Behind the scenes of how a too-bizarre-to-be-true trip to Lithuania exposed the impossible teenage life of LaMelo Ball as a subplot in his dad's reality-show basketball empire.

By Mirin Fader

February 28, 2018

The doors swing open. The boy with the floppy blond curls rushes into Prienai Arena. A group of Lithuanian teens, who arrived 60 minutes before tipoff, scurry over to get a closer look, but the boy ignores them. He’s locked in his own world as he spots two stone-faced security guards looking on from just outside the locker room. The boy, sporting a pair of black headphones and a Big Baller Brand sweatsuit, grins while Bruno Mars and Cardi B’s “Finesse (Remix)” blasts in the background.

It’s his time.

Sixteen-year-old LaMelo Ball clutches an imaginary rock. Dipping his shoulders left, then right, he rushes toward the two security guards and crosses over both men.

But a few seconds later, I watch fans abandon LaMelo for the man from whom he gets his smile. Here comes LaVar Ball.

Puffing out his chest, LaVar shimmies left to right in a navy suit and light-blue pocket square. He’s energized by the eyes set on him. Three cameramen from the family’s Facebook reality show, Ball in the Family, follow nearly his every move.

Now, it’s his time.

“Bet you didn’t think I could look this good, huh?” LaVar screams in delight at Virginijus Seskus, Melo’s coach. Seskus laughs, nervously. He doesn’t speak English.

It’s January 23, and tonight LaVar will join the bench as assistant coach for Prienai-Birstonas Vytautas, the low-level, last-place professional team Melo and his 19-year-old brother, LiAngelo, play for. The opponent? Alytaus Dzukija, a team that could pass for a Division III squad.

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Alius Koroliovas/Getty Images

I watch LaVar smile as he takes selfies with fans, parading around like he did when he watched his eldest son, Lonzo, courtside when the Lakers visited Madison Square Garden. Except here there is no Jumbotron or tunnel or VIP lounge or concession stand. Just creaky hardwood and worn, gray seats. Only 1,500 of them. This gym, here in Prienai, Lithuania, a tiny town in the Baltic region of Northern Europe, sits next to a tall, snowy smokestack and an abandoned road. It’s where Melo has become the youngest American pro. It’s the perfect setting for the debut of a father with no collegiate or professional coaching experience, only AAU.

Just hours before, Big Baller Brand became an official team sponsor, a move after which BBB logos shamelessly graced the court and the backs of referees’ burnt-yellow jerseys for five games. The contest is broadcast live on Facebook. An MVP is awarded BBB kicks signed by Lonzo.  

The game starts. Melo easily maneuvers through the wide-open key. Alytaus Dzukija seems allergic to defense. Melo throws no-look dimes and scoops in layups. The game quickly turns into who can make the most wide-open threes. Alytaus Dzukija’s Gediminas Zalalis drills one after having three Mississippis to get his feet set.

“Good defense,” Seskus manages in English, turning to me sarcastically right after the shot, breaking the fourth wall. Seskus begins to look like he’s getting boxed out of his scene altogether as LaVar rises from the bench and yells:



“And one!”

“There you gooooo!”

When he screams, “No. 10, come in,” it becomes apparent to me, after being around the team for six games and just over two weeks of practice, that LaVar still doesn’t know guard Paulius Ivanauskas’ name. Ivanauskas rolls his eyes. This isn’t the first time LaVar has attempted to “coach.”

Melo drains five consecutive threes as few bother to close out on him. By the end of the game, he drops a whopping 43 points. Vytautas wins with a video-game score of 147-142. Melo looks blank-faced, tired, somewhat resigned. LaVar is whisked away for an interview, eyes ablaze, his reality show finally becoming real life.

LaMelo and LiAngelo Ball sign autographs and take photos with fans after Vytautas lost to BC Pieno Zvaigzdes on Jan 21. (Elvina Nevardauskaite)

“This is perfect. ... This is a great situation. Look at the buzz around here!” LaVar told me in January. We were in a hotel lobby three days after the Ball family had arrived in Lithuania. “Go to a small place where you got the buzz. Don’t go where they got 20 other things going on and you just another lil’ pea in a pod.”

