Column

Here's the real reason why we're obsessed with LaVar Ball

LaVar Ball isn’t going anywhere.

Go ahead and say that he doesn’t matter. Try guilting his oldest son into silencing him. Burn incense and say his name three times in the dark. When you turn on the lights, he’ll still be here.

In defending under-attack friend Luke Walton this week, Golden State Warriors coach Steve Kerr basically said Ball owed his platform to society’s declining standards — as if sports fans today are any less sophisticated than those of the past who accepted racially-segregated sports leagues and mafia-fixed boxing matches.

What is actually responsible for Ball’s unlikely rise to fame is considerably less dramatic: The absence of personality in the American sports landscape.

With financial rewards escalating and cameras everywhere, athletes have become more careful in how they present themselves. The stakes have become too high to invite potential trouble by carelessly saying the wrong thing at the wrong time. Institutions are conservative by nature and that’s the case here, with leagues and franchises supporting the sterilization of their products.

This is less of a problem in basketball than it is in other sports, but that’s only because the game itself is especially expressive. How the likes of LeBron James and Russell Westbrook are viewed is largely a function of how they play, not what they say.

So the opportunistic Ball has stepped into this void, which was massive in Los Angeles.

Ball’s son Lonzo seems like a nice, well-adjusted young man. Brandon Ingram and Kyle Kuzma do, too. But none of them has a light-up-the-room personality. There’s no Magic Johnson or Shaquille O’Neal in this group.

It’s the same with the Dodgers. Corey Seager: very good player, very nice young man. Cody Bellinger: ditto. For better or worse, Yasiel Puig isn’t afraid to reveal his humanity, which is why he remains a popular player even though he bats near the bottom of the lineup.

Give LaVar some credit. He’s a funny man. On the spectrum of trash talkers, he falls on the playful end, the smile and twinkle in his eye letting you know that at some level he knows this is all a big joke. If you fall into the crowd that deplores him, you’re part of the gag; the comedy is in how effortlessly he pushes your buttons.

LiAngelo’s shoplifting scandal could have destroyed him, but LaVar somehow emerged stronger. Such is the force of his personality.

LaVar was the reason more than 120,000 people watched the internet broadcast of sons LiAngelo and LaMelo’s first game in Lithuania this week. The Big Baller Brand logo was everywhere, including the referees’ uniforms.

Kerr argued that what LaVar says has little substance, and he could be right about that. But the statement implies that professional basketball has intrinsic value, which it doesn’t. Basketball is entertainment.

The view here is that LaVar is an amusing and ultimately harmless shoe salesman, evidenced by how little credence was given to his recent remarks about Walton losing the Lakers locker room, as well as how well Lonzo has played in the wake of the so-called controversy.

If LaVar turns out to be a problem, the NBA and the other major sports leagues have only themselves to blame. His emergence says less about him and more about what they aren’t offering their customers. Get used to him being around. He’ll be on your television for a while.

Darvish signals trend

Yu Darvish remains unsigned, as do the majority of baseball’s top free agents.

The slow-developing market is another reminder of how the league has continued to outsmart the players union in recent collective-bargaining negotiations. The union has resisted a hard salary cap at all costs, only to agree to increased luxury-tax penalties that have created de facto ceilings and offered teams excuses not to spend money.

At a time when the sport’s revenues are at an all-time high, spending is down and many high-quality players remain out of work.

Teams appear content to delay addressing their needs until the start of spring training nears, when desperate players might be willing to sign for less. Some agents are wondering if the union should agree to a hard salary cap in exchange for a salary floor, the thinking being that forcing every team to spend a certain amount of money would at least create greater demand for solid but non-superstar players.

And finally ...

A video game league that launched in Burbank this week pays players a minimum salary of $50,000, making me wonder if I’m doing my 4-year-old son a disservice by limiting how much time he spends with a controller in his hands. Which also makes me think:

If eSports players start making millions, there almost certainly will be a Marv Marinovich of video games. Imagine that, a parent forcing a child to play video games day and night.

dylan.hernandez@latimes.com

Follow Dylan Hernandez on Twitter @dylanohernandez

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