Okay full disclosure, I am about as big of a Lakers homer fan as it gets. I boo hoo cried when Kobe retired. I defended the team signing this thing with these stats to a 64 million dollar contract, crippling our cap space and flexibility, because I thought we were 12 steps ahead of the league or some bullshit (we weren't). Point is, I have somewhat of a biased lens coming into this, but as always, I'll try and remain as objective as possible. As an act of good faith, I'll prove it with one statement: Lebron James will go down as a better player than Kobe Bryant when it's all said and done. Gross. Stef If you're reading this I'm sorry :(.
Before you click away because you're not interested into basketball or sports, let me stop you real quick, this isn't a post about basketball. I mean sure it'll revolve around the game, but this has more to do with something a little more universal: branding. Whether you know it or not, branding is one of the most crucial components to anything you enjoy or appreciate in popular culture. An aware brand knows exactly what it is and what it isn't, and will do everything it possibly can to make you understand and appreciate its perspective and brand identity. Brands can range from faceless entities, like clothing line Supreme, to singular individuals and who they are as a whole, like the Kardashians (we'll get to them later). A good brand will toe the line perfectly between manufactured and authentic: controlled meticulously and carefully on the back end to make sure the identity stays true to its core, but on the front end displaying a personality or vibe that's unique and genuine to the brand itself. They're not trying to be something they're not, and they certainly aren't trying to emulate other successful brands 1 to 1.
Where is this all leading to? Well, the Lakers last week drafted one of the most talked about players coming out of college in a good while, Lonzo Ball from UCLA. Now don't get me or the entire Lakers fanbase wrong, Lonzo has the talent to back up all this talk surrounding him. Without getting too deep into it, I have not seen a basketball player like him, who focuses on unselfish team ball the way he does, come out of college in my brief, but extensive time paying attention to the NBA draft. But what makes Lonzo's case so interesting is why he's truly getting all of this heavy media attention: his father Lavar.
Lavar Ball has been easily one of the most polarizing figures in sports to come out of the last decade. Think NBA caliber soccer mom. And not just that he's a soccer mom that has a kid in the NBA, but as far as soccer moms go, he's round one pick one of the professional soccer mom draft. Here's a clip of him on ESPN's first take where you can get an extremely good impression of what exactly he's been doing and what he's about.
Now you might be thinking to yourself, "who the fuck is this guy, and where the frick does he get off?" and you'd be kinda right to think so. You, me, and Stephan A. all know very well there's no way Lavar's beating Michael Jordan one on one. But here's the key: Lavar truly believes so. And this is an important distinction in any brand. You have to really believe in everything you're advertising yourself as or it will not work. People will see right through it.
A little backstory on the Ball family. Lavar was a semi-pro football player that could never quite hit that big success in the NFL. As far as basketball goes, he averaged roughly 3 points per game in college. He himself never quite had it on the professional end. But Lavar had a dream damnit. He moved to Chino Hills, California where he started his family, or should I say empire. He had three sons, Lonzo, LiAngelo, and LaMelo. According to Lavar, after the birth of LaMelo, he decided he was going to have his kids play professional basketball. So, he set up a very scrappy operation out of his house where he would train his kids extensively to play very good ball. Lavar's operation grew so much that he began coaching and training all the boys interested in basketball in Chino Hills, and even coaches his own AAU (Amateur Athletic Union) team. He's been doing this a while, and he's clearly had his mindset very resolute to this.
