The best and worst thing Steve Alford ever did for his UCLA career was attach himself to the Ball family.
The decision long ago to recruit LaVar Ball's three sons -- long before they were famous, long before LaVar Ball became a walking avatar for Sports Parent: Most Ridiculous Possible Scenario -- was a promising if not risky gambit for Alford for different reasons than the ones we're all aware of now.
In 2013 Alford was piloting a UCLA program off to a bumpy era after he bailed on a 10-year signed contract with New Mexico. UCLA made the NCAA Tournament his Alford's first two seasons but barely made the 2015 Big Dance, his second campaign with the Bruins. That summer, Alford firmed up a recruiting scoop that would eventually alter his course in Westwood and ultimately change the dynamic of basketball culture at every level in Los Angeles.
LaVar Ball, a father of three local Division I recruits, saw an opportunity. Knowing how good Lonzo already was and seeing how good his youngest son LaMelo could be, he negotiated college scholarship deals from UCLA for each of his children. Lonzo was already an obvious Division I talent, standing tall even in a 2016 high school class loaded with point guards, perhaps the deepest such crop in more than a decade. If Alford wanted Lonzo he had to save scholarships for LiAngelo and then-13-year-old LaMelo.
Alford did what he should have done. He agreed to the package deal. Lonzo signed his National Letter of Intent in November 2015. He did so six days after UCLA lost its home opener to Monmouth, a harbinger for the ugliness to come. The Bruins went 15-17 that season. They were the most disappointing team in college basketball. Fans responded by paying for a plane to fly a banner over Los Angeles that called for Alford's firing.
Alford in turn did the unusual by putting a one-year extension back on the table, forgoing guaranteed money.
Alford, thanks in good part to Lonzo, would get that money months later. Lonzo's arrival to UCLA truly returned the Bruins to national relevance and made Alford's squad one of the most watchable teams in college basketball in 2016-17. As LaVar Ball boasted his way to a self-made celebrity, Lonzo humbly wowed with his high-IQ play and helped Alford land that contract extension he gave back a year before. UCLA earned a No. 3 seed and made the Sweet 16 before Lonzo was taken second overall in the 2017 NBA Draft by the Los Angeles Lakers.
That's the success story. The whole story is something larger, something much more complicated and, unavoidably, something doomed to a messy finish. For Alford, almost everything public since the Sweet 16 defeat to Kentucky (when LaVar said UCLA lost ) has been an affiliated headache, a nuisance, a never-ending PR worry.
On Monday the latest predictable machination from LaVar came in rehash form. Two months after yanking LaMelo out of high school in a petty power display disguised by LaVar as proactive parenting, the world's most famous sports father repeated the immature gesture by choosing to take LiAngelo off UCLA's basketball team.
He also said he did this, and informed the media to his scheme, before telling any of UCLA's coaches.
LaVar Ball also said that he has yet to inform the UCLA coaching staff that he is pulling LiAngelo. "I haven't told any of those guys,"Lavar told ESPN. "They didn't tell me anything, so why am I gonna tell them."— Jeff Goodman (@GoodmanESPN) December 4, 2017
A little more than two hours after the news broke, Alford offered up a two-sentence statement: "We learned today of LiAngelo Ball's intention to withdraw from UCLA. We respect the decision he and his family have made, and we wish him all the best in the future."
Alford is unlikely to admit this publicly any time soon, but LaVar's move here has to be a relief inside UCLA headquarters, like a little more oxygen just got pumped into UCLA's facilities. Talk to any evaluator that's spent time scouting LiAngelo and they'll tell you he's not good enough to be at UCLA. This was going along well enough until, after a summer of quiet, he made the idiotic decision to shoplift in a communist country that pridefully carries a reputation for harsh punishments on lawbreakers. That Ball and teammates Jalen Hill and Cody Riley wound up leaving China as early as they did and without serious charges sticking to them remains a gift they should all be thankful for forever.
The decision by Alford to indefinitely suspend Ball, Riley and Hill, to make them earn their way back onto the team,. There's no telling if the players even wind up wearing a uniform this season. Alford held control over LaVar's son and LaVar couldn't take it anymore. If there's one personality trait that stands out larger than any other with LaVar Ball, it's that he hates others having power over him. It has led to him and childishly pull his team off a basketball court during a game on more than one occasion.
Alford still has his critics but he can't be assigned blame for his handling of LiAngelo's catastrophic misstep. The Bruins' coach was doing what was best and most appropriate for the 18-year-old. But after more than two weeks of indefinite suspension, LaVar had seen enough. It's surprising LiAngelo even made it to December on UCLA's roster. Hear this loudly: It's because of LaVar's son's actions, not Alford's, that LiAngelo's no longer on the team. LaVar knows that. Whether he cares is up for him to decide.
LaVar remains as delusional about LiAngelo's draft prospects as he's ever been, by the way.
"He's not transferring to another school," he told ESPN. "The plan is now to get Gelo ready for the NBA Draft."
He also claims, ludicrously, that he'll prepare his son better for the NBA Draft than UCLA's infrastructure of coaches, trainers, facilities, etc. LaVar's going to do it out of his home now. Just like he plans to do to LaMelo. This isn't funny. It's sad and detrimental.
If Alford's lucky, he's had a Ball in his locker room for the last time. LaMelo's a quirky talent but he is not worth ... this. Plenty in the media have stood up for LaVar Ball's act as a father before, but he has now pulled his children from public schools two times in two months in an effort to better train them at home for professional basketball with no guarantees either is ever picked by an NBA franchise (LiAngelo has absolutely no shot).
Alford and UCLA stopped needing LaVar Ball the instant Lonzo officially declared for the NBA, which was just minutes after the loss to Kentucky. The Bruins are off to a 7-1 start this season and have a pair of outstanding freshmen in Jaylen Hands and Kris Wilkes. The program is one more four-star signing away from a top-20 class in 2018. UCLA's not officially free and clear of LaVar just yet, but it won't be surprising if LaMelo or LiAngelo never play a second of college basketball.
That end result would be best for UCLA and Alford, but I can't say the same for the kids who could be robbed of an incredible experience at one of the most prestigious universities and basketball programs in the world -- just because their father had too much pride and arrogance to let others do what's best for his boys.