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The Ball Family Circus Comes To Ohio

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Illustration: Sam Woolley (GMG)

There isn’t a whole lot going on in Vermilion, Ohio, in the winter.

Once known as the Village of Lake Captains, this city of 10,000 located halfway between Cleveland and Sandusky—like many small towns on the shore of Lake Erie—has cast its lot with tourism. There’s a quaint downtown, hundreds of boat slips, and a replica of the lighthouse that used to scan the coastline. Trade’s the most brisk in the summer and fall, with the Woollybear Festival—billed as the largest one-day festival in Ohio and dedicated to a fuzzy caterpillar that legend has it can predict the weather—in October as the culmination of the season. Late fall marks a particularly slow time, as the lake hasn’t gotten cold enough to freeze, which allows for ice fishing.

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But this year, on the last weekend in November, the circus came to Vermilion.

The local high school was hosting its annual basketball tournament to start the season. The format’s fairly straightforward: Vermilion invited three other teams. There were two games on Friday, and a consolation game and championship game on Saturday.

In addition to the host Sailors, the tournament featured Bay High School from Bay Village, a tony Cleveland suburb probably most famous for being the site of the murder of Marilyn Sheppard—a scandalous case in the 1950s that went all the way to the Supreme Court and depending on who you believe, also inspired The Fugitive—Oberlin High School, in the town of the same name, a local bastion of liberalism that last year became the the first in Ohio to celebrate Indigenous Peoples’ Day instead of Columbus Day; and Spire Institute, a private facility in the far northeast corner of Ohio that is not actually a high school.

Spire was a late addition to the field, according to Andrew Stillman, the Vermilion athletic director. “We needed a team, they wanted a game, and everyone else agreed,” he said.

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That was in July. In the beginning of November, everyone got a whole lot more familiar with Spire when LaMelo Ball, the youngest son of LaVar Ball and brother of Lakers point guard Lonzo Ball, announced he’d be cutting short a stint playing in Lithuania and moving to Ohio to attend Spire. Or, perhaps more accurately, given the carnival-barker way he seems to operate his family, LaVar announced it. With a press conference, naturally.

“It really ratcheted up interest in the tournament,” Stillman said, a bit understatedly. More security was hired, people were brought in to direct traffic and park cars on the Vermilion campus, and tickets were made available only online.

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The line to get in an hour before tip-off.
Photo: Vince Guerrieri

The line had already stretched around the school when the building opened at 5 p.m. for a 6 p.m. game. A half-hour later, LaVar and middle son LiAngelo walked in through the front door. The dull roar of hundreds of different conversations at once rolled into an ovation as a chant of “B-B-B!” broke out. LaVar was thronged by well-wishers, selfie-takers, and autograph-seekers. A journalist from Bay’s school newspaper said when he came by to ask questions, Ball grabbed his iPhone and signed the case.

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LaVar and company were trailed by a camera crew for the Facebook series Ball in the Family, which also set up miniature action cameras on the railing of the second level. Fans sitting near the Balls were asked to sign waivers to be shown in the series—as was I when I talked to LaVar. (I did. Look for me. I’ll be the bald fat guy scribbling notes.)

The Balls’ grand theatrical entrance stood in marked contrast to that of the Spire team itself, which pulled up to the side door and, out of sight of the fans, strolled up steps to the visiting locker room. That’s a heavy-handed metaphor for Spire itself. Since its first building opened in 2009, it’s operated in relative anonymity. Until the Balls came along.

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The towns along the Lake Erie shoreline in Ashtabula County, Ohio’s most northeastern, are a lot like Vermilion. Once small industrial ports, they now rely on tourism and recreation. Ashtabula County bills itself as Ohio’s capital of covered bridges, with 19 throughout the county. Geneva-on-the-Lake features a charming main drag that includes an old-fashioned hot dog stand and one of the country’s last Concentration games, a once-popular carnival game until its 1920s-era technology became increasingly difficult to repair. A wine trail winds through the county, taking advantage of the fertile soil ringing the lake.

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Also in Geneva—built on land formerly used to grow grapes—is Spire Institute, the brainchild of local entrepreneur Ron Clutter. Clutter’s father owned a janitorial service company, which Clutter was pressed into taking over while still a student at nearby Mount Union College after his father’s untimely death. In 1998, Clutter bought Nordic Air, a small HVAC company in Ashtabula County, grew it more than 10 times in a little more than a decade, and sold it for a hefty sum.

