NBA Rookies Don't Love Lonzo Ball's Shoes, but They Love the Idea Behind Them

Brandon SneedWriter-at-Large, B/R MagMay 16, 2017

UCLA guard Lonzo Ball warms up before an NCAA college basketball game in Pullman, Wash., Wednesday, Feb. 1, 2017. (AP Photo/Young Kwak)
Young Kwak/Associated Press

You might have heard Lonzo Ball has a signature shoe—the ZO2.

The former UCLA star point guard and projected top-two pick in the upcoming NBA draft made the announcement by way of music video a couple weeks ago.

The news caught center Ike Anigbogu, Ball's teammate at UCLA who declared for the draft in April, by surprise.

"I knew he had his own shoe coming, but I didn't know when it was gonna drop," Anigbogu says. "So that [video] came out, and I was, like, 'Oh, shoot! That's real!'"

Also real are the opinions that have greeted the shoe, as B/R found when we visited the NBA Draft Combine in Chicago last week and polled about a dozen rookies-to-be on their way through the media gauntlet at Quest Multisport.

The ZO2s are black low-tops with echoes of Kobe, complete some purple trim and yellow accents. They make Ball, at 19, the first kid to ever have a signature shoe before the draft.

They don't come from Nike, Under Armour, or Adidas, all of which—you also might have heard—declined to offer Ball an endorsement deal after his father, LaVar Ball, insisted that as part of any such deal the companies license the Ball family's Big Baller Brand, according to a report from ESPN's Darren Rovell.

That was just the latest of many things the elder Ball has said over the past couple months, during which he has declared that he could beat Michael Jordan one-on-one, and that UCLA lost in the Sweet Sixteen this year because it was playing too many white guys.

So the Balls released the shoe under their own BBB label.

Reactions have been, to put it kindly, mixed.

"Definitely not a good shoe," Maryland guard Melo Trimble said bluntly before trying to soften his critique when he quickly added, "I mean, not a shoe that I like."

On the flip side, Anigbogu said he'd definitely wear them.

But he's about the only one. For most of the other rooks, the only way they'd wear the shoe is "if it was free, maybe," said Frank Mason III, the Kansas guard who edged Ball for the Wooden Player of the Year award.

Mason wouldn't say whether he liked the way the shoe looked. "I just know it's expensive, man," he said. "That's all I know."

That—by far—seemed to be the most remarkable thing about the ZO2, which retails for $495. Want them autographed? That's $995. Need a size larger than 13? That's a $200 surcharge, meaning, yes, $695 unsigned—and $1,195 signed.

Meanwhile, the Nike LeBron 14 goes for around $175.

"I texted [Lonzo] right after I seen it," said Andrew Jones, a guard out of Texas. "I was like, '$495 for some shoes, man? C'mon.'"

He says Ball just laughed at that.

If the shoes weren't so expensive, some of the guys might try them out.

"The shoe isn't just like, horrible," said former Xavier guard Edmond Sumner. "It's better than some sneakers are right now."

Others hadn't even seen them yet, like South Carolina guard P.J. Dozier, who said he had been busy getting ready for the combine, living life, all that. Dozier did say he had "heard a lot about it." When someone pulled up a picture on a phone for him, he said, "Oh yeah, that's not bad."

But all those with whom we spoke agreed with Duke guard Frank Jackson, who said: "I don't think any basketball shoe is worth that much. So I don't know what they're trying to do there."

Duke's Frank Jackson said that while he wasn't enamored with Lonzo Ball's signature shoe, he acknowledged they were impossible to overlook.
Duke's Frank Jackson said that while he wasn't enamored with Lonzo Ball's signature shoe, he acknowledged they were impossible to overlook.Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

Jackson smiled, like he'd remembered something obvious, then added, "They got our attention again."

And there's the wrinkle here, as Jackson pointed out, "A lot of people kind of hate on [Lonzo], but I think it's cool what he's doing." He chuckled then shook his head. "To have your own shoes at 19 years old? I mean, that's like every kid's dream."

Most of the players at the combine politely avoided specific questions about LaVar's antics.

"Everything is different from France," French center Jonathan Jeanne said diplomatically. But when it comes to what BBB meant for Lonzo, they approved.

