Whenever you mention LaVar Ball, you're sure to get a reaction. He is polarizing, and that is by design.
Ball is a black entrepreneur trying to take on a system that some believe exploits the labor of student-athletes. People take issue not so much with his mission, but his methodology. Take, for example, removing his sons LaMelo and LiAngelo from Chino Hills High School and UCLA, respectively, to pursue an international basketball career with BC Prienai in Lithuania—and then pulling them from that with two games remaining.
"You can take your boys out of school when you've got a brand. When you've got a brand, you can do what you want, and that's us. We can leave anytime we want. My boys are going to be fine," Ball told Power 105.1's The Breakfast Club.
Some might ask what kind of father would do that, but if you watch the Balls' Facebook reality show, Ball in the Family, you see that while LaVar is indeed many things, he is also a caring father and husband.
He carefully controlled Lonzo Ball's image while bucking NCAA rules about players profiting off their own likenesses when Lonzo wore Big Baller Brand socks before practice at Pauley Pavilion, home of the UCLA men's basketball team.
"It's going to start a ripple effect. They're going to have to wake up. I'm the perfect person to do this. Lonzo is so good, and he can't say, 'OK, go get your Big Baller merch,'" LaVar told Nathan Fenno of the Los Angeles Times when Lonzo was still at UCLA. "... He doesn't have to say none of that. He can just wear it."
LaVar didn't want Lonzo to sign with a big shoe company only to garner a small percentage of the profits, so he created the ZO2 kicks. And in trying to start his own NBA minor league, he promoted the idea that you don't need to attend an NCAA school to get drafted.
By taking his kids out of school, he controlled the narrative and set a blueprint, however rough it may be, for those after him to possibly follow.
In challenging the system, there have been mixed results. The Big Baller Brand netted an F rating from the Better Business Bureau amid a sea of complaints from folks who ordered their expensive shoes but never received them. BBB has also sold shirts with LaVar's infamous "Stay In Yo Lane" quote directed at Fox Sports reporter Kristine Leahy, which many criticized as seeming misogynistic. But the company's pop-up shop in NYC also garnered long lines and massive crowds wanting to purchase the gear and see the Big Baller in person.
Jay-Z gave the brand his blessing.
"He may go about things wrong, he may have a big mouth ... but I bought three pairs. ... That man has a vision of his own," he said on Tidal's Rap Radar podcast.
Even if Ball's efforts may sometimes seem haphazard and his boasts off-putting, he has shed light on the significance of personal branding for athletes early in their careers without help from major brands, the importance of ownership and all that comes with speaking truth to power.
And when the next person comes along to perfect that mission, LaVar will surely open his mouth to remind us all of the pivotal role he played in helping accomplish that. He wouldn't be wrong.
Michael Arceneaux is the author of the book I Can't Date Jesus from 37 Ink/Atria Books. Additionally, he has written for the New York Times, the Washington Post, Esquire, Essence, Into, Complex, among others. Follow him on Twitter: @youngsinick.
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