LAS VEGAS — There were NBA stars courtside. Hall of Fame college coaches sitting in the stands. Two top-10 recruits playing against one another.
But the biggest attraction in Las Vegas on Wednesday night, on or off the strip, was LaVar Ball coaching at the Cashman Center.
“It reminds me a little bit of LeBron games,” Gonzaga coach Mark Few told ESPN.
“Unreal,” Kansas coach Bill Self said. “Never seen anything like it.”
Ball was coaching his Big Baller Brand AAU team, led by his youngest son, No. 1 junior point guard LaMelo Ball. They were facing off in the Adidas Summer Championships against No. 2 senior Zion Williamson and his SC Supreme team.
Adidas representatives estimated between 3,000 and 4,000 people were at the game, with another 1500 people waiting outside. Police officers and tournament officials discussed canceling the game due to crowd size, and LeBron James was told not to come inside the building after originally planning to make an appearance. Damian Lillard, Andrew Wiggins, Jamal Murray, Thon Maker, Eric Gordon and Lonzo Ball were all in attendance.
It was unlike anything the AAU circuit had seen in more than a decade.
Not for the showdown between two of the most entertaining players in high school basketball, though.
It was for the most entertaining showman in sports.
“The best coach ever. That’s how I describe myself,” Ball told ESPN before the game. “The best coach ever. