Featured, Parenting, Race & Politics, Sports

On Black Basketball Dads, And Not Knowing How To Feel About LaVar Ball

It took roughly a month at Sterrett Classical Academy for me to be known as the best basketball player there; an admittedly considerable feat for a 10-year-old sixth grader in a school with 14-year-old eighth graders. It was a status due to a combination of the reputation I already earned from playing with the Homewood YMCA in the Ammons League on the Hill and from my exploits during recess and gym class. Unfortunately, none of this impressed Mr. Simons, Sterrett’s basketball coach, who wasn’t going to allow me to try out for the team because I submitted the mandatory physical and doctor’s waivers three days late. (To his credit, he hadn’t seen me play yet, and undoubtedly would have been more lenient if he had. Still, this was an unnecessarily harsh standard. He was being a dick just for dick’s sake. Also, he looked like Alf, which is relevant because he looked like Alf.)

I went home and told my dad. He shook his head, said “ok,” and continued reading the Post-Gazette. The next day, he showed up to the school during lunch time, pulled me out of the cafeteria, and requested a meeting with Mr. Simons (who was also the 7th grade social studies teacher). We met in the gym.

Calmly, my dad apologized for the lateness of the physical, and requested that Simons allow me to try out. He appreciated the apology, but said something about the rule being the rule, and denied the request. My dad had another idea:

How about this? You play my son one-on-one right now. If he beats you — and he will — he’s allowed to try out. If not, you’ll never hear from me again.

The Alf-ish Simons turned beet red and started to stammer.

Sir, that’s not really necessary.”

My dad was steadfast.

“Oh, yes it is.

Sensing that this was a no-win situation — and also likely intuiting that if my dad was this confident about my abilities, a bending of the rule would be worth it — he relented. By the end of the day I was on the team. I didn’t even have to try out.

Several months later, while I was playing in a spring AAU tournament at Reizenstein Middle School, my dad noticed a team with preternaturally skilled and disciplined 11-year-olds running through a bevy of complex, college-level plays and zone presses. He learned that these kids were from St. Barts, and that they played a Diocese schedule during the season and an AAU schedule in the spring and summer that had them playing up to 100 meaningful games a year.

Later that week, he convinced my mom that they should A) take me out of Sterrett and enroll me into St. Barts the following school year and B) allow me to repeat 6th grade because I was young for my grade (since my birthday falls a day before New Years’ Eve, I was always the youngest person in every class I was in) and repeating the year would give me an advantage athletically and socially. 

I have countless stories like this about my dad. The 200 shots a day we’d take at on the courts behind Peabody High School the summer of ’89 to upgrade my shot from a slow-release, 10-year-old appropriate set shot, to a full jumpshot released over my head and at the peak of my jump. The basketball magazines and almanacs he’d buy me when I professed at interest in devouring as much about the game and its history as I could. The mornings I’d watch him play in the Sunday Morning Warriors basketball league at the Y, where I’d sneak on the court at halftime to shoot foul shots.

Even today, his Facebook page is home to dozens of snapshots of those moments. Usually me receiving some award from some camp or league or game, and him behind the lens, making sure my trophy was facing the camera.

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And, of course, sometimes it would just be us.

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It is difficult not to see some of my dad in LaVar Ball, the polarizing father of basketball phenoms Lonzo Ball (a projected top-three NBA draft pick), LiAngelo Ball (a high school senior committed to play at UCLA), and LaMelo Ball (a 10th grader who might already be the most popular athlete in high school sports). And not just my dad, but the countless other Black basketball dads found on bleachers at AAU tournaments and modeling perfect triple threat stances on concrete blacktops in the hood. Shepherding their sons (and sometimes daughters) from court to court and neighborhood to neighborhood. And, if they’re good enough, from city to city, state to state, and school to school. Simultaneously serving as their kid’s drill master, coach, instructor, one-on-one opponent, hype man, financier, adviser, protector, bouncer, dietitian, jitney, critic, visionboard, sponsor, and parent. Willing to challenge each and every entity, real or imagined, standing between them and their ultimate goal. Which could be a college scholarship. Or an NBA contract. Sometimes, they’re the only other Black face in the gym (or the league) besides their kid on the court; their presence ensuring that “these White people” don’t try any mess with their boy.

