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Lonzo Ball Is Life: UCLA's Superstar Freshman Is Ready to Win It All

(B/R Mag)
Greg CouchNational ColumnistMarch 9, 2017

Lonzo Ball's jump shot is wrong. There is no other way to put it. He doesn't keep the upper part of his right arm perpendicular to the court. His right forearm is cocked sideways across his face. And worst of all, he brings the ball up on the left side of his head.

He knows. His former coach at Chino Hills High School, Steve Baik, would put the ball in Ball's right shooting hand and make sure he remained efficient, releasing his shot quickly and with no wasted motion despite his unorthodox delivery.

"Once, he made 23 straight threes in practice," Baik says. "I said, 'We're good now, right?'"

Well, sure, Ball is good. A freshman at UCLA, he is arguably the most exciting player in the country at any level—high school, college or pro. But how is it that the best player in college, and possibly the first pick in this year's NBA draft, shoots wrong?

UCLA guard Lonzo Ball shoots during the second half against Oregon on February 9, 2017, in Los Angeles.
UCLA guard Lonzo Ball shoots during the second half against Oregon on February 9, 2017, in Los Angeles.(AP)

Ball, 19, and his family, particularly his dad, LaVar, might be a lesson to our American sports system about how we develop our kids. Or he might be a fluke. But the truth is simple: If Ball had fallen into the hands of most coaches along the way, he would have been changed. Fixed.

But he still shoots wrong, and that bothers some people who can't see the obvious: that it's right for Ball to do everything convention says is wrong.

The shot is so strange that Ball's parents and his coaches at UCLA have met to discuss what to do about it. It might cost him millions of dollars by scaring off NBA teams at the top of the draft. "It looks terrible,” says an executive on an NBA Eastern Conference team.

So Ball attempted to fix it again this past summer when UCLA played a few games in Australia. The result?

"I did not play very well at all," Ball says, sitting alone with B/R Mag off the court at UCLA's Pauley Pavilion. "All the time I was trying to change my shot."

He held a ball on the right side of his head to demonstrate. "It was all off. You've never seen anyone shoot it like me. It comes off the left side. I don't know. I don't know. It still spins the right way. I was just trying to make it more traditional, I guess."

I can see plays before they happen most of the time. With the guys, I just know where they're going to be. The game just comes easy to me. — Lonzo Ball

And when he came home, Ball reached the same conclusion everyone else always has: "I changed it back to how I was shooting before."

Let that be the ultimate message: Do not try to fix him.

"I don't care if you do a figure eight with it," UCLA coach Steve Alford finally told Ball about his shot. "The prettiest shots are the ones that go in."

"He shoots it better than average, even though it looks terrible," says an NBA Eastern Conference executive. "I could see a situation if he went to San Antonio, where they have the best shooting coach in the world, they might [try to change Ball's shot]. But most people would be better off just not f--king with it."

Ball, who this season is shooting 55.5 percent from the floor—42.4 percent from three, and, amazingly, 71.6 percent from two—got to where he is not by being normal, but by being one of the Ball brothers, who have spent their basketball lives flouting convention.


Who is this guy, really?

He is an unusual mix of showboat and selflessness. Flashy and fun-loving but serious. And so far, away from the court, he rarely puts together more than a few words for most people. But if you spend a little time with him, with his family, with his circle, you find that his inconsistencies all work together and somehow make sense.

Ball warms up on the court before a game on March 4, 2017, in Los Angeles.
Ball warms up on the court before a game on March 4, 2017, in Los Angeles.(Getty Images)

"He never stops talking," says UCLA teammate TJ Leaf, who spends a lot of time with Ball.

"You can be in an elevator and he breaks into freestyle dancing," says girlfriend Denise Garcia.

"In my free time, I write lyrics," Ball says. "I love rap music. So when I'm in my room with nothing to do, I just whip my phone out and type words out."

Like what?

"I'm not from Indiana, but this money got me pacing. Got money on my mind if you wonder what I'm thinking. Something, something, something, something. ... I just have fun with it, whatever comes to mind. Hip-hop, rap, stuff like that. That's just about it for me: basketball, school, music."

