THE LAMELO SHOW

The doors swing open. The boy with the floppy blond curls rushes into Prienai Arena. A group of Lithuanian teens, who arrived 60 minutes before tipoff, scurry over to get a closer look, but the boy ignores them. He’s locked in his own world as he spots two stone-faced security guards looking on from just outside the locker room. The boy, sporting a pair of black headphones and a Big Baller Brand sweatsuit, grins while Bruno Mars and Cardi B’s “Finesse (Remix)” blasts in the background.

It’s his time.

Sixteen-year-old LaMelo Ball clutches an imaginary rock. Dipping his shoulders left, then right, he rushes toward the two security guards and crosses over both men.

But a few seconds later, I watch fans abandon LaMelo for the man from whom he gets his smile. Here comes LaVar Ball.

Puffing out his chest, LaVar shimmies left to right in a navy suit and light-blue pocket square. He’s energized by the eyes set on him. Three cameramen from the family’s Facebook reality show Ball in the Family follow nearly his every move.

Now, it’s his time.

“Bet you didn’t think I could look this good, huh?” LaVar screams in delight at Virginijus Seskus, Melo’s coach. Seskus laughs, nervously. He doesn’t speak English.

It’s January 23, and tonight LaVar will join the bench as assistant coach for Prienai-Birstonas Vytautas, the low-level, last-place, professional team Melo and his 19-year-old brother, LiAngelo, play for. The opponent? Alytaus Dzukija, a team that could pass for a Division III squad.

I watch LaVar smile as he takes selfies with fans, parading around like he did when he watched his eldest son, Lonzo, courtside when the Lakers visited Madison Square Garden. Except here there is no Jumbotron or tunnel or VIP lounge or concession stand. Just creaky hardwood and worn, gray seats. Only 1,500 of them. This gym, here in Prienai, Lithuania, a tiny town in the Baltic region of Northern Europe, sits next to a tall, snowy smokestack and an abandoned road. It’s where Melo has become the youngest American pro. It’s the perfect setting for the debut of a father with no collegiate or professional coaching experience, only AAU.

Just hours before, Big Baller Brand became an official team sponsor, a move after which BBB logos shamelessly graced the court and the backs of referees’ burnt-yellow jerseys for five games. The contest is broadcast live on Facebook. An MVP is awarded BBB kicks signed by Lonzo.  

The game starts. Melo easily maneuvers through the wide-open key. Alytaus Dzukija seems allergic to defense. Melo throws no-look dimes and scoops in layups. The game quickly turns into who can make the most wide-open threes. Alytaus Dzukija’s Gediminas Zalalis drills one after having three Mississippi’s to get his feet set.

“Good defense,” Seskus manages in English, turning to me sarcastically right after the shot, breaking the fourth wall. Seskus begins to look like he’s getting boxed out of his scene altogether as LaVar rises from the bench and yells:

“Knockdown!”

“Yessirrrrrrrrrrrrrr!”

“And one!”

“There you gooooo!”

When he screams, “No. 10, come in,” it becomes apparent to me, after being around the team for six games and just over two weeks of practice, that LaVar still doesn’t know guard Paulius Ivanauskas’ name. Ivanauskas rolls his eyes. This isn’t the first time LaVar has attempted to “coach.”

Melo drains five consecutive threes as few bother to close out on him. By the end of the game, he drops a whopping 43 points. Vytautas wins with a video-game score of 147-142. Melo looks blank-faced, tired, somewhat resigned. LaVar is whisked away for an interview, eyes ablaze, his reality show finally becoming real life.

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INTRODUCING COLLEGE BASKETBALL’S BREAKOUT STAR, MIKAL BRIDGES, THE KAWHI LEONARD CLONE

They used to call him Noodles. Inspector Go Go Gadget. String Bean. Brittle (short for Brittle Bones). Praying Mantis.

Mikal Bridges was so skinny and lanky and his arms were so long—”freakishly long,” Bridges tells me—that his Villanova teammates roasted him with a range of nicknames. The 6’7” swingman was an easy target then: a freshman. A young freshman (17 years old). About 185 pounds. Gangly shoulders, little head (they called him “Pea-head,” too).

His mother, Tyneeha Rivers, sympathizes. “My wingspan is the same as World B. Free,” Rivers tells me, referring to the wiry 76ers legend, as we sip tea at a Starbucks in Philadelphia in February. Mikal has a 7’2” wingspan. “He’s always had ridiculous, stupid-long arms.”

