We all have a LaVar Ball problem, but ESPN really has a LaVar Ball problem.
There will always be a conflict of interest for a massive media conglomerate covering a league it also has a vested business interest in as a TV partner. It came to a head between ESPN and the NFL five years ago, when the network reportedly withdrew from a documentary investigating the league’s alleged cover-up of concussion concerns at commissioner Roger Goodell’s behest. And it’s coming to a head again for ESPN now, this time with the NBA, over a far less consequential reason: LaVar Ball.
After ESPN’s Jeff Goodman relayed Ball’s belief that Los Angeles Lakers coach Luke Walton is losing the locker room in L.A., Dallas Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle and Golden State Warriors coach Steve Kerr circled the wagons and openly ripped the network’s news arm for quoting a player’s “blowhard” dad.
But Detroit Pistons coach Stan Van Gundy was the first to draw a definitive line in the sand for ESPN. In addition to calling the story “cheap [expletive],” Van Gundy told reporters in New Orleans on Monday night that he intends to boycott a league-mandated meeting with ESPN’s announcing crew prior to their nationally televised game against the Washington Wizards on Jan. 19 in addition to the requisite in-game interview with a sideline reporter between quarters, per the Detroit Free Press.
“I’m not denying them access,” Van Gundy said of ESPN from New Orleans on Monday night. “I’m not kicking them out of press conferences. They want extra stuff from us and they’re going to treat an NBA coach with that little respect? Then I’m going to choose not to give them extra access.”
Van Gundy reportedly informed the NBA Coaches Association, players’ association and commissioner Adam Silver of his intentions. Another report indicated “several NBA coaches plan to ask media relations staffs to revoke credentials of basketball writers who interview LaVar Ball,” although league sources refute that assertion.
Still, don’t you think you’re taking LaVar Ball a little too seriously, fellas? It’s not like they threaten to restrict TNT’s access when Charles Barkley says something dumb. As for whether Silver will flex his muscle with ESPN over LaVar Ball the same way Goodell allegedly did over concussions, Van Gundy added, “We’ll see what happens. What the league decided to do yesterday was put it on NBA.com.”
Yet another conflict of interest — the NBA covering itself. NBA.com, for the record, is operated by Turner Sports, the league’s other national TV partner. The coaches want the focus on basketball, without all the drama, which is a tale as old as Dr. James Naismith, but the league has a brand to sell. That’s how TV deals climb into the billions and coach’s salaries reach the millions. (We might mention here that ESPN employs Stan’s brother Jeff Van Gundy, in part, because he says what he thinks.)
You see, Lavar Ball gets clicks, and for that he’s going nowhere. He has turned bombastic statements about how his son Lonzo is better than Stephen Curry, Michael Jordan and everybody else who’s ever picked up a basketball into an appearance on “Jimmy Kimmel Live,” a Twitter beef with the President of the United States, a Facebook reality show about his family and whatever the hell else.
Love him or hate him, the public can’t get enough of him, and he can’t get enough of the public. It’s like the scene from “Private Parts,” when Pig Vomit asks why Howard Stern haters listen twice as long as his fans, and a researcher responds: “Most common answer? ‘I want to see what he’ll say next.'”
LaVar Ball is news, like it or not, and when the father of the No. 2 pick for a team in the NBA’s second-largest media market publicly declares the coach has lost a locker room, that’s most definitely a news story. Even if what LaVar is saying is not true, the precarious position that his comments put Lonzo in with his coach is a fascinating angle. The same would be true if Brandon Ingram’s father said it, too.
And ESPN has a responsibility to cover it.
Now, does ESPN need two entire sections dedicated to “The Ball Family” and “Ball Talk” on its site?
Trust me when I say it wouldn’t be expanding its Ball family coverage if it wasn’t good for business. Kerr can decry all he wants ESPN’s layoffs in favor of allocating funds for coverage of LiAngelo and LaMelo in Lithuania, but until the public stops consuming all things Ball at an alarming rate, the avalanche isn’t going to stop. It might not be the way we all want it, but it’s the way it is.
Donald Trump is our president, for goodness sake. Windbags carry in this country.
And maybe that’s what sticks in the craw of these NBA coaches — the societal thirst for bombast. But it is not the job of any news organization to silence the story, and coaches attempting to do so by strong-arming the media doesn’t make them any better. We can point out over and over that LaVar Ball is a blowhard, that he’s turned his family into a traveling circus, and that he may very well be a fraud. And we have. But it’s up to the public to decide he’s no longer of interest.
This is a problem for those of us who grew tired of his act as soon as it started, but it’s really a problem for ESPN, which may soon have to decide between LaVar Ball and exclusive media access.
“If that’s the way they want to do it, that’s good, but I’m not going to feel obligated to give them extra time and wear a mic and go out and talk to reporters,” added Van Gundy, via The Detroit News. “They can mic LaVar or one of my player’s parents and do a between-quarters interview if that’s the way they want to cover the game.”
The irony of this is that the public would rather hear what a player’s parent might say than an in-game interview replete with coach-speak and, in San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich’s case, disdain. Maybe that wouldn’t be the case if the coaches offered more newsworthy anecdotes than LaVar Ball.
Of course, when Van Gundy has done that in the past, the NBA hit him with a $25,000 fine for it. If only the coaches were more forthright and the league allowed them to be more bombastic, then ESPN might really have a story. Instead, the only winner in this mess is LaVar Ball. What a time to be alive.
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