LAS VEGAS -- It was two years ago this week, almost to the day, whenin the shadows of the biggest and best gambling halls in the world.
This was well before LaVar and Lonzo become one-name celebrities like LeBron, Kobe, Steph, Kawhi, Dirk and Shaq. Their team was called the Big Ballers. But there was no such thing as a Big Baller Brand. So there was no $500 shoe. And they mostly walked around the Cashman Center in complete anonymity. I sat courtside and watched them play. I introduced myself afterward and then talked to LaVar and Tina and each of their sons. Nobody bothered us. Nobody asked for an autograph. Nobody took a picture. Nobody sent video to SportsCenter.
Needless to say, a lot has changed since then.
And that was evident late Wednesday.
"I've never seen anything like it," said David Pump, who has been a prominent figure in the summer basketball scene for years. "They're rock stars."
It's not often that the No. 2 prospect in the country gets completely overshadowed on the summer circuit -- especially one who doubles as a dunking sensation with millions of YouTube views to his credit. But the Big Ballers are the Big Ballers. And so, yeah, Zion Williamson absolutely put on a show here late Wednesday inside this same building where I first met the Ball family two Julys ago. But LaVar and LaMelo Ball were the show. They were undeniably the marquee attraction and why an over-capacity crowd -- a crowd that featured NBA stars Lonzo Ball, Damian Lillard, Andrew Wiggins and Eric Gordon, among others -- packed the Cashman Center and created a scene that'll be remembered forever by those who were here at the Adidas Uprising Summer Championships.
"I don't think I've ever seen anything like this," said Marquette coach Steve Wojciechowski. And that quote could've come from any coach in the building, really. Because nobody had ever seen anything like this. Because there had never been anything like this.
Final score: South Carolina Supreme 104, Big Ballers 92.
But who cares about that?
The story was the scene.
Hilariously, South Carolina Supreme's coach coached the whole game holding his sleeping son -- which automatically qualifies him for the grassroots basketball Hall of Fame. And I might write an entire column about him someday. But the focus on this night was the Big Ballers, and the unprecedented spectacle proved once and for all that LaVar Ball, love him or hate him, has used his mouth and the media to build something completely unique to him and his family. The coaches on the circuit are never the attraction -- unless they happen to be former or current NBA players. And even then, not really. But LaVar Ball is a bigger attraction than anybody playing here in Las Vegas during July's final five-day Evaluation Period. And I'll be honest: I've watched LeBron James, Chris Paul, Kevin Durant and countless other stars walk into gyms to watch games or camps over the years. But I've never seen any of them cause a commotion quite like the commotion LaVar Ball caused Wednesday when he entered the Cashman Center.
People yelling and screaming.
He basically needed an escort to get upstairs to check his team in -- at which point fans and players participating in the event tried to follow him. They were stopped, dozens of them. But a Class of 2019 prospect from Indiana named Dexter Shouse managed to slip through and into Room 204, where LaVar Ball was holding court.
One of Shouse's teammates asked Shouse what he was doing.
"I have to see LaVar, G," Shouse answered. And when I later relayed this story to LaVar Ball, his response was predictable. "Why wouldn't he want to see me?" he said. "I'm great."
And we were still two hours from game time.
As tipoff drew closer, the scene got wilder. I watched a group of kids -- like 20 or 30 teenagers -- completely flip out when they got a glimpse of LaMelo Ball, who was on the second floor with his teammates and isolated from the craziness. The teenagers tried to come up the stairs to take pictures. But they were turned away by Adidas officials. So they were reduced to chanting "Melo! Melo!"
All this for a 15-year-old.
"Melo is the most recognizable high school player ever," LaVar Ball said. "When I say that, people say, 'What about LeBron? Kobe?' But all this social media didn't exist when they were in high school. There weren't all these cameras. ... Melo has two million followers [on Instagram]. This [expletive] is different."
While LaVar Ball and I were having this conversation upstairs, massive crowds were gathering downstairs. The entire gym was completely filled more than an hour before tipoff -- and there were thousands of people still outside. At one point, an officer stepped in and ordered the garage door that separated the lobby from the gym shut. And suddenly what we had was a group of college coaches -- Long Beach State's Dan Monson, Nevada's Eric Musselman, Saint Mary's Randy Bennett, etc. -- essentially trapped in the lobby. They couldn't go outside to the parking lot because there were crowds of people blocking the doors. And they couldn't go inside to the gym because the garage door was shut.
How crazy was it? So crazy that LeBron James -- who is in Las Vegas and had planned on attending the LaMelo Ball-Zion Williamson showdown -- was ultimately encouraged to stay away, an Adidas official told Las Vegas Police. The scene was already too chaotic. The King's presence would've just made it wilder.
"Nobody else is getting in," an Adidas official said to the lingering crowd about 45 minutes before tipoff. "If you're not a college coach or with Adidas or with the NCAA, please leave. It's time to go."
For a while, nobody budged. But, eventually, members of the Las Vegas Police Department arrived and restored order, and the people in the lobby who didn't qualify as a college coach, Adidas official or NCAA representative did indeed exit the building. So then the garage door was opened and the college coaches were allowed inside.
But they couldn't see anything.
Every seat had long been filled. The crowds of people surrounding the court were 10 deep. Some teenagers grabbed tables and put them behind the bleachers, then put chairs on top of the tables and stood on those chairs in an attempt to see something. Just anything. Meantime, a Facebook Live stream of the game received 800,000 views even though it didn't start until after midnight on the East Coast.
The game ended at 1:54 a.m. ET.
There were still 50,000 people watching then.
The contrast between this scene and the scene in this same building only two years earlier was drastic and, frankly, incredible. Back then, the Big Ballers played on a side court, barely anybody watched, and I talked to the entire Ball family for 45 minutes while literally nobody snapped a picture, asked for an autograph or even stopped to mumble a word. Now LaVar Ball had iPhone cameras capturing his every move, an actual camera crew following him everywhere, and teenagers were chanting his teenage son's name.
I've been coming to events like this for 15 years, and here's the truth: I've never seen anything close to what I saw Wednesday night. Thousands and thousands of people came to see LaVar Ball, his youngest son and the traveling circus they've created. The game was nearly canceled because the crowd was out of control. And after it was all over, Adidas officials were meeting with the Las Vegas Police Department to better prepare for Thursday's encore.
"Didn't I tell you back then it was gonna be big?" LaVar Ball asked me.
"You did," I replied.
"And now it's gonna get even bigger," he said. "This is only the beginning."