Now did you see that shirt with the 3 B's Lavar was wearing in the clip? That is his Big Baller Brand that he started jointly with his kids. It is the brand he wants the world to associate with himself and his boys. If you go on https://bigballerbrand.com/, you can see there are a plethora of SKU's to choose from, all with that BBB logo on them. $50 for what is most likely $3 wholesale Gilden shirt. He even announced that he and his son Lonzo passed on endorsements from Nike and Adidas, because Lavar wanted Lonzo to have a shoe deal out of college, something that's never happened before. In turn, the ZO2 was announced, a shoe, as Lavar claims, designed 100% from the mind of his 19-year-old son (oh and a team of designers or something). What's even more flabbergasting is that they are charging $495 for it. In comparison, a shoe from Kyrie Irving, an established NBA star/champion, is around $120 on the Nike website. Lavar explained the reasoning behind it was that he wanted to hit a price point between the $100-$200 dollar shoe market, and the $700+ luxury shoe market (Gucci for example). Now if that doesn't make any sense, don't worry cuz at face value it really doesn't. But it was the Tweet Lavar made that sealed the deal with this shoe: "If you can't afford the ZO2s, you are NOT a BIG BALLER (moneybags emoji)." (spoiler alert: it get's people talking).
I know what you're thinking, how in the hell is this man a redeemable individual, let alone a genius? If you look at Lavar case by case, it's really easy to come to that conclusion. Hell, I myself remember hating on him, truly believing he was costing his son a lot of money, as well as putting a huge target on his back, all for this attention. But when you look at the Ball story as a whole, as a collective, you'll see this isn't a mindless, shallow attempt to become famous. Let's look at Lonzo first.
We have to assume that this has been who Lavar is Lonzo's entire life. I personally do not believe anything about his father's behavior stunningly changed just because of this exposure, he couldn't have just conjured up all this personality over the course of a few months. So Lonzo has been putting up with his father's antics for let's assume the past 19 years. His game is not only immaculate, but it is completely unfazed by his father's words. Lavar boasts about his son everywhere on very prolific shows, and Lonzo's play does not seem compromised for it. I mean you can ask anyone, this kid turned around very poor UCLA program almost single-handedly. That's the biggest thing I think people struggle with; Lavar practically backs up his talk. And it's a safe, although not certain, bet that nothing about that will change at the next level.
But let's also look at Lonzo as an individual. From interviews and social media, you can see he's a very poised and well-spoken person who clearly doesn't have much of an ego (his style of play speaks for itself). He also allegedly kept a 4.0 GPA during his time at UCLA (although I don't know if that's saying much that scrub school heh heh). Having your father as such an integral part of your life like this, and still being able to be the kind of person Lonzo is is no accident. I truly believe Lavar raised his boys to be very respectable young men. He cares about the Big Baller Brand, but what is this brand at its core other than an over appreciation of his kids? Are we really going to hate on someone for loving his boys too much? Even if it tiptoes into exploiting their talents for attention on himself, I really think that is necessary to maintain the brand he has been building. I'll leave it at this: when Lakers GM Rob Pelinka went to go visit the Ball household for a pre-draft evaluation, he noted that Lavar at 8 am was training around 20 kids whom he knew all by name, and cooked them all breakfast afterward. All while juggling the media and his son transitioning into the NBA. He has also been credited with providing the boys of Chino Hills an opportunity to gain scholarships for colleges that they probably wouldn't have had in the first place. This isn't a greedy money chasing one track mind father with no regards for his children, a la Joe Jackson This is a man who cares.
I want to touch on the Big Baller Brand itself, purely as a brand. I thought it was pretty cut and paste at first, seeming like a pretty decent but still amateur attempt at including the whole story in the name/logo. I saw what Lavar was going for, but I wasn't sold on his execution yet. When the shoe dropped I thought he was costing his son millions of dollars for his stupid reasons, and everyone was ripping on them on the social media. It wasn't until the aforementioned tweet when it clicked to me: He gets in people's heads, he gets people talking, and he embraces the meme. "You're not a big baller" has been an inside joke/meme on /r/NBA, the leading forum for NBA talk on the internet in my opinion, for months now. People have been using it as responses to anything negative or even positive happening in the news. "Lebron James loses 5th finals" "I guess he wasn't a big baller."
You get the idea. He KNEW people would be quoting that like some Rick & Morty Mr. Meeseeks Bulshit, where everyone just says it in response to everything. He fucking knew. Levar also exclusively wears BBB merch. So when he's everywhere on TV so is that logo.
