LaVar Ball Is Just Another Guy in the Herd
As a former agent and team executive, I have no problem with LaVar Ball . . . yet.
There, I said it.
The reality of the business of sports is that there are hundreds, if not thousands, of LaVar Balls out there, of all shapes, sizes, gender, race and age. The difference is that LaVar is more vocal (although some are just as loud) and more public (although most would love to have his forum). As anyone who has worked as a sports agent or for a sports team knows, it is simply part of the job to deal with the LaVar Balls of the world, an occupational hazard that can be challenging yet also rewarding.
Leading the Herd
I learned long ago, when representing NFL and NBA players, that when an agent represents a client he takes on a lot more than him or her (I represented WNBA players as well). Behind, or in some cases in front of the player, come various versions of what I refer to as the “herd.”
This herd, which I also have referred to as the “whisper crew,” consists of but is not limited to: parents, siblings, cousins, advisors, wives, girlfriends (sometimes wives and girlfriends), high school or AAU coaches and assorted friends and associates from the player’s childhood, college or more recent times. I have seen the good, the bad and the ugly of the herd. My frustration, even to this day, is seeing them being more concerned with their best interests than those of the player.
Agents serve many roles; one increasingly important role has become serving as the “no guy.” Players are constantly approached with requests for any number of things, from ticket requests to loans to business opportunities, etc. Experience has taught me that most players, especially at a young age, want to help and say yes. Absent a strong figure in the player’s life to play this role, it becomes the agent’s job to be the “no guy,” to swat away requests that aren’t in the best interests of the player. Even with that buffer, the player may still overrule the “no guy” in the name of loyalty or family.
A past experience still lingers with me today.
I once represented an accomplished young player whose (much older) brother presented a budding record company, ready to launch with known recording artists lined up, rental space, etc. After we agreed to loan him a series of small payments, the brother came with the big “ask”: $100,000. I went into full no mode, repeatedly turning the brother down. Then one fateful night I got a call from my client saying he was going to lend his brother the money. I was livid, reminding him of his brother’s drug habit (the likely use of the money), even writing a letter to the player’s file expressing my disagreement. My client did listen but said, in an exasperated voice, “I know, I know. But Andrew . . . he’s family!” As you may suspect, the record company never materialized and the brother, with no shame and a drug addiction, never stopped asking for more.
The True “No Guy”
Back to Ball, I have heard the narrative about him being “a distraction” with his bravado and shameless promotion of Big Baller Brand. However, I do not see any of this negatively affecting his son, Lonzo. To the contrary, the elder Ball seems to be protecting his son from inevitable other influences that have—and will—come Lonzo’s way. LaVar seems perfectly suited to be the true “no guy,” ready to block those who have less concern for his son than he. It appears the only “herd” around Lonzo Ball and his brothers is LaVar; no new friends, no new advisors, no associates with their hands out. Sure, LaVar is catnip to sports television and radio programming, but he seems as effective in protecting Lonzo’s interests as any manager, marketer or agent.
Speaking of agents, LaVar will be running that show as well, having formed Ball Sports Group with fledgling agent Harrison Gaines joining the team. From an agent perspective, this situation is as transparent as can be: the true client is not Lonzo; it is LaVar. If you want to come to Lonzo, you come through LaVar. As for Gaines’s inexperience, it will not be an issue with Lonzo’s rookie contract; the NBA rookie scale is predetermined. Lonzo will receive the maximum allotted to his slot no matter whether the agent is handling his first contract or his 1,000th (many NBA agents do not charge a fee on rookie contracts).
When I started my career in player representation by working for NBA superagent David Falk, we represented many players who played for coach John Thompson at Georgetown. I learned early on in dealing with these players that the true client was Thompson; he was a dominant presence in these players’ lives and had their best interests at heart.
The LaVar Ball situation is not unique; it just comes with a higher profile, juiced by being in this age of constant media.
While I have no worries about Ball from the agent perspective, I have some potential trepidation from the team side. It is one thing for a father or coach to counsel or control an agent; it is quite another to try to insert himself in team decision-making.
During my time with the Packers, I had a few interactions with family members calling to voice complaints about a variety of issues ranging from playing time to more personal concerns. When receiving one of these calls, I used my agent background in trying to be respectful but firm, saying something like: “I appreciate your concern, but this is not your lane. We will do what’s best for the team.” There were a few tough conversations, even a face-to-face intervention with a player’s family member.
For now, LaVar Ball is doing what plenty of agents try to do in influencing the draft process; it is part of the business and his actions are fair game. However, once Lonzo becomes affiliated with a team on June 22, there will be a different dynamic.
LaVar can still be effusive, even delusional about his son’s abilities as Lonzo’s de facto agent/promoter. However, team coaching and management decisions are off limits. And— this may surprise you—I think he will respect that and not cross that line. UCLA coach Steve Alford said that LaVar did, indeed, stay out of Alford’s lane this past season, telling the LA Times: “He was terrific. He let me coach his son, didn’t get in the way at all.” While being deferential may seem a challenge for someone with as much gusto as LaVar, my sense is that he gets it.
As with all things, time will tell and we will see. For now, however, I have no problem with LaVar Ball . . . yet. Like everyone else, I’ll be watching.
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