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The real stars of LaVar Ball’s league are the players chasing a dream

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Inside LaVar Ball’s JBA, the upstart professional high school league trying to disrupt the NCAA with no one in its stands.

LiAngelo and LaMelo Ball Training with Vytautas Prienai Photo by Alius Koroliovas/Getty Images

CHICAGO — LaVar Ball is sitting courtside in a nearly empty arena wearing an oversized Big Baller Brand shirt, a velvet Big Baller Brand hat, and the world’s baggiest jean shorts. Above him, a music video by his oldest son Lonzo plays on the jumbotron and blares through the speakers. Across from him is the silhouette of his youngest son LaMelo dunking a basketball, the logo for his fledgling, upstart league. There is a smile permanently plastered on his face.

This is what the JBA — Junior Basketball Association — looks and sounds like just one week into its existence. LaVar Ball’s professional league for 17-to-20-year-old basketball players is very real, even if practically no one is paying attention. This feels like a disaster, but you’d never know it from looking at LaVar.

“Success is just us having a league,” Ball says later in the night. “People say the JBA ain’t starting. LaVar ain’t starting that, he just talking. We already successful. Everybody in the world doubted. It happened so fast. Oh shoot, there’s a real league going on, they really getting paid. They can’t stop us from doing what we want to do.”

It would be a charitable estimation to say there are 100 other people in Wintrust Arena right now, a beautiful and brand new 10,000-seat stadium located in the Near South Side neighborhood of Chicago. It is hard to know what to make of all this, to tell where LaVar’s motivation truly lies.

Is this operation wholly altruistic? Does he want to turn LaMelo into his own traveling Globetrotters? Is he just trying to sell more $40 t-shirts?

Ball is selling the JBA as an alternative to college for kids who don’t want to play basketball for free under the NCAA’s arcane rules. He says he’s funding it all by himself, from paying the players’ salaries, to bankrolling the travel, to renting out buildings and keeping the air conditioning on at arenas as massive as Wintrust.

Not long ago, Ball was sparring with the president on CNN. Between SNL spoofs, swaggering ESPN appearances, and public denouncements from the Los Angeles Lakers, Ball has turned himself into an actual celebrity. All of that makes you wonder why the JBA has debuted without any publicity whatsoever.

Is LaVar Ball’s 15 minutes over? Does the JBA actually exist if no one notices? Is he doing more harm than good for the players who have now lost their college eligibility because they accepted a paycheck? This experiment would be fascinating if anyone at all even realized it was happening.

LiAngelo and LaMelo Ball Training with Vytautas Prienai Photo by Alius Koroliovas/Getty Images

Kezo Brown was supposed to be Simeon Chicago’s next superstar, the heir apparent to Derrick Rose and Jabari Parker before him. He appeared to be on a similar path, regarded as a five-star recruit by ESPN heading into his sophomore year of high school and scoring a prestigious invite to try out for USA Basketball’s junior teams.

Then Brown missed his sophomore year with an undisclosed health issue. He returned and played well as a junior, but his recruiting stock had fallen precipitously. Then Brown lost his senior year when he reportedly struggled with his mental health, spending part of his year in a psychiatric hospital. Still, he had accepted a scholarship offer from D-I Chicago State, and hoped to get his life and basketball career back in order.

Brown’s plans were thrown into flux when Chicago State fired coach Tracy Dildy in March. At Dildy’s recommendation, Brown went to an open tryout for the JBA, where he was one of two players from Chicago selected.

That’s how Kezo Brown came to play his first competitive basketball game in nearly two years in front of a home crowd. The sparse crowd roared when he was introduced, and got louder with every bucket. By the end of the night, he had 46 points.

“What I’m going through is a struggle,” Brown says. “I just want to help out my family and get some money. LaVar Ball is a great man. I’m happy to be around people that have some love for me.”

Brown is taking online college classes, but he chose to forgo his basketball eligibility by signing a JBA contract. Whether this is the final, permanent rebirth of Kezo Brown may depend largely on whether everybody else takes Ball seriously.

Curtis Hollis has played with real talent his whole life. He was on a team with Trae Young at the U16 level during his first year on Nike’s EYBL circuit. He eventually landed at Prime Prep API, the controversy-plagued prep school in Dallas co-founded by Deion Sanders, where he played with future first round draft pick Terrence Ferguson and McDonald’s All-American Billy Preston. He was good enough to get invited to the Pangos All-American Camp in 2016.