The buzz around Melo took off in December, when LaVar announced Melo—who was pulled out of Chino Hills High in California a couple of months before—would be going pro in Lithuania. The decision was strange to say the least: The country is not known for being a basketball powerhouse. Only two teams, Zalgiris Kaunas and Lietuvos Rytas, are Euroleague-caliber. But LaVar went with Vytautas, a lower-tier club eager to make his son a star in a town where there are none.

“Go to a small place where you got the buzz. Don’t go where they got 20 other things going on and you just another lil’ pea in a pod.”

— LaVar Ball

When Melo arrived in Prienai, his new team shockingly didn’t seem interested in challenging him on the court. I observed him at daily practices and games for three weeks, and in that time I didn’t see him or his teammates run a single suicide or timed up-and-back sprint. I didn’t see any punishment for blown layups or defensive errors, either. And games were scheduled against lesser opponents.

How can Melo soar when his father has cleared any hurdle that might come his way?

I listened to LaVar tell me, proudly, in an exclusive 56-minute interview, that his son is embarking on a journey that is uncharted. But what I saw was the exact opposite: Every bit of the Lithuania experience is charted, every bit of it is staged, by LaVar himself. By the end of January, he leapfrogs to head coach, manipulating the team and the competition to tip the scales in his son’s favor.  

But as Melo walks out of the gym after the Alytaus Dzukija game, disappearing into the starless night typical of Prienai, nearly 6,000 miles from everything that was once familiar, I wonder: How can a boy with so much talent ever become the NBA star of his dreams—of his father’s dreams—if he isn’t challenged?

Alius Koroliovas/Getty Images

The sky is black. It’s nighttime. Sixteen degrees. Knuckles burn, toes freeze. As I walk outside the Prienai Arena, I can’t feel my nose. The cars in the three-row parking lot look like igloos. January in Prienai is a far cry from the mild 50-degree winter Melo grew accustomed to in California.

There is no moon. There are no streetlights. Even the white lines dividing the two-lane country road to the arena have disappeared as cars drive through the falling snow. Wooden crosses in a nearby cemetery bend, and tall, windswept pines hover over the road.

Few people speak English. Oftentimes, meals at the Vytautas Mineral SPA hotel, where the family is staying, consist of pork, cabbage and potatoes. Again and again. The mini chocolate chip croissants are stale. There are no movie theaters, no malls, no taco trucks like the ones in Los Angeles, where I live. And certainly no Lamborghinis like the black one Melo received when he celebrated his 16th birthday in Chino. It takes me 10 minutes to scrape off all the ice on my Toyota Corolla rental. I laugh, imagining if Melo had to do the same for his Lambo.

We’re not in Cali anymore.

LaMelo moved to Lithuania, nearly 6,000 miles from his hometown, Chino Hills, California, to pursue a professional basketball career. (Elvina Nevardauskaite)

Here at the arena, as practice begins, Melo seems just as out of place. His teammates begin shooting under the basket; Melo’s first shot is a three. The guys aren’t saying much; Melo yells “FACETIIIIME!!” as he pretends to dunk over Gelo. The guys dribble between cones with caution, as if afraid to color outside the lines; Melo bounces through with ease, adding in a crossover, between-the-legs combo.

Melo doesn’t look like, talk like or move like anyone else here. He is not like Denys Lukashov, a guard who won’t take the floor until he completes 10 pushups and 10 squats. He is not like Edvinas Seskus, the coach’s son who won’t leave the floor until he’s shot for 30 extra minutes.

No. Melo seems like he just wants to play. All day, all night. Next after next after next.

Melo’s game is still evolving, but right now he has no idea what his coach is saying to him in Lithuanian as the team prepares for the next drill. It’s hard enough to understand and communicate the intricacies of a play in your native language. But to do so without a team translator is even more difficult.

