LaVar Ball's College Coach on Whether Ball Could Beat Jordan: 'He Said What?'

David Gardner@@byDavidGardnerStaff WriterMarch 17, 2017

TORRANCE, CA - MARCH 14:  Lavar Ball is seen at the game between Chino Hills High School and Bishop Montgomery High School at El Camino College on March 14, 2017 in Torrance, California.  (Photo by Josh Lefkowitz/Getty Images)
Josh Lefkowitz/Getty Images

David Sanders unearthed the DVD and popped it into the player on Tuesday evening. Earlier that day, he received a surprise visit from a Seattle Times reporter asking about a former teammate. His 16-year-old daughter and 12-year-old son sat down with him, and they watched as his Washington State Cougars took on Bobby Knight's Indiana Hoosiers in Assembly Hall on Dec. 12, 1987.

Sanders, who averaged 12.9 points a game that season, pointed to a player pulling down a rebound and asked his children a question.

"Do you think that guy could have beaten Michael Jordan one-on-one?" 

The player, of course, was LaVar Ball, who recently told USA Today's Josh Peters that in his heyday, he could have killed Jordan in one-on-one. Although he's better known now as the boisterous father of some of the best young players in America—Lonzo is a starting guard for UCLA and a projected top-five pick in this June's NBA draft; LiAngelo is a 3-star 2017 UCLA commit; LaMelo is a 5-star 2019 UCLA commit—he was just a backup at Washington State.

Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press

Ball's only season was Kelvin Sampson's first as the Cougars' head coach; he served as an assistant for the two seasons prior. That year, Sampson remembers scrambling to put together a roster that could compete in a tough Pac-10 Conference.

"When we took over the program, we were devoid of bigs," Sampson said. "Washington State was a tough recruiting spot. But my plan was to get as many tough, hard-nosed overachievers as we could. We saw LaVar, and I just said he's the kind of kid we can start with."

Sampson was just 32 years old at the time, and he felt his proximity in age to his players gave him a special bond with them. He believes Ball acted around him the way he did around his teammates—and Ball was a character, even then.

"He was a personality, but in a good way," Sampson said. "Those were tough days for Washington State, but LaVar was someone that was always fun to be around. Everyone on the team enjoyed him."

Sanders, the team's second-leading scorer, suggests Ball was a necessary balance for an otherwise serious squad.

"There were a lot of melancholy existentialists on the team," Sanders said. "LaVar was more of a free spirit, as you can probably imagine now. His personality outshined and overwhelmed his basketball ability, but it was life-giving in the locker room."

TORRANCE, CA - MARCH 14:  Lavar Ball is seen at the game between Chino Hills High School and Bishop Montgomery High School at El Camino College on March 14, 2017 in Torrance, California.  (Photo by Josh Lefkowitz/Getty Images)
Josh Lefkowitz/Getty Images

He also provided the lowly team with some outsized confidence. Before that game against powerhouse Indiana, Sanders remembers Ball telling his teammates that the Hoosiers weren't ready for them. The Cougars kept the game surprisingly close before eventually losing by seven.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, given that he's a personal trainer now, Ball was in terrific shape in Pullman. Sanders jokes that Ball's body fat was 2 percent, and Todd Anderson, the fourth-leading scorer on that '88 squad, said Ball was "built like a house." At the time, though, Sampson ran a plodding and methodical offense that wasn't a great fit for Ball's skills. Ball abruptly left the team after his lone season.

"He was kind of one-and-done," Anderson said. "But not in the good way."

When Ball transferred to Division II Cal State-Los Angeles, he led the Golden Eagles in scoring (15.8 points per game) and rebounding (8.9 rebounds) and was selected as first-team All-CCAA. His head coach at Cal State, Henry Dyer, even compared him and a fellow frontcourt player, Bruce Turner, to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Magic Johnson, respectively.

"I always thought he could play," Sampson said. "Sometimes players just take a little while to develop. Obviously, though, if I'd known he would have had those three boys, I would have started him right away and played him 40 minutes."

LOS ANGELES, CA - JANUARY 25:  LaVar Ball, father of Lonzo Ball #2 of the UCLA Bruins, watches the game against the USC Trojans at Galen Center on January 25, 2017 in Los Angeles, California.  (Photo by Jayne Kamin-Oncea/Getty Images)
Jayne Kamin-Oncea/Getty Images

But what about Ball's claim that he could have taken down the greatest player ever?

"He said what?" Sampson said, hearing the quote for the first time. "I have no reaction to that. That's not worth reacting to."

"Him beating Michael Jordan?" Anderson said. "I'd like to see that. I really don't think that would have been the case. I think he's been watching the Kardashians a little bit too much."

"It's laughable," said Brian Quinnett, Washington State's leading scorer from the 1987-88 season, to TMZ on Tuesday. "The stats speak for themselves."

When Sanders asked his daughter that question, she replied, "Do you think he really means it?"

"I just told her and my son, I'm not sure," Sanders said. "But I can't wait to watch UCLA in the NCAA tournament now."

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