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Big Ballin: Big ideas fuel a father’s Big Baller Brand and brash business sense

By Bryan Crawford -Contributing Writer- | Last updated: May 23, 2017 - 12:45:37 PM

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LaVar Ball, with his brashness and seemingly unfiltered remarks, has gotten people’s attention inside and outside the sports world.

With his son Lonzo spending one year at UCLA and now preparing for the upcoming NBA Draft, the elder Ball has gotten attention usually reserved for a player like his talented son. 

It’s hard to recall a parent who’s taken over the spotlight from their soon-to-be professional athlete progeny in this manner, but that’s part of what makes LaVar Ball such an interesting anomaly.

Another reality is the elder Ball is defying the sports industrial complex by focusing on the business aspects of his son’s life—that included the decision for Lonzo to play at UCLA and the declaration that his son needed to play for the Los Angeles Lakers.

The basketball gods may have blessed the outspoken father whose son appears likely to be the second player chosen in the June 22 National Basketball Association draft and headed to the Los Angeles Lakers. The once-storied franchise has been an also-ran in recent years, missing the success and championships brought by former Hall of Fame players like Kobe Bryant, Shaquille O’Neal, Earvin “Magic” Johnson, Kareem Abdul Jabbar and Jerry West.

A rebirth of pro basketball in the city of bright lights would boost NBA ratings in a major market and if Lonzo resurrects the franchise there is a ton of money to be made through TV deals, endorsements, products and other avenues.

LaVar Ball knows all of that and keeping his son close to home, as the family domicile is in Chino Hills, Calif., may also help Lonzo handle major fortune and fame.

The dad, who has two other highly talented sons, called for a billion dollar sneaker deal to lock up his trio of Big Ballers. He defied the “norm” of aligning athletes with a major sneaker and apparel brand. The family has its “Big Baller Brand” line which includes t-shirts, caps, hoodies and a signature shoe for Lonzo.

In meetings with companies such as Nike, Under Armour and Adidas, LaVar Ball expressed a desire to enter into a $1 billion co-branding deal instead of the typical athlete endorsement deal, even taking his son’s ZO2 signature shoe that he’d created and had manufactured himself, with him to these sit downs—an unprecedented move.

All three companies refused to work with him.

George Raveling, a Black man who is Nike’s Global Basketball Sports Marketing director, called LaVar Ball “the worst thing to happen to basketball in the last hundred years.” He was blasted by some on social media. @Y2Dre tweeted: “When you’re Black, and talk about OWNERSHIP instead of sponsorship white people start getting nervous... .” Others pointed out that NBA problems with point shaving and refs betting on games as worse than the father of basketball prodigies.

In this March 4, file photo, UCLA guard Lonzo Ball, right, shakes hands with his father LaVar following an NCAA college basketball game against Washington State in Los Angeles. UCLA won 77-68. LaVar Ball told Southern California News Group for a story published online on April 6, that UCLA was eliminated in the NCAA tournament because “three White guys”, who were slow couldn’t pick up the slack after his son suffered a hamstring injury. Photo: AP/Wide World photos

LaVar Ball started his own sports agency, Ball Sports Group, which he heads and will only represent his three sons. He also has Big Baller Media, which the family uses as a vehicle to tell their brand story.

What the Ball family has done, particularly with the recent announcement of the $495 ZO2 shoe, is create a disturbance at the point where sports and business intersect.

While former NBA superstar Stephon Marbury started his own independent sneaker and apparel company, what LaVar Ball is doing and the way he’s going about it, is something that has never been done before. It could potentially be a game changer if Big Baller Brand is able to reach the dollar valuation that Mr. Ball envisions and desires.

“They’re not ready for that because they’re not used to that model,” LaVar Ball said. “But hey, the taxi industry wasn’t ready for Uber, either … . Just imagine how rich Tiger [Woods], Kobe [Bryant], Serena [Williams], [Michael] Jordan and LeBron [James] would have been if they dared to do their own thing. No one owned their own brand before they turned pro. We do and I have three sons, so it’s that much more valuable.”

“Professional sports is the last true bastion of White supremacy,” Craig Hodges, a member of the Chicago Bulls first two NBA Championship teams, told The Final Call. “This means being able to own a venue and being able to own a player. I think one of the great things the Balls have done is in somewhat breaking the yoke of White supremacy. Lonzo Ball is showing a young player a way they can go and do their own thing—go direct to China and get your stuff made. And if another player has the potential to do that, then it’s great.

“But this also gives them the potential to stand up and be independent and understand why they have that position, and not because it’s just a phase or a fad that they’re going through. So, if [LaVar Ball] truly does understand what consciousness is and how to work on economic development and the like, then I applaud him.”

“I get it. He’s going to launch his kids brand, but shoes are challenging,” said Daymond John, founder of the urban apparel brand FUBU. “There’s a bunch of different sizes and they’re built like cars. So, if you’re buying a shoe for $500 and you’re having a minimum of 1,000 pairs coming from overseas, these things better be well made. Now, if he doesn’t sell any of them, he doesn’t have to tell anybody. But if he sells out of all of them, that’s a proof of concept to Nike, Adidas and all those people. … It can go either way, but I’m not mad at the initiative that he’s taking.