I watch Melo glance at his teammates, many a decade his senior, for rescue. And then I see him stare at his head coach’s hands, desperate to decipher Seskus’ meaning through gesture.

Does it matter, though? Melo’s going to Melo. He’s the kid who once pointed to the half-court line to signal to his defender he was about to pull up during the middle of a game in his sophomore year (he swished it). He’s the boy who, at 11 years old, took on a 17-year-old who clowned him—“You ain’t doin' nothin’. You a bitch. Your daddy got you out here”—during an AAU game. Little Melo splashed a three over him while screaming: “EYEBALLS, BITCH!!!”

But now Melo is in Lithuania, and he no longer has college eligibility, as players lose amateur status once they sign with an agent. LaVar removed Melo from the Chino Hills High School squad, alleging Chino Hills head coach Dennis Latimore treated Melo “like he’s just another one of the guys or somethin’, nothin’ special,” LaVar tells me.

Another “pea in a pod.”

(Latimore could not be reached. Chino Hills athletic director Sam Sabbara declined to comment.)

Soon after the Balls arrived, Vytautas left the Baltic Basketball League to create the Big Baller Brand Challenge. I ask Vilius Vaitkevicius, the team’s sports director, when the team decided to make the switch. “Maybe the day after they came,” he tells me. Indeed, the cameras that mobbed the family at Vilnius International Airport were intoxicating.

I pressed Vaitkevicius about why they named the series the Big Baller Brand Challenge. He responded with a smile. “You know what is the focus,” he says without elaborating, as if my question is self-explanatory: We all know why we’re in Lithuania.

The Challenge is five games against second-rate teams (two of them amateur) to guarantee minutes for Melo and Gelo, who log far fewer minutes in the more challenging portion of the team’s schedule, the Lithuanian Basketball League (LKL).

“It is just a joke,” Steponas Kairys, a Lithuanian coach who helped establish the LKL in 1993, tells me. He calls the Balls’ Lithuania experience a “show,” especially in that the team can guarantee playing time for the brothers without their earning it first. “It’s not real. It’s not honest.”

Too late. BBB and Vytautas are already cozy. “You take care of me in Lithuania, I take care of you in L.A.!” LaVar says, with his signature grin, to Seskus later in practice. The two show off their new handshake for the Ball in the Family cameras: spin around and dap. Pijus Mykolaitis, who handles the team’s media, watches in awe. “This is the best thing to happen to Lithuania in 10 years. This will be so fucking awesome,” Mykolaitis tells me.

Five days later, during Melo’s LKL debut against BC Lietkabelis on Jan. 13, the team and Melo are far from awesome. This contest counts for standings, unlike BBB Challenge games. And this one is against pros—last year’s runners-up—a departure from the first BBB game in which Melo breezed past the amateur squad of Zalgiris Kaunas.

“This is the best thing to happen to Lithuania in 10 years. This will be so f--king awesome.”

— Pijus Mykolaitis, Media Relations Rep for Vytautas

Here in Cido Arena, in Panevezys, the Lietkabelis players look like Space Jam Monstars compared to the lanky 6’5” Melo, all arms and legs.

Melo is used to playing up, though, with Lonzo hounding him in backyard battles all his life. “Zo for sure would go at Melo’s head. He’d try to bump [Melo] like, ‘He’s too little!’” John Edgar Jr., Lonzo’s best friend, tells me.

But Melo struggles early against Lietkabelis. He comes in with 2:17 left in the first, and Lietkabelis sticks 6’9”, 202-pound swingman Zanis Peiners on him as if to say: You might have your own shoe and TV show, but this is a grown man’s game. Lietkabelis at one point leads by 18, playing textbook European ball: crisp passes, purposeful dribbles, no showboating. In this game, the opponents are pure finesse, while Melo is all flash. He chucks two ill-advised treys and a contested runner in the lane, misfiring on all three. But that’s Melo’s mojo: bold, fast, fancy. “Melo’s always been the entertainer,” LaVar tells me.

