Lonzo Ball's success may hinge on how he matures alongside his father

Harvey Araton
The Vertical

It is no stretch to say that the NBA has never before dealt with a helicopter parent quite like LaVar Ball. League insiders queried recently on the subject couldn’t think of one as flamboyant and incendiary. And in reluctant anticipation of his ear-splitting arrival next season, in whatever city Lonzo Ball should land, some are stepping up, speaking out, with Lonzo’s best interests in mind.

The latest was Kyrie Irving, who recalled what he believed to be a measurable experience as a one-and-done prodigy, advising the elder Ball to not relinquish his fatherhood obligations, but to just “let Lonzo be Lonzo for the long haul.”

All well and good. But on the May draft lottery night in 2011 when the Cavaliers cashed in on a 2.8 percent chance to grab Irving with a No. 1 pick stolen from the Clippers, his father, Drederick – a Wall Street financier who had raised two children alone after losing his wife when Kyrie was 4 – came across as exceedingly prideful but reassuringly secure in who he was, or wasn’t.

If this is already wading into a psychological pool, that’s because LaVar Ball has probably been splashing around the deep end long before he began attracting national attention for mind-blowing boasting and living vicariously through his three basketball-playing boys.

Naturally, there’s a technical term for this type of behavior, according to Dr. Frank Smoll, a professor of psychology at the University of Washington: reverse dependency phenomenon.

“Usually, children are dependent on parents for self-esteem and attention,” Smoll, whose research focuses on coaching behavior in youth sports and on the psychological effects of competition in children and adolescents, told the Vertical. “The opposite of that is the parent who is dependent on the child. From reading some of the things that LaVar Ball has been saying, I would speculate that this isn’t something that’s just happened when Lonzo got to UCLA, and it may be a really tough thing for Lonzo to make that break, and a tougher thing for the father.”

Lonzo Ball, 19, will remain a teenager until October, a point guard and person still on training wheels, no matter how much his father touts him as the game’s greatest endowment since the creation of the lower-case ball. It’s a fairly good bet that Lonzo, like most young athletes on the threshold of national celebrity and the enormous pressure that goes with it, doesn’t yet know who or what he is supposed to be.

Lonzo Ball is only 19 and will have quite a bit on his plate in the NBA. (AP)

So however well-intentioned it is to suggest that LaVar allow “Lonzo to be Lonzo,” there are alternative and mitigating issues that may prevent Lonzo from manning up and telling daddy to cease and desist from making declarations embarrassing to him in the national conversation.

And, $495 sneakers notwithstanding, from potentially alienating him from the established professionals he’ll be competing with and against.

Such is the telling difference between the Ball case and the usual overzealous parents we have become accustomed to hearing about in the professional sports realm. Most have been shepherds of individual athletes, not so much in team sports (though if you do a search for “Eric Lindros and family,” one of the first stories to come up on the retired hockey star is headlined, “Lindros needs to get away from his parents”).

Tennis fathers, among the most prominent of early career-controllers and cringe-worthy actors, don’t have to consider group dynamics, resentful teammates and flummoxed executives. Richard Williams verbally infuriated some of Venus’ and Serena’s opponents in their early days on the women’s tour, but what did it matter as long as the sisters were capable of taking care of business once the ball was in play?

Like Lonzo Ball to this point, Venus and Serena seldom, if ever, publicly distanced themselves from their father, and why would they? He was the family patriarch, the visionary who guided them into careers of unimagined riches and in their minds was most trustworthy in keeping them from veering onto a road to ruin. Eventually, full-blown adulthood happened, and Richard receded as a force ever present in their professional lives.

Louder and more ludicrous than Richard Williams ever was, LaVar Ball may be an incorrigible blowhard but he is also an attendant father in a sport replete with players who grew up without one. He has gotten Lonzo to this point, a probable top-five pick in the June draft.

These are facts that can’t be shouted away by offended talking heads on cable TV, said Alexis Castorri, a Florida-based sports psychologist who has worked with many athletes, pro and amateur, the tennis star Andy Murray among them.

“In my dealings with young pros, their parents are a vital part of their team, and often that has to be,” Castorri told The Vertical. “What you have to remember is that everybody’s growth rate is different and this is an enormous developmental process that an athlete goes through between 16 and 19, and then between 19 and 26. There’s nothing like it in the world, no other profession where there is so much financially at stake so soon, and in an environment the athlete often can’t control.”

The question of why Lonzo Ball would be reluctant to banish his father from his inner circle, even if LaVar couldn’t holster his hubris begets another: Who is more trustworthy, a nurturing father or an agent for hire? Consider the benefits of Kristaps Porzingis having his 34-year-old brother, Janis, around him in New York these past two seasons, with coaches coming and going in a backdrop of deflating organizational dysfunction.

“The young athlete is preternaturally attached to the parent until he or she is old enough to know what’s going on for themselves,” Castorri told The Vertical. With that in mind, she described her job as “being a neutral voice to help them through the growing-up process, someone they can talk to without having an opinion.”

There will be many opinions bombarding the Balls should LaVar hit the NBA ground bragging, but the emptiest arm-chair psychology counsel would be for Lonzo to be Lonzo, at least until he figures out who Lonzo is. Until then, cut him a break, let him grow up and let LaVar speak for no one but himself.

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