October 9, 2017, published on BleacherReport.com/BRMag
Everyone is waiting for Lonzo Ball.
Reporters box each other out, jockeying for position, their arms outstretched with recorders, their bodies shoulder to shoulder. One woman complains that a man, over six feet tall, is blocking her view. He turns around, angrily, and refuses to budge. Members of the antsy crowd need the best view of Ball, the one who throws bullet passes 94 feet; the one who weaves through traffic with be-quick-but-don’t-hurry speed; the one who has been anointed savior of the NBA‘s most storied franchise.
It’s Lakers media day, in late September, but it could have been called “Lonzo Day.”
He’s here. The 19-year-old is wearing his black ZO2 Prime Remix sneakers below a grape-colored sleeve over his knee and calf. “My swag pad,” he says, smiling with all of his teeth, calm in a way only he can be: reserved, yet warm; cold-blooded competitively, yet composed.
Reporters fire off question after question. Ball doesn’t look bothered; he never really does. But you can tell he’d rather disappear into the hardwood. No cameras. No questions. Just the ball and the hoop, jumpers and jab steps.
The 16-time world champion Lakers expect the 2017 No. 2 overall draft pick to end a nightmare four-year playoff drought and heal the wounds of a franchise-worst 17-65 mark two years ago. A burden heavy enough for any 19-year-old, let alone one whose father throws more timber into the media fire every day; who proclaims his oldest son was destined to be a Laker—thanks to Zeus and Jesus; who says Lonzo is already better than Stephen Curry and is going to carry the Lakers to 50 wins this season as the NBA’s Rookie of the Year.
Those bold declarations help make Ball the most promising, polarizing, intriguing player to enter the league in years. Someone we expect so much from, hear so much about, and yet, know so little about. Maybe you think he’s too shy. Maybe you think he’s too arrogant. Maybe you think he and his family are too much. But Zo? “He just views himself as a dude that hoops,” Eli Scott, a hometown best friend, tells B/R Mag.
Strip away the headlines, the cameras, the Big Baller Brand kicks and the family’s Facebook reality series, and he’s a kid from Chino Hills, California, who dances after hammering down 360-degree windmill dunks. He’s been hanging out with the same pals since fourth grade. He quick-pays the tab at dinner before anyone notices, then drops: “Y’all ready to go?” He drinks apple cider like it’s water. He devours his father’s homemade cinnamon rolls at least twice a week. He douses breakfast burritos and biscuits with maple syrup. He hardly checks Twitter. He doesn’t particularly care whether you think he’ll fly or fail this season.
Fans and critics have piled their dreams and disappointments onto his shoulders. They’ve boxed him into their narratives of who they think he is and what they think he can become. They’re sure they’ve figured him out. But no one has. B/R Mag spoke to more than a dozen people who have lived in Lonzo’s orbit to uncover the 6’6″ point guard poised to rescue the Lakers this season.
“If you don’t really know Zo,” Scott says, “you don’t really know the real him.”
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.
The real Zo is an 18-year-old man elevating a struggling UCLA squad to a No. 2 standing and Sweet 16 appearance in 2016-17, leading the nation in assists. “His strength is his speed,” says Steve Alford, UCLA’s coach. “You can’t catch him.” Even Marques Johnson, a UCLA All-American and 1975 national champion who usually sits courtside, couldn’t; too many A-list celebrities moved him back to Section One. “The fans came out with a whole different kind of energy that I hadn’t seen at Pauley Pavilion in a long, long time,” Johnson says. “I attribute that all to Lonzo.”
The real Zo is now 19—and every move he makes must be immaculate. He has to end his workouts with a swish, once sinking 20 three-pointers but refusing to leave until the net finally surrendered to the 21st. If he’s writing a rap verse and doesn’t like a line, he’ll crumple up the paper, throw it in the trash and start over. He’s a night-crawler. An owl. A bat. He might doze off for four, five hours, but that’s usually only during the day. There are too many step-back jumpers to release, too many sprints to complete, before dawn.
