A Human Train-wreck

It has been, what, six months since the world met LaVar Ball and his brood of big ballers?

And already most basketball fans would recognize their big house in this upscale tract-housing community about 30 miles from downtown Los Angeles. There's the double-rimmed basketball hoops rising from the solid white concrete fence in the backyard. The fake grass out front (you try keeping the real stuff going once it gets hot in the summer). The collection of luxury cars that LaVar bought for his three sons so they wouldn't be swayed when someone else tried to impress them with wheels. And, of course, the black garage door.

"You see all these houses?" LaVar asks as we pull up to the house where he's raised and trained three basketball-playing sons who all have a chance to play in the NBA. "You only see one all-white one. That's because it's my s---."

The homeowners association told him he couldn't paint the house white. And that is not something you say to a Big Baller. So LaVar dug in, told them, "You crazy; this one is going to be white!" And just to show them who was really in charge, he put in a black garage door too.

"You ain't supposed to have that s---," he says. "But you know who the homeowners association guy is now, the president?"

Go ahead. Guess.

"That's f---ing me! Now you gotta come to me to get your house painted!"

He laughs to punctuate the point, and the black door opens to reveal an impeccably clean garage. There's a bunch of workout equipment, a dry-erase board with a list of exercise times and reps, and photos of his three boys when they were young. In one, Lonzo, his eldest son and a projected top-three pick in this year's NBA draft, is sitting on top of the double-rimmed hoop with a basketball in one hand and a gold crown on his head.

"See that one?" LaVar asks. "See how Lonzo is pointing at you? Every time someone comes in this garage, it's like Lonzo's calling you out, asking, 'Who's got next?'"

This is not the first time LaVar, 49, has told this story. This isn't some act he started performing a year ago when the lights came on and Lonzo broke through as one of the best college basketball players in the country. This has been his vision all along.

He's planned this since he first saw his wife, Tina, walking down the halls at Cal State Los Angeles. She was a college basketball player too, but more important, she was tall enough to give him tall children. That was a must. And she was tough. He could tell by the way she walked in her heels.

"How many tall girls wear heels?" he asks. "I liked that."

So he looked her up and down with his pale green eyes, smiled and said, "You and me, we're gonna do something. You just don't know it yet."

It was a line he'd used on other women. He'd drop the line, linger on her eyes, then keep walking. He wasn't waiting for a response. He was planting a seed.

"You may not like me. You may think I'm cocky or arrogant," LaVar says, explaining the pickup line, and his worldview.

"But you will be thinking about me.

SAY WHAT YOU will about his tactics, or his tact, but LaVar Ball has figured out how to get -- and keep -- our attention. In less than a year, he's gone from just another suburban helicopter parent to a household name and wannabe marketing mogul. Big Baller Brand, the shoe and apparel company LaVar founded, has organically generated the kind of publicity for which companies spend millions.

There have already been two weeks of news cycles reacting to the launch of Lonzo's first signature shoe, the shockingly priced ZO2 -- $495 a pair. That's after weeks of news cycles about shoe companies spurning the Big Baller Brand itself and LaVar's proclamation that his sons were worth "a billion" as a brand.

And just wait for the reaction once he starts talking about the documentary and commercials he says his Big Baller Media group is producing, or the sports agency, the Ball Sports Group, that represents Lonzo.

It's straight out of the Kardashian playbook, authored by momager extraordinaire Kris Jenner, who recognized early on that no matter how outrageous celebrities might act, people will pay even more outrageous prices to wear, sniff and watch them.

"When you're exclusive, that's when folks are like, 'I have to have that s---,'" LaVar explains. "People are like, 'I don't like that LaVar Ball, but I gotta get that Triple-Bs stuff.'"

But there's a bit more to this than the empty-calorie Kardashian Khaos. LaVar has three sons with NBA potential and an anti-establishment message that's tapped into larger trends toward independence in music (think Jay Z's record-streaming service, Tidal) and sports (Floyd Mayweather's Mayweather Promotions).

Those stars waited until they were stars to cut out the middleman. But already LaVar's called out: the shoe companies, the NCAA, AAU basketball teams run by shoe companies, retail stores taking a cut of shoe and merchandise sales -- basically all the gatekeepers of the world he's trying to conquer.

Is he trying to change the system or work it? That might not matter, as long as at least one of his sons lives up to the hype he's created for them.

"People don't understand the movement," he says. "This is a power play to show everybody, 'Yo, we don't need you to make this s---.'"

