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How LaMelo Ball and Zion Williamson got a million people to watch an AAU basketball game

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Ball and Williamson are social media stars, and high school basketball has turned into a perfect atmosphere for that.

It’s midnight on the East Coast, and I’m watching a Facebook live stream add a thousand viewers every five seconds. It’s currently airing a still screen, even. In bold lettering, there’s text that says, “Adidas Uprising Summer Championship.” That’s what we’re here for — a high school AAU game.

It peaks at 80,000 viewers.

I wonder, like me, how many of them just actively turned on AAU basketball for the first time in their lives. Maybe they’re like me, and they’ve watched some high school mixtapes and occasionally the random high school all-star game that ended up on ESPN2. Anyone paying attention on Thursday, though, could see this was different.

The gym was so packed, fire marshals and officials had to block entrances to keep participants from entering a stuffed gym. For those lucky enough to sneak inside, even standing room might put you seven or eight rows back. A few people in one corner were literally standing partially on the court, without room to realistically move anywhere else, a fact that even the announcers eventually brought up. Damian Lillard and Andrew Wiggins were in attendance. LeBron James was reportedly going to do the same, only to reconsider when the North Las Vegas-based Cashman Center devolved into madness. Kids in attendance stormed the court on the final buzzer. Look at this crowd, damnit! And this was just an exhibition game.

But how? I was actually planning on going to bed early. I’m trying to be a responsible adult, for Christ’s sake. I have to work in the morning. I have to argue with my insurance company in the afternoon. How, as a taunting black screen stares back at me at 2 a.m., informing me the streaming event has ended, did we all get swept up into this?

SC Supreme beat Big Baller Brand 104-92 on Wednesday, but no one really cared about that. This was a player showcase between the two most hyped high school players in the world. And the LaMelo Ball vs. Zion Williamson show didn’t disappoint for a second.

A late night high school AAU game captured the eyes of the basketball world.

The final official live stream count from Ballislife was 822,000 views. It consumed my Twitter timeline. The sidelines were so packed, it looked like the players were literally standing among the fans on inbounds plays. And it’s all because we can’t get enough of two high schoolers, a 15-year old and another who just turned 17.

Williamson, already one of the best dunkers of his generation, did what he was born to do. It started in the warm up lines and extended into the game, where his teammates passed up layups to throw him alley oops even if there was no chance he’d complete them. He iced the game with a tomahawk dunk that would still only rank, like, 723rd on his list of all-time dunks. And it was still hella nice.

Ball, too, delivered exactly what we wanted. Because let’s be real, the only thing we really wanted was reckless, wild 35-foot hoists. He shot several, made one, and when the game was basically over, threw up a legitimate half-court attempt. It missed, but his recklessness is also his allure.

You can see Ball’s uniqueness shine at times — he ended up with 31 points — and there are other moments where he’s doing a Dion Waiters impersonation. Not a good one, either. For Williamson, he’s retiring the saying “man among boys” — it won’t ever fit any situation more appropriate than Williamson’s. Big Baller Brand face guarded Williamson the whole game and doubled nearly every time he had the ball. He still scored 28 points on the sheer force of his athleticism.

Still, let’s not take either kid’s performance too seriously. AAU is a player showcase, and this was a particularly meaningless one. Both teams understood how absurd the stakes were. LeBron James didn’t need to show up for them to understand that everyone watching was here for Ball’s deep threes and Williamson’s remorseless jams. None of the 820,000 viewers tuning in were really there for smart team basketball.

Some people credited this phenomenon to LaVar Ball, but that’s not quite right.

The Ball patriarch was there, of course — he’s the Big Baller Brand head coach. But the announcers barely acknowledged him, and he got far fewer camera pans than the NBA stars in attendance. It wasn’t until he disappeared from the bench briefly with a minute left in a four-point game — bathroom break? — that people really started talking about Ball. When he returned moments later, the attention shifted back appropriately.

But no, LaVar Ball wasn’t playing. 80,000 people didn’t tune in for LaVar Ball.

There’s some credit you can assign him, sure. LaMelo is the No. 18-ranked high school prospect for the class of 2019. Any other top-20 prospect, especially one that’s still two years out, couldn’t create this sort of buzz. It was LaVar Ball’s headline-drawing, attention-grabbing presence that initially turned the world onto the Chino Hills experiment. There’s no denying what his shameless braggadocio and endless television appearances did to the Ball surname.

But LaVar Ball has reached his Milkshake Duck moment. His constant media tour has soured much of the public on him, and he has said a couple things that really didn’t need to be. The attention he created for his sons would’ve died there if they couldn’t carry it now on their own.

Lonzo Ball can. His public presence is totally opposite his father’s, but after being drafted second overall, his basketball ability keeps everyone coming back. For LaMelo, he’s doing it in a different, even more polarizing way.

He’s become a social media star.

He and Williamson are alike in that way. Social media can’t get enough of LaMelo pointing to half court and then hitting a shot from there. It’ll retweet every Williamson dunk montage that comes across the timeline. Basketball is booming among our youngest generation, exemplified by the NBA’s new $24 billion television deal. Of course it’s taking over Twitter. Of course LaMelo has 2.1 million Instagram followers — barely shy of his brother, who’s employed by an NBA team — and Williamson is about to hit one million.

If LaVar Ball was the only reason his sons were stars, then tell me this: are you tuning into UCLA’s opener against Georgia State to watch LiAngelo Ball, the middle brother who could be a decent player but lacks Lonzo’s ability or LaMelo’s appeal? Maybe, for the curiosity. Are you tuning into the Bruins’ second matchup against Central Arkansas? The hell you aren’t.

Wednesday’s overflowing gym was a unique set of circumstances all crashing together at once. There’s no high school star bigger than these two.

But for all 822,000 people who sought out and tuned into an AAU game for the first time — like me — this probably won’t be the last. We’re in a new era, and neither basketball nor the social media star is going away. AAU is uniquely suited to incorporate both of these into must-watch events. It did it on Wednesday, drawing casual fans across the world to their phones and NBA players to the gym itself.

It will surely happen again.