LaVar Ball is determined to make it on his terms. We should all be rooting for his success.
I was in the midst of an A Different World bender one Saturday morning courtesy of TV One when I caught a commercial for one of those celebrity profile shows. The subject was the late musician Rick James and, as is often the case for these types of shows, there was a montage of celebrities commenting on James in the preview.
The late Charlie Murphy flashed on the screen to say that James was the freest black man he had ever seen. I never caught the entire episode, so I can’t place that statement into the context of Murphy’s larger point, but that line always stuck with me. In Murphy’s mind, Rick James wasn’t the richest, sexiest or most famous black man he had ever seen. He was simply the freest.
I have been working on a story about LaVar Ball since the 2017 NCAA tournament when I first noticed the confident patriarch of the budding basketball dynasty. I’d seen him spar with ESPN talent on multiple shows, appearing on everything from First Take to Sports Nation and was captivated.
I poured over the source material to get an idea of who LaVar was. My notes were all over the place as I tried to paint a portrait of my subject to no avail.
Luckily, ESPN writer Ramona Shelbourne put me out of my misery and penned the most definitive profile on LaVar and the Ball family to date. But in digesting her work, I realized that my fascination with LaVar is not rooted in who he is but rather what he represents.
LaVar is free in a way that few other sports personalities are today. He decided early on that he would rather have independence than acceptance. It is a noble goal; one we should all support.
Mock him if you must but understand what LaVar is trying to accomplish. In his short time in the national consciousness, he has taken a sledgehammer to the traditional notions of amateur athletics, the NCAA and player empowerment.
He is bombastic to the point of being obnoxious. He never runs away from a moment in the spotlight, each time making sure that his next pronouncement is more fantastic than his last.
I, like so many other black and brown folk, could effortlessly point to a LaVar Ball in my own family. I have the uncle who allegedly dropped 45 on Magic Johnson in a high school all-star game. I know the cousin who was supposed to start ahead of Herschel Walker at Georgia but for “politics”.
This is probably why LaVar’s personality has not shocked me. His “act”, if one can call it that, is just that. An act, performed hundreds of times over in barbershops across America every day.
His real message, one of liberation, is what resonates with me. As a father of three black boys, LaVar’s message speaks to me. Even in the liberal bastion of Seattle that I call home, my sons are presented with micro aggressive messages of how they are different and hence devalued, sometimes in the most innocent, but no less impactful, of ways.
My boys are too young to understand this phenomenon, but being armed with experience and a trained eye, I see it. And so, I fight to instill in them the notion that they can be whoever and whatever they choose, taking full advantage of America’s promise even as I see my nation fail her people from time to time.
Admittedly it is odd that I would find inspiration in a man who just a few months ago was shirtless in a WWE ring squaring off against The Miz. Then I consider what LaVar is up against and I appreciate the beauty of his struggle.
Athletes command more of a platform and presence than their predecessors but are arguably less able to disrupt the status quo in a meaningful way. Perhaps that is the trade-off for becoming a global brand, the constraints of corporate dollars becoming more oppressive than any overseer.
LaVar’s freedom is not for sale. It is why he coached his sons’ AAU teams, making it a family affair rather than selling his boys to the highest bidder. It is why he opted to homeschool his youngest son, the talented LaMelo, rather than allow the school to exploit his talents for its own financial gain. And it is why he launched the Big Baller Brand line of apparel, betting big on himself to succeed where others have failed.
Maybe the current climate has me feeling some kind of way about LaVar. Perhaps I was looking for disrupters and agitators as a big “eff you” to the established order and somehow landed on him. To call him an imperfect messenger would be an understatement. There have been dust-ups, flubs and a few full-blown fits on the sidelines of summer league games over the last year.
But the message is something more than just making television appearances or getting his three boys to the NBA. It is even more than the Big Baller Brand. And as anyone who has observed LaVar in the public eye knows, there is NOTHING bigger than the BBB.
It is a message of confidence - speaking it into existence as my grandmother used to say – in the face of so many that would love nothing more than see you fail. That is why I am rooting for LaVar and his unapologetic swagger to succeed. His persona is, in a word, liberating.