In the cookie-cutter world of amateur sports, Lonzo Ball is something different. And it's not only in how he plays, but also in who he is and how he got here. As a result, he supercharges fanbases, including UCLA's, wherever he goes. For example, in his senior year at Chino Hills High School, tickets were hard to come by, and games were on national TV.

And it isn't just that Ball is good—it's how he's good. He's a 6'6" point guard who runs and guns and throws behind-the-back passes. He has been taught not only to stay calm in a storm but also to see things clearest in the middle of one.

My dad's a funny guy. ... No, I'm not embarrassed. I know how he's going to act. I just go out there and play. Let him be him. — Lonzo Ball on his dad, LaVar

Lonzo's dad, LaVar, has trained his three sons to sprint at all times, to take half-court shots. LaVar says that as great as UCLA is playing, it could score 20 more points a game if Lonzo's teammates ran as hard and fast as he did the second his son got the ball.

"He knows where people are going to be before they get there," says Lonzo's 18-year-old brother LiAngelo, who goes by Gelo.

Actually, Lonzo knows where people will be before they know where they'll be. He has read their tendencies, looked for signs in their body language.

Also, he has some sort of psychic thing going.

"I guess it's because ever since I was a young age, I was playing at a fast pace," Ball says. "My dad's philosophy is you can't always speed up, but you can always slow down. He taught us how to play fast, and that's how it's always been.

"So I do feel I can see plays before they happen most of the time. With the guys, I just know where they're going to be. The game just comes easy to me."

Ball scores against Arizona on January 21, 2017, in Los Angeles.
Ball scores against Arizona on January 21, 2017, in Los Angeles.(Getty Images)

This was all the grand scheme of Ball's father, who says his plans for his basketball family started "from day one with me picking my wife."

"I had a lot of short cuties around me, but Tina was the tallest I'd been out with," LaVar says. "And the prettiest."

"Aah, good answer!" Tina yells in from another room at the Ball house in Chino Hills.


What you have to understand is that when it comes to parenting, LaVar Ball is shooting from the left side of his head, too. He is part eccentric and part genius. And you just have to decide on the mix. But whichever conclusion you reach (estimate: 80-20 genius), the thing is, both parts work together in perfect harmony. Each side boosts the other.

This is what has shaped Lonzo.

When Lonzo, then Gelo, then LaMelo (he of the half-court shots) were two years old, LaVar would have them jump from the first step of the staircase that leads upstairs at their house. "If they landed on their feet and didn't fall down, then they'd go up to the next step," LaVar says. "When they got that, they'd go to the next step.

"Lonzo was the first one to jump all eight steps and land on his feet. At that point, he was four years old."

Lonzo Ball and his father, LaVar, on March 4, 2017, in Los Angeles.
Lonzo Ball and his father, LaVar, on March 4, 2017, in Los Angeles.(Getty Images)

Most parents do not have their toddlers practice jumping off the stairs. In fact, most people put up a portable fence on their stairways to keep their kids from climbing up and falling down.

"Yeah, we're supposed to have a fence up," LaVar says. "We had them jump over the fence."

He roars with laughter.

LaVar has a theory about everything, a plan of success. Do not get him started on how he potty-trained his sons. He is one of those parents, raising three kids with the goal of revolutionizing basketball and the NBA.

And now Lonzo, the oldest, is expected to be an early first-round pick in the NBA draft. Gelo, a 6'5" shooting guard, is a year behind him and has committed to play for UCLA next year, and then, possibly, the NBA is next for him, too. Melo, a 6'3" point guard, has also committed to UCLA two years later.

"I think I'm the best one," Lonzo says. "But if you ask my brothers..."

LaMelo (left) and LiAngelo Ball attend a UCLA game at Pauley Pavilion on March 1, 2017, in Los Angeles.
LaMelo (left) and LiAngelo Ball attend a UCLA game at Pauley Pavilion on March 1, 2017, in Los Angeles.(Getty Images)

The truth is, Gelo says, Lonzo is paving the way for them. He goes through all the attention first, all the higher levels. Lonzo, Gelo says, is a role model for how to be a good big brother to Melo. Work hard. Do the right things.