Clutter was determined to give back to his community, and initially his plan was as simple as building an athletic facility for local high schools. But the vision turned into something larger: He pictured a state-of-the-art facility for professional athletes and Olympians as well as for high school and college students.

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Too many similar plans can’t weather the cold, hard glare of Northern Ohio reality. Ambitious visions of an indoor stock car racetrack fizzled near Warren. A Lorain soccer academy founded by Bay Village native Brad Friedel, ended spectacularly in bankruptcy. (That sprawling campus was recently sold, with plans for what’s become Ohio’s biggest growth industry: a drug and alcohol rehabilitation center.)

But Spire became a reality. By 2011, it was a sprawling 175-acre campus, with a Michael Johnson Training Center featuring one of the largest indoor tracks in the country; one of the fastest pools in the country; the only Olympic and Paralympic training site in Ohio, and the largest amount of Astroturf bought by any customer in the product’s history.

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That year, chief operating officer Jeff Orloff came to Spire after 23 years with IMG, the monolithic talent agency that started in Cleveland and retains a presence in the city’s downtown. Orloff says he was drawn to the facility and its mission. “I’ve been all around the world, and I haven’t seen anything like this. Everything done here is character-based.”

There are currently 817 high schools in the state that belong to the Ohio High School Athletic Association. Spire Academy, which is housed on the sprawling campus, is not one of them for a variety of reasons, chief among them is that it doesn’t itself offer schooling.

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Though Spire began life solely as an athletic training facility, it soon added the option to take classes at nearby schools in an attempt to draw top-level prep-age talent. “It became more and more apparent it was something we needed,” Orloff says.

Initially, Spire students took classes at Andrews Osborne Academy, a boarding and day school in Willoughby, about 30 miles away. Now, people at Spire who want to get their high school education have two closer options: Grand River Academy, a private all-boys school, and St. John, a co-ed Catholic school that’s probably most famous for being the alma mater of Urban Meyer.

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Grand River currently enrolls five students from Spire—including LaMelo Ball—with Spire paying the $10,600 annual tuition for day students. St. John’s has a total of 12 Spire students, all but one of them boys. Keith Corlew, St. John’s director of enrollment management and marketing, says the experience of going to school with Spire athletes, many of whom are international students, is enriching for the other St. John students.

“It does add a great cultural component for our students,” he says. “They get to go to school with kids from Congo and Romania and Spain. It’s a neat experience.”

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Corlew notes that even if they wanted to, most of the athletes at Spire couldn’t play sports for St. John’s, or Grand River, or really any other school governed by the OHSAA. “If they’re from a foreign country, they likely have an F-1 visa, which would forbid them from playing sports here,” he says. “And if it’s an American student, they’re not eligible unless their parents live in Ohio.”

With regards to its initial mission, Spire walks the walk—to a point. It’s not just for Olympic trainees; it’s available for use by the general public and hosts high school and college sporting events. But almost since its origin, it’s been a victim of its own ambition.

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In 2012, it was estimated that Spire’s parent company, Roni Lee LLC, owed more than $14 million in liens to various contractors for the institute, which Clutter and his attorneys argued was not created to make money. However, the property is owned by a limited liability corporation, a for-profit entity, which makes it taxable. That led to more problems for Spire, specifically $17 million owed in back and future taxes. Earlier this year, the institute finally came to an agreement with various taxing bodies for a $3.96 million settlement, payable over 10 years. (The standard agreement is five years, necessitating the passage of a state law for the exception).

The settlement seemed like an enormous break for Spire based on its 2010 valuation of $54 million. But an independent re-appraisal said the facility was worth just $11.5 million. The appraisal by Waronzof Associates Inc. of California also noted “the facility is so large, however, and so poorly located (in a rural area of Ohio) that it does not have the population to create attendance, visitation (or) utilization by athletes and coaches or trainers. It is grossly over-capacity and located in much too small a market or trade area to garner the revenues necessary to support a competitive return on investment.”

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Although it wasn’t as painful as the abrupt, nationally televised Decision in 2010, LeBron James’s departure to Los Angeles (to play with, among others, LaMelo’s oldest brother Lonzo) has significantly lessened enthusiasm for the Cavs around here. An injury to Kevin Love, the trade of Kyle Korver, and JR Smith’s impending departure haven’t helped, although the Cavs did get fan favorite Matthew Dellavedova back.