I know that if you sat Lonzo, LiAngelo, and LaMelo down, they’d each have stories about their dad that would mirror mine. And if you glanced through their social media accounts and family photo albums, they’d each have just as many pictures and videos either taken by their dad or with them posing next to him. And I have no doubt they treasure those pics and those memories and those moments as much as I do.

This context both constructs and complicates my feelings about LaVar Ball. Like my dad and the countless other Black basketball dads out there, he wants whats best for his sons. This is undeniable. My dad’s goal was for me to receive a college basketball scholarship. And I did. Mission accomplished. LaVar Ball’s sons are each better basketball players than I was, and his athletic goals for them are understandably and appropriately greater.

Also, I’d be remiss if I didn’t admit to the strain of schadenfreude I experience when a Black person challenges and perhaps even upsets the status quo the way LaVar Ball currently is attempting to. I’m compelled to root for him even if I don’t agree with his methods (I don’t) or even like him very much (I also don’t).

But, those years in those gyms and those courts and on those teams and in those leagues also taught me how to recognize a blowhard and a bully. Which is exactly what LaVar Ball is. And my distaste and disdain for men like him equals the affinity I have for the Black basketball dad. I knew men like him, and they are the worst coaches to play for, the worst parents to sit in the stands with, and they very often produce the worst kids to play with and root for. You do not want to be a kid on the same team as the kid of that type of dad. Even if the team is good, they and their parents can be so insufferable and make the team so joyless that you’d rather quit it than win with it.

Even his attempts to promote his family’s brand are met with similar ambivalence. He’s not actually wrong to attempt to get in front of the major shoe companies and pursue a lucrative partnership instead of a run-of-the-mill shoe contract. But his Big Baller Brand is GeoCities-level terrible; the only thing worse than the name is the logo, which looks like an actual belt buckle sold at Buckle. Also, while Lonzo is a phenom, he’s not the type of transcendent, Lebron-ish talent who could carry a brand by himself. He’s good, but not that good.

Combined, this collection of conflicting feelings has left me not knowing how to feel about him. I appreciate what he’s done for his kids, and I get what he’s trying to do, but I don’t fuck with dude at all. I want him to succeed, in theory, but I don’t want him to be him. And while it’s true that his diligence has helped each of his boys reach this level of prominence — and receive full athletic scholarships — his efforts and actions now are more than likely hurting them. Lonzo Ball has already been publicly rebuked by each of the major shoe companies; an act which, when considering the abject terribleness of the just released Big Baller Brand shoes, might cost them tens of millions of dollars. And I’m certain De’Aaron Fox isn’t going to be the last guard to put a little extra effort into washing Lonzo on the court just because of his dad’s bombast.

A month or so ago, I asked my dad how he felt about LaVar Ball. Knowing that he shares my feelings for blowhards and bullies, his answer (“He needs to sit down and shut up”) was predictable. I then reminded him of parents like Earl Woods and Richard Williams, who each faced similar criticisms when they first become national figures, but (obviously) were proven to be right. I also reminded him of that time he challenged Mr. Simons to play me.

“Yeah, but that was different.”

“How?”

“I challenged him to play you, not me.”

Damon Young

Damon Young is the editor-in-chief of VSB. He is also a columnist for GQ.com And he's working on a book of essays to be published by Ecco (HarperCollins). Damon is busy. He lives in Pittsburgh, and he really likes pancakes. Reach him at damon@verysmartbrothas.com. Or don't. Whatever.

  • Brandon Allen

    You said it yourself man. There’s the Richard Willams and Earl Woods way and the Lavar Ball way. Lavar should probably play the background at this point.

    How did you and do you feel as an adult about being held back? I always wondered how that went down as an athlete like they let you do that voluntarily?

    • Sigma_Since 93

      “How did you and do you feel as an adult about being held back?”