Even back at Chino Hills, Melo was quick but in a hurry. Smart but reactive. He would take a poor shot four seconds into a possession that would make you shake your head and then steal the ball back and throw an impressive pass inside that could change your mind about him. He excites, he frustrates, he intrigues.

In other words, his basketball flaws are typical of a 16-year-old boy.

But he is not allowed to be one, nor is he treated like one, here in Panevezys as he battles the grown men of Lietkabelis. I watch him fling shots, impulsive to score rather than letting points come to him.

“He is very talented,” teammate Regimantas Miniotas tells me, before pausing. “Maybe some decisions are too, I don’t know, desperate. But he has been playing like that his whole life, and it’s difficult to change it so fast. But he has very big potential.”

Melo redeems himself, pressuring Lietkabelis’ Gintaras Leonavicius, even intercepting a pass into the post, but he can’t seem to find his rhythm. He only plays five minutes and finishes scoreless in a 95-86 loss. He sits on the bench, legs sprawled, looking more confused than upset as he stares at the hardwood. How could something so familiar seem so foreign?

The ride back to the hotel seems long. Two hours and some change, and not much to look forward to in the dark night, which looks like it could swallow cars whole. All I have are my headlights. I’m terrified of accidentally swerving off the road. There are no restaurants open. Even the hotel’s restaurant, Moon, closes at 10. This is perfect. … Look at the buzz around here! LaVar’s words echo in my mind, but the Ball in the Family cameras are off now. This is real life, not a reality show. There is no glamour, only uncertainty. There is a 10-hour time difference between Melo and his friends back home.

I imagine Melo in the back seat of his family’s rental, looking out the window, contemplating his place in all this. It’s hard trying to be the only star in the sky.

Alius Koroliovas/Getty Images

LaVar is up for the task. Four days later, he bolts from his seat in the first row of Prienai Arena as 10 fans surround him with autograph and selfie requests before a BBB tipoff against Sakiai Vytis. The Ball in the Family cameras lurk over his neck. His feet are tapping the ground, as if trying to inch closer to the court.

Everybody wants in on the show: Vytautas is cashing in on the sales of Melo and Gelo jerseys, and its Instagram account is gaining thousands of followers. Vytautas’ cheerleaders are relishing the chance to perform in glittery onesies and rainbow crop tops and heels for 100,000 Facebook viewers. And the sportscasters seem tickled at their own broadcast: “Ball don’t lie! Ball don’t lie!” one squeals during a play.

Laimonas Zenkus’ eyes widen as he tells me about hosting the Balls the first week they arrived. “I have some photos. It was like Hollywood,” Zenkus, a bartender at Bir.Bur.Bar, tells me. “We had them sit in the center.” Even Prienai Mayor Alvydas Vaicekauskas, who still shoots hoops in his backyard at age 60, is thrilled. “The region hasn’t had such huge excitement as they have right now,” he tells me through his translator.

But there’s not much for Melo to do. Hotel guests walk around the Vytautas Mineral SPA lobby in white bathrobes and slippers, going to the Himalayan salt sauna and the mineral water swimming pool, which has underwater massage jets. Two weeks drag like they’re two months. Dinners consist of pork neck, breakfasts of tasteless “pancakes.”

Hoop, hotel, hoop, hotel. But practices are light. Lots of shots. No sprints. Players practically walk through dribbling drills. And Seskus never yells at Melo (or Gelo). He yells at other players, though it isn’t his style.

“He’s a player’s coach,” Donaldas Kairys, coach of BC Kalev/Cramo, a pro team in Tallinn, Estonia, tells me. “He can get into players, he can get mad, but then in the end, he’s still their friend.”

I ask Seskus why he doesn’t push Melo more. He tells me this as assistant coach Marius Leonavicius translates: “It’s his first time away from home. It’s his first time playing grown-men basketball, so there’s a lot of pressure from everywhere else, and I don’t want to put on extra pressure yet.”

