SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — The show started 45 minutes before 17-year-old LaMelo Ball even walked into the packed gym at Chaparral High School (Scottsdale, Ariz.).
Bishop Gorman (Las Vegas) and Guyer (Denton, Texas) were in the second half of a game that few of the 3,000-plus fans already at their seats were paying attention to. Then, there was that roar. Not for any of the action on the court — not at all.
LaVar Ball had arrived.
An entire section of fans reached for their phones. They had to capture the moment. The notorious basketball dad walked into the gym along with an entourage that included his middle son LiAngelo, wife Tina, business partner Alan Foster and a reality show camera crew. He immediately greeted former UCLA and current Cal assistant coach David Grace as thousands watched their conversation from a distance.
None of that craziness around LaVar discouraged the hundreds of kids who jumped from their seats just to form a queue in the aisles, lining up one-by-one for a photo with LaVar.
LaMelo — the player everyone had come to see — wasn’t in the gym yet, and the absurdity was already in full effect. This wasn’t a typical high school atmosphere at all, but causing gyms to overflow has been the norm for LaMelo since his days at Chino Hills (Calif.). Every game brings massive crowds comprised of equal parts curiosity and straight-up Big Baller fandom.
Returning to the American high school scene with SPIRE Institute (Ohio) after professional stints in Lithuania and LaVar’s start-up JBA league only amplified that hype.
“LaMelo’s had more experience than any youngster,” LaVar told For The Win. “That’s what I’m saying as far as growing up fast, maturing, just understanding the world. He’s got the experience nobody has ever had before at his age. This is all new to everybody else, but it good for my boys.”
On this night, SPIRE was set to face Bella Vista Prep (Ariz.) in the HoopHall West Classic — an invitational that brought some of the top high school teams and players to the Phoenix area. Bella Vista was led by Arizona-commit Terry Armstrong, promising a showdown between LaMelo – once considered a five-star prospect – and the ultra-athletic UA commit.
It was the sort of matchup that would help answer the question fans and critics have asked about the youngest Ball brother since he left high school:
Can the kid play?
This much is clear: LaMelo is the most famous high school basketball player since LeBron James, and depending on whom you ask – ahem, LaVar – he has King James beat. And like LeBron, LaMelo may never step foot on court in a college game.