The glamour of the NBA draft might as well have existed in another galaxy.
Black curtains covered vacant top sections at Citizens Business Bank Arena in Ontario. About 1,000 spectators were in the lower blocks of seats. Introduced by the public address announcer as “Mr. LaVar Ball,” the founder of the Junior Basketball Assn. strode to center court in a black suit, white dress shirt and Lakers-purple tie emblazoned with three golden Bs.
“They said nobody’s coming to this,” Ball said. “Everybody here is somebody. Nobody here is nobody.”
The crowd cheered.
What this was, exactly, was a little confusing.
By definition, the eight-team professional league offers high school and junior college players an alternative to NCAA basketball. All eight teams are called the Ballers, with teams distinguished by their nominal hometowns. Citizens Business Bank Arena is one 10 venues around the country that will host games, with each night of competition consisting of a doubleheader.
On this night, the Atlanta Ballers defeated the Chicago Ballers and the Los Angeles Ballers triumphed over the New York Ballers. The youngest of LaVar Ball’s three sons, 16-year-old LaMelo, played for Los Angeles.
Only the games were clearly part of a larger business plan.
The league is funded entirely by Big Baller Brand, LaVar Ball’s apparel company, and the games Thursday were streamed live on Facebook Watch, which also streams “Ball in the Family,” the Ball family’s reality series.
At the arena’s entrance was a white backdrop in front of which fans could take pictures.
The screen was covered with the logos of the Ball family’s three properties: JBA, Big Baller Brand and “Ball in the Family.”
Nearby was a merchandise stand selling Big Baller Brand’s $400 and $500 shoes, as well as $50 leather hats, $40 shirts and $10 hats. In the hour leading up to the first game, a few dozen fans waited patiently for the opportunity to purchase merchandise, even though many of them were already wearing something with the Big Baller Brand insignia.
The floor on which the games were played doubled as a television set, with “Ball in the Family” producers and cameramen telegraphing the whereabouts of LaVar Ball and his three famous offspring.
The two cameramen and producer who waited near a floor-level entrance at the back of the arena? They were there to capture LaMelo’s arrival.
The cameramen behind one of the baskets? They were there to document Lonzo and LiAngelo taking their courtside seats. (LiAngelo was eligible for the NBA draft but wasn’t drafted. LiAngelo and LaMelo turned professional earlier this year with Vytautas of the Lithuanian Basketball League.)
As the Atlanta Ballers and Chicago Ballers ran up and down the court in the early game, a pair of cameras remained pointed at the Balls, who were spread across two courtside sections.
When LaVar conducted an interview before the game, a boom mic hovered overhead. Soon after we finished speaking, I felt a tap on my shoulder.
A producer asked if I would sign a waiver so my image could be used on “Ball in the Family.” That was a first for me.
The waivers were everywhere, with pretty much everyone who asked to take a picture with LaVar asked to sign one. There were a lot of them.
At halftime of the first game, LaVar stationed himself at the base of the stairs between sections 102 and 103. The line extended from the floor past more than a dozen rows of seats, beyond the luxury boxes and into the arena concourse.
LaVar downplayed the possible business motives for starting this league. “I’m not worried about making money,” he said. “I’m doing this for the kids.”
The JBA had trouble landing any high-profile players outside of LaMelo, but the family patriarch claimed to not care.
“Everybody was like, no, the D-I players are already going to college and all this,” he said. “I don’t want them players. I want the ones that’s hungry. That’s what we’re going to have right here.”
Many of the league’s 64 players didn’t have the opportunity to play NCAA Division I basketball.
So while others might call LaVar a loudmouth or an obnoxious stage father, the players consider him something entirely different. He represents their last chance.
Semaj Booker, a 20-year-old point guard for the Seattle Ballers, was two years removed from his last competitive game and playing in a recreational league when he attended one of the league’s eight tryouts. Jordan Myers, a 20-year-old guard for the Houston Ballers, was feeling miserable at Hutchinson Community College in Kansas.
“If I had stayed in school, I don’t know if I would have made it,” Myers said.
The JBA presented them with an opportunity to play for $3,000 a month. The players spent the last few weeks at training camp in Santa Ana, receiving daily words of encouragement from LaVar about not allowing others to dictate to them what they can and can’t do.
“He knows what he’s doing,” Myers said.