Brice Johnson posted up Ball near the short corner in the first half of the new Lakers’ NBA Summer League debut against the Clippers. Within a second, Johnson spun free and rose up for the nasty dunk over Ball.
It was ugly. Ball looked lost. Twitter rejoiced. He’s a bust. He’s overrated. Even a meme of former Lakers floor general D’Angelo Russell looking puzzled took off with the caption: “This who you traded me for?” Just like that, after 40 minutes of play, as Ball finished 2-of-15 from the floor with three turnovers in the Lakers’ 96-93 overtime loss, his NBA career was hyperbolically deemed “over” before it even started.
Scott texted Ball afterward to see if he was all right. “He was actually laughing, like, ‘Can I get settled down before you guys want to text me?'” remembers Scott, who plays for Loyola Marymount. “He knew it wasn’t the end of the world. It’s just the type of person he is. He never panics.”
Ball found his footing, earning summer-league MVP honors after posting 16.3 PPG, 9.3 APG and 7.7 RPG over six contests. “He never missed an open man,” former NBA (and UCLA) point guard Baron Davis tells B/R Mag. “When you find somebody that can do that, you got a special player.”
But Ball knows being a point guard is about more than stuffing stats. Sure, the full-court rocket he tipped to Alex Caruso for the easy dunk against the Mavericks was impressive. But keeping the same poker face in his miserable debut and his monstrous 16-point, 12-assist and 10-rebound triple-double over the Cavaliers? That set him apart. That is Ball at his core: the star rookie who refuses to let anyone see him rattled.
Not even when he dislocated his middle finger on his right hand—his shooting hand—in the first half of league play during his senior year, when Chino Hills ranked No. 1 nationally. The finger was so swollen, so stiff, Ball could barely catch the ball. With about 15-20 games left, coach Steve Baik looked at the ground and thought to himself: That’s it. Our season’s over.
Then Baik saw Ball throwing dimes left-handed, yanking boards out of the air left-handed, even shooting free-throws left-handed the next few games. He never winced in timeouts. He never tugged his jersey for a sub. He could not, would not, let anyone see weakness in him. And he shined, leading his team to a miraculous 35-0 mark and a national championship before heading to Westwood.
UCLA players held an unofficial three-on-three league after practices. Ball’s team took L after L at the beginning of the season. Near the end, his squad dominated. T.J. Leaf, now with the Pacers, learned something about playing with Ball: “You have to compete the whole time. You can’t take plays off. He’s extremely competitive, and it breeds competitiveness amongst the team,” Leaf says. “That’s something about him: He always has his teammates’ backs.”
A week before Lakers training camp, Ball, Edgar Jr. and Austen Awosika, another best friend, battled in “King of the Court”—a continuous one-on-one game up to five points. The winner is crowned when you reach four total W’s. Edgar Jr. led with three. Ball had zero. Then, he clawed his way to the basket and popped a few pull-ups to win four straight games for bragging rights.
Awosika, who plays for Cal State Fullerton, beams with pride when talking about how Ball still plays with the crew, still rolls through Chino Hills, despite living more than 50 miles away in Marina del Rey. “He’s never switched up,” Awosika says, even though Ball’s career, really, has yet to begin.
But his friends are adamant: Fame is fame, but Zo is Zo.
“The same competitive dude,” Edgar Jr. says. “Just taller.”
“He’s just a funny guy,” says Milan Acquaah, who plays for Washington State. “He’s really corny.”
“Zo is chill,” Lakers forward Julius Randle says. “For as much as he has going around him, you would never know.”
In high school, all the Chino Hills basketball players, practically campus royalty, sat at the same spot every lunch: the second blue table just outside the library in a central location on campus known as “Center Ice.” And there was Ball, the country’s consensus No. 1 player, sitting with his brown paper bag lunch that said “Lonzo” on the front, prepared daily by his mother, Tina. When non-athletes came over, nervous to sit next to him, he made the effort to talk with and befriend them.