Either way, he knows the system, because he came up through it. LaVar played college ball in the mid-1980s and early 1990s but never had the guidance -- or anywhere near the skill and talent -- that his sons have. He was athletic enough that former New York Jets executive James Harris signed him in 1994 to see if he could be turned into a football player. (He played one year of tight end in college.) The most impactful thing to come out of the time he spent in the systems of the Jets and Carolina Panthers was enough money to send home to Tina so she could buy a house that was big enough for them to raise their future kids, whom LaVar was certain would be boys.

"I knew I was gonna have more than one [son]," LaVar says. "I don't put out no girls. ... Me being alpha dog in our family, I'm gonna have boys. Gimme three boys."

Well, what if one of your boys wasn't athletic? Or wasn't into basketball?

"Wasn't going to happen," LaVar says.

How could he be so certain?

"Speak it into existence," he says. "Keep talking about it until it happens."

It's an interesting experience talking to a man as loud and cocksure as LaVar Ball, who seems wholly unconcerned with convincing you of anything. Most characters of his ilk have a need to be liked. Not LaVar. He sees things his way. He trained his boys his way. Now he's promoting them ... his way. "I know me better than you do," he says. "I know my boys better than they do."

Legendary former Nike, Adidas and Reebok exec Sonny Vaccaro has watched the phenomena around the Ball family unfold. The original shoe maven has seen it all over his career -- but man, LaVar Ball is something else.

"I enjoyed the father's brashness," Vaccaro says. "It took a lot of guts to do what he did. And it is hugely possible that in the right situation, this could be one of the greatest stories of all time.

"I just wish he'd stopped and thought about it a little longer. Because at $495, you took away the public rooting for you. You allow the public to think other things of who you really are."

Could it be intentional? Could LaVar be casting himself as the villain Lonzo has to overcome?

If so, Vaccaro says, "it's almost the perfect setup. If he just gets off to a good start, Lonzo could be America's darling. But he almost has to be that ... or the game is over."

Lonzo knows that once he gets to the NBA, he's going to have to own everything his father has been selling.

"Yeah, that's facts," Lonzo says. "That's true. Who's gonna want to wear a loser's shoe? I know I wouldn't."

WHAT WE KNOW about Lonzo Ball reads like a personnel file.

He's 19. NBA talent evaluators love him, no matter what his father says or does. "Lonzo is very good," says a scout for a team that will be picking in the lottery. "What he does better than anyone in college basketball, and probably anyone in the last 10 to 15 years, is push the ball and get it into the hands of shooters. And what makes him really special is that he's this uniquely brilliant passer."

His coach at UCLA, Steve Alford, swears by him. "A lot of one-and-dones have an entitlement to them," Alford says. "At some point, they don't want to work or practice. But Lonzo was the opposite. He did everything and then some of what we wanted and expected out of him. His character is amazing. He's a tremendous teammate. I sure wish I had more than seven months with him."

Alford swats away a question about whether LaVar could hurt Lonzo's NBA future, saying simply, "Dads don't get to play."

Lonzo, on the other hand, can really play. He led the nation in assists and was an AP first-team All-American and a finalist for the Wooden Award. He's a 6-foot-6 point guard with presence, an unselfish mentality, a smooth handle and a funky shot that somehow keeps going in.

He's also quiet, except around his younger brothers or when he's playing video games. He lets his girlfriend, Denise, make cute Instagram videos of them set to music. His favorite drink is Martinelli's apple cider. His favorite rapper is Future. No, Lil Wayne. No, Lil Uzi Vert. He listens to all of them, constantly, busting out with a verse between sets of the pullups or shooting drills that LaVar orders.

Other than the occasional riff, Lonzo is fairly stoic when he trains or plays. He's into basketball and that's about it.

When UCLA took a trip to Australia last year, he was mostly annoyed with all the tourist stuff. "We went on bike rides and climbed a bridge," he says, sitting in a big leather couch that fills up the family's living room. "Then we went to, like, 10 different zoos, so it was just a lot of walking, sightseeing. I don't really like that. I think it's a waste of time. You can just go on the internet and look at that stuff, to be honest.

"I just like to stay in the hotel and watch movies until we have to practice."

In other words, anything that doesn't involve playing basketball -- or resting so he can play basketball again -- doesn't appeal to him. Which is why he's back home in Chino Hills this spring, training for the draft, instead of Los Angeles.

"I like Chino more than LA, to be honest," he says. "LA's a lot of noise and stuff. You always hear cars and stuff. Here, you don't really hear nothing."

Well, except LaVar.

