retract their scholarship offer to LaMelo and make it clear that he’d have to enroll elsewhere if he wants to try to play in college. Let some other school deal with that headache.
UCLA squeezed everything it could have out of Lonzo’s lone season in Westwood. Now the Bruins should tell LaVar to take the other two Balls and go home.
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