It’s not hard to find the Ball Family Estate in Chino Hills.
Forget checking for address numbers—the first thing you’ll see is the giant Big Baller Brand logo fixated above the towering front doors.
If you somehow miss that, no worries, the castle’s king wastes no time welcoming his guests. There’s no need to ring the doorbell—LaVar Ball struts onto the driveway with his arms stretched wide, voice booming throughout the luscious green hills.
He knows how to host.
“This is the purest water in the world!” LaVar says, as he pulls out a Lithuanian-imported Big Baller Brand water bottle. “It’ll make your chest bigger. Don’t believe me?”
Minutes later, the youngest heir to the Ball Family throne emerges. There’s no powerful introduction from LaMelo, just a subtle “What’s good?” and a handshake.
It’d be hard to guess that this is the 17-year-old who’s become the most-watched prep athlete of all time.
He has a 92-point game. He has his own signature shoe. He played pro basketball overseas at age 16. He scored nearly 40 per game as the headliner in his own league. He’s sold out dozens of arenas on two different continents.
All of these are firsts for a high school-aged hooper.
“C’mon, dawg,” LaVar says. “I’m not surprised by what’s going on. This shit is supposed to go on.”
The original plan was to follow in the steps of Lonzo, his oldest brother, who graduated from Chino Hills, played a year at UCLA and was drafted No. 2 overall by the Lakers.
With LaMelo, though, LaVar decided it was time for the family to take control and start calling its own shots. It’s a different path than what was originally envisioned, but it’s a path with the same end goal.
Since leaving Chino Hills before his junior season, LaMelo has played for BC Vytautas in Lithuania, the Los Angeles Ballers (in the JBA), the JBA All-Star Team that toured Europe and most recently for SPIRE Institute, a prep school in small-town Ohio.
He’s excelled at each stop.
“Melo does good anywhere,” LaVar says. “Why? Yours truly is here. Me and Melo could go to the moon together, man. Melo knows I got him.”
LaMelo is a trailblazer, but he’s not completely aware of his impact. Despite being under the public spotlight since the moment he played his first game for Chino Hills, LaMelo lives in his own bubble of sorts.
He’s been to more countries in a year than most will visit in a lifetime, but to him, each stop is just a basketball court.
“I’m not like a sightseer,” LaMelo says. “I don’t like no airplanes. I wish you could just teleport.”
When the call came with a contract offer from BC Vytautas, LaMelo had no idea just how much it’d shake up the basketball world.
“I was young, I wasn’t really thinking nothing of it,” he says. “I was just hooping, that’s all I was worried about—like I said, I was just clueless.”
Moving back to high school a year later? Essentially the same response.
“My dad called me to the hotel room and said, ‘You want to go back to high school?’” he says. “I said, ‘Yeah.’ I had no clue [that was an option]. I was with the JBA overseas and I was just hooping.”
Part of the reason he moved back to the United States to play high school ball was so recruiting sites would start placing him back on their rankings. When asked to name the top-ranked players in his high school graduating class, though, he can’t.
LaMelo is just worried about doing LaMelo.
He begins loading up his Mercedes Benz G-Class SUV with basketballs for his morning workout. His arms harmlessly bounce at his sides; his posture is loose and relaxed.
If there’s any pressure that comes with being an international basketball phenom while just a teenager, he doesn’t show it.
LaVar says the fact that the brothers don’t have to fill the shoes of an NBA superstar father eases the pressure they face. They can just focus on being themselves.
“What pressure is there on a kid who can play basketball, come home and not worry about, ‘Where’s your next food gonna come from?’” Lavar asks. “People think this is hard for him, but he loves this.”
LaMelo is the opposite of uptight—he’s not afraid to make fun of himself to get a conversation going.
“Y’all wanna see the video of me getting dunked on?” he laughs as he pulls up Instagram between bites of Wingstop.
LaVar is adamant that he has never pushed LaMelo to take his game to the next level.
“I don’t push them, I lead. If I lead you somewhere and you don’t feel like following, go the other way,” he says. “If I got to motivate Melo, this ain’t for him. And that’s OK.”
LaMelo’s mother, Tina, is the most low-profile member of the family, but her support and love for the family passion has played a crucial role in LaMelo’s growth.
“My mom, we’ll be in the gym for 10 hours and she’ll be there,” LaMelo says. “I think that’s what really got it. Everyone has fun when we play basketball—watching us play is pretty much a date for her.”
With his high school diploma already in hand, the next step for LaMelo’s path to the League will be playing professionally overseas (again). China and Australia were the family’s main options at press time.
LaMelo admits he wonders what life would be like had he stayed at Chino Hills, but he wouldn’t change it: “The path I took allowed me to go to SPIRE and meet people; that changed my life.”
Playing college ball isn’t an option due to sales of the Melo Ball 1—his signature shoe—and LaMelo’s contract in Lithuania, but LaVar is confident that playing overseas will prepare his youngest son for the NBA in a way college or prep ball never could.
