“There’s always oxygen somewhere,” reads an article on ESPN.com this morning, criticizing the Los Angeles Lakers’ front-office muckety-mucks for their radio silence on the antics of hot-taking sports dad LaVar Ball, “and a firebrand like Ball will always find it.” This seems a bit rich, coming from the bellows.
Let’s recap. A few days ago, LaVar, the very famously bombastic and meddlesome father of Lakers rookie guard Lonzo Ball, gave an interview with ESPN’s Jeff Goodman. Here’s that, in case you’re not quite as desperately exhausted by the ongoing LaVar Ball Experience as I am:
This interview spawned no fewer than three individual stories that occupied ESPN.com’s main basketball page over the weekend, but the portion relevant to the present foofaraw begins at the 10:00 mark of the above video. That’s when the subject switches from the Lithuanian misadventures of the two younger Ball sons, LiAngelo and LaMelo, to the travails of eldest Ball son Lonzo’s struggling Lakers team. Goodman prompts the elder Ball to repeat some “strong comments” he’d made about the Lakers off camera. Those off-camera comments, as quoted by Goodman in the piece accompanying that video on ESPN’s website, were pretty hot:
“You can see they’re not playing for Luke no more .... Luke doesn’t have control of the team no more. They don’t want to play for him. ... Nobody wants to play for him. I can see it. No high-fives when they come out of the game. People don’t know why they’re in the game. He’s too young. He’s too young. ... He ain’t connecting with them anymore. You can look at every player, he’s not connecting with not one player. ... Even if you bring in a LeBron or a [Paul] George, he can’t coach them guys. What is he gonna tell them? He’s too young. He has no control.”
In the video, before Ball gets a chance to expound, Goodman characterizes those comments as “the players didn’t want to play, they don’t want to play for [Lakers head coach] Luke Walton.”
On camera, what follows Goodman’s prompt is a ragged symphony of caveats, disclaimers, and attempts at retreat from Ball, reminders that he is just voicing his perception as an outsider and has no special insight into the Lakers’ internal dynamics. What emerges from this is the altogether milder take that “I’ve always said, when you lose by 20 and 30 and you’re talking about boys, you don’t want to play for me or you don’t want to play. So I tell ‘em that’s a pride thing.” Not for nothing, but a few seconds later, Ball also says the following, out loud, word for word, at exactly the 10:50 mark in the video: “They probably want to play for him as hard as they can.”
“LaVar Ball: Lakers ‘don’t want to play for’ Luke Walton,” read the headline when ESPN aggregated this portion of the interview on its own website. Which is accurate, I suppose: He did say that, and that’s a newsworthy thing for the famous and famously meddlesome father of a professional athlete to say about that professional athlete’s team and coach. He also then walked back and said the opposite of that remark. Not in a later My words were taken out of context ass-covering bit after publication, but in the same interview. “LaVar Ball: Lakers probably want to play for Luke Walton as hard as they can” would have been at least as accurate a headline. He said that, too!
A few years back, our old pal John Koblin wrote a piece for this here website about ESPN manufacturing a sports story out of thin air. It began, in that case, with ESPN football pundit Ron Jaworski issuing the empty but hot-sounding statement “I truly believe Colin Kaepernick could be one of the greatest quarterbacks ever” (my, how times have changed!); other ESPN properties treated this statement as news and other ESPN pundits reacted to it, leading eventually to Kaepernick (then with the San Francisco 49ers and not yet famous for kneeling during the national anthem) being asked to comment on it, and ESPN treating his comments both as newsworthy in and of themselves and also as the basis for the weird meta-story that an ESPN employee (Jaworski) had said something controversial. The playbook for this sort of thing goes back farther than that, as Koblin noted—at least as far back as when the network staged its own phony intramural culture war over Tim Tebow and sustained, for whole entire years, the entirely fictional story that either Tebow’s football ability or his performative religiosity were matters of genuine controversy anywhere outside the folie à deux between ESPN and its own viewership.
Here is the newest iteration of the playbook. An ESPN reporter seeks out—in Lithuania!—a noted blowhard and wrings a controversial take out of him (despite the blowhard’s best efforts to temper and walk back that take pretty much as it is leaving his mouth). ESPN spends the following days performing air-raid drills behind it, spawning a succession of follow-ons: Lonzo Ball is asked to, in essence, choose between his coach and his dad, and his tepid choice of athlete-interview boilerplate itself becomes a story; hysterical NBA coach’s union president Rick Carlisle says ESPN has betrayed its covenant with the doofuses who donate ten seconds of distracted “gotta get stops” talk to its between-quarters interviews, and that’s a story; Steve Kerr has takes about ESPN devoting multiple reporters to the LaVar Ball Beat when it has laid off talented people who do actual smart work, and that’s a story. Walton cracks a joke about it in a postgame presser, and that’s a story.
TNT basketball moron Reggie Miller went on former ESPN host Dan Patrick’s radio show yesterday to say that Lakers team president Magic Johnson should threaten to trade Lonzo Ball because his dad said some cranky shit about the team’s coach and then immediately tried to walk it back.
(Of course, because Reggie Miller is a fucking idiot, this came just after he finished claiming that all three Ball sons are doomed, professionally, because “no coach, general manager, or owner are gonna want to put up with [LaVar].” But yes, definitely threaten to trade the toxic player nobody wants. That for sure will silence his mouthy dad.)
Whoa! That’s a story! The Reggie Miller soundbite featured on ESPN’s First Take this morning, with Stephen A. Smith insisting that Magic Johnson now “definitely has to speak out” and framing this moment as a referendum on Johnson’s choice to select Lonzo Ball over Jayson Tatum, De’Aaron Fox, and others in last summer’s draft. “You’ve got to quiet this man [LaVar] down,” he said, addressing Johnson. You’ve got to stop this man from talking (to ESPN), by talking (to ESPN).
The written piece on ESPN.com this morning, by Lakers beat reporter Ramona Shelburne, frames it as LaVar Ball reneging on his promise not to undermine Lonzo’s coaches, and suggests Johnson and the organization, in their silence, have unfairly left to Lonzo and Walton the job of responding to LaVar’s comments.
The story now is how the Lakers react. Appeasement hasn’t worked. Neither has deference. Silence only makes his voice louder and helps grow the seeds he’s trying to plant.
The Lakers have a problem now, in ESPN’s formulation. ESPN reporters think the Lakers must do a better job of preventing LaVar Ball from making, to ESPN reporters who follow him to Lithuania, stick a microphone in his face, and ask him for his opinions on issues related to his famous sons, statements that those ESPN reporters may then parse for their most incendiary content and package as inflammatory on ESPN’s various platforms. Why are their executives so silent on this issue? What is wrong with the Lakers that they have not stopped us from making an entire factory out of the hot takes of this famous gasbag? Don’t they know that [extremely appropriate passive voice] there is always oxygen somewhere?
The team’s continued failure to “hold LaVar Ball accountable” for voicing and then immediately walking back a spicy Luke Walton take when an ESPN reporter asked him for one is a story. Whatever the Lakers eventually get around to doing will also be a story. LaVar Ball’s reaction to it will be a story. What Stephen A. Smith thinks the Lakers should do about LaVar Ball’s reaction to it will be a story. The Lakers’ failure to do what Stephen A. Smith thinks they should do about LaVar Ball’s reaction to it will be a story.