As someone immersed in the sports-parenting dynamic, I am fascinated by LaVar Ball. And bemused. And outraged. And empathetic. And, ultimately, impacted.
Ball, of course, is the dad of UCLA basketball one-year wonder Lonzo Ball (and his siblings LiAngelo and LaMelo). He’s also the founder of “Big Baller Brand,” a sports-apparel and lifestyle company whose logo is ubiquitously draped on Ball when he does his non-stop media appearances — and a brand most notably in the news when Ball suggested that some lucky shoe company will get the opportunity to sign all three of his kids for a billion dollars.
To be clear: Ball is famous for being a parent. If he weren’t the dad of an incredibly talented child, his riffs on his younger sons’ high school coach, Lonzo’s “better-than-Curry” ceiling and even LeBron James‘ parenting skills would be the blowhard muttering of your average anonymous parent sitting in the bleachers of a middle-school basketball tournament.
That is the first important point here: We all have a little bit of LaVar Ball within us. There isn’t a parent with a kid who plays any level of sports who hasn’t at one point — even if it’s a fleeting instant — daydreamed of some kind of greater athletic glory for their kid. At its most extreme, you watch some innocuous rec-league moment by your kid and think, “NBA? NFL? MLB? MLS? NCAA? Maybe!”
Every parent out there is living at varying degrees through Ball’s public antics. What parent wouldn’t be just as proud of their kids as Ball is of his? Just check your Facebook, Instagram and Twitter feeds for posts by your friends who have kids who play sports. The point isn’t to dash your dreams — and, let’s be honest: Most of the time, they are your dreams as much as they are your kid’s dreams. And fantasizing about your kid’s future athletic success is totally fine. The point is to accurately label those fantasies as just that: fanciful proxies for your very real hopes that your child achieve some form of ultimate life success.
Given that: I worry less about how LaVar Ball is raising Lonzo and his little brothers — honestly, the kids seem rather even-keeled — and more about how he’s enabling every starry-eyed parent out there to unhinge their own LaVar-ish instincts. Ball is socially normalizing the kind of sports-parenting bluster that should otherwise be left as an inner monologue or Instagram post.
Whether your kid is playing in some AAU super-league or in the rec-league down the street, any age, any sport, every parent faces a relentless series of moments of irrational impulse to say something totally unconstructive:
“Come on!”… “Shoot!”… “Double-team!”
Watching your kids play sports is almost entirely an exercise in self-restraint. Your default is to make a comment that will, in all likelihood, be unhelpful — your basic metric of success should be beating back that instinct and not blurting. No parent bats 1.000, obviously, but if you aren’t pretty mindful about it, your default impulse to verbalize something dumb will win.
(If you’re going to limit yourself to a comment, it should be “I love watching you play.” If you’re going to have a more “in-depth” post-game discussion, according to sports-performance expert and sports-parent Alan Stein of Pure Sweat Basketball, it should consist of a few simple questions: “Did you listen to your coach?” “Did you give your best effort?” “Did you help a teammate?” “Did you have fun?” If that’s new for you, definitely try it.)
Every time you see LaVar Ball talking or hear people talking about him, subconsciously your effort to maintain that self-restraint is eroded just a little bit; it feels like he is being rewarded for his bluster. And sometimes all it takes is that nudge to get you yapping unproductively.
That last point is trickiest of all: Has LaVar Ball made you — purportedly an adult, perhaps even a parent yourself — want to root against a kid? (His kid, but still: a kid.) Did you cheer to see Lonzo get humiliated by Kentucky’s De’Aaron Fox on Friday night? Did you refresh your social-media feeds to look for images of a sincerely glum LaVar Ball?
That might be the most corrosive effect of his antics. I saw it among people I talked to and across social media. I saw a little of it in myself. Actively rooting against a teenager — even if you’re really rooting against his adult parent. Reveling in another parent’s disappointment, on display in front of a nationwide audience. Rationalizing those kind of highly unsympathetic sentiments because some dad got carried away in the enthusiasm of his kid’s outsized athletic success. Arguably, that makes me a bigger jerk parent than LaVar; I’m just doing it from the relative anonymity of barking from my couch.
It could be the part I end up resenting most about LaVar Ball, even though it’s something I, and anyone who feels the same way, will have to get past as his remarkably talented kids go through their careers. He may have successfully pushed them to become future NBA players, but he also successfully pulled some of us closer to being those parents. The first part’s on him, the second one’s on us.
Dan Shanoff writes about sports and parenting for espnW. You can connect with him on Twitter at @danshanoff or experience your own “Shan-denfreude” by following his sports-parenting adventures on Instagram at @danshanoff.