Even Magic Johnson has compared the hype around Lonzo Ball to his own arrival in 1979.
No one in the 2017 NBA draft class has generated more attention and buzz than the Los Angeles Lakers rookie and “franchise savior.” His Summer League debut against the Los Angeles Clippers almost single-handedly painted the seats in UNLV’s Thomas and Mack Center purple and gold. During the two-week showcase, Ball’s every move—on and off the court—and every word were dissected and analyzed under the sometimes harsh and unforgiving glare of the spotlight.
Now his Saturday preseason debut against the Minnesota Timberwolves has sold out.
Comparing the hype of a potentially great, but still unproven, Laker to Johnson, arguably the greatest point guard and greatest Laker of all time, is too simple.
So let’s talk about LeBron James, a fresh-faced rookie enveloped in his own hype machine nearly 15 years ago.
When it comes to impact on his team, the NBA landscape and overall basketball culture, Ball is a force equal to if not greater than the favorite-player-turned-contemporary of Hollywood’s newest star.
In the 2002-03 NBA season, the Cleveland Cavaliers were a franchise steeped in disarray. A respectable 2-2 start to the season spiraled into a horrid 15-game losing streak and a midseason coaching change that didn’t make matters any better. They won only 17 games that season, tied for last place in the league with the Denver Nuggets.
Meanwhile at Akron, Ohio’s St. Vincent-St. Mary High School, LeBron James capped off his legendary high school basketball career by traveling around the country to play nationally ranked teams, including in a nationally televised game against the formidable Oak Hill Academy. James and the Fighting Irish were such a huge draw in the Akron area that Time Warner Cable offered the games to subscribers on pay-per-view.
As a junior at St. Vincent-St. Mary, James appeared on the cover of Slam and became the first high school underclassman to grace the cover of Sports Illustrated. The excitement James stirred in high school amid the backdrop of NBA futility in Northeast Ohio was like watching “beauty for ashes” developing in real time. Sure, the Cavs were consistently one of the worst teams in the league, but they were in prime position to nab he whom Sports Illustrated dubbed “The Chosen One.”
After Cleveland took James with the first pick in the storied 2003 NBA draft (Carmelo Anthony, Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade were also in the top five), the sports-crazed locals slathered their faces in the new wine-and-gold color scheme and hugged the block of then-Gund Arena with pro-James signs. They bought the jerseys. They clamored for tickets before James even stepped on the hardwood for the first time as a professional.
Likewise, before drafting Ball in June, the Lakers were a struggling franchise scrapping and clawing to return to Showtime glory on the court while weathering a family feud off it. Co-owner Jeanie Buss overhauled the Lakers’ front office, including naming Johnson president of team operations, in hopes of assembling a Lakers team that can break a four-year playoff drought and become relevant again.
Just like a young James, Lonzo Ball generated national hype in high school, at Chino Hills, where he and his brothers LiAngelo and LaMelo led the Huskies on a historic run to an undefeated season and a finish as the nation’s top-ranked high school team.
The hometown hero brought his hype to UCLA, where he revitalized the Bruins in his only season in Westwood. Powered by his prolific court vision and scoring, Ball nearly transformed UCLA into the No. 1 scoring offense in the country during the 2016-17 season.
In a 107-66 thrashing of Washington, his 22-point, six-rebound and five-assist line was enough to grab the attention of close to two dozen league execs. That was even before the bombastic claims of his father, LaVar Ball, crashed through the social media sports scene. We cringed and laughed at the elder Ball’s numerous claims, writing him off as either an extreme caricature of a stage dad or that drunk uncle who is always clowning at the family cookout. However, LaVar Ball’s grandiosity flipped into Lonzo becoming the second pick in the draft and the new face of Los Angeles.
In terms of immediate impact, Ball and James are similar. Their presence brought a sense of excitement and hope to long-suffering fanbases. Both were saddled with the expectation of becoming a transcendent talent responsible for the fate of a franchise. But that’s where the similarities end.
The preseason atmosphere surrounding The Chosen One had nothing on the experience that is the Big Baller Brand.
The gravity of social media and a hot-take, hyperbole-driven sports media are the difference. Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and Instagram weren’t around when James came into the league. In contrast, Ball is the quintessential multimedia athlete, and his father took full advantage of it.
Social media made the Ball family go viral.
The sports media used and are still using LaVar for ratings and clicks, but Father Ball used the sports media as well, promoting Lonzo and making him a solid brand in the process. Every audacious and outlandish thing LaVar said only kept his oldest son’s name in the mouths of the press and fans. The Balls leveraged that attention into a reality show on Facebook, overcrowded pop-up shops selling Big Baller Brand gear and a burgeoning rap career for Lonzo.
James may be The King now, but the rookie Ball has a valid claim to the media throne.
The Shoes. The Shoes. The Shoes!
Almost 15 years after signing with the swoosh, James is the face of Nike much like Michael Jordan was, and he is enjoying a lifetime deal.
Ball’s approach to shoes has been unusual—and gutsy. Instead of going for the traditional shoe deal, Lonzo and LaVar Ball pushed for a co-branding partnership with their Big Baller Brand and one of the “Big Three” shoe brands in Nike, Adidas and Under Armour. When the three brands balked, the Balls released their own shoe at an unheard of $495 price tag. Several celebrities, such as Jay-Z and The Game, spoke out in support and said they’d bought multiple pairs.
During Summer League, with the world watching, Ball played in his signature Big Baller Brand shoes, plus a much-discussed rotation of Big-Three brand kicks in hopes of stirring up a bidding war for a shoe deal.
No big shoe deal has emerged yet, but Ball recently unveiled a “remix” version of his ZO2 Prime shoes and a rap single.
James does have this on the brand-new Laker, though: He has lived up to the hype. Four MVPs. Three championship rings. A legit argument for the title of GOAT.
Hard to ball much bigger than that.