It was a surreal scene at the five-star Harmony Park hotel in peaceful Prienai, Lithuania, for the Ball brothers' introductory press conference Friday. Among the 50-plus media representatives in attendance, one reporter challenged LaVar Ball to a game of one-on-one, another asked LiAngelo if he had a girlfriend, and a third, after the presser, asked LaVar to sign his Lakers hat with the date when all three Ball brothers would be on the Lakers together. The father wrote "2020."
Even in a basketball-rich country, where the sport is considered second to religion, Lithuanians have never seen anything quite like the Ball family circus.
After the press conference, the just as unpredictably entertaining LaVar spoke exclusively to The Crossover about his sons' transition on and off the court overseas, his own public persona and his impact as a father.
Jared Zwerling: When did this plan really come about for LaMelo and LiAngelo to become professionals in this way? Was it a vision you had at a certain time?
LaVar Ball: "The vision I had is to get all the boys on the Lakers. And sometimes you've got to take different roads. Now, the thing that happened with Gelo over there [in China], I'm not going to let nobody sit back and tell my son whether he's going to a play or not going to play. Be a man enough to say, 'We're not going to let you play.' Same thing over here with the other coach [for LaMelo]. How are you going to mess up Melo's style of play? The coach over there in high school, he already lost 20-something games before he came over there. So basically, he's not a winner. So you're not going to try to make my son try to fit in with everybody. And we're the ones who built the school. So I'm, like, this, 'If you're not going to do it our way, we'll go our way and you do it your way.'"
JZ: It's a very unique opportunity for your sons. What's your advice to other teenagers and their parents who may consider a similar move?
LB: "It's very unique. Kids are going to look up to them. Some people take it a negative way. My way is way like this: Don't let them hold you down, but be strong enough to go your own way without coming back saying, 'Oh, I think I made a mistake. I still want to play for y'all.' No. Once you go, go, but don't be crying back. 'See, we're not going to do that.' My thing is this: If you're not getting what you want over here, go somewhere else. Don't just stay. And then people are trying to turn it around, saying, 'Oh, LaVar is teaching his boys how to be quitters.' How? How are we going to be quitters if we've got our own brand? You know how many people say, 'Nah, the Big Baller Brand ain't going to work?' Everybody thinks that since my boys have been babies. And all we do is keep going forward, so you can't stop us."
JZ: Speaking of the Big Baller Brand, how do you envision marketing it out here?
LB: "The market is going to be good here because now, we're not just Big Baller Brand around the corner. We're in Lithuania, and that means you're global. And when you get global, now you've got Europeans liking you, the states liking you, over in China liking you. We're bigger than just a Nike brand that's in Portland. You see what I'm saying? So we can be as big as we want to be by us venturing out and not having a bad name for our brand. And see, that's what it is. It's just getting bigger and bigger. It's going to be some good connections out here. I think the connections that we have here are going to happen organically. They're not going to be predetermined, and we're just going to go from there."
JZ: What did you know about the EuroLeague and its style of play, and how do you think the competition and physicality will best help your sons?
LB: "Here's the thing: physicality—everybody keeps saying it. This ain't football. You're not just out there running into people. You've got to catch them first. You know, they can shoot the ball. The good thing about my boys is they play the right way, and that's why it's very shocking to watch them just come in and practice like this real good. The reason is, I've always taught them to pass the ball ahead to somebody in front of you. If you're open, shoot the ball. All these guys over here can shoot. They all pass the ball.
"Now, when you come in on the U.S., the most dominant players, they come from the hood. And from the hood, you're taught to be an alpha dog. So you've got all these alpha dogs. There ain't no team. Now, you've got superstars out there. But I've taught my boys not to be superstars, but to be winners. And when you win, you play together. That's why all my boys pass the ball. And everybody be looking at them, like, 'Oh, I thought you were going to shoot.' Nah, they're open, they'll shoot the ball. But also when you're open, they're going to give you the ball. And as long as you have good chemistry, that's why I think something good is going to happen over here in Lithuania. My boys are not coming over and trying to say, 'I'm faster than you, so I'll take you one-on-one every time.' Now, the ball's getting stuck. It doesn't get stuck up in here. They pass like us. They shoot all the threes like us. This is normal. This is how we play, so it's going to be very good for my boys for the fact that the team chemistry is going to be very good. Usually when you have an American come over here, he's going to be, like, 'Man, this is my team. I'm over here. Let me show you what I do.' And that's why they'll be, like, 'Man, are you going to pass the ball?' And that's why the first thing the coach said was, 'Man, they don't play like Americans.' I'm, like, 'Hey, that's a good thing. See, you've noticed that already."'