She laughs, remembering the Noodles days, back when no one was calling her son, now a redshirt junior, a potential 2018 NBA draft lottery pick. When he redshirted his first season to bulk up, he was simply a punching bag to the upperclassmen. “Any chance they got to try to punk him or go at his body or be physical with him, they’d do that,” guard Phil Booth says.

Bridges’ No. 1 nemesis? Josh Hart. “I kicked his ass,” Hart, now with the Lakers, tells me. Once, Hart cut in front of Bridges. Bridges couldn’t catch up, so he grabbed at Hart’s ribs. Hart grabbed back and threw him. “Like four or five feet,” says Hart, who easily scored inside while the rookie flew out of bounds.

His teammates challenged him because they knew what he could do with those long arms: sneak in the passing lanes for steals as well as block shots at their highest peaks.

Villanova coach Jay Wright needed those arms to not just deflect but disrupt. He needed Bridges, an animal lover (and onetime aspiring veterinarian) who still calls his grandmother to pray before every road game, to be a little more mean. If he found himself in a trap, he’d pivot backward, afraid of contact. If he had the ball on a breakaway, he’d softly lay the ball in rather than hammer it home for a dunk.

YOU NEED TO KNOW ABOUT ASIA DURR

Asia Durr isn’t blinking. Her No. 9 Louisville Cardinals are facing No. 5 Ohio State. Durr’s brown eyes are frozen, teeth clenched. She doesn’t see anyone. Doesn’t hear anything. In this moment, on this hardwood at Nationwide Arena in Columbus, someone is going to suffer. Scratch that. With the ball in her possession and 30 seconds to strike, an entire team will.

Durr jabs hard to the left, then crosses to the right—too quick, too slick—and her defender inevitably bites. Durr pops a step-back three, leaning like she knows it’s good. Of course it is. It’s only the first quarter, but she’s got that look in her eye.

Terry Durr, Asia’s father, who is seated directly across from the Louisville bench, recognizes that look immediately.

“She’s ready to destroy someone,” Terry says of his daughter.

In this moment, she’s someone else. The woman obsessed with SpongeBob SquarePants who taught her poodle, Precious, to howl when the theme song comes on, who loves haunted houses and horror movies but gets so scared she has to sleep with the lights on for the next few days—that girl takes on a different personality.

“I call her the Baby-Faced Killa,” says DeQuan Jones, a friend who plays for the Fort Wayne Mad Ants of the NBA G League. “She looks so innocent, but when she steps on the court, she literally will attack you.”

No one’s safe. When she was the nation’s No. 1 recruit at Atlanta’s St. Pius X Catholic High, Durr dropped 44 against Jonesboro (Jonesboro, GA) and 49 against Redan (Stone Mountain, GA). With 45 seconds remaining against Redan, she spun past one defender in the backcourt and two more at midcourt before going behind the back of another at the elbow, sinking the and-1 layup despite getting smacked inside. During her second meeting with Redan, she dropped 53.

“Just cold-blooded,” says Kyle Snipes, St. Pius’ head coach. “No regard for human life.”

TOP QB RECRUIT JUSTIN FIELDS CAN’T WAIT TO COMPETE WITH JAKE FROMM

One morning in late December 2017, Justin Fields wakes up, pulls up a chair in his family’s home in Kennesaw, Georgia, a suburb of Atlanta, and reflects on all that happened the day before. On that red-letter day, the 18-year-old quarterback signed with the University of Georgia, becoming the first No. 1 overall prospect to pick the Bulldogs in the 13 years that ESPN has ranked prospects.

Fields wore a tuxedo to his signing ceremony as 100 people filled the auditorium at Harrison High School. But today, he’s wearing a gray Georgia T-shirt, black shorts and a silver wristband that reads “Commit to the G.”

A red Georgia flag waves on the front lawn in the 52-degree chill. His dog, Royce, a little black and white Shih Tzu with an endearing overbite, is tugging at Fields’ calf for attention. He’s appropriately dressed in a mini red Bulldogs shirt.

But outside his home, outside Kennesaw, few can understand why the 6’3″, 225-pound quarterback with the size, athleticism, arm strength, lights-out quickness and razor-sharp IQ (he also has a 3.9 GPA) would choose Georgia. The program already has a true freshman in Jake Fromm, who led the Bulldogs to the SEC championship and national championship game.

