When Lonzo Ball warmed up for basketball practice at Pauley Pavilion earlier this week, the UCLA freshman wore red and black ankle socks emblazoned with “BBB.’’
That’s short for Big Baller Brand, the Chino Hills family’s apparel company that hawks $60 T-shirts and $100 hats through a website. Each letter represents a different Ball sibling: Lonzo and his UCLA-bound, high-school-aged brothers LiAngelo and LaMelo. The company’s social media pages call it the family’s “official brand.”
Their outspoken father, LaVar Ball, believes this is the start of a billion-dollar empire. But as UCLA faces Kentucky in a regional semifinal of the NCAA tournament on Friday in Memphis, Tenn., the apparel is challenging the NCAA’s longstanding ban on college athletes using their name and likeness to endorse or sell products.
“It’s going to start a ripple effect,” LaVar Ball said. “They’re going to have to wake up. I’m the perfect person to do this. Lonzo is so good and he can’t say, ‘OK, go get your Big Baller merch.’ He can’t say none of that. OK, he doesn’t have to say none of that. He can just wear it.”
Lonzo, a dynamic point guard who was the Pac-12 Conference freshman of the year, is projected as a top-two pick in June’s NBA draft. LaMelo drew national attention last month after scoring 92 points in a game for Chino Hills High — LiAngelo had 72 in a game in November — as the younger Ball brothers helped their high-scoring school team to 30 wins. More than 2.7 million people follow the trio’s Instagram accounts.
Like his brothers, Lonzo embraces the family business. He posted a selfie with LiAngelo and LaMelo — all wearing BBB T-shirts — for his more than 940,000 Instagram followers in September. The caption read: “Big Baller Brand.”
When the brothers opened Christmas gifts in December for a video posted on YouTube, they received piles of the clothing in a performance that resembled an advertisement. The entire family, including Lonzo, wore the apparel during recent interviews with CBS News and ESPN. And a photo of Lonzo and his brothers wearing BBB gear dominated the company’s website until the image was removed last month.
The site, which touts the merchandise as “inspired by the 3 Ball brothers,” still mentions the oldest brother.
“Lonzo, LiAngelo, and LaMelo Ball are basketball players with Championship pedigree,” it says.
That could be a problem. NCAA bylaw 220.127.116.11(a) bars using an athlete’s “name or picture to advertise, recommend, or promote, directly the sale of a commercial product or service of any kind.” The bylaw has been invoked repeatedly in recent years, including former Louisiana State football running back Leonard Fournette’s family halting apparel sales through a website after the NCAA learned of it.
“Clearly it’s in that violation spectrum for the NCAA,” said B. David Ridpath, a former college administrator who is professor of sports administration at Ohio University.
According to LaVar Ball, USC complained to UCLA about Lonzo’s inclusion in the picture in February before the teams met at Pauley Pavilion. The father thinks the Trojans were trying to sideline his son.
I’m not going to let the NCAA mess with something I’ve been doing. I’m not going to let them dictate or tell me what to do with my family things.
A USC spokesman confirmed the school reached out to UCLA about the website; the Bruins told the Trojans they were already addressing it.
In a joint statement with UCLA, the NCAA said: “Like many schools, UCLA has frequently worked with the NCAA to determine what is and is not allowed within the member-adopted rules. While neither the NCAA nor UCLA will address details of a specific student-athlete’s situation, both are comfortable the appropriate measures have been taken to review the potential issues under NCAA rules and processes regarding Lonzo Ball. As is standard practice, both will continue to work together to monitor this matter.”
UCLA declined further comment.
LaVar Ball said the school told him the website picture imperiled his son’s amateur status. They wanted Lonzo’s name removed from the site too. The father refused.
“I’m not taking my son’s name out of no bio,” Ball said. “You must be crazy. You think I’m going to talk about two of my kids and not the third one?”
Even Lonzo’s choice of practice socks is a potential issue. UCLA’s shoe and apparel contract with Adidas — Under Armour will replace them later this year — requires players to use a variety of the company’s gear, including socks, for practices and games. And the NCAA probably would take a dim view of Lonzo appearing in a game with family-branded socks.
LaVar Ball is unapologetic. “I’m not going to let the NCAA mess with something I’ve been doing ... This is my family stuff,” he said. “I’m not going to let them dictate or tell me what to do with my family things.
“He’s not a model. We’re not paying him. He’s not on there saying ‘Buy Big Baller merch.’ Now imagine when he can do that when he becomes a pro. Watch how the sales go up.”
Glenn Wong, a lawyer and professor at Arizona State with extensive experience in NCAA matters, said leaving Lonzo’s name on the site is “arguably still a violation,” but pointed to the bigger picture.
“In fact, if the Ball situation is indicative of anything, it is that college athletes and their families are growing increasingly conscious of their commercial value and are attempting to capitalize on that value in any way possible,” Wong said.
While Ridpath doesn’t see a loophole for the Ball family as the rules are currently written, the professor believes this could be a catalyst to change the NCAA’s approach to the issue.
“I think people can see the hypocrisy here,” he said.
Ball declined to share sales figures, but he said UCLA’s run through the NCAA tournament has been a boon. The website includes a slew of gear in the school’s blue and gold colors. Some items, such as the “Bruins chill fold beanie,” don’t try to disguise the UCLA connection.
“Everybody is looking at it like ‘Wow, I like that gear. I like following this,’” said Ball, who is usually covered in the apparel when he appears in public. “Now if my son wasn’t any good and if he wasn’t the talk of the town, guess what? Nobody’s really going to buy what’s going on.”
Ball isn’t one to keep quiet. In recent months, the father claimed Lonzo was better than two-time NBA MVP Stephen Curry, said the Ball brothers are better prepared for success than LeBron James’ children and insisted he would beat Michael Jordan one-on-one.
The bold talk extends to the family business. Ball applied to trademark “Big Baller Brand” last year; the application was approved this month. He talks about his sons signing with the family brand instead of Nike, Adidas or Under Armour. He talks about partnering with Amazon or Facebook. He talks about developing a line of shoes. He talks about the inextricable link between his sons and the gear.
“If my boys aren’t successful at winning high school titles and basketball, now it’s the big guys just selling clothes,” Ball said. “If you don’t have a following, it’s not going to work. The excitement and the entertainment value that my boys bring to the game allows them to do all that. ... Why is everybody buying all the LeBron and Kobe Bryant shoes? They buy the superstar shoes. They don’t buy regular people.”
Ball envisions a lucrative future for a family he thinks is anything but regular.
“Everybody has a price,” he said. “It’s just that ours starts out a billion. If they keep messing around, that’s a discount right now. I’m liable to go up to two billion after [Lonzo] gets drafted.”
Times staff writers Ben Bolch and Zach Helfand contributed to this report.