I press him. “Is it the family? You don’t want to piss them off?”

Seskus pauses. “Yeah,” he says, smiling. “There is some truth in it.”

“How is he best going to grow, though?”

“We are still trying to figure this out ourselves. Of course it is better to push him more, but we will get to that.”


Not tonight. The wind cuts. The nearby Neman River is snowed under. And Melo is just as icy, beginning 1-of-4 against Sakiai Vytis, a pro team in the NKL, a second-tier league below the LKL. His frustration bubbles, finally erupting in the second quarter as the player he’s guarding skirts past him. Melo reaches from behind and fouls his man.

But Melo doesn’t cuss, smack his hands or drop his head.

He was four when he learned he shouldn’t complain or cry on the court. Little Melo ran downcourt in his first-ever basketball game, playing against much older kids, sixth-graders. The ball soared toward him, and he held his arms out underhand, as if waiting for candy to drop from a pinata. WHAM! The ball smacked him in the nose. His face turned red. Tears threatened to drop.

“Don’t be no baby about it!” LaVar yelled as little Melo crumpled to the floor.

He couldn’t be as the years wore on, as opponents clawed at his jersey and labeled him “spoiled” and “unproven,” said he was riding the coattails of his brothers and father. Melo rebelled, the only Ball to get thrown out of a game for fighting twice (both before age 14).


— LaVar Ball

“I tried to make him understand there are different ways to get back at ’em,” LaVar tells me. Yet LaVar also taught Melo that life is like being in a bar fight. “Let’s say we all fighting in the bar and somebody hits you in the eye. You can’t go outside and be like, ‘Man. My eye hurt.’ You gotta stay in there with your eye messed up.”

So Melo keeps fighting against Sakiai Vytis. But he keeps falling short. His pass to Gelo in the post misses its mark. It’s Melo’s second turnover and, worse, the second time he fails to sprint back on defense afterward. He does not even bother to jog to half-court. Coach Seskus has had enough. He subs Melo out.

Wait a minute.

This isn’t part of the script. An ad-lib, maybe? No.

Melo isn’t supposed to come out during the less-competitive BBB Challenge games. This is his breakout role, and you can’t cut that short. But no one yells “cut.”

Melo walks off the court. All his frustration seems to evaporate as he high-fives his teammates and calmly takes the first seat on the bench.

But something’s coming. I hear it now.


It’s LaVar. His voice grows more forceful.

“PUT MELO IN!” LaVar yells at Seskus.

The gym falls silent and uncomfortable in a way high school gyms can. I watch guards Ivanauskas and Gediminas Maceina bury their heads in towels. Two teen drummers seated in the second row stop pounding their drums. Some fans smile awkwardly, like when you can’t tell if a joke is funny or inappropriate but you understand some line has been crossed.

I scroll through my Twitter timeline. I don’t see anyone talking about this. I don’t think anyone back home can see or hear LaVar pout, furious. Seskus goes AWOL and subs in Maceina, 17 years Melo’s senior.

But I see another script, too.

I see the pride LaVar has for his son, though it’s spilling out in the wrong way at the wrong time, but that is human emotion at its core: uncontrollable, messy, deep. I remember the LaVar I see every morning at breakfast, wheeling around his wife, Tina, who is recovering from a stroke. He pushes her wheelchair slowly to make sure she gets what she wants. Croissant? An orange? An egg? I remember the smile on LaVar’s face when I ask him about Melo and he pluralizes his answer to “all my boys.” He reminds me, repeatedly, to not forget about Gelo: “He’s the key. He’s a cold piece of work.”

Despite his theatrics, LaVar has given his boys love and attention and guidance. He has taught them to dream, to believe they are worthy, to morph into entrepreneurs in a world too dependent on their subservience. “It’s like this. Everybody has a cake right here,” LaVar says to me, picking up the Verslo Zinios, a Lithuanian newspaper, in our interview at the hotel lobby. He slams it down on a nearby table.