“When you got a dude playing for their paycheck, their livelihood and their families, you don’t got anyone playing harder than that,” LaVar says. “There’s a difference when you’re playing against grown guys.”
LaMelo doesn’t really care where he signs, he just wants to play somewhere that’ll fit his style of play: “Fast-paced.”
Wherever LaMelo goes, he’ll be without the regular supervision of LaVar for the first time in his life. Instead, he’ll be accompanied by Jermaine Jackson, his coach at SPIRE who recently moved to Chino Hills to stay with the family and work as LaMelo’s trainer and manager. Despite the age gap—Jackson is 42—the two are practically inseparable.
Jackson has coached plenty of star players throughout the years, but none quite compare to the sensation that is LaMelo Ball. When 1,500 people were turned away from a sold out practice scrimmage at 9 a.m., it hit Jackson that this star was different.
Strip away the Southern California mansion, the luxury cars and the reality show cameras, though, and Jackson says there’s nothing that separates LaMelo from any other high school senior.
“He’s just a kid,” Jackson says. “He smiles, he’s energetic, he wants to have fun. He’s a normal 17-year-old kid. You don’t know what he has unless you come and see it.”
If their journey overseas is anything like their current living situation, there’s a solid chance nights of interrupted sleep will be the norm for Jackson, a six-year pro in the NBA. Most of their conversations center around what life is like in the League, a point of borderline obsession for LaMelo.
“We talk about that shit at 4, 5 o’clock in the morning almost every other day,” says Jackson. “He’s always picking my brain: What is this? What is that? Who did this? How many plays did you run?
“You got a lot of 17-year-old kids that don’t do that. [He has a] very high IQ. You tell him things one time.”
There’s a reason LaMelo has developed an obsession with getting to the League: it’s his chance to finally reunite on the court with his brothers, something he hasn’t done since going 35-0 as a 5-10 freshman floor general at Chino Hills. (Oldest bro Lonzo runs PG for the Lakers, and his middle brother LiAngelo will be looking for a shot at the NBA Summer League over the coming months.)
The numbers when the trio is united speak for themselves, but it’s the intangible fluidity and chemistry between the brothers that LaMelo craves having again.
“We’ve been playing our whole life together,” he says. “It’s all clicked. For instance, Zo can get a rebound and throw it backward and just know Gelo is down there. It’s different.”
He’s OK with NBA front offices knowing his top priority: “I like L.A., the Clippers and the Lakers, but definitely playing with my brothers.”
LaVar says any team that acquires all three Ball brothers—at this point, LaVar doesn’t care if it’s the Lakers or not—would have three players that would never clash or ego-trip over one another’s success.
“My boys will go 15, 20 years without breaking up. You don’t get that anymore,” he says. “They’re not playing for the bag. It’s not, If you don’t give me $50 million, I’m gone.”
Chasing that gargantuan max contract isn’t a goal for LaMelo, but that’s not to say achieving unprecedented wealth for an NBA player isn’t.
“My boys are gonna be the first ones to be billionaires playing on the court. I got other stuff in line to get that,” LaVar says. “Whatever my boys are playing for on the court, that’ll be chump change. You don’t have guys doing that. One guy gets a championship and next thing you know he wants his own team, bigger contracts.”
LaMelo admits that he hates playing against Lonzo and LiAngelo; however, LaVar thinks it’s what made his youngest son the most fearless Ball brother.
“‘I got Gelo and Zo in front of me. I’m not scared of none of you weak suckers,’” LaVar says, imitating Melo’s mindset. “‘I played against two of the coldest dudes every day.’”
What’s in it for a team considering LaMelo in the 2020 NBA Draft, especially one stuck in the lottery?
A player with a killer instinct on both ends of the floor.
“If a guy gets in his face and the score may be tied, the next thing you know we’re up 22. He’ll barely be sweating,” Jackson says. “When he gets to the point that he’s pissed off, that’s 55, 60 points at a high percentage.”
It’s true. In LaMelo’s record-breaking 92-point outing at Chino Hills, 41 of those points came in the fourth quarter—in high school, that’s only an 8-minute period.
“If I was to score 0 points, I can promise you nobody is scoring on me, though,” LaMelo adds.
LaMelo’s track record proves that it doesn’t matter what country he spends next season in. It doesn’t matter what language the fans or opponents are speaking or the size of the arena he’s playing in—when the game tips off, the outside noise and hype fades away. LaMelo is just there to hoop.
You can hate on the kid who took the path less traveled. You can call his dreams unrealistic and his father delusional.
Just remember, soon he’ll be suiting up to play against your favorite team.
“My son has had an ‘X’ on his back since he was a baby,” LaVar says with an intense gaze. “See if you can beat him.”
Portraits by Atiba Jefferson.