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In LaMelo’s introductory news conference at Spire, LaVar Ball played to local sentiment, saying “Since LeBron left, I brought you a Ball boy.” A particularly puckish media organization even put up a billboard on I-90 in downtown Cleveland, reminiscent of the LeBron James billboard.

LaMelo, who spoke only briefly on his way to the bus following the tournament, said he’s adjusted well to Spire and to Northeast Ohio. “It’s cool. It’s not hard to get used to it at all.”

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The elder Ball said Alan Foster, the manager of Big Baller Brand to whom he refers as a brother, discovered Spire for LaMelo. Jermaine Jackson, hired as Spire’s coach in July, said God led him there, and the additional attention his newest player draws makes no difference.

“My job stays the same, even with LaMelo,” says Jackson, whose pro playing career included stops in the NBA, China, and Europe. “People come here to train, and we put the work in. I show them where they want to go.”

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The team was already stacked before Ball’s arrival. Senior Rocket Watts will be headed to Michigan State, and juniors Isaiah Jackson and Andre Polk are also potential Division I commits (the three were formerly teammates at Detroit’s Old Redford). All told, the institute says six players on the high school team have at least one Division I scholarship offer, not including 7-foot-7 Romanian sensation Robert Bobroczkyi—and that was before the arrival of Ball, whose family maintains he still has college eligibility. (They say that although he signed a contract with the Lithuanian team, he was never paid, and thus didn’t give up his amateur status.)

Because of that potential eligibility landmine, Spire has had a bit of trouble scheduling. In recent months, opponents La Lumiere (Indiana) and Oak Hill Academy (Virginia) canceled games with Spire, fearful of losing their own eligibility, per the rules of their respective states’ athletic associations. However, there are no such rules standing in the way of Spire scheduling games with any school in Ohio. Indeed, Spire has quickly become one of the hottest tickets in the state.

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The crowd around LaVar Ball, the real star of the show.
Photo: Vince Guerrieri

Spire played before a packed house of about 1,500 both nights in Vermilion. The night before the tournament, Spire played Garfield Heights in a game that was moved to Euclid High School because its larger gym seats 3,000. The following week, they played in front of another huge crowd against a school that had its own experience with hype: LeBron James’s alma mater, Akron St. Vincent-St. Mary. (That game was at the Canton Field House, which seats 4,800.) Later in December, they played in Arizona before a standing-room-only crowd that included former NBA player Metta World Peace.

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Spire drew Bay the first night of the tournament. The Rockets scrapped to an early 4-2 lead, prompting their student section (with more than a few kids wearing Cavs gear, including several LeBron jerseys) to chant “O-VER-RATED” at Spire. Unsurprisingly, Spire doesn’t travel well, so there was no comeback from the visiting fan section.

Bay’s player worked hard against a Spire team that initially couldn’t find its footing—perhaps a consequence of arriving literally a half hour before first tip (the next night, they’d be assessed a delay of game technical for doing the same thing). But while coaches like to say things like “hard work beats talent when talent doesn’t work hard,” there was no amount of work that could cover this gap in talent. Spire’s players were much taller than Bay’s, drawing two goaltending penalties on the night—not a particularly common call in Ohio high school basketball. A LaMelo layup gave Spire a 6-4 lead it would never relinquish on its way to a 113-67 rout. Ball finished the game with 20 points, 14 assists, and 11 rebounds.

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In the championship game the next day, Vermilion put up a little more fight, but the home Sailors also lost to Spire, 102-75. Ball, who scored 28 points, was named tournament MVP.

The tournament was regarded in Vermilion as nothing less than a success. “It was a lot of fun,” Stillman says. “It was great for the kids and great for the community.”

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For his part, LaVar Ball was an entirely pleasant guest, to the point where the game’s PA announcer thanked the family for their cooperation as the school dealt with a house packed with fans from Cleveland to Toledo.

Ball anticipated the reaction. He even enjoys it. “People want to see my son before he gets to the NBA,” he said. “It’s going to be like this everywhere.”

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Vince Guerrieri is an award-winning journalist and author in the Cleveland area. He likes Lake Erie perch sandwiches, Jim Traficant and long walks on the field at League Park. His website is vinceguerrieri.com, and you can follow him on Twitter @vinceguerrieri.

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