JZ: What will you be watching from them in the first few games to see how they're adjusting?
LB: "Winning—just whenever they win. I mean, it's easy to watch a game when this guy is in front of you and you pass the ball to him, and he passes it back and you shoot, or you don't have an open shot, pass it. Double team on defense, try to pass the ball up and hustle. That's all you want to see. It's a good brand of basketball, and with that comes the winning. I've always taught my boys to do more winning than, 'Hey, look at me, I scored 50.' Who cares if you don't win, so do whatever it takes to win. It's going to be very entertaining because that's all it is—it's entertaining. And like I said, the boys are going to do their thing."
JZ: What are you excited to see from them maturing off the court in a new country?
LB: "It's not even maturing. My boys are already maturing. Here's the thing: It's not about them learning new things; it's about them playing basketball. Here's what it is: They have a passion to play basketball. When you get to do something that you love to do, and you happen to get paid for it, you've already won in life. So they're not coming over here with the mindset, like, 'Man, I'm trying to make me a million.' No, they just want the competition, they want to play three or four games in a day if they can. If you get to do something that you love to do, that doesn't happen a lot of times.
"Like they couldn't wait for practice. Most people will be, like, 'Oh, we've got practice tomorrow. Dang.' My boys are, like, 'Man, I get to go to the gym. It's like Disneyland over here.' But it's a mindset. If you breed it like that from when they're little, it's easy. It was just like them talking about my wife today. See, Tina is like a gym rat. She likes to be in the gym watching our boys. She's having a good time right now. So she's getting way better from the stroke that she had, and the fact that she's in an environment that we started off in. The family's sitting in the stands watching the boys play, practice, whatever. It's fun. We can sit here all day."
JZ: How often do you guys reflect on your wife's battle and overcoming that, to now the positive journey you're all on together with Lonzo on the Lakers, and LaMelo and LiAngelo starting their pro careers?
LB: "Well, she knows. She knows what it's all about. The journey's not over, like I said. Man, my bottom line is to get them all on the Lakers. So the journey that we take, at least we're together doing it. People don't want to make it like this. They want to make it tougher than what it is. It's a goal we've been trying to do, man, and if you keep speaking it, you'll speak it into existence. It's not that long until it happens."
JZ: During the press conference, you said you guys are simple: you like to eat, sleep and ball. In Prienai, it's such a calm setting. So even though you're from Los Angeles, you guys must love it here because the lifestyle is simple.
LB: "I'm loving it, man. The first thing people are thinking is Hollywood, movies, superstars, parties, jewelry. Man, we good. If you love basketball, in America, Lithuania, you eat, sleep and play basketball. That's what we do. It's not like we're looking at, 'Where's the bright lights at? Where's the next club at? I'm trying to meet like 50 women before I get out of here.' It ain't like that. And it's a difference. You've got some guys coming over here at 20-something years old, and they're thinking something different. First of all, they're looking to get paid. Second of all, they're looking to be the coolest dude with all the women around them. The mindset is different, and you're not going to be able to do that and perform.
"Now, what my boys are trying to do is to be the best players in the world. It's a different breed. Now, Zo chased Jordan, LeBron. The other two boys, they don't chase them. They chase Zo, so they're looking at like it, like, 'I'm getting an earlier jump than Zo, so we can be getter than Zo.' You see what I'm saying? So it's as long as they keep that going. My vision is like this, man: After KD and LeBron and Steph Curry and all these guys, three Ball boys on the Lakers. We'll be very good."
JZ: How did you develop that entrepreneurial mentality? Were you creative growing up?
LB: "Always like this, man. I'm in my own lane, man, with the fact that I know how I roll. I'm not one of those people that's to myself and just quiet. I've never been like that, man. I've always been kind of loud. I'm out there, man. I do my thing, but I don't do it disrespectful. But when people rub me the wrong way, I rub people the wrong way. But I say what I say and I mean what I say. People always ask me, 'Do you regret anything?' I don't regret nothing I do or say, or else I wouldn't say it or I wouldn't do it.