      I wish I had done it to my son. There were so many other challenges we were fighting that it almost became a badge of honor that he was so young and was exceling academically. In golf, it’s a non issue but it’s an issue. He doesn’t hit the ball as far as the other guys and by the time his body fully develops, he would have graduated from high school.

      • Brandon Allen

        Like I was a late birthday person so when I think about it I feel like i missed a year to be a kid so to speak but I think I would’ve been frustrated as a kid to do a grade twice.

        • Sigma_Since 93

          My son “lost” a year when we moved North. His late November birthday was still within the window to be admitted to kindergarten at 4. During the same time, we had just found out he was in the Autistic spectrum. Mrs. SS93 and I were tired of hearing what he could and could not do that it was a crusade to prove them wrong.
          Sports were not on the radar until middle school. He was 11 running against 13 and 14 year olds. In golf, he played the whole season at 15 against 16-19 year olds. He’s doing too well academically for me to consider the move but it would help socially and athletically if I had.

          • Hugh Akston

            Back in my uni days I used to work with kids that were autistic* I was ignorant of what the term actually entails

            Those kids were super smart and many of them you wouldn’t even know…had to keep their identity private because some of them were star athletes…but you wouldn’t know that from their regular day to day activities in the classroom or on the field

            There are no easy answers here but communication is essential

            • Alessandro De Medici

              It also helps to always getting a second opinion too.

              I was initially diagnosed to have ADHD and apparently a couple years in Nigeria later, my ADHD just freakishly “disappeared.”

  • Giantstepp

    He needs to STFU and allow his sons talent do the talking. I understand trying to maximize opportunities for them, but I think he is overvaluing EVERYTHING. There is no guarantee of NBA success as we’ve all seen top prospects not pan out due to injury or illness (See Dewaun Wagner), or talent (see Kwame Brown) among others. Why should conglomerates (Nike-Adidas-Under Armor) enter into a partnership with so many unknowns?

    And I looked at the website for Big Baller Brand (BBB) and it’s terrible. Okay, not terrible but very basic. See for yourselves.

    • Alessandro De Medici

      Don’t forget the worse of all time: Greg Oden.

      The Blazers must be cursed, they’ve had so much talent that didn’t pan out for them.

      • Giantstepp

        Good one, and many examples out there. I hope the Son does make it, but there are no guarantees and those companies that denied a partnership has to protect themselves..

      • orchid921

        Does anybody have Jason (Jay) Willliams in this pool? Because that was messed up.

    • Question

      Worse… he’s unintentionally starting to be the one that’s opening the door for doubt and concern.

      That said – Lonzo is a great ball handler and creates for other folks but I don’t understand how he could possibly be as effective in the league with that shot he has. And there’s no guarantee that once broken and rebuilt (his shot that originates from his Left shoulder), that he will be as good.

      • I dunno about his shot. He shoots it in rhythm, and makes it consistently. I’m leery of people trying to rework shots that they can maintain rhythm and form in. So long as it goes in, I don’t care if he doesn’t look like a basketball clinic while shooting it.

        • Question

          Can he maintain rhythm and form in the NBA where people are stronger, faster and arent as confused by whether he’s passing or shooting (because the approach looks the same)?

          • Let’s see him in the league. Also, Lonzo Ball is bigger than he looks. He’s a legit 6’5″ and will only get stronger. I’m more worried about his defense.

    • Sigma_Since 93

      Accident aside, no company wants to see their investment go down in flames like Bobby Hurley did.

      • orchid921

        Ooooh, OUCH. I was a Duke stan as a kid, and that really broke my heart.

    • Dejuan Wagner makes me sad. He was a legit second option for LeBron, but he gets some rare intestinal disorder. Some people just have horrible luck.

  • StillDreaming

    I just can’t get over the fact that the man looks like Mr. Potato Head.

  • Always down for a “me and my dad post”. Beautiful piece Damon. While I didn’t get too many games of catch out of my dad, We watched a lot of games together. Can’t wait to see what you do for Fathers Day.
    Hopefully when I’m older, I’ll read a post somewhere from my daughter boasting about how good my “Easy Bake Oven” game was.
    God bless you and your pops.
    Keep it comin’ D.