For years, the Ball brothers have been running up a hill about two minutes from their house in Chino Hills, which is located 50 miles east of Pauley Pavilion. "It's a mile up, yeah," Gelo says. "It's real steep. At the beginning, it's regular; toward the end, that's when it gets steep. In the summer, we run it every day."

They sprint up in stretches, then jog down. Or change the order, or however it hits LaVar that day. Lonzo says it seems as if his dad has a book to game-plan their development; LaVar says he's coming up with the stuff off the top of his head.

They work on the pullup bars built into the patio of their house. LaVar made his sons mix the cement and set the bars up as a way of showing them what life will be like if they don't work hard enough to make it into the NBA.

"Yeah, I cut my hands up," Gelo says. "It was like rocks."

The Ball brothers started lifting weights at 12, waiting until then, LaVar says, so as not to stress the growth plates and keep them from getting as tall as they can be. They worked out together on Christmas, as they do every year.

All my boys play a certain way, which is that they don't think the game. They just react. A reaction is a lot quicker than thinking. — LaVar Ball

It does seem to all be mapped out, their past, present and futures. But don't kids have dreams? Did the Ball brothers have to be basketball players?

"It's not like he's making me do this," Lonzo says. "I actually wanted to do this. My dream is to play in the NBA. [My mom and dad] are making this fun. For example, instead of saying we've got to run this hill, he'll make it like an Olympic thing for me and my brothers, you know?

"Like, say I get to the top first. Then I get to eat first that day or something. Just random stuff to make it fun and competitive. Keep your spirits up. We've never dreaded it like, 'Oh, we have to work out today.' We just keep having fun."

It shows.

Ball plays a million miles an hour, just the way LaVar teaches it. Just, LaVar says, the way he and his four brothers played. LaVar's idea has always been that when his boys are in the NBA, they'll be playing super-fast. So why teach them the way kids are taught today, to slow down and get things under control?

For the Ball brothers, basketball was always a mad scramble. LaVar put them against older kids, had them sprint up and down the court and get comfortable shooting from anywhere. Lonzo was the great passer, Gelo the muscle, and Melo can do it all. You know how little kids shoot the ball from their chest? Nope: The Ball brothers were taught to shoot from over their heads at the start, the way it's done in the NBA.

Ball dribbles past USC's Jonah Mathews on February 18, 2017, in Los Angeles.
Ball dribbles past USC's Jonah Mathews on February 18, 2017, in Los Angeles.(Getty Images)

"All my boys play a certain way, which is that they don't think the game," LaVar says. "They just react. A reaction is a lot quicker than thinking.

"I always give my ghetto analogy on this: If white people hear a sound [he claps], they say, 'Is that a window cracking or a firecracker?' When black folks hear this [he smacks his hands], they just take off running. We don't think, 'What the hell was that?' We just go."

Heading into the season, LaVar told B/R that "UCLA is going to win the national championship this year."

Last season, the Bruins had a losing record. This time, they have Lonzo.

LaVar also talks about putting his sons in football when they were younger. He says they ignored the called plays, and Lonzo kept throwing deep to his brothers for touchdown after touchdown. Everyone else was working on fundamentals. The Ball brothers were running up and down the field.

"My dad's a funny guy," Lonzo says. "People were coming up to me and saying, 'Are you embarrassed? Your dad said you're going to win the championship.' No, I'm not embarrassed. I know how he's going to act. I just go out there and play. Let him be him."


Basketball doesn't have to be a factory. It can be a family, a Ball game. That's one thing Ball's critics don't quite get. The Balls didn't send their kids to a basketball academy for high school. LaVar was afraid they would try to change the way his kids played, make them like everyone else. So they went to the local high school where LaVar could keep tabs and keep working.

