Six years and three seasons of the Ball family and UCLA. That was the plan.
From the time Lonzo Ball committed to UCLA on Jan. 8, 2014, until LaMelo Ball left after his one-and-done season in the spring of 2020. That was the expected timeline.
It was supposed to be a fruitful relationship for both sides, with UCLA getting three talented players — including at least one NBA lottery pick and future star — and the Ball family boosting its profile by sending three sons to one of college basketball’s most historic programs for one season each.
After a little more than one season, it looks like the relationship might be coming to a close.
LaVar Ball pulled his son LiAngelo out of UCLA on Monday afternoon, less than a month after LiAngelo was one of three UCLA players arrested and indefinitely suspended for shoplifting in China. None of the three suspended players have appeared in a game yet, and there is no timetable for their return to the court.
The elder Ball made the decision to withdraw LiAngelo without notifying UCLA head coach Steve Alford or any of his assistant coaches.
LaMelo Ball, the youngest of the three brothers and the seventh-ranked prospect in the 2019 class by ESPN, is still committed to play at UCLA. LaVar said the plan is still for him to play for the Bruins — but multiple sources have expressed doubt LaMelo will ever step foot on campus. There were questions regarding LaMelo’s future at UCLA beginning in the summer, when he was given his own signature shoe from Big Baller Brand. Players lose their amateur status when they receive “pay in any form” for their athletic skills or when there is a promise of payment following college. If LaMelo was paid for the sneakers, he could be deemed ineligible. Those worries were compounded when LaVar pulled LaMelo out of Chino Hills High School in early October, opting to home-school his youngest son. LaVar said he was going to “make him the best basketball player ever” after pulling him out of high school.
“I can get him the best game every day,” Ball told ESPN’s Ramona Shelburne in October. “I just gotta go down to the hood and say, ‘Who wanna ball with my son?'”
With LiAngelo suddenly withdrawn from UCLA, the chances of LaMelo still going there in the fall of 2019 have grown slimmer. What’s next for LiAngelo and LaMelo remains to be seen. LaVar said the next step is to get LiAngelo ready for the NBA draft, and he didn’t plan on transferring to a different school. LaMelo could decommit from UCLA and look to get recruited by another college for the class of 2019, or bide his time before the NBA draft by going overseas or working out at home.
One thing to keep in mind: At no point has LiAngelo been considered an NBA prospect. He was a three-star recruit coming out of high school, and wasn’t likely to see much time at UCLA even if eligible.
“He’s not on any of our scouting lists — even the extended lists,” one GM told ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski on Monday.
Regardless of the next chapter for the Ball family, it seems the book has closed on its time with UCLA.
But looking back, both sides got what they wanted out of the relationship — it just all happened in the honeymoon phase. Once things became a little more difficult, the spark was no longer there, and neither was the energy to deal with it.
While on one hand, UCLA coaches are likely happy the Balls are no longer part of the program and they no longer have to deal with those headlines, they’re also eternally grateful for the Balls coming into the program.
The Balls kept Alford employed.
Without the Balls, without Lonzo, without the top-five recruiting class Lonzo headlined, Alford is probably somewhere other than Westwood. It was no secret he was on the hot seat after going 15-17 in 2015-16. A plane flew a “Fire Alford” banner above the UCLA campus in March 2016. There were billboards on the side of trucks driving around campus proclaiming “Mediocrity Made Here” with a photo of Alford. A petition by Restore UCLA Hoops Now calling for Alford’s termination gathered more than 1,500 signatures.
But the vision of Lonzo Ball running up and down the court, passing to five-star recruits, was enough to keep Alford in Los Angeles.
And a relatively drama-free season in which Lonzo led the nation in assists and was a consensus first-team All-American was enough to get Lonzo drafted No. 2 by the Los Angeles Lakers — and enough to get Alford a contract extension through 2021.
“He’s just got that unique ability to understand winning,” Alford said on a Fox Sports podcast last season. “He understands how to win and he’s brought that winning demeanor here. And it’s contagious.”
Jeff Goodman explains why LaVar Ball opted to pull his son LiAngelo from UCLA and whether his youngest son, LaMelo, will still attend the school in the future.
Without UCLA, are the Balls the Balls? Lonzo was absolutely good enough to thrive anywhere he played. He’s a once-in-a-generation passer. He took UCLA from 15 wins to 31 wins and a Sweet 16 appearance. But LaVar Ball isn’t LaVar Ball because he has three sons who are good at basketball. There are other parents who have produced multiple basketball players. It’s the spectacle. And that spectacle didn’t really start until the latter part of Lonzo’s freshman season at UCLA. Does the same spectacle exist if LaVar sent his kids to a different college, one that is not in Los Angeles, the reality TV capital of the world? Remember, all three brothers played together at Chino Hills and became a national story. But the idea of bringing that same style to UCLA, the school with the most national titles in the sport, the home of John Wooden, was the attention-grabber. The idea of Lonzo being drafted by the hometown Lakers. It had to be a place near home in Southern California, where all three kids could go, that would provide the necessary spotlight. It had to be UCLA.
“I feel good about that,” LaVar told ESPN once Alford decided to stay at UCLA last spring. “He knows my boys. I like his style, and I’m glad he’s staying.”
Had the relationship ended with Lonzo’s freshman season, it would have been perfect for both sides. UCLA got what it wanted, the Balls got what they wanted. But the Balls had more to give: two more sons, including one of the elite point guards in the 2019 class.
LiAngelo isn’t as good as Lonzo, but neither side could admit that. They had to play out the string, keeping up appearances. They were doing it for Lonzo, they were doing it for LaMelo. Once the buzz began about LaMelo not attending college, and once LiAngelo was arrested for shoplifting in China and then indefinitely suspended, it was clear neither side wanted to be in the relationship any longer.
Both sides will be happier as a result. UCLA gets to separate itself from the Balls, while LaVar can now control the next step for LiAngelo and LaMelo without answering questions on whether LiAngelo is good enough to play at UCLA or whether LaMelo will be eligible.
Someone just had to take the first step in ending the relationship.
That was always going to be LaVar Ball, and it was always going to be a messy breakup.