What Are LiAngelo and LaMelo Ball Getting Themselves into in Lithuania?

David Pick@@IAmDPickInternational Hoops InsiderDecember 13, 2017

CHINO, CA - SEPTEMBER 02:  (L-R) Lonzo Ball, LaMelo Ball, LiAngelo Ball and LaVar Ball attend Melo Ball's 16th Birthday on September 2, 2017 in Chino, California.  (Photo by Joshua Blanchard/Getty Images for Crosswalk Productions )
Joshua Blanchard/Getty Images

Prienai, Lithuania, is a far cry from Chino Hills, California. But for LaVar Ball and his sons, LiAngelo and LaMelo, ball is life, or, well, business.

Former American players say the rural Lithuanian town where the two teens have signed to play is like living on a farm. No restaurants, no malls, but hey, no traffic congestion. Players stay at the Royal SPA Residence in Birstonas, 10 minutes from the arena.

"You can count on one hand the amount of street lights in that city," said veteran American pro player Billy Baron, who spent his rookie season in Europe at Rytas Vilnius for the man who will be the Ball brothers' new coach, Virginijus Seskus. "There is nothing to do in that place. It's the ultimate life of going to practice and back to the hotel."

In Lithuania, little will seem familiar to the Ball brothers, but their new patriarch might resemble someone familiar. Seskus, also the unofficial general manager of the Balls' new team, Prienai Vytautas, has almost free rein to run the club as he sees fit. He took the club from the Lithuanian minor league to the major domestic league, the LKL, and "he's like a God out there," according to one prominent European agent.

Seskus sports an unpredictable temper, according to his former players. He ditches practices early, sometimes has his teams play soccer instead of training and has pulled his players off the court mid-game, a tactic LaVar Ball used in an AAU game over the summer.

"Virginijus Seskus is crazy," said one of his former players, Mike Moser, a one-time All-American honorable mention at UNLV who spent a season with Seskus in Vilnius. "I'm trying to erase that year from my memory. I've been around the world—Lithuania, Israel, Kosovo, Italy and Qatar—I had good coaches; he wasn't one of them. I don't care if you're a rookie or a vet, he's hard to play for.

"He used to get so mad and kick balls in practice. He was always yelling and cursing for no reason, even at the locals. If he coaches the same, those boys LiAngelo and LaMelo will be home within a month."

Baron, a recent gold medalist for Jeff Van Gundy and Team USA at the FIBA Americup, recalled: "We'd come out to the parking lot after practices, and Coach was there selling meat to players out of the trunk of his car. Some players actually bought that stuff from him."

The language barrier could make life even more complicated for the Balls if their experience is similar to that of former Americans who have played for Seskus. He doesn't speak English, and his former players noted he doesn't make any attempts.

The club's sports director, Adomas Kubilius, is not concerned.

"The assistant coach and the other players will help him," Kubilius told Lithuanian basketball writer Donatas Urbonas.

After talking to more than a dozen people who have come in contact with the club, an even more troubling picture of the team takes shape. It's been behind on multiple checks and salaries to agents and players both this season and many before.

This past offseason, former Vanderbilt guard Bradley Tinsley became Vytautas' first American signing in over a decade, but he was out a month into the season after averaging just 7.1 points and 2.1 assists per game in the LKL. When reached by B/R for comment about the coach and club, Tinsley declined because he is still owed money from the team and doesn't want to say anything that could jeopardize that.

Money issues may not be a concern for the Balls, say sources, who believe the brothers signed for free, without earning players' salaries.

The Balls will be the lone Americans on the team, but they aren't expected to play in the LKL.

"We will have to see about the LKL and whether they are good enough to play in that league," Kubilius said.

Indeed, Seskus told B/R through a translator, "I never saw them play. Didn't watch videos." Rather, Harrison Gaines, the Balls' representative, submitted terms of guaranteed minutes and an automatic car without gears. The deal, signed through June, includes a mutual out clause in February, one month after the Balls' arrival, should either side feel necessary to end the partnership.

Kubilius made clear that signing the Balls has less to do with basketball than marketing. Kubilius hopes to sell jersey advertisements for €50,000.

"That is one of our goals," he told the league site.

Teammates also see "off-court" opportunities with the arrival of the Balls. Tomas Dimsa, a 6'6" forward, is auctioning off his season membership to games on his Facebook page. His 6'8" teammate in the frontcourt, Justas Sinica, responded to the post, saying the auction begins Dec. 31 at €1,000 per game. ("It's now worth €10,000," said an agent who has a client on that team.)

David Pick

David Pick

While the NBA is a long, improbable road for someone hooping in Lithuania, the country does have a rich history of developing talent for the NBA. Several former NBA players of Lithuanian origin have made the jump: recent Knicks forward Mindaugas Kuzminskas, Houston/New Orleans forward Donatas Motiejunas, Sarunas Jasikevicius, Linas Kleiza, European legend Arvydas Sabonis and son Domantas Sabonis, currently with the Indiana Pacers. But only two players have made the jump directly from the LKL to the NBA: Jonas Valanciunas, who was drafted from Rytas Vilnius to Toronto in 2011 (though he didn't arrive until 2012 after he was stashed for a season), and Zydrunas Ilgauskas from Atletas Kaunas to Cleveland in 1996.

But the NBA is not where the Balls are headed right now. What awaits them in Lithuania is an experience somewhat similar to a college atmosphere, assuming they live among their teammates. At their residence, players each have their own "junior apartments" that are provided free of charge thanks to a partnership agreement between the team and the resort.  Meals aren't free, however. Breakfast costs €5, while lunch and dinner are €8.

And winning over their teammates may not be as easy as walking into the locker room with a famous name.

"It's going to be a different type of basketball with the Balls," Vytautas' top scorer, Eigirdas Zukauskas, told B/R. "For us, it's more than a game, so it doesn't matter if we signed the Balls or LeBron James. Maybe I'll change my mind once I see them, but at the moment, I'm not really thinking about them. I saw LaMelo's videos, but I haven't seen him playing against men. He will get an opportunity here to show us his worth."

Players aren't unaware of why the Balls are on the way.

"Signing them is a publicity stunt for sure, and it's working," Baron said. "The Balls are on SportsCenter, but I'm here laughing because I know exactly what's waiting for them on the other side. When LaMelo gets hit with one of those screens, he might not be able to stand up. Those guys are bangers, Lithuanians play like it's a UFC match. ... If Vegas put a line on the Balls' over-under in Lithuania, I think they'd break it off after a month. Maybe it does work, I'm not hating on the kids, but the odds are stacked against them."

     

All quotes were obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted.    

David Pick is a veteran pro basketball reporter covering overseas hoops and American players abroad since 2010. Follow him on Twitter: @IAmDPick.

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