So now we get to the NBA draft, the night I believe the culmination of Lavar's work came truly to a head. First of all, he wore a BBB tie, which was classic. But it was the responses he gave after Lonzo was drafted to the Lakers, a moment where the entire basketball world was watching, where he was wearing a Lakers-themed BBB hat. Not only did he claim that he made the hat before Lonzo was born, He also boldly predicted that the Lakers will be in the playoffs next year, in large part thanks to his son. But the biggest kicker was five minutes BEFORE he was even drafted, Lonzo under the table changed his shoes into a Lakers-themed pair of ZO2 shoes (the Showtime edition lol), which was announced later that night for pre-order on the BBB website. Like guys, there was a chance he could have ended up somewhere else. That's ballsy (no low hanging fruit pun intended). The whole operation is ballsy, everything had to go Lavar's way for this to work. And it is. He believed in everything he said, remained unwavered by what people thought, and the result elevated his entire brand to unimaginable new heights. People are talking about the shoes like no other now. Whether or not folks bought them initially, I have a good feeling fans will grow to want them. I can't stress this enough, by sticking to what he believed in Lavar is now beginning to erode the preconceived notions and apprehensions towards him and his family.
What inspired me to write this in the first place was Lavar's appearance on WWE last Monday night. Because of it, I've decided that I will now be an open and vocal Lavar Ball supporter. Watch this clip and see for yourself.
Not only is Lavar perfect for this setting, he truly, truly, handled the performance perfectly. Like for real, talk about an elite embrace of meme. That's the authentic part of a brand that gets people behind it, the self-aware aspect, the knowing exactly who you are and are not and playing to those strengths. Not only did this provide a platform for Lavar to demonstrate to a new audience the kind of person he is, but I also think the Ball family gave great value to WWE, making it talked about for the first time in a very long time in the mainstream public (I understand its popularity is vast in the country, but it never garners any media attention these days). And notice all the BBB mannequins in the back with merch? Like fucking brilliant, the exposure is not squandered one bit. Bravo Lavar, you won.
Whether or not it's talked about positively or negatively, if a brand is talked about at all it's a good thing, at least initially. The value comes from the volume of buzz behind the brand, rather than the quality of what's said. You have plenty of time to convince them otherwise, you need that platform and clout in the first place to accomplish any of your goals. Look at the Kardashians, look at how long they've stayed relevant, probably the most influential family of the past 10 years, selling god knows how many products, all while still being shat on by the greater public. That's a lot in part thanks to Kris Kardashian, the matriarch (COUGH COUGH COUGH) and head business woman of the Kardashian family. Look at Kanye West, another polarizing figure in his space who says some of the most outlandish and egocentric things about himself and his vision. Despite the seething hate he gets from many, he is not only one of the most influential rappers of our time, but he is also the literal center of culture for the hip hop and street wear (ie supreme, Anti Social Social Club) game. And that's not an exaggeration, it is said that anything hip hop or fashion related doesn't become truly real until it passes through Kanye West (See Chance the Rapper, Cactus Plant Flea Market, Travis Scott, Yeezys, Lil Yachty etc.). He practically dictates the sound of Rap and the look of fashion. Ye backs up his brash talk, and yes he too is a genius.
And not gonna lie, after the WWE performance last night, I highkey want to buy a BBB shirt for 50 American dollars. I respect the hell out of what Lavar is doing. I want to support all of his hard work that he's been dead set on since day 1. Like if I catch anyone in the street wearing a BBB shirt, that's an instant high five from me :). And I'm also willing to go down with the Lavar ship too, were he to do anything that would destroy his reputation, I won't back peddle on any of accomplishments so far. Lavar and the Balls are forwarding the culture of basketball and sports in general. For him to emerge in 2017 (which as you may or may not know is the year of weird) is a beautiful and fitting thing. For Lonzo, his first born, to be on the Lakers is even more perfect, I can't think of a team or city that would do a better job at tolerating his antics while keeping the focus on winning basketball games. If you aren't on the Lavar Ball train yet, I cordially invite you to join, it's not as dusty as people would have you believe. It's truly an oil well of entertainment and it's barely been tapped. This is just the beginning. All aboard cucks.