Chino Hills' Lonzo Ball, center, shoots against San Ramon Valley during the boys' Division 1 CIF basketball championships on March 27, 2015.
Chino Hills' Lonzo Ball, center, shoots against San Ramon Valley during the boys' Division 1 CIF basketball championships on March 27, 2015.(AP)

Today, the accepted right way is to get your kids into a system, where everyone can be taught to dribble the same way, post up the same way, rebound the same way. If Lonzo would have been sent to a system, he wouldn't be where he is now. More importantly, he wouldn't be who he is. They would have coached the Ball out of him.

"Basketball was meant, the way it was originally taught, you advance the ball with the pass. Dribbling was not even an option," says Baik, the former Chino Hills coach. "With the pass, now you're talking about the touch, the timing. Creating opportunities. The pass can create chemistry, can create more unselfish play."

Lonzo's ability to see the court and pass is why his teammates gravitate to him. He has already transformed this year's UCLA team.

"They have the same players they had last year, other than TJ Leaf. And you're talking about a team that was 15-17 and struggling, and now they're extremely successful," Baik says. "Lonzo is potentially changing the game of basketball to how it was intended to be."

Sure, UCLA is a national title contender now. But also Chino Hills High has been revolutionized by the Ball brothers. It didn't lose a game last year behind Lonzo. And it has only lost twice this year behind Gelo and Melo.

LaMelo Ball looks for the open pass against Mater Dei High School on February 24, 2017.
LaMelo Ball looks for the open pass against Mater Dei High School on February 24, 2017.(Getty Images)

After LaVar talks—with his usual boom and bombast—Tina, who played college basketball and now is a high school physical education teacher, privately notes that her husband is not putting on an act. That's him. And as far as the Ball brothers being in the family business, she points out that basketball games and practices are actually a family gathering.

"We're really a basketball family," LaVar says. "With a name like Ball? Tina played basketball. You don't get these boys without having this setup. You can't have a wife who played violin. We're in the gym every Saturday and Sunday, and that's a family outing for us. My wife is not saying, 'Oh, we have to have another tournament this week?'

"She's making lunches and we're ready to go. It's an all-day thing. Afterward, we go to dinner and talk about it. It's a family outing, and it's fun."

There are worse things than dedicating your whole life to spending time with your family to give your kids the best opportunity possible.

He's got potential to be transformative. Here's a guy who's a pass-first guy, and it's really refreshing to play with him, wonderful. — An NBA Eastern Conference executive on Lonzo

You want rules and structure? Lonzo says his dad made sure the boys ate breakfast every day before they could leave the house.

"There would always be three things," Lonzo says. "My dad took care of that. Always some type of eggs, some type of bread and then pancakes or waffles or something. I know that everything my dad made me do made me better."


It's hard to know why certain athletes or performers send fans into a frenzy. It's something beyond skill. It's style and personality, too. It's individuality. Whatever it is, Ball has it.

"The naysayers have become fans," Baik says.

"We're having sellouts this year," UCLA coach Steve Alford says. "That hasn't happened in a while. … I don't know a person in the country who wouldn't want to play with Lonzo Ball, the joy that he plays with."

UCLA guard Isaac Hamilton says he knows that wherever he is on the court, Ball will always see him. Leaf says Ball is so much faster on the court than he looks on TV. Ball says he just wants to entertain fans.

Most people compare him with Jason Kidd, though LaVar says that's only because Lonzo is a light-skinned black player who passes well. And the Ball brothers' style is compared with the Golden State Warriors', though LaVar says the Warriors aren't fast enough for that.

"He's got potential to be transformative," says an NBA Eastern Conference executive. "Here's a guy who's a pass-first guy, and it's really refreshing to play with him, wonderful."

But what about that shot?

It's not perfect, but it's part of the package and better left alone. Just like the player himself.

 

Greg Couch is a national features writer and columnist at Bleacher Report. A former Chicago Sun-Times columnist, his work has appeared in The Best American Sportswriting and From Black Sox to Three-Peats: A Century of Chicago's Best Sportswriting. He currently holds the Lisagor Award as Chicago's best sports columnist. He also is the head tennis coach at Roosevelt University in Chicago. Follow him on Twitter: @gregcouch

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