Chino Hills also “Chino Ball”
chino hills, calif.» A storm is raging, the fiercest Southern California has seen in years, but outside the Chino Hills High School gymnasium on a Friday night in February, hundreds stand in line anyway, soaked but undeterred, their barricade of umbrellas snaking around the building.
They have come to catch lightning in a bottle, to gaze upon a prep phenomenon the likes of which this town had never seen before. A few years ago, Chino Hills High was unknown in basketball circles — a public school, just a decade old, with a tiny gym and a modest following. But that was before the plan took hold and the nation took notice, before the Ball family and Chino Hills’ electric offense, before 35-0, the 60game win streak and the national title.
“Now, it’s a movement,” says Scout.com recruiting analyst Josh Gershon. “Everyone knows Chino Hills.”
The Chino Hills gym is a charming shoe box of a basketball arena, with a couple dozen rows of wood bleachers and a standing-room capacity of 1,300 — less than half that of longtime Orange County powerhouse Mater Dei. On this opening night of the playoffs, the fans will need every inch. LiAngelo, the middle of the three vaunted Ball brothers, is set to return and a tightly packed crowd buzzes, whispering of another state championship run.
The ball is tipped, and Chino Hills bursts into hyperdrive. Just four seconds in, LaMelo Ball, the youngest Ball brother, serves up a soaring alley-oop. The crowd gasps. This is Chino Hills in all its high-throttle glory. During LiAngelo’s recent absence, LaMelo scored 92 points in a game. “SportsCenter” called. “World News Tonight” ran a story. In a matter of hours, the 15-year-old’s coronation as an internet sensation was underway.
A slow start against Junipero Serra turns into a 21-0 run in mere minutes. Chino Hills runs away with a 105-74 victory, piling on until the final buzzer.
At center court, the architect behind this phenomenon leans forward from his seat in the first row, resting his massive 6-foot-6 frame on his knees and chewing gum as vigorously as the Chino Hills offense moves. Even from a distance, LaVar Ball is an intimidating presence. His gaze — intense and unrelenting — rarely leaves the court.
Everyone in the Chino Hills community knows LaVar, and nearly everyone has an opinion of him. Even at a recent road win at Rancho Cucamonga, fans lined up just to snap selfies with him — the man who fathered the Ball boys.
Chino Hills may not have seen this coming — the national acclaim, the autograph seekers, the internet celebrity — but this is exactly what LaVar envisioned since his three sons were born. For years, he told anyone who would listen of his boys’ impending greatness.
“He’s always had a master plan,” says Tina Ball, his wife.
So ... about this plan? A reporter asks, UCLA’s Lonzo Ball is averaging 14.6 points, 7.7 assists and 6.1 rebounds as a 6-foot-6 freshman guard from Chino Hills, Calif. He is the Pac-12 Conference player of the year, and the Bruins are 29-4. Mark J. Terrill, The Associated Press and before long, LaVar is off, hurtling past the parental niceties, straight down a rabbit hole of unhinged fatherly ambition. Over the course of two hours, LaVar will declare, among other things, his three sons’ intentions to go oneand-done in college, to play together on the U.S. Olympic team and to challenge Michael Jordan’s reign as the NBA’s “GOAT” — greatest of all time. LaVar will divulge plans for a family docuseries and threaten to upend the status quo of the NBA shoe game.
Surely, this is lunacy. A father’s delusions of grandeur. Just LaVar being LaVar, right? But as the Chino Hills team keeps winning and his sons’ celebrity status grows, are we just too myopic to see it unfolding before us?
“Some people call him crazy,” Lonzo, LaVar’s eldest son, says after practice at UCLA. “But everything that he’s said, it’s pretty much come true.”
One thing is certain, and he wields this truth proudly and openly: LaVar Ball is in control. At Chino Hills, where his three sons have jump-started a phenomenon and set up a once-unknown program for a second consecutive title run, LaVar has ruffled feathers and asserted his will. “Some of them understand the takeover,” he says, “and they don’t like it.”
LaVar senses their indignation but couldn’t care less. The team is winning. His sons are thriving. The plan is working.
