We sat down with LaVar Ball to talk about his start up professional basketball league, the shortcomings of his own athletic career, why LiAngelo Ball isn’t as touted as his brothers, where LaMelo Ball goes from here, and how he’d coach LeBron and Lonzo on the Lakers.
This interview has been edited slightly for clarity.
Why does the [Junior Basketball Association] need to exist? What can you offer this league that other routes can’t?
What it can offer is getting paid to be a professional. Another thing is you can make more money off the court than you do on the court. We’re the only ones giving 60 percent of jersey sales to the kids. So it also give you a jump start on what you want to be a professional at.
If you want to be a professional athlete, you don’t need to spend 50 percent of your time in class, which you’re not gonna use anyway, and 50 percent trying to play ball. Now you can be 100 percent in. If you really that guy, this is the way to go. If you’re only going be in college for a semester anyway, if you really that guy.
Not everyone wants to go to school. Some guys might be blessed with being 6’10 and running and jumping better than anybody, so they want to be a professional athlete. There’s nothing wrong with that. Like I said, we give them a platform and we also give them some money in their pocket. Nobody else is doing that.
Why is it important to you to give these kids a chance?
It’s important because I came up with the decision to do it. If I want to do something, I’m gonna go ahead and do it. I don’t need to wait for people to say ‘I need to line up 10 investment guys before even getting started.’ I mapped out what we had to do, I mapped out the budget, I feel like I’ve done it.
A lot of people want to do this but they don’t want to put their hands in their pockets. They always talked about it. These kids going into schools for a semester or two or whatever making the university all this money, because everybody is coming to watch a ball player. Twenty thousand people ain’t coming to watch no spelling champ.
You talk about education. They will take a guy and say hey we giving him a free education for this. That’s like you doing something for me and Instead of paying you money, I give you 10,000 donuts. I’m like ‘Hey man these $10,000 donuts are going to be free.’ And you’re looking at it like, ‘what am I getting from these free donuts?’ Nothing.
So what I’m saying is they’re offering these kids a free education but it’s doing nothing for them as far as being in athletics.
Do you think if you had something like the JBA when you were growing up, you would have had a better opportunity in your athletic career?
Yeah, most definitely. I loved playing sports. But what we heard was ‘Hey, education education education.’ You don’t have to be a genius to run and catch a football. You don’t have to be a genius to slam dunk a ball. You just got to be able be physically capable of doing something. And that something is the athleticism, strength to advance in your field.
Is there something that happened in your own life that made you think kids need this to get a chance?
No. I just thought of it. I liked what a guy said a while back [ed. note: he’s referring to NCAA president Mark Emmert). He said if people are coming to college to go to the pros, then they don’t need to be here. Usually they say in order to do anything to go forward, you need to go to college. It has the best weight rooms, the best therapy, the best sports, the best education. So if someone wants to be an athlete, as opposed to being a doctor or a lawyer, it shouldn’t matter. It should be the preference of the human being.
They don’t tell doctors and lawyers, ‘Hey, you can’t run a mile in six minutes, you can’t bench press 250 pounds, you can’t go to your computer class or your English class.’ But yet they will tell a basketball player if you can’t pass this Spanish test or this chemistry test, what does that have to do with basketball? You can’t get on this court.
Do you feel like you got a fair shot in your own athletic career?
No. No I didn’t get a fair shot. And that’s why you have to be in the right place at the right time. You got to have somebody behind you.
As far as being athletic, can’t nobody could touch this. I was very strong and fast, could jump. I ain’t never pay for college. Always got a scholarship. Went to a football team without even playing football in college. Basketball, got real big after I got out of high school.
But as far as playing anything, as far as baseball, football, basketball, diving, running track, high jump. I did all that. I’m just an athlete. If I would have went to a combine with more teams there watching me ...
I just walked on to the Jets. That’s like having a bargain basement sale, you go down to the basement, you show up bringing the goods up the front first floor, everybody shopping down there. But everybody don’t get to see down there. So I didn’t have a lot of teams coming after me. Where if I would have gone to the combine, maybe another team be like `hey come on over here. We’ll take a chance on you.`
Even with the Jets, in the changing in the coaching. Went from Pete Carroll to Rich Kotite. Just as things start getting good they let go the coach. It’s OK, I don’t look back at it and be like ‘wow, I could have done things differently.’ Everything is supposed to be working out the way it is.