  • AKA The Sauce

    HIs dad needs to stop. I don’t like people like him.

  • Valerie

    I’m compelled to root for him even if I don’t agree with his methods (I don’t) or even like him very much (I also don’t).

    I agree. I am rooting for LaVar Ball. I don’t agree with his methods but I damn sure understand.

    I’m extremely close to my dad. He ALWAYS encouraged me with anything I wanted to do even if he had to step on toes to do it. He provided the materials my brother and I needed to do it. When we were interested in band, he pulled strings to get us instruments, they were hand me downs but we learned to take care of them. When I was interested in astronomy, he bought me a telescope that I still love and use. When I told him, I want to be a web developer he always pushed me to create my own business one day (a dream I’m working on currently).

    The best advice my dad has told me is (which I made into a reminder): “It’s going to be hard. You’re a black woman that wants to break into technology which is a man’s field. But I didn’t raise you to take the easy route, and I didn’t raise you to do what’s comfortable. You will step on toes, people will not get you, but I always will.

    • AKA The Sauce

      But what if you found out that your dad was doing all this just to profit off you. Not so you can live your dreams or make your mark..but so HE can shine….I can’t rock with that.

      • Valerie

        In my case, that wouldn’t happen. If my dad did that, he’s still my dad. I would established boundaries. Pull a Beyonce on him, like what she did to her dad.

      • Earl

        Lavar already has money. It is not about taking advantage because that is what big companies do. Lavar is just trying to keep it all in the family. Whether he fails or succeeds I respect that he tried because if they succeed, he will have his present day family and future set up for generations going forward. It is about legacy more than it is about money and it is up to his boys to continue it.

    • Brown Rose

      You have a great dad.

      • Valerie

        Thank you, I didn’t realize it then but I realize it now.

    • Rewind4ThatBehind

      Your pops is solid.

      • Valerie

        Thank you :-)

        • Rewind4ThatBehind

          Of course love.

  • My son got MVP for his peewee league this past year and it really made me appreciate how much influence we as parents can have on our children’s dreams. Although he was the one playing, it felt like the whole family was on the team, as hubby and I took turns getting him to practice, washing uniforms, packing lunches, and getting him to and from home and away games. We even took him to a Nets basketball training academy, where he got to meet some of the players on the team and do some skills drills that actually helped him in the long run, and he would go to a private coach for a group session once a week.

    We know of a girl whose son is 6, the same as my kid, and their routine is brutal. The kid plays on a team for his school, an AAU team, a neighborhood league, and he’s always practicing. She put up a video of him at the park the other day and said he can’t go play with his friends until he makes 10 free throws in a row. I’m not in their life, and I know she used to play ball as well, so it’s “in their blood,” but I can’t help but wonder how much of that is truly for him and how much of it is for her.

    At any age, I think parents should be supportive of their children and be the facilitators of their dreams. We also have to remember that it’s THEIR dreams meant to be fulfilled, not ours.

    • Sigma_Since 93

      “Although he was the one playing, it felt like the whole family was on the team, as hubby and I took turns…”
      This right here is where parents can go left. The time and financial commitment make you become vested for better or for worse. That along with your child saying I want to be the best and half azzing it will make parents go ballistic.

      Ninja you ain’t gonna go out back and practice after you begged me to drop a G for the travel team??? Oh hayle naw

      • You got that right!

        Luckily we didn’t have to shell out too much dough this year, but we absolutely told him that an investment of his time is just as important as an investment of our money. We tell him that with school, basketball, anything you do in life – either do it right and to the best of your ability, or don’t do it at all. Money can be recouped, but you can never get back lost time. Make everything you do count!

        • Spicy Kas

          Some years ago I went to watch my godson play an AAU game. It wasn’t his best game. I ended up taking him out for lunch while his other brother finished a game just to get him away from his parents. I thought they were way too over the top. Fast forward a few years and he is paying $1,200/year to attend a private school where tuition runs $40k. In summary, I don’t know sh*t and now I keep my mouth shut.