Lonzo smiles. But he does not look over at his dad, sitting a foot to his left on the black leather couch.

"I do all my playing on the court," he says. "He can say whatever he wants off of it."

When pushed a little harder, Lonzo mounts a loyal defense of his father.

"He's been here my whole life. I wouldn't be here without him," Lonzo says. "So if I go back on him, that's like going back on what I've been doing my whole life, and I don't think that's right."

LAVAR HAS BEEN at this for two decades now. A personal trainer by trade, he's been shaping his own kids from sunrise to sundown since they were born, loading them up with food, swagger and tough love. He says he had them walking by the time they were 8 months and potty-trained by 10 months.

"I put a scarf under their arms and I just hold them up like a bungee cord so they get their balance," he says. "Nobody had Pampers on. I'd wake their ass up in the middle of the night, put them on the toilet. Their cold ass hit that seat, so it was like a mechanism. Cold ass, piss. Now go back to sleep."

There's no wink or smile when he says this.

Before he had sons to work with, LaVar trained "pigeons, dogs, frogs. Anything."

Pigeons?

"Yep," he says. "I make pigeons just do backflips in the air when I clap my hands like that."

Even Lonzo busts up laughing at that one.

LaVar keeps going.

"I'm a trainer. That's my passion," he says. "It ain't basketball. My boys, their passion is balling."

These days, LaVar's training regimen begins early. He's up by 5 a.m., prepping two rounds of breakfast -- first at 7 a.m. for his two younger sons, LiAngelo and LaMelo, who are still in high school, then a few hours later for Lonzo.

After breakfast, Lonzo heads to a local basketball court to train with Darren Moore, a former LaVar client. Lonzo picks up lunch from Subway on the way home, then naps until his younger brothers get home from school around 3 p.m.

They all go out in the afternoon to run the steep hills in nearby Chino Hills State Park with four or five other players LaVar trains. While they run, LaVar yells out their times. If you're going to play at the fast pace the Ball brothers do, you can never get tired. And everything is a competition.

LaVar pulls out an old home movie to explain. Lonzo looks to be about 11, LiAngelo 10 and LaMelo 8. And their AAU team is playing a high school varsity team at a summer tournament in LA.

Physically, it's a total mismatch. The boys on the high school team are 14 to 17 years old, bigger and stronger and taller than the Ball brothers. If the high schoolers could just slow it down and exploit their physical advantages, this game wouldn't be close. Instead, the Balls run them off the court. Full-court trapping, pushing the pace after every rebound, shooting 3-pointers from 10 feet behind the arc.

Within minutes of playing at this pace, the high school team is sucking wind, their hands on their shorts during every dead ball. And still Lonzo keeps pushing after every basket, finding his brothers with long passes along the sidelines, then sprinting past to get open for the shot.

"You can't beat that ball in the air," LaVar says as Gelo finds Melo who finds Lonzo for a 3 -- wait, how deep was that shot? It's even more surreal when 8-year-old Melo starts shooting from distance.

"All my boys shoot like this," LaVar explains. They'd practice ridiculously deep shots, so far back that most coaches wouldn't allow it. LaVar encouraged it. Because once they hit a few, defenses had to stretch out and guard them way behind the arc, creating even more space for Lonzo to penetrate.

Their style of play, born from competing against teams so much bigger and stronger, is not at all unlike the pace-and-space game now being played in the NBA.

"We always played like this in LA," LaVar says. "Now folks are seeing it."

THERE'S ANOTHER VOICE in that home movie -- in all of them. A female voice, cheering from the stands -- yelling just as loud as LaVar.

Tina.

It's hard for any of them to talk about her right now. LaVar might be the frontman, but Tina has been right there with him for the whole ride. She was at every one of the boys' games and every practice. If LaVar made breakfast, she made dinner after she got home from her job at the local middle school. She played basketball with all three boys until Melo started beating her.

"Words really can't describe how much she does for us," Lonzo says. "She's a lot like my dad: energetic ... except she's not crazy on the cameras."

After a stroke in late February, Tina Ball spent about two and a half months in the hospital recovering. LaVar and the boys would visit her at night after they finished training.

"She can't really talk right now," Lonzo says. "But she definitely knows what we're saying, and she smiles all the time. So that's a good thing."

LaVar is quiet while his son answers questions about his mom. LaVar's instinct when Tina first went into the hospital was to protect his sons from worrying too much. He wanted to tell Lonzo the news in person so he could help him process it. Instead, Lonzo got a text message from a relative in the middle of a practice at UCLA.