“He definitely has to do this for six months to a year, take in pre-orders, build the best shoe he can. Put out 100, 200 or 300 [pairs], then after that, he can go to the Nike’s and whoever of the world and say, ‘this is how old my customer is, this is how many units I’ve sold, this how much they’re willing to pay, this how much they’re not willing to pay, these are the colors that work,’ do all the research for them. It’s a good gamble, but he has to be careful to not overextend himself.”

Whether you agree with him or not, dislike him or love him, Papa Ball  certainly has gotten people talking and captured people’s attention.

Most in the world of basketball know Lonzo Ball as a highly-rated high school basketball recruit and McDonald’s All-American. There are certainly those who were familiar with his younger brothers, LiAngelo and LaMelo, who both have full scholarship offers to play college basketball at UCLA. However, their father made “Ball” a household name.

There are those who love to see a proud Black man not only try and start a legacy for his sons and their family, but also the way he fully supports his children.

Big Baller Brand Shoes ZO2 Prime

There are also those waiting for that “got’cha” moment where LaVar Ball says something he can’t come back from.

“I think that he is a marketing genius,” said Paul Pierce, who just retired from the NBA after 19 seasons. “I mean, he has created such a buzz for his son. I don’t even know what type of person Lonzo is. So, his dad is creating his brand with his personality and he is creating so much energy around it.”

“My colleagues and I believe that what he’s doing is fantastic. It’s rare,” Tiffany Boyd-Muhammad, a Los Angeles-based sports and entertainment attorney told The Final Call. “Most folks can’t do this because LaVar Ball, he has actual leverage. He has three sons and they really could be worth $1 billion, with or without the help of a corporation. And this has buckled people to their knees, otherwise, they would just laugh at him. That’s why I think the strategy of pricing the shoes at $495 is real because he has leverage.”

LaVar Ball has also made controversial comments aimed at beloved basketball players such as Michael Jordan, Steph Curry, LeBron James and Kyrie Irving, angered many and caused some to outright shun Mr. Ball. Some say he talks too much and too loud, but his sharpest words have been for those he feels attack his family or his sons.

“I think his business acumen is good, but this personal stuff is kind of sloppy,” Dr. Ray Winbush, director of the Institute for Urban Research at Morgan State University, told The Final Call. “I think he has to temper some of his remarks and be aware that he lives in a glass house himself. I think with some of these remarks that he’s making about people personally is going to cause him to undergo some scrutiny.”

There also seems to be some pushback against LaVar Ball’s representation of a strong, outspoken Black man and father. His wife is Caucasian and the two met and played basketball in college.

“White people don’t like that he’s an assertive Black man,” added Dr. Winbush. “But if LaVar Ball is willing to pay the consequences for what he’s doing, then I’m OK with that. I think Black people should be sacrificial in the advancement of our people. But if he’s going to talk about Black unity in his messaging, don’t go disrespecting other Black people, like LeBron and Kyrie, especially that comment he made about Kyrie’s mother who died when he was four-years-old. If we’re going to be Black Africans with Black unity, then we need to practice that at all levels.”

LaVar Ball also made headlines when he appeared on the Colin Cowherd sports show and told co-host Kristine Leahy “stay in your lane,” during an interview. Ms. Leahy, a White woman, insinuated on a previous show that Lonzo Ball was afraid of his father and had been “forced” to play basketball since he was six-years-old.

Mr. Ball took exception to those comments and made that clear on the show. Ms. Leahy accused him of not respecting women and, later in the interview, of threatening her.

Charlamagne Tha God of the popular Breakfast Club Morning Show compared what Ms. Leahy said to the comments that led to Emmett Till being murdered in Mississippi in 1955.

LaVar Ball has also been accused by a White assistant football coach at Ohio State University of stealing a logo that he had created and using it for the ZO2 sneaker logo. Mr. Ball was accused recently by two Argentinian brothers who started a lifestyle company called “Baller Brand” of stealing their concept by just adding the word “Big” to it. While neither of these incidents has put the Ball family in any legal danger, it could show how threatening LaVar Ball is to an industry that isn’t used to big ripples and waves being made by someone viewed as an outsider.

Still, despite all of the negatives, LaVar Ball is having a major impact on awakening consciousness on the importance of ownership and doing for self. If Lonzo Ball and Big Baller Brand are successful, others will likely try and duplicate and possibly even outdo any success LaVar Ball leads his family into.

“He can get to a point where that now that he’s started his company, he can bring people in under his brand name,” said Mr. Hodges. “Maybe he can build his brand to become like Brand Jordan, but be a standalone and be able to compete with Nike and Adidas. But every young man or woman has to go out and try and start their own brand, but if his succeeds, then I think that’s a very good and inspiring thing.”