    • Valerie

      “I think parents should be supportive of their children and be the facilitators of their dreams. We also have to remember that it’s THEIR dreams meant to be fulfilled, not ours”

      Agreed. I had a talk with my mom at one point that I will probably never be this southern belle. This is my life and I like to wear Js instead of heels all the time.

    • cdj

      I agree. My mom used to look at me sideways for letting my son quit a bunch of stuff when he was younger (Boy Scouts, violin, flag football, karate). But I always have done my best to give him opportunities to try new things in different environments. Some he took to, and some he didnt. Now he’s found his niche, and I do all I can to support him.

  • Alessandro De Medici

    Even though I don’t like how Lavar Ball acts, I do think what he’s trying to do comes from the right place, all the BS aside. He played a major role in getting his sons where they currently are. However…

    With older age, is supposed to come wisdom. He is 48 years old, and is taking risks with his sons’ careers like ballplayers stereotypically do with the D, when they sign that first seven-figure deal at 19/20 and think that reality is forgiving for those who treat it with triviality.

    The fact that the shoe deals or lack thereof went down like they did, is the equivalent of a baller finding out he knocked up some girl he didn’t like and finding out she’s pregnant with triplets. You’d expect a 48 year old to kind of take a step back and say, “You know what, I’m phucking up dollars, I need to reassess the situation”…but nah, the fool has to doubledown:

    http://bleacherreport.com/articles/2707285-lavar-ball-reportedly-aiming-for-200-tier-for-son-lonzos-big-baller-brand-shoe

    • Hugh Akston

      There is something about knowing how to play the game to win in the end…don’t knock yourself out

      Age doesn’t always = wisdom unfortunately…and now the son may have to pay for the sins of the father smh

      • Alessandro De Medici

        I think Lonzo is eventually going to have fire the ole man, and replace him with some Jewish guy or something. That’s pretty much how Kobe played out.

        • Hugh Akston

          Might muddie their relationship and father might become a bit bitter

          • Alessandro De Medici

            Same thing happened with Kobe Bryant.

            It’s not a good thing, but if the father doesn’t have the good sense to change, his son will fire him. You could tell by the look on his face, the day was on First Take that he was already considering it lol.

            http://ima.ulximg.com/public/userfiles/2017/03/Lavar.gif

            Kind of reminds you of Trump and Melania lmao.

            • Hugh Akston

              Lmao at that jab haha

              • Question

                That’s embarrassing.

            • wtf

            • MsKeisha23

              What in the world?!?!?

            • Soula Powa

              The LT form the Cowboys cut off his whole family over $. The look on Lonzo face in that clip says he considered doing that to his pops. #DadTheyWantedToTalkToME

            • catgee12

              Why the boy looks like he wants to punch his father in the back of the head??? #DadPleaseStop …

            • catgee12

              The look on his face tho … #ByeDaddy #IToldYaIWarnedYa

              https://campussports.files.wordpress.com/2017/03/lavarlonzo.jpg?quality=88&w=740

        • Question

          Ugh. I hate that in 2017 Jewish lawyers are still considered the best option.

          • Alessandro De Medici

            It’s a practical matter.

            Law and business, they usually have the biggest roller decks, and the most favors to call in. We ought to learn and emulate.

            • Question

              Ehh… I get it but I don’t understand why it is that way. Agents, GMs, Coaches and Brand Managers. That’s basically the quadrafecta. There are black Coaches, and 2 black GMs. There’s a handful of Black agents but Jews are still seen as the best option with the most connections – I don’t understand why.

              • Alessandro De Medici

                Well, lets ask a more basic question, why do people of different races always find themselves at one point or another, having to work with Jews?

                • Question

                  Cuz in the 50s, Jews focused on the segments of law that were conventionally seen as low-brow – tax, accounting and entity law (I’m not a lawyer so I don’t know personally – this is what I’ve read)?

