To commemorate the end of 2017, the staff of USA TODAY High School Sports debated the dominant storylines of 2017 to determine the five most important and resonant of the year.
3. LAMELO BALL BECOMES MOST FOLLOWED TEEN ATHLETE, LEAVES SCHOOL FOR LITHUANIA
Few American families dominated news cycles in 2017 more than the Ball family of Chino Hills. The Trumps? That’s about it. While the family started the calendar year with two of its three sons in high school and one in college, it finished with none in education anywhere in the United States. How it got there was one of the dominant storylines of the year, with particular emphasis on LaMelo Ball, the youngest of LaVar Ball’s three sons.
It’s not that LaMelo Ball did anything wrong. He didn’t. It’s just that his evolution over the course of the year has had all the echoes of a dyspeptic Dickensian script. Let’s look back:
- From January through March, sophomore LaMelo was Chino Hills’ second-leading scorer behind older brother LiAngelo, averaging 26.7 points-per-game. He and the Huskies were excellent but fell short of expectations, getting eliminated in the regional semifinals of the California Open Division championship
- As father LaVar Ball’s Big Baller Brand concept took off, LaMelo starred for the Big Ballers AAU squad, where he gained notoriety for his scoring exploits and panache, not that that was anything new. At one particular high point, a game between the Big Ballers and Zion Williamson’s SC Supreme AAU squad in Las Vegas got so much attention — and so many fans — that police shut down ticket sales and would allow in the likes of LeBron James for security concerns.
- In the midst of the AAU season, LaVar Ball proclaimed that he and LaMelo would beat Michael Jordan and LeBron James in a game of two-on-two. No, really.
- On the date of his birthday in late August, analysts and social media numbers both made a compelling case that LaMelo was the most famous 16-year-old basketball player ever.
- On the final day of August, LaMelo became the first high school athlete in history to have his own signature shoe, produced as part of the family’s Big Baller brand. Despite some concerns, the dominant interpretation of the shoe’s creation was that Ball would still retain both high school and collegiate eligibility if the shoe’s proceeds were handled and directed correctly.
- In October, LaVar Ball pulled LaMelo out of Chino Hills, citing a disagreement with the school’s new coach. Meanwhile, some were convinced the decision had more to do with the need to market LaMelo’s new signature shoe. Analysts lined up to declare LaMelo needed to return to high school basketball, they just couldn’t quite figure out where he would.
- In December, it was announced that LaMelo and LiAngelo Ball, who had recently withdrawn from UCLA, would sign professional contracts with the current reigning champion of the Lithuanian league, Vytautas Prienai. The team plays in a town of just 10,000 residents, is coached by a man who sells cured meats out of the trunk of his car, and typically draws crowds in the hundreds, if that.
That’s a lot, so let’s just take a whirlwind review through it all in one sentence: In the span of a year, LaMelo Ball went from being second fiddle on a high school basketball team that didn’t make the state semifinals, to selling out a Las Vegas civic center, to being named the most famous high school hoopster ever, to having the first-ever high school signature shoe, to leaving high school for a Lithuanian cow town of 10,000 people less than two hours from the Russian border.
Wait, what? Even Dickens couldn’t have come up with that.
For the Ball family, it’s all just more content, in both a figurative and literal sense due to the Ball in the Family Facebook streaming show. That doesn’t make it any easier for a teenager, which, of course, is what LaMelo Ball is. He’s a teenager, a now-former high school basketball star who is perfectly capable of becoming a significant contributor to a college basketball program and maybe, someday, a player in the NBA.
It should be so simple and straightforward with the talent that LaMelo Ball has. Everything that happened in 2017 shows us precisely what it is not.