“It didn’t matter if it was a dorky kid or a kid that had stinky breath or a kid that looked awkward,” says Isabel Brenes, Chino Hills’ principal. “Whoever he was around, he made them feel good about themselves.”
Few people knew that he took college preparatory classes, or that he could barely study for a test and walk out with an A. Once, during senior year, a teacher called out to him in the hallway right before the bell was about to ring for class: “Hey, Zo, you better step it up!” Ball, who is normally punctual, could have given lip. He could have walked even slower. He’s Lonzo Ball, after all. He had already signed with UCLA. Chino Hills had won the national title. But Ball clutched his backpack, which he always held at his side, not on his back, and sprinted to class like he was a freshman at practice running a 17. No way was he going to be marked tardy.
Nowadays, people struggle to define Ball. Is he really that humble? How can he not be a jerk, given the pitch of his father? Why is he so quiet, anyway? People wonder when he will come out of his shell, without realizing he already has.
One of Ball’s favorite classes at Chino Hills was public speaking. The first few weeks, though, Ball sheepishly stood in front of his 33 classmates, often looking down at his speeches every other line. One day, David Browning, the teacher, asked the students to talk about a significant event that affected their lives.
It was Ball’s turn. The senior rose from his chair at the front and center of the class, fourth row, seat No. 1, and took a deep breath.
He talked about being invited as a 15-year-old to a USA Basketball training camp in Denver that would determine the roster for the U-16 team that would represent the USA in Uruguay that year. Most players were older than him.
He didn’t make the cut.
Ball was so upset he contemplated giving up hoop, but he knew he had a choice: Play the blame game, sulk or get better.
As Ball told his story, he didn’t look down at his paper. He didn’t fumble his pencil. He looked his classmates in their eyes, sharing a slice of himself, out in the open, for the first time.
“The audience was able to empathize with him,” Browning says. “People saw him [as] less of a superstar on campus. It was more of, ‘Hey, this guy is kind of like me a little bit.'”
“He’s a quiet leader that does his thing,” Browning says. “When he speaks, people listen.”
Steve Baik, who now coaches at Fairfax High in Los Angeles, sits in his new office near Melrose Avenue. He stares up at his office’s cream-colored ceiling and pauses. He knows what he’s about to say might sound outrageous. Maybe it is.
“Not everybody is going to spiritualize it or whatever, but for me, I just think it’s not coincidence,” Baik says, of Ball transforming struggling Chino Hills and UCLA programs into powerhouses and now facing a similar task in the pros—for his hometown team, at that.
“I know that he was created, he was born to be in this situation,” Baik says, sounding quite like Father Ball. “Knowing who he is as a person, it’s the right person to be in that position.”
Like any rookie floor general adjusting to the size and the speed of the NBA game, Ball might struggle. What if he trails a half-step slow at defending Westbrook, Curry and Irving? Spends so much time finding others that he hesitates to pull the trigger for himself? Worse, what if he can’t carry the Lakers to the playoffs?
What if, swept up in all of the chaos, he struggles to find his calm?
“I’ve been around people like a Kobe Bryant, and a Magic Johnson, who thrive on expectations and pressure. This is what they want. They want to compete. They don’t feel pressure, they welcome pressure. That’s what feeds them,” Jeanie Buss, controlling owner of the Lakers, tells B/R Mag. “Lonzo is the type of professional who wants to play basketball. He wants to win games and entertain a crowd, and I’m not concerned that those expectations will weigh him down.”
All eyes were on the rookie for his preseason debut against the Minnesota Timberwolves. One play during the first half, Ball found himself down low, snatching the offensive board over three Timberwolves defenders. He instinctively fired the ball back out to Brandon Ingram, who drilled the three.
Ball finished with five points, eight assists, seven rebounds and two steals in the Lakers’ 108-99 loss, but he also went 2-of-9 from the field, 1-of-5 from deep and had three turnovers.
Ball struggles with shot.
A rough start for the No. 2 pick.
Ball had an up-and-down night at both ends of the floor.
Hoop heads continue their attempts to define Ball. But they don’t know the real Zo.
At least not yet.