LiAngelo recently joined this league after not getting a shot at summer league. Do you think your middle son is misunderstood? He doesn’t have the hype of Lonzo or Melo. What can the JBA do for him?
It’s a better story. Everybody sees Lonzo as the one that’s supposed to make it. Everybody looking at Melo as the one who’s next. So I have three guys that are all supposed to make it. You gotta have negativity somewhere.
And that has come down on my middle son, who happens to be the one with the pro body already, the best shooter in the family. That’s OK. It’s just a route you have to take. The JBA is good, it allows a place for people to see you make plays, shoot the three-pointer at a high clip, and score the ball. And he’s a heck of a player.
He’s only 19 years old. People act like he’s 25 years old and he’s on his last chance of being a professional. He’s so going to get better and Melo is going to get bette. They get to get back to winning and playing basketball, something that they love to do.
It’s not like OK he didn’t get drafted he has to go overseas. People wanted him overseas, but he don’t want to play overseas. So he can play over here and get better. It’s just basketball. Like I said, he has the different route, but at the end of the day, I want all my boys on the Lakers.
Why is this good for LaMelo?
It’s the right route because we have guys in our league that are 20 years old. And Melo is 16. He can’t get this type of competition against people in high school. Not even in college. These guys can play.
And we playing professional rules. So the length of the game makes you better, shooting from the three-point line makes you better, all NBA rules. So it gives him a jump on his career. That’s what he wants to do, that’s what all my boys want to do.
So this is the perfect route for them. I made sure they could be 100 percent into their craft like anybody else who wants to be a movie star or something like that, starting studying and know your lines, it’s the same thing.
What’s the plan for him next? He would have been at UCLA a year from now but now he can’t play college basketball.
If you really that guy, they will find you no matter where you are. If you can play and you got the talent to play at that next level, guess what they’re going to find you. If not, guess what, you’re not that guy who you thought you were.
We don’t need the NCAA. He’s just got to get stronger, faster, and when it’s time to get drafted, people will be like oh, we’ll look at him in the draft. He’s already produced, he’s already been a pro player, he’s already on a good line, better than most people. The thing about it he gets more experience from playing.
Basketball, you can only run so many pick-and-rolls. You can either put that ball in the hole or you can’t. You either make a great decision with the ball or you can’t. But it’s only more difficult if you make it what it is. Like I said, one of my boys is good, two of them are great, but three of them is unbeatable.
Do you think the JBA would have been better for Lonzo than UCLA?
Of course. There’s talented guys, guys are more talented than what you see at mid-major universities.
Lonzo, all he has to do is play. He was already considered when he was coming out of high school, they were already talking about him as a pro, he was already training like Jason Kidd and other professional athletes. He’s already in that bracket.
And still when you go to college, you still not shooting the pro three-pointer, you still not being a pro, they just want to see you play and the statistics that you have. But the NCAA, they’re trying to make that money off you first, that’s why they’re still one-and-done. They know you already a professional, so we might as well create a hubbub about you so everybody comes and watch the games. Now you got 15-20K people watching one game.
Like I said, the smartest in the college, they don’t draw 20K people to come watch them in the spelling bee. But they’ll watch a guy who’s talented playing sports. You can be the best ball player and you getting a C and D in classes, but they’re gonna keep you in school as long as you making money for them. They’ll get you a tutor.
Let’s say a kid expected to get 20 rebounds and 20 points. He only gets two rebounds and one point, but you’re an A-student. You gotta go. That’s how it is.
Do you think Lonzo would have went no. 2 in the JBA?
He would have been No. 1. On the fact that Lonzo does something that nobody does, and that’s make everybody better on the court. Who wouldn’t want to start a team with that? Who doesn’t start their team with that guy making everybody better? Forget about scoring 30 points, 30 rebounds, that’s individual. But if you can get a kid who basically makes everybody around him better, common sense tells you to get him first.
LeBron said he was excited to play with Lonzo. Do you think that’s a partnership that can work? How would you coach a LeBron and Lonzo?
How would I coach LeBron and Lonzo? Guess what, less coaching is the best coaching. Let them do what they do. Certain players you cannot coach. It seems like you coaching them but you don’t have to coach them because they’re special.
You don’t coach a Magic Johnson, you don’t coach a LeBron, you don’t coach really a Lonzo. They understand the game, they smart, they understand. You can have some input what you’re seeing on the outside, but also the captain of the ship knows how to do what he does. That’s what makes those people special. Lonzo’s IQ is so high and LeBron’s IQ is so high they gonna very good together.