“And then you got some crumbs. They be like, ‘OK, take some of that.’ Then you get down there and say, ‘Ohhhhh, thank you.’” LaVar shakes his head. “I don’t want no crumbs! I want the whole cake!”

But how can Melo carve a slice for himself when LaVar is so baldly trying to hand it to him?

Back in the silent gym, Melo’s eyes remain frozen on the court. He doesn’t glance over at his father, who won’t unscrunch his face. Melo doesn’t sink his shoulders or say anything. By the looks of it, he’s waiting for the ending credits. When it’s all over.

Alius Koroliovas/Getty Images

Three days later, Seskus asks players to “scrimmage” full-court without dribbling. No one breaks a sweat—or breaks into a sprint. The only time I’ve seen the group close to moving at game speed in practice was during a five-minute drill, which started many sessions. Players began on one baseline and threw the ball all the way to the other side, running to catch up with it for a layup.

As I watch Melo dribble, I imagine he’s playing in Spain or Germany or Italy for a higher-caliber club, for a coach committed to mining every bit of gold out of him. I imagine that coach bringing out a giant pad and slamming it into Melo’s gut as he rises for a layup to teach him to finish in traffic better. I imagine that coach limiting him to three dribbles when he catches the ball to maximize his routes to the hoop. I imagine that coach ordering Melo “on the line” every time he jogs back on defense or shoots without getting his feet under him.

The reality is Melo is here, still playing against lesser opponents, like the youth team of Lietuvos Rytas. Melo flew down the court and drilled wide-open layup after layup, scoring 31 points in Vytautas’ 130-93 blowout. He even threw the ball off the backboard for an alley-oop to himself (he missed).

He slowly jogged back as the ball quickly advanced downcourt. What’s the rush?

LaVar is in no hurry. He is all smiles as his son’s team is about to face BC Pieno Zvaigzdes, a sixth-place team, in an LKL game Jan. 21.

It doesn’t matter that LaVar’s attack on Lakers coach Luke Walton earlier in the month and the resulting backlash from NBA coaches still hovers like a red balloon floating in the sky. He and Seskus are old pals again, laughing and nudging each other’s shoulders in front of the Ball in the Family cameras, both pretending LaVar’s outburst at the Sakiai Vytis game didn’t happen.

“You know how LaVar is. You can expect that from him,” Seskus tells me, with Marius Leonavicius translating. “If I were to start saying something back, it would be ridiculous.”

LaVar continues to grin. A couple of fans walk up to Melo and ask for autographs. He obliges and breaks into a big smile. The cameras are on.

He has to be on.

But as the fans walk away, I watch Melo’s smile shrink and then disappear. He looks down at his sneakers. It seems like he looks sad, though I don’t know what he is truly feeling or thinking and may never. I had worked on getting access to Melo, through the family, early on. But after LaVar’s comments about Walton surfaced, the family cut off access altogether.

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Mindaugas Kulbis/Associated Press

I still stuck around, watching Melo day after day. And I’m looking at Melo now as he’s on the bench, as Vytautas falls behind against the more physical BC Pieno Zvaigzdes.

Melo isn’t starting. He needs reps, but Seskus needs wins. Guard Tomas Dimsa starts instead, beating his man baseline and rising up for a thunderous dunk. Melo’s eyes widen. The 24-year-old is everything Melo is striving to be: composed yet dominant, patient yet explosive.

Melo doesn’t talk trash or roll his eyes.

The Melo I see here, every day, never does. He doesn’t seem like the arrogant kid he’s portrayed as back home. He seems like he’s trying to make the best of things. Once, during practice, he jogged to get water and went over to Aivaras Pranckevicius, the team’s trainer, holding his bottle up like it was a champagne glass, motioning for a toast. The two tapped bottles and laughed.

His teammates constantly little-bro him, like when Maceina threw a ball at his butt. “He always makes us laugh in the locker room,” guard Denys Lukashov tells me. I watched them cheer Melo on in a moment of growth, when he turned down a wide-open three to dump the ball down low for an easy deuce.

