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LaVar Ball’s motives for his sons are now questionable

He has no problem publicly demoralizing his sons to push his brand

I wanted LaVar Ball to be a hero.

The former practice squad member of the New York Jets and Carolina Panthers was poised to disrupt several industries in professional and amateur basketball as the patriarch of a familial basketball dynasty. His son Lonzo is about to start his third year in the NBA, while his other two sons, LaMelo and LiAngelo, may join their big brother in the future.

Ball represented something terrifying for the mostly white male billionaire establishment in sports. For example, Ball created his own apparel company, Big Baller Brand, a nod to his three athletic sons, that also worked to line their pockets even if it violated draconian, oppressive NCAA laws that wanted Lonzo, then a UCLA point guard, to play for free. He was a symbol for black men who wanted to control their children’s futures by their own rules.

Daddy Ball was gutsy. He used the Big Baller Brand to allow the Ball family to wear their own clothing and shoes. In fact, a pair of Big Baller Brand shoes was priced at $495, a ballsy business move that Jay-Z even supported by purchasing not one but three pairs.

And no matter what the critics said about Ball, they could never claim he didn’t want his sons to succeed. I’ve even argued that Ball wanted them to exceed his own fame and accolades, as any parent should want his or her kids to do.

But now, that’s up for debate.

When Ball said to his sons, “I made you guys superstars for a reason,” it reminds us that he isn’t a beacon of black male exceptionalism.

Ball’s Facebook reality show, Ball In The Family, captured a confrontation between Ball and his son Lonzo, who plays for the New Orleans Pelicans. The issue was Lonzo’s dissatisfaction with the controversial Big Baller Brand.

And he had every right to be disgruntled. The shoes were falling apart during games, Lonzo noted. Gregory Alan Foster, a company manager and second father to Lonzo, had been accused of stealing money, and the family-owned business was racking up F ratings from the Better Business Bureau. Finally, Lonzo suggested changing the name of Big Baller Brand, and Ball responded:

“When I come out with a name and then somebody tells me to change it, that’s like me telling me to change your name. That’s like people saying, ‘Oh, hey, change Lonzo’s name to Alfonzo on the fact that he been damaged goods for the last two years.’ ”

The meanness of the comment is jarring, but people say hurtful things during arguments. And even if the Ball family rep claims the “comment is being misconstrued and taken out of context,” Ball still called his oldest son “damaged goods” in front of reality TV cameras. Then he OK’d the digital clip for millions of people across the world to watch online.

There’s a particular cruelty in that decision.

Of course, this isn’t the first outburst to sully Ball’s name in the court of public opinion. He’s been a walking controversy, displaying a Trumpian knack for distorting reality and earning disdain from the media, athletes and fans. He declared that Lonzo, before he played an NBA game, was a better player than Stephen Curry. He said that UCLA wouldn’t be able to win with “three white guys.” He mentioned Kyrie Irving’s late mother in response to criticism from the point guard. Ball even made a sexually suggestive comment to ESPN’s Molly Qerim on live television.

While it had become impossible to defend Ball, it seemed like his heart was in the right place: firmly on the side of his sons. Maybe we just wanted to believe the best of Ball because he represented something we’re told is rare — a black father who is intimately involved in his sons’ successes.

When Ball said to his sons, “I made you guys superstars for a reason,” it reminds us that he isn’t a beacon of black male exceptionalism. He’s a dad who loves his kids but has no problem demoralizing them on camera to push his own personal brand. The LaVar Baller Brand.

So maybe Ball isn’t the example we should use to combat archaic and inaccurate notions of black fathers being absent from their sons’ lives. After all, at the NBA draft this year we saw many black fathers walking their sons to the stage. There are a number of incredible black fathers, so we don’t need to prop Ball up as a messianic black figure while ignoring his shortcomings.

What’s troubling about the timing of Ball’s comments is that his eldest son, Lonzo, seems to be at the lowest point in his professional career. He was traded from his dream team, the Los Angeles Lakers, while battling injuries that threaten his stardom.

And it’s Ball’s job as a father to encourage him during these tough moments. I know because I was once in Lonzo’s position, trying to live up to my own father’s legacy and, in turn, needed his reassurance.

At the time I was 22, a year older than Lonzo, alternating between my mother’s couch and my dad’s futon. I was an aspiring journalist, so my dad suggested that I connect with his friend about getting my writing career started.

“Your father is a Freedom Rider,” my dad’s friend said, his eyes never leaving mine. “A civil rights icon. And you’re carrying on his legacy by writing about rap music and the Saints? Is this really how you want to honor his life?”

I went home dispirited. I told my father about the conversation with anger because I felt his friend was channeling my father’s unspoken feelings about my stagnant career.

“Son, you’re carving out your own legacy,” my dad said. “You’re doing great. I’m proud of you.”

I remember this moment and how it would have changed if my father had used that experience to call me “damaged goods.” Instead, that conversation helped push me past my rut, allowing me to return to lunch with my dad’s same friend a year later with news about a journalism career.

Lonzo has achieved more at 21 than most people his age. To name a few, he was drafted No. 2 overall in 2017 and became the youngest player in NBA history to record a triple-double, and he set UCLA’s assist record during an NCAA tournament win. There’s no reason for anyone to say that Lonzo is anything less than great. Let alone his own father.

David Dennis Jr. is a senior writer at Andscape and an American Mosaic Journalism Prize recipient. His book, The Movement Made Us, will be released in 2022. David is a graduate of Davidson College.