I don’t think nobody gets to play with their favorite player. I don’t think nobody gets to do that. He’s in a special situation right here.
That’s what I was telling the Lakers about getting all three of my boys. The chemistry would be so wild on the fact that they play so fast together, and they be the first ones that LeBron is playing with that’s not worried about how much money they’re making. They just want to win championships. After you win one with a team, most guys say hey let me get my money. And that’s how you break up these good teams.
Back in the day, a lot of guys didn’t worry about the money. They were like hey let’s keep this camaraderie going. We’re gonna stay on this team because we’re gonna be champions. It’s not like that now. You be champions one time and someone offers you more money and your own team and this and that, and I’m gone. That’s why they can’t stay together.
But like I said, with my boys and LeBron, that’s my boy’s favorite player. They play so fast and the chemistry they have together will beat the Golden State Warriors. My boys could beat that team easy, on the fact that they play faster than them.
With the Lakers signing LeBron, you’re going to have a bigger spotlight on you now ....
There’s a spotlight on me already on the fact that I’m doing so many things. People get stuck on LaVar Ball is Lonzo’s father. Alright, but I’m also the CEO of a clothing brand. I’m also the owner of water (ed. note: yes, LaVar Ball sells his own brand of water). I’m also the owner of the league. I did it on my own as far as the multiple things that I’ve done.
And I’m going to create this empire so big that you’re gonna look back at it and be like, ‘man they should have paid that guy $1 billion and let him go on his way.’ It’s going to get so big now.
The money is not important. I want to build the biggest empire ever. They gonna look at it and be like, where did this start? When did guys start coming into the league with their own brand?
I’m a history maker. A lot of things are changing. You can look at what they trying to do now. You hear about the No. 1 guys spurning Nike and Adidas, there’s a reason for that. I came out with my own brand, so Puma was like, ‘maybe we can do something a little different.’ And we’re not even hearing a big deal about Puma.
But I’m saying guys want to do their own thing. All I want to see is the ripple effect.
What they don’t understand, like when I told [Nike] they could get the co-branding for a billion dollars, and I said that was a good deal, and everybody laughs. It’s like the league. Everybody says he’s not gonna get this league going, he just talking.
And then all the sudden this league pops up, something that has the potential to be one of the greatest things ever on the fact that maybe in 5-10 years, maybe we have 30 teams. How about I create my own league now. And now you have two leagues like we had the ABA and NBA. It has potential. If the money’s right, they got something with $10 to $15 million per year. Now I can make the Big Baller League. Now I can create another 450 jobs, now the NBA has the compete with the Big Baller League. That is a possibility. We have the potential to do that.
Look at Blockbuster and Netflix, they’re the same thing. It’s like Uber vs. taxis. Same thing. But this is basketball, so they don’t believe it can happen.
How does a guy with so many interests keep them all straight? How do you do it all?
It’s having a vision, believing in yourself, and go from there. And not let money guide you. A lot of people are stuck on that bag. What I mean by that is it’s OK to have that money, but let’s say you bought everything you would want to buy. What’s next? You bought everything.
You better have a passion for doing something. Like I tell the guys, the key to life is not having all the money in the world. The key to life is having a passion that you happen to get paid for. You gotta love it.
It’s just like guys that go into real estate. Some of them go in there to make money, then they get to be million and billionaires and then wow, maybe they still like selling houses no matter how many sell. Maybe they say, ‘I can buy this building right here for $10 million and in two years it might be $20 million. OK I already have enough money.’ But they just like the act of doing that.
It’s like a cook. He can cook all day if he loves to cook. But if you’re a cook and you got to work for somebody you don’t really like and you’re just working making ends meet, they might not have as much fun.
When they look back and see the things I’ve done, they’re gonna say LaVar Ball started all this. It’s gonna be shocking. I’ve already done some business-changing things, like Lonzo coming to the NBA with his own brand. Started my own league. My own shoe. All my boys have signature shoes. Melo is first one ever out of Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant, everybody to have a signature shoe in high school. At 16 years old. Nobody has done these things. Melo and Gelo get to go over there [ed. note: Lithuania, where they completed a controversial year at BC Vytautas] at such a young age and be professional ball players.
So the things we’re doing, it’s not like they by accident. We are gonna keep thriving and doing our thing, and everybody is going to look back and be like ‘wow that Ball family really did it.’ It’s just make people open their eyes and see other things they can do and believe in themselves. And knowing their self-worth.