Over the past few months, LaVar Ball has been called every name in the book. He's a misogynist and a blowhard, a helicopter parent and an exploiter of his children, a media whore, a bad businessman, and, quite simply, a coarse and arrogant jerk.
But what if, despite the way our basketball obsession with his son Lonzo has morphed into a reality-TV obsession with LaVar – the cycle where we tune in or click because we want to show our outrage at LaVar's latest headline-grabbing absurdity – LaVar Ball is actually the one thing nobody ever calls him?
What if LaVar Ball is actually a fantastic father?
I write this after LaVar Ball's image seemed to fully switch over from the crazy-but-entertaining sports dad to the dangerous, sexist thrower of verbal bombs whose actions hurt his sons. You know the moment I'm talking about: When Ball went on Colin Cowherd's show and told Cowherd's co-host, Kristine Leahy, to "stay in your lane." Social media erupted. Ball became an overnight pariah. Leahy and her cohorts at FS1 (full disclosure: my former employer) slammed the Ball family; one even called Lonzo "a little robot completely controlled by his father."
But the backstory of LaVar alternately dismissing, then going after, Leahy makes this whole saga more interesting and more nuanced. And it points me toward LaVar being a lot different than the cartoon character he's been portrayed as during the past week or so. Back in March, Leahy was doing a television segment on Ball and his basketball-playing sons, and here's what she said: "All three sons, they're being forced to do it. They're being told, 'You will start basketball at age six,' just like Lonzo told us. And whenever you asked him a question, I think [Lonzo] said, what, five words? He looks terrified whenever he's talking. He looks genuinely afraid."
That bit of context puts LaVar Ball's disrespect toward Leahy in a completely different light. I have two young sons, and if there's one thing that would enrage me more than a media pundit ripping on me as a bad parent, it would be a media pundit ripping on one of my sons directly. In that March segment, Leahy did both: She called LaVar a hyper-controlling parent who is damaging his sons, and she called his oldest son "genuinely afraid."
I don't know about you, but if anybody said that about me and my child, I'd blow my top. LaVar clearly went into that interview primed to disrespect someone – not women generally, as his "stay in your lane" comment was unfortunately interpreted, but Leahy specifically. Because she had attacked his family. The most relevant part of LaVar Ball's diatribe wasn't "Stay in your lane." It was what he told Leahy when she asked why he had a problem with her. "My problem is, you are a hater," he said.
The first words I spoke to my firstborn son four years ago, as nurses were poking him and prodding him after a long and difficult labor, were that I wanted him to be two things: Kind, and strong. My parenting philosophy has always been to love my children unconditionally, to teach them toughness, and to defend them fiercely. When I saw LaVar Ball attack Leahy, I saw a father bear fiercely defending his family's territory: An attack on his parenting, and an attack on his son.
Was it done gracefully, or even directly? Certainly not. LaVar Ball is many things; a master of the gentle, subtle putdown is not one of them. But if I saw a media pundit attacking two of the things dearest to me, I'd react at least as heatedly as LaVar Ball.
What all this comes down to isn't LaVar Ball's bombast or his business acumen. It all comes down to LaVar Ball as a father. So let's look at that for a moment: He's still married to his college sweetheart. He's taught his sons basketball, certainly, but he's also taught them to be well-mannered, confident young men. He's plotting a plan for his family to become rich for generations, as ill-conceived as some of his tactics may be.
Here's what my CBS Sports colleague, Gary Parrish, said about LaVar Ball on a recent podcast: "The idea that LaVar Ball is the devil seems wild to me. He has seemingly dedicated his adult life to being a strong presence in his children's lives, and he's raised them to be by all accounts intelligent, respectful young men who are also awesome at what they do. What's so bad about that?"
I couldn't agree more. Fair or not, parents are judged by the outcome of their children. And while I can't prophecy where Lonzo, LiAngelo and LaMelo will be a decade or two from now, I can certainly tell you that all three are doing pretty damn well right now. Credit their parents for that.
In Ramona Shelburne's revealing portrait of Ball, there was a section where LaVar spoke of having his boys walking by eight months old and potty-trained by 10 months.
"I put a scarf under their arms and I just hold them up like a bungee cord so they get their balance," Ball told Shelburne. "Nobody had Pampers on. I'd wake their ass up in the middle of the night, put them on the toilet. Their cold ass hit that seat, so it was like a mechanism. Cold ass, piss. Now go back to sleep."
Now I can't verify whether LaVar's story is the truth or a tall tale. (He is the same man who said he taught pigeons to do backflips, so…) But I have a second son now, who is nine months old. And if it's true that LaVar got each of his sons walking and potty-trained before they were a year old, I can confirm to you that LaVar Ball is not just a good parent. He's a miraculous parent.
Of course, it doesn't matter what I think. Or what you think. Or what Kristine Leahy thinks. What matters in the weeks leading up to the NBA Draft is what NBA power brokers think. Like, say, Lakers legend and president of basketball operations Magic Johnson, whose team owns the second overall pick, which happens to be Lonzo Ball's preferred landing spot. Magic recently compared LaVar Ball to Kris Jenner, the matriarch of the Kardashian family.
Thing is, he didn't mean it in a bad way.
"Look, the Kardashians, we didn't say that the mom was bad, and she made them a lot of money, right?" Magic told a Los Angeles radio show. "She's bragged on her daughters, and I think it's the same here. He's just saying, 'Hey, my son is great,' and there's nothing bad with that."
People have taken offense at LaVar's style as much as his content. He's brash, flamboyant, arrogant, and, yes, kind of a jerk.. He's selling $495 shoes without the backing of a major shoe brand, which is either elitist or genius, and he's making money off his perceived sexist comment by slapping it on a T-shirt, which is either obnoxious or kind of funny. But none of these things add up to the big subtext beneath all this hatred of LaVar Ball: That he's a bad father.
LaVar Ball is many things: He's loud, he's a hustler, he's a perfect representation of the insane attention-seeking media climate of 2017 America. But spinning all of these things together in the media echo chamber and spitting out the conclusion that LaVar Ball must be a bad father is folly – a shallow takeaway about a complicated and fascinating family.
My hope for the Ball family and the media who've bought into the LaVar-as-the-devil narrative is this: That time shows us all LaVar Ball isn't a bad father. And that he's actually the exact opposite.