And tonight, when Melo comes in late in the first quarter against Pieno Zvaigzdes, he is just as poised. He pauses a second before taking his shot, but he’s subbed out after five minutes. He sits quietly, accepting what has transpired.

But then I hear that voice again. I don’t even need to turn my head to see who it is.

“GIVE MELO A CHANCE TO PLAY!” LaVar yells as the gym falls still, though folks seem less surprised this time.

Seskus’ eyes remain hooked to the court, refusing to circle back to LaVar.

The game is unraveling, too. Vytautas commits a string of fouls. Pieno Zvaigzdes owns the paint, scoring 66 of its points inside. LaVar shakes his head as Melo remains on the bench at the start of the third quarter.

But Melo comes back in later and shines, even as his team’s deficit swells to 22 points. He grabs a steal. He dives on the floor for the ball. He blocks a shot. He makes a few, too. Then he reminds you he’s still 16: He dribbles between his legs once, then once more for no reason, trying to be fancy rather than moving the ball. He falls over, his defender all over him.

Vytautas players look dejected after the 116-93 loss. Melo calmly heads to the locker room. LaVar sits alone, arms gripping each side of his seat. His eyes narrow, and he’s almost squinting, refusing to speak.

His plan is slipping through his fingers, and he has to do something to save it.

Mindaugas Kulbis/Associated Press

Or maybe this was the plan all along, for LaVar to become assistant coach for a game before moving to head coach for a game, as he is tonight, against Jonavos Jonava, then a sixth-place team in the second-tier NKL.

The takeover is complete: Seskus and LaVar have practically switched roles, and seats, as Seskus doesn’t even sit on the bench, wearing a gray sweatsuit and mingling with fans in the crowd. Seskus laughs, as if it is completely normal for a head coach of a professional club to be removed from his court, his bench and his players.

The game is underway, and there is little defense but lots of highlights. Melo explodes for 40 points, 11 rebounds and 10 assists. He dunks, faces the crowd and bows in the 151-120 victory.

But afterward, and in the coming weeks, all I saw were clips of his father.

LaVar’s pregame speech: “Operation Beatdown.” LaVar calling Warriors coach Steve Kerr the “Milli Vanilli of coaching.” LaVar disparaging ESPN reporters. LaVar and Kevin Hart chatting in tubs of ice. LaVar introducing a BBB mineral water. LaVar performing Nas’ “Hate Me Now” on Lip Sync Battle.

I didn’t see Melo’s name nearly as much, though fame has grabbed him all his teenage life. He was 13 when he verbally committed to UCLA. He was 14 when he helped Chino Hills begin its 60-game winning streak. He was 16 when he got his own sneaker. “He’s not following anybody,” LaVar tells me. “He has his own brand.”

True. But Melo is still a character in LaVar’s script. And every move he makes is filmed—even without his family’s permission. Last year, Melo was riding in the car with Gelo, bumping music with the windows down. “MOTHERFUCKER! MOTHERFUCKER! MOTHERFUCKER!” Melo rapped along to the song, unaware a man on the street was filming and would put the video on Instagram.

LaVar was furious with Melo. The kid was just trying to have fun, but much more is at stake. “What mom or dad wants to buy your shoe if you doing all that?” LaVar told him. Melo’s wildness, the thing that makes him glow, can’t always roam free. He isn’t allowed to just be 16. “You gotta understand that it’s not just about Melo,” LaVar tells me. “It’s all eyes on the family. It’s all eyes on the brand.” ■

Editor's note: An earlier version of this story read as though LaVar Ball did not pull LaMelo out of high school until announcing in December the decision to go to Lithuania. The story has been updated to clarify that the high school decision was made in October. We regret the error. 

Mirin Fader is a writer based in Los Angeles. She's written for the Orange County Register,,, SLAM Magazine and Follow her on Twitter: @MirinFader. 

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