"Starting his own brand? You gotta respect that," Sumner said.

Even Trimble, no fan of the ZO2s, said, "I'm happy for Lonzo. He got his own shoe already. If I had my own shoe, I'd be hype as well."

As for the people whose opinions matter most regarding Lonzo's NBA future—coaches, scouts, general managers who flock around the courts at the combine by the dozens—most said they couldn't comment on players in the draft and/or they had no opinion. (On the record, anyway.)

But Phoenix Suns coach Earl Watson said with a grin: "Everyone has an opinion on that."

Watson knows the Ball family a bit. Like Lonzo, Watson played for UCLA, and he knows Lonzo's two younger brothers, LiAngelo and LaMelo, through travel ball. He carefully avoided parsing LaVar's recent proclamations—"The man has a right to his opinion"—and he made plain his respect for what the Ball family has accomplished so far.

"I think the Ball family is very aware of something different," Watson said.

Indeed, it is. Most college stars make their names as AAU stars playing for teams funded by sponsorship deals with major shoe companies. It's become the de facto means by which to become a legitimate prospect in the United States. Not Lonzo, though.

Suns coach, and Ball family acquaintance, Earl Watson appreciates how Lonzo and his family have crafted his career without a lot of help from large shoe companies.
Suns coach, and Ball family acquaintance, Earl Watson appreciates how Lonzo and his family have crafted his career without a lot of help from large shoe companies.Tony Dejak/Associated Press

"Lonzo might be the most highly ranked player coming out of high school who never played for a shoe company team," Watson said. "Never played the Under Armour circuit, never played Adidas, never played Nike. They've always done their own thing, and they stick together as a family."

Watson, who said he also has an AAU team sponsored by a major shoe company, went on: "That's unheard of. … He's proved coming out of high school, that if you're good—basketball is so big now—somebody's gonna find you."

Watson held up his iPhone. "It changed everything."

Many of the rookies agree. The internet and social media, via their smart phones, are only just beginning to show them what's possible. Viral internet fame carries just as much weight among the BBB generation as SportsCenter's Top 10 did just a decade ago.

In a way, the internet is democratizing stardom.

It is how Lonzo dropped the video for the ZO2s—over a million views and counting—and how that same week, he also dropped a remix to Drake's "Free Smoke" track, rapping as ZO2 with DC The Don. Rookies who'd heard the rap all felt about the same as Oregon guard Dillon Brooks, who said, "Oh yeah, his rap's cold."

"The internet nowadays, you put something on there, and it's gonna blow up," Dozier said.

In other words, BBB and the path it has carved for Lonzo might not just be an anomaly, but rather the first iteration of a new way for all ballers to do things.

Of course, big companies aren't going anywhere, at least not soon. Trimble echoed many in saying that, yes, he wanted his own shoe, too, but with a caveat.

"I'd rather be under a company, like Under Armour or Nike," he said.

And of course, traditional ways of blowing up still work, too. That's how Dozier made people hear his name right after his interview: He played his heart out during a combine scrimmage and was part of a beautiful alley-oop that then made SportsCenter's Top 10.

Whatever opinion people have of the shoe, the price or the promotion, everyone's keeping an eye—or at least the corner of an eye—on Lonzo and BBB.

"We have to see how it unfolds," Watson said. "It's too early to judge. To be the first to do it—it's not going to be perfect. But I think they could be onto something major."

To be clear—something major with the way they're doing things.

What about the shoe, though?

Watson knows shoes. He played in the NBA for 13 years. Now just 37, he's one of the youngest coaches in the league. He still hoops when he can.

So what about the ZO2s? Put aside the hype, the price tag, all that other Big Baller noise—would he run with them?

He grinned. "I'd have to see 'em in person," he said. "You gotta wear the shoe before you can like the shoe, right?"

   

Brandon Sneed is a writer-at-large for B/R Mag and the author of Head In The Game: The Mental Engineering of the World's Greatest Athletes (out now from Dey Street). His writing has also appeared in OutsideESPN The Magazine, SB Nation Longform and more. He has received mention in The Best American Sports Writing. His website is brandonsneed.com. Follow him on Twitter: @brandonsneed.