LaVar was furious. "Who are they to text my son that s---? I was going to tell him in person. Lonzo was coming to watch his brothers play and I was going to tell him, 'Son, your mom is in a bad spot right now.'"

Lonzo left practice as soon as he saw the text and rushed home. It was serious, but she survived, is now in rehab, and in time, LaVar says, she's expected to recover. He told his sons to focus on basketball. The only way he knew to help them was to keep the situation as quiet as possible, to handle everything behind the scenes so they could compartmentalize. "Here's what I tell my boys: 'You all do what y'all do. I got your mama,'" LaVar says.

But word of her condition spread through the college basketball community. After UCLA's first NCAA tournament game, Lonzo was asked about it at a news conference. He answered the way his father had told him to: "That's family business," and then he moved on.

"I got mad, but you can't show it," Lonzo says of being asked the question in such a public setting. "At a moment like that, you gotta just take it and move on. You can't do nothing about it."

"I didn't want to make it into a movie where they're like, 'Lonzo's playing for his mom,'" LaVar says.

But at the same time, LaVar -- who skipped Lonzo's final UCLA game to be with his wife -- was being criticized by unnamed relatives for being so public in the promotion of his sons while his wife was in the hospital.

"Everybody was like, 'What is LaVar doing?'" he says. "Don't worry about what I'm doing. I take care of mine." The man puts a lot out there, but there are still some things he holds sacred. And Tina is sacred.

"She's the one. Just so smooth. She's not like other girls. She's tough, smart, pretty," he says. "I told my wife, 'I been with you so long, you can have one eye drooped and your mouth over here like this and you're still beautiful to me. I look at you the same way. That ain't gonna never change.'"

THIS HOME -- THIS world LaVar and Tina set up for their sons to grow into NBA basketball players -- has turned out to be a hell of an incubator. Chino Hills was mostly rural when they first bought a house here after LaVar's football career ended. It developed fast, as families looking for more room and opportunity moved out of LA and into the dozens of tract-housing communities. But if you drive 5 miles in any direction, there's still dairy farms and the smell of livestock.

It's far enough from Los Angeles that the kids can't really get there until they have their driver's licenses but close enough that they can go to play against much better competition if they want to.

Chino Hills has meant Lonzo never had to go far to compete for an elite university -- and it might mean he doesn't have to go far to play professionally either. In just a few months at UCLA, Ball helped reignite Pauley Pavilion. Celebrities like Snoop Dogg came out, and Pauley's courtside seats looked more like they do at Staples Center when the Lakers are playing. Which makes this next leap rather easy.

"If he gets drafted by the Lakers [who have a 47 percent chance of landing a top-three pick in the NBA lottery]," Vaccaro says, "that is a perfect setup. If you take one thing from what I said, remember this: The Lakers are the salvation for him, and he's the salvation for the Lakers."

LaVar is way ahead of him. "Oh, he's going to be a Laker," he says. "I'm going to keep talking about it until it happens."

It's all a part of the master plan. And so far, it's working, which is why, halfway through Lonzo's morning workout at the local recreation center, a young father carrying his 11-month-old son walks over to introduce himself to LaVar. He wanted to pay his respects to the most famous family in Chino Hills and ask for advice on how to coach his two older sons like LaVar did with his.

"Just work hard, man," LaVar says, his eyes still fixed on Lonzo doing drills.

Other people can try to replicate what he's done, but LaVar isn't trying to rally anyone else to a cause. "I'm doing this because I can," he says. "I have three boys, and they all monsters. If you just got one kid, you can't do this. You ain't got no following.

"You gotta have it like that. That's the only way it'll work. And you can't just have three boys. They all gotta be good."

Of course, you've also got to have a vision long before your sons are born. Then you've got to "speak it into existence." Then you have to train them to be tough, and your wife has to be on board with the tough love.

For the moment, everything is going as he planned it. The world pays attention to him -- and so do his sons.

"I believe what he says," Lonzo says. "And I'm 100 percent behind it."

But he knows the question that lingers over him.

"Question's always the same," Lonzo says with a smile. He's going to the NBA; his dad is not. Even if he does end up with the Lakers, there will be a separation that's a whole lot farther than Chino Hills to UCLA.

"I think that's just you becoming your own person, you know?" he says. "And at the same time, I could always call my dad and talk to him whenever I want. He'll answer.

"But I think it's about becoming your own person, filling into your own shoes."

Signature shoes with his name on them, made by his dad. w.espn.com/espn/feature/story/_/page/presents19367606/how-lonzo-ball-father-lavar-ball-captured-our-attention