“It’s shocking,” says Barton Simmons, director of scouting for 247Sports. It’s shocking because Simmons says Fields could have had a much better chance of starting from day one at Florida under Dan Mullen, Texas A&M under Jimbo Fisher or even Florida State under Willie Taggart. “For him to turn all that down,” Simmons says, “is as confident, and I guess I’d say maybe as gutsy, of a decision as I remember seeing at the QB position.”

Maybe to outsiders. But to Fields? The decision was as natural as a trip to the Waffle House (he goes after every game and orders a chocolate-chip waffle). It just felt right.

THE MAD SCIENTIST OF THE NFL

“Here, what we believe in is: You either get better or you get worse. You never stay the same.”

Sean McVay, the 31-year-old coach of the Los Angeles Rams, the youngest head coach in modern NFL history, is standing outside the offices of the team’s training complex in Thousand Oaks, California. He speaks with the conviction of a man who cannot, will not, stomach complacency. And he isn’t just talking about his players; he’s talking about himself.

Every second is monumental for the first-year head coach. Five minutes later, he dashes off to a meeting, where he will labor over formations and movements and should-have-beens and better-bes. “He’s like a mad scientist,” says Chris Ashkouti, a close friend since seventh grade.

McVay has transformed the Rams from a punchline to a contender, from a 4-12 nightmare to a 6-2 first-place standing in the NFC West. He’s revitalized one of the NFL’s worst attacks into the second-highest-scoring offense. And he’s doctored Jared Goff—last year’s No. 1 overall pick, who went 0-7 as a rookie starter—into a quarterback on the rise.

But the mad scientist doesn’t want to hear any of that. Not with eight games left in the regular season.

McVay may be young: born in 1986, three years before the Rams’ last winning season in L.A.; younger than current Rams left tackle Andrew Whitworth, 35, and center John Sullivan, 32; so young that Wade Phillips, his 70-year-old defensive coordinator, tweeted that the Rams have “the only staff with DC on Medicare and HC in Daycare.”

SO YOU THINK YOU KNOW LONZO BALL…

The real Zo is still the 10-year-old boy who understood passing was like double-dutch: all rhythm and all timing. He calculated the precise second to throw the ball from one end of the court so that it soared over the hands of defenders and onto the fingertips of teammates at the other end without touching the ground.

The real Zo is a 13-year-old boy whose AAU team trailed by one with 20 seconds left. He drove to the basket, fooling the crowd by passing to his center, wide open underneath the basket, instead of shooting it himself. Clank. Ball’s team retrieved the ball with seven seconds left. “I’m going to give you the ball again,” an unfazed Ball told his visibly dejected center. “Be ready.” Ball whipped the ball to the center again—to the chagrin of over-zealous parents—but this time, the big man delivered the buzzer-beater layup.

The real Zo is a 14-year-old freshman challenging a senior for a starting varsity spot at Chino Hills High. “Are you nervous?” whispered John Edgar Jr., another childhood best friend, at tryouts. “Nah,” Ball said. “I’m not nervous at all. What do you mean?” Ball earned the nod.

DRILLING KICKS AND NAILING DRILLS, KICKER BECCA LONGO BIDS FOR STARTING JOB ON ADAMS STATE FOOTBALL TEAM

Becca Longo places a football on the turf near the 20-yard line. She takes a few steps back and then to the side, positioning her right foot — a lime cleat with a splash of orange — farthest away from the ball. With both arms by her side, she gently wiggles her right arm, shedding lingering nerves and doubts.

Longo is alone on the field at Adams State, a Division II school in Alamosa, Colorado, a sleepy city of 10,000 about four hours south of Denver. The 5-foot-11, 140-pound freshman kicker is the lone woman on the Grizzlies’ 94-player roster. She’s also the first woman to earn a football scholarship at a Division I or II school.

But on this Thursday in early August at Rex Field, the only thing that matters is how high and how far she can make that football soar. She takes a deep breath and looks up at the sky, scanning for a cloud. There are plenty: giant, doughy streaks breaking free of the never-ending blue, hovering so low it looks like they could take a bite out of the San Luis Valley flatland.

Morning rain and thunder almost threatened to keep Longo from kicking today, but the weather didn’t stand a chance. Not much does. Last week, she hopped the field’s 7-foot gate to retrieve a ball, which left her with an inch-long gash on the palm of her right hand. She sprinted back to the field and continued to kick as the ruby-red stain pulsed.