At 6’5, Hollis was such a good athlete that he drew football scholarship offers from Kansas and Oklahoma State at wide receiver after picking up the sport as a senior and playing only seven games. But hoops was Brown’s first passion, and he went to Hutchinson Community College after graduation, a well-regarded junior college that produced Arizona standout and Boston Celtics guard Kadeem Allen.

Hollis wanted basketball to be his full-time job, and he was getting frustrated waiting for it to happen. He went to a JBA tryout in Texas and was selected. Hollis talked to LaVar and said his vision for the league resonated with him. He decided to end his college eligibility and make the leap of faith.

“I’m going to keep it honest with you, I’m trying to get to the NBA,” Hollis says. “If I go JUCO, I would have had to go back another year, then go D-I, then come out. That’s a whole two more years.”

The JBA is taking its 10 top players overseas when this season is over to play against European professionals, which Hollis cited as another reason he signed on. He’s looking for exposure, and he believes Ball can provide that.

“It’s been great so far,” Hollis says after completing his second game in the league. “It’s been amazing, honestly. The competition out here is crazy. A lot of people are out here trying to chase their dream. Everyone who thinks it’s a bum league with bums playing with it, actually it’s not. There’s a lot of great, hard competition as you can see.”

When Ball started the JBA, he messaged many of the consensus top 100 high school players in the country to see if they would bypass college to join his league. None of them took him up on the offer. Instead, what Ball found was a group of kids fed up with their lot in the basketball world, looking for a second chance.

There are plenty of NBA players whose careers have started at the JUCO level. There’s a way to success if you take that path, but it requires patience, discipline, and being as committed to school as you are to basketball.

That path isn’t suited for everyone. And for those who wanted another option, LaVar Ball was waiting with open arms.

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“I don’t need to fill the gym up with a bunch of phonies,” LaVar Ball says as he addresses a small crowd before the headlining game. “I have to fill the gym with the real folks that are out here.”

There are fans here, even if there aren’t many. Part of the reason there are so few could be because, like Big Baller Brand apparel, tickets to the JBA are outrageously priced. After Ticketmaster fees, it costs $56, $75, or $120 just to get in the building.

Some people are willing to spend that type of money. The two men in the photo above are Conlin and Cole, 18-year-olds from suburban Oak Forest. Ball’s firecracker personality resonates with them, as does the idea of creating a league for basketball players who don’t want to go to college. Both are big local high school basketball fans and were excited to watch Brown play after seeing him early in his career.

“You got to support someone who wants to give high school kids the chance to earn money doing something they love,” Conlin says.

Cole adds: “It’s worth the time and energy to come out and see the players here. It’s a fun environment.”

Say this for LaVar Ball: the JBA cannot be a moneymaking venture at this point, but he’s still out here doing it. He is unconcerned with the low attendance. Before the final game of the night, he posed for a photo with every person in the crowd who wanted one.

Even if no one is showing up to JBA games yet, there are people watching them. When LaMelo Ball’s Los Angeles team played recently against Seattle, the Facebook stream had 825K views. Kezo Brown’s Chicago team drew 138K views on Facebook while playing Houston.

LaMelo remains the main attraction for this league, but his team is not playing at every stop, and it did not play in Chicago. The youngest Ball brother isn’t just preposterously famous as he nears four million Instagram followers, he’s also a real talent. Before his father pulled him out of Chino Hills High School, LaMelo was regarded as a five-star recruit by ESPN and had accepted a scholarship from UCLA. LaMelo is an exception in every sense compared to the other players in the JBA.

For the rest, this is about chasing a dream in a way that’s new to everyone involved. Each player in the league is earning $3000 a month, and the first paychecks have already gone out. That’s not all they’re playing for: LaVar has pledged to buy every member of the winning team — including the head coach and assistant coach — a new luxury car.

Laugh at the JBA if you want, but it’s a real, tangible thing. Teenagers are getting paid to play basketball in beautiful arenas across the country and LaVar Ball is with them the entire way.

“I don’t think no kid studied all his life for a Spanish test or a chemistry test,” Ball says. “But he been playing basketball his entire life and getting good at it. And I don’t think that should stop them because they can’t really succeed as far as keeping their interest with chemistry and Spanish.

“I’m not saying don’t get no education. You can go read a book. But I feel like if anyone has a passion for doing something, and you get paid for it, you won in life.”

No one knows what to make of the JBA, because no one has ever seen anything like it before. With scant crowds and zero buzz, perhaps this is really it for LaVar’s time as a person of interest. If so, it’s impossible to tell if he knows or even cares. No matter what, he keeps smiling.