“Might as well call Chino Hills, Chino Ball,” LaVar continues, flashing a selfassured grin. “That’s the reality. As soon as my last son graduates, Chino Hills will go from sugar to (expletive).
“When I’m done, they can have it back.”
The city of Chino Hills is located at the southwest corner of the Inland Empire, in the distant shadow of the San Gabriel Mountains. When LaVar and Tina Ball moved to the south side of town, before Chino Hills nearly tripled in size and manicured subdivisions sprouted from the landscape, they could still spot loose cows on the hillside nearby.
In that same corner house, LaVar is holding court, as he often does.
“We’re America’s first basketball family,” he declares from across the dining room table, as if it were the tag line to a new E! reality series.
Tina stands working over a table piled high with gear from Big Baller Brand, the apparel company the family launched last year, as LaVar dives into one of his favorite stories. He is recalling the moment he saw Tina for the first time, 6-foot tall and beautiful, on campus at Cal State Los Angeles. As the story goes, he knew right then she fit the Ball plan. “I keep telling people, I picked her for the genes,” he jokes.
If so, he seems to have picked wisely. Lonzo, 19, has been a dynamo as a 6-6 freshman guard at UCLA, a candidate for national player of the year and a likely top-three selection in the upcoming NBA draft. He will make his NCAA Tournament debut Friday with the Bruins, who are 29-4. LiAngelo, 18, is a bruising scorer who’s bound for UCLA in the fall. LaMelo, just a sophomore but already committed to the Bruins, could be the best of the three.
From birth, LaVar groomed them to be stars. As early as 4, LiAngelo remembers doing pull-ups. At 9, they sprinted up dirt hills in the backyard. Sometimes, they moved the furniture and staged their own athletic events, dubbing them the “Ghetto Olympics.” Family vacations were sacrificed for additional training, and to ward off complacency, LaVar gave away the trophies they won to other family members.
Before they could dribble, LaVar taught his sons the offense they would
Even at UCLA, LaVar’s voice is heard. During a preseason trip to Australia, Lonzo attempted to tweak the funky release on his jumper. An awful shooting slump followed, and upon his return, LaVar called UCLA coach Steve Alford. He didn’t mince words: Lonzo was changing back. “I should’ve never let him change it in the first place,” LaVar says.
Say what you will about fathers living vicariously through their sons — such things have certainly been said about LaVar before — but, for one moment, let us consider those who suggest that LaVar doesn’t fit so easily into that cookie-cutter narrative of fame-crazed fathers and over-burdened sons. His belief in his sons has always been unwavering. Close friends rave that he, most of all, is the source of their unending confidence.
“People say, ‘Oh, LaVar’s crazy,’ ” the father of the Ball boys says. “Well, they thought Tiger Woods’ dad was crazy. They thought Venus’ and Serena’s dad was crazy. These are all great (athletes). So I’d say we’re on the right path. I want them going for the highest.”
But how high? How far can one push until the narrative — and its burden — swallows them whole? The cautionary tales are in endless supply.
Recently, LaVar has begun thinking bigger, beyond basketball. “Branding is the ultimate,” he says.
A Ball family docuseries, filmed over the past year, is being shopped to Netflix, Amazon and HBO Sports, according to LaVar’s business partner, who asked to remain unnamed. He claims “a bidding war” is already underway.
Back in the dining room, LaVar holds up a jacket that bears the three-B logo of Big Baller Brand, each of which represents one of his three sons. In every photo op or video interview, Big Baller Brand makes an appearance. At Chino Hills games, the apparel is everywhere.
“This jacket, it’s $100,” LaVar says. “I have hats for $100, and people buy them.”
Last year, LaVar applied for a trademark of the brand’s name. Now, a Big Baller Brand shoe is “on deck.” As is often the case with LaVar, parsing reality from hyperbole can be complicated. But in this future he imagines, shoe companies bend to his favor. “A reckoning is coming,” he warns, through a grin.
When Lonzo is drafted this summer, LaVar says, he will be the first to enter the NBA with his own brand. In a few years, his brothers will follow.
“This,” LaVar says, “is a power move.”