LAS VEGAS — After Big Baller Brand’s 111-102 win over Play Hard Play Smart on Thursday afternoon at the Adidas Uprising Summer Championships, a brood of teens and tykes flooded a back hallway and waited for their hero to exit the locker room.
LaVar Ball’s entourage was prepared. An assistant coach told the dozens gathered to form a line. A brother played security guard.
Cameras filming the new Ball family reality show sought favorable positions atop benches and stools.
And then Ball emerged, and it was as if a Luke Bryan concert began — young fans screamed and cheered, waiting for the polarizing personality to play their favorite song.
For the past six months, men and women throughout the country have debated the purpose, intent, longevity, sanity and ambitions of Ball.
It’s clear, however, that the young people here at the Cashman Center don’t care for those adult conversations.
They love LaVar Ball, the father of Lakers first-round draft pick Lonzo Ball. And they’re not sure why many people don’t.
After securing a postgame picture with LaVar, one young man seemed baffled by questions about the youth movement that supports the most famous father in grassroots basketball.
“He’s the greatest of all time,” the young man said. “I mean, what do you mean?”
Another teenager approached hyperventilation as he moved closer to LaVar.
“He’s just a comedian, man,” the teen said.
Minutes later, he took a selfie with LaVar, and then the teen held his phone above the fold as if it were a picture of his first child. Those in the hallway during the scrum couldn’t move without bumping into multiple children under 13.
If you’re convinced Ball represents some unique, zany extension of the cultured AAU circuit, you’ve never attended a four- or five-day grassroots event.
On Wednesday, the fire marshal’s threat to cancel, due to overcrowding, the much-hyped matchup between top-10 recruits LaMelo Ball, LaVar’s youngest son — who had 38 points, 10 rebounds and nine assists in Thursday’s win — and Zion Williamson generated national headlines. So did LeBron James’ last-minute decision to avoid the chaos after he entered the parking lot.
South Carolina Supreme coach Leander Anderson coached the entire first half of Wednesday’s game while holding a sleeping child.
On Thursday, a braggadocious assistant for another squad yelled, “That’s what we do. That’s what we do,” whenever his team scored. They were down by double digits then and lost by a healthy margin.
Parents who preach team basketball at home stood in the stands and boisterously demanded more individual, scholarship-producing exploits from their children.
On Wednesday, one head coach of a major college program wondered aloud why he had to pay $600 for a book listing the prospects attending the Adidas event. “Somebody is making a lot of money,” he said.
On Thursday, organizers blasted the Montell Jordan song “This Is How We Do It” through a pair of speakers about 20 feet from North Carolina’s Roy Williams, who perhaps in the moment asked himself how much longer he wants to do this.
LaVar Ball didn’t start the circus. He joined one.
Yes, he drew a technical foul in Wednesday’s loss. Yes, he did sit-ups in the second half of Thursday’s win. Yes, he’s the most eccentric figure on the circuit.
But the oddities of grassroots basketball birthed LaVar Ball, not the other way around.
Lost within the antics of Ball and his peers on the circuit are the stakes attached to the performances of young men. The circumstances can steal the fun from the game.
Young standouts pour their basketball souls onto the floor of these events and hope to attract significant scholarship offers. Some borderline prospects return to the team hotel in tears, fearing a poor effort might have ruined their chances to play at the next level.
The futures of young athletes are shaped in these gyms every year. And they’re all surrounded by men and women who often take themselves far too seriously.
Within the gravity of these events, Ball’s young fans found someone to entertain them. Someone to make them laugh. Someone to make them smile.
To many adults in the room, Ball has stolen the joy from youth basketball.
To his young supporters in Las Vegas and beyond, he has returned it.
Before the game, they approached him and asked for selfies. He obliged.
When he stomped down the sidelines with a cartoonish stride in Thursday’s game, they chuckled. When he pointed toward them in the stands after the win, they pounded their chests in acknowledgement.
And when he entered the back hallway, they chased him to get a piece of something refreshing.
“You know, he’s real, man,” said one middle-school kid after he’d taken his selfie with Ball. “He doesn’t sugarcoat things. I don’t like people who sugarcoat things.”
They’ll all come back Friday morning, seeking more LaVar Ball, when Big Baller Brand faces Team BBC at 11 a.m. ET.
And they’ll wait for the adults in their lives to come around.