Chino Hills also “Chino Ball”

The Denver Post - - SPORTS - By Ryan Kartje

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 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.”

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