                  • Alessandro De Medici

                    I don’t know per say, I do think they just have a very different attitude to money than everyone else does. And I think they inherited from the Middle Ages while living in ghettos in Europe. I heard Patrice Oneal talking about how he’d had a bunch of agents and pointing out that Jews were just easier to do business with for some reason. Based on what I understood, it just seems their networks are stronger and networks help to take advantage of leverage in negotiations, especially in million dollar ones like athletes sign.

                    • Question

                      In this particular instance, I’m curious how they’re networks are so much better or stronger…? Ya know?

                    • Alessandro De Medici

                      Specifically, no.

                      In general, I think it’s a cultural thing as well. Have you ever heard of the history of Jews and Coffee?

                  • J.E. Pierson

                    Tis true. Malcolm Gladwell wrote about it in “Outliers”

            • Yahmo Bethere

              Black lawyer. Black athletes discriminate against us. The rest of y’all don’t want to pay either.

              Spend black. Pay the rates asked.

    • I REALLY want to hear from the kids. He own them and is fucking them over to make a name for himself. WWLD (What would LeBron Do)

  • siante

    I almost forgot this post was about Lavar Ball. The story you told about your dad almost brought tears to my eyes. It always amazes me to see what a huge roll an involved parent can have in their child’s destiny.

    • Valerie

      I shed a tear as well. Being involved and encouraging in your child’s life is good. It really helps with their confidence.

      • MsCee

        I often wonder how my relationships with men would be if I didn’t have the most toxic form of father that there is. Seems as though all my friends who were “daddy’s girl” didn’t go through any bad relationships and have seriously amazing husbands. Guess they knew what to look for?

        • They just happened to have strong constitutions. I know several women with wonderful fathers who consistently date trash dudes and it boggles my mind.

        • Valerie

          I’m a daddy’s girl and I was in an abusive relationship. Parents can’t teach you everything.

        • You’re painting daddy’s girls with a very broad brush. It took me years to even address my daughter’s boyfriend, he was a jerk then, and I’m really starting to address him noe that they’re married. I did everything I could to be there and raise her right, long after me and her mom split, but I swore up and down this dude was a mistake. But she held her own, even left him for a while. They seem to be ok these days, and I’m a three time pop pop.
          ALL that to say, when youre ready, stuff will fall in to place.

          • MsCee

            Pop, you always come thru with the message!!

        • MsSula

          While my husband is amazing, I did go through some interesting relationships in my days. And my dad is the best dad to have ever “dadded”. I can write sonnets about the man, it’s that serious, lol.
          The two are not always correlated. While having the super-duper fantastic dad I have meant my confidence has always been on 100, I had some blinders and made different kinds of mistakes.

          Don’t beat yourself up too much about this. Daddy’s girls have dating issues as well. They may look different than yours but they are mistakes still. Life is just complicated.

      • siante

        yup, I always wondered where Damon got that unshakable confidence in his basketball skills & now it all makes sense!

        • Valerie

          Lol it does!!!

  • Rewind4ThatBehind

    Your dad was about encouragement for YOU.

    LaVar is about encouragement for HIMSELF while using his sons to inflate it.

    I don’t view that as a pops. That’s a parasite.

    • Alessandro De Medici

      Lavar Ball thinks he’s a Black Ari Gold.

      • Rewind4ThatBehind

        Now I feel like Ari has been tainted.

    • CoilyCue

      That’s quite obvious. I get the sneaky suspicion that his wife is the background to his foreground. I don’t think I’ve ever heard her speak.

      • Rewind4ThatBehind

        We haven’t because a boisterous black man provides all the minstrel show attention required.

      • Earl

        Maybe it is because she is in the hospital but I have watch enough videos to know that she is not that quiet one that you think. She also played ball and she was talking noise back. Lavar has a more polarizing personality so it makes sense for him to be the spokesperson.

    • Earl

      do you know Lavar because he has already said he is doing this for his family present and future. Just because he is on another wavelength what do you gain from attacking him. That is his family and I am sure he will let you handle your family as you see fit.

      • Rewind4ThatBehind

        Glad you feel this way.

        Does not mean what he’s doing for his family has the best implications for his family.

        Time will tell but for the moment, it has consequences.

    • satch7

      i am glad he is there too many of us did not have what his sons have

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