"I've never been into saying I'm sorry on the fact that I try to raise my boys like that. You don't want to be sorry for nothing because sorry doesn't mean anything. It's like me slapping you on your face. Your eye's hanging and I'm, like, 'Man, I don't know what I did. Man, I'm sorry.' But your eye is still messed up. So what does sorry do? Nothing. So I say try to where you don't have to say sorry to people. Just go about your way. If you don't like the way somebody is doing something, go do your own thing."
JZ: How do you view your public image these days?
LB: "A lot of people say good things and a lot of people say bad things. I never look at it because it's 50/50, or else I wouldn't be here. Let me tell you what I mean: Let's say I'm quiet, not energetic, nobody cares—I'm not good enough. So you just go about your business. But if I make my boys this good, and I'm good at talking to people, why wouldn't I be very talkative about meeting people? See, that's what they get stuck on. 'Oh, LaVar can't be like that all the time.' Some people are haters. Like they say, 'Oh, LaVar, they say you're this.' So I say, 'Why didn't you ask the other people about me? We were talking to the same people.'
"It's OK. Sportscasters, they've got a job to do and like I tell them, 'I'm controversial.' You've got to say something about me, whether it be good or bad. Some folks like Charles Barkley, Cris Carter and others, I don't talk to them anymore. So if they call me on them shows now and say, 'Oh, LaVar, can you talk to me?' No, I'm not going to talk to you. 'Why?' Because I don't have to now. Like I tell writers and stuff, 'Write what you want. I don't care whether it be good or bad, but you've got to suffer the consequences.' Like Jeff Goodman, I talk to him all the time, ever since he's interviewed my boys when they were in high school. But he doesn't do that stuff like Stephen A. Smith. I was cool with him for a minute until I've seen his MO, his, 'Ah, I like LaVar, but I don't like the fact that he does this and he does that.' It's like this: If I don't want to talk to nobody, I don't have to talk to them. And that's what they don't get. Here's the thing what they've got to understand: Is it worth all that? You're going to have to talk to me because I've got three boys and they've got all the same agent. So it's better to be on the good side than the bad side. Like Charles Barkley, he's been talking crazy. 'LaVar is a bad father, this and that.' And I'm just, like, 'Don't even talk about Gelo going to China because you've been in jail in Arizona. You have kids that you don't even talk about. You have a daughter nobody knows about.' A lot of things he's done bad. I was a fan of Charles because of how hard he played. And now, he's doing all this talking like Stephen A. Smith.
"All them guys are employees. They're not like me. I'm a CEO. I get up when I feel like it. There's a difference. If you have to work for somebody and you have to answer to somebody, you've got to bow down. I don't. How do you exploit something that's yours? Those are my boys. If they were somebody else's, now I'm exploiting them. But mine? My boys didn't just pop out and be good. I spent a lot of time with them, which a lot of fathers can't do when you have a job. But see, that's what they don't get. They say, 'Oh, LaVar has no talent.' Guess what? If I don't spend that time with them boys, they don't have a talent. See, people got it mixed up. They say I wouldn't be here without them. No, they wouldn't be here without me. Me and my wife decided: let's have some kids—not just to have them. Let's make them superstars. Our game plan is so dead on."
JZ: A lot of pro athletes don't have fathers around, but you're here in Lithuania—even staying for six weeks or more. What does that mean to you?
LB: "Everybody is going to do their thing, but I feel I do what I need for my boys. Parenting is different for everybody. Everybody says, 'You're taking them over here.' If you have that father behind you, it's a great thing. I had mine behind me, and that's what people don't understand. When you've got a father behind you or just anybody who believes in you, you won't waver on certain things. I don't knock people for how they treat their kids or anything like that. But the best way I think is your way—however you do it to make your kids responsible, because everybody is not the same. But I know a lot of kids are, like, 'Man, I want that.' A lot of people want to sign with Big Baller Brand, but I tell them, 'You know what? I don't want to give you 20% of what I'm doing because it'll hurt my boys.' So I'd rather wait until they get all situated first, and once they're situated, then I might be, like, 'You know what? Let me take on a few more guys, so I can be 100% in.'"
JZ: What do you want your legacy to be as a father?
LB: "My legacy is always going to be fine. People on the outside are going to look at it differently as far as the success that I have with the Big Baller Brand. But I'm going to make my kids' kids wealthy and not just rich. I raised my boys good. They're all pros. I think I did a good job, so I'm cool with that. But I want them all on the Lakers, and then I'll be, like, 'Ah, operation shut down.'"