LaVar Ball's Wikipedia page does not introduce him as a pundit, top NBA prospect Lonzo Ball's dad or even one of the best basketball players of all time—despite his claims to that title. Instead, he's described as a "retired American football player," recalling a two-year period in LaVar Ball's life that most, including his former teammates, have forgotten.
"I kept seeing his name in the news, and never once, until you reached out to me, did I think, 'That was my teammate,'" Damon Baldwin, team captain and center for the London Monarchs in 1995 (and now an offensive line coach at San Diego State University), tells B/R. Others from the World League of American Football team—where LaVar had his only documented playing time, returning two kicks for a less-than-optimal 28 yards—have a clearer recollection of what the pre-First Take Ball was like.
Ball's football career began at California's Canoga Park High School, where he was a "good quarterback," at least according to his basketball coach at West Los Angeles College, Charlie Sands (via Ray Ripton of the Los Angeles Times). After playing basketball for Washington State University and Cal State Los Angeles, Ball once again returned to the gridiron at Long Beach City College, where he made his debut at tight end. Apparently, he made enough of an impact to be invited to try out for the New York Jets, landing on the practice squad first on May 1, 1994, under Pete Carroll as a defensive end, and then on March 7, 1995, under Rich Kotite as a tight end.
"I remember a very confident guy and, yes, he voiced his opinion and was cocky, but overall seemed like a great guy," former Jets linebacker Marvin Jones told ESPN.com's Rich Cimini.
It's worth noting that Kotite went on to become one of the worst NFL coaches of all time, going 4-28 during his tenure with the Jets and creating an atmosphere so toxic that Ken Rose, a special teams coach during LaVar's stint with the Jets, declined to speak with Bleacher Report for this story on account of it being "a horrible time" in his life.
Luckily for LaVar, he quickly earned a reprieve in the form of being loaned out to the London Monarchs, where he was a backup tight end to Michael Titley.
"It was new to him, playing football and playing tight end," said Titley, now 48 and living in Houston. "I don't think he had played much in college. I think he was one of the first guys that they were doing that experiment with, trying to move a basketball player to tight end."
Ball "at the time could run like a deer" despite being a "real big guy," Titley said. "If he'd had a couple opportunities and some more time, I think he could have made something of himself football-wise."
Kenny McEntyre, a cornerback who spent three seasons with the Monarchs before going on to play for 14 years in the Arena Football League, saw Ball's football prospects differently.
"Man, he's talking all that junk—and he was garbage," McEntyre said. "Personally, I think the most athletic people in the world are basketball players, and he actually wasn't a bad athlete, to be honest with you. But he was no comparison to what his kids are—let's just put it like that."
Ball was dropped from the Jets practice squad on August 22, 1995, and then spent two months on the Carolina Panthers practice squad from September to November (no one remembers him there either, according to Scott Fowler of the Charlotte Observer). The thing that ultimately stood out to his former teammates, though, comes as no surprise.
"He is the same guy that he was many years ago; he used to run his mouth all the time," McEntyre said.
Added Titley: "LaVar was always the kind of guy who was a big talker, and when I say a big talker, I mean in good spirits—nothing mad or malicious. I can't say a bad thing about him. He was always just saying some off-the-wall stuff with a big smile on his face. Just trying to get people's attention, make you laugh.
"A lot of the stuff I'm reading and hearing about, I don't think he's really serious. I know he's not serious—he's not crazy. I think he's just a loving dad who's having fun with it all, to be honest with you."
Also unsurprising is the fact that the only people whose football abilities Ball is more impressed with ("I was a speed demon," Ball told Mitch Stephens of MaxPreps.com in an interview last year) are his sons.
"Everyone thought we were cheating," Ball told Stephens of his sons' flag football careers. "Lonzo was throwing touchdown passes left and right. Angelo and Melo catching TD passes left and right. People said they'd never seen anything like it." At the time, Lonzo was eight, LiAngelo was seven and LaMelo was five.
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Now, of course, Ball's long-forgotten football ambitions have been replaced by more entrepreneurial ones, including Big Baller Brand apparel—but his former teammates don't begrudge his success. "I'm not mad at him," said McEntyre. "I just hope his kids back up all this crap he's been talking."
"I'm happy for him, to be honest with you," Titley said. "I'll probably get a [Big Baller Brand] shirt and be supportive—why not? Usually they're asking, 'Who's better: Kobe or LeBron? LeBron or Jordan?' Now they're asking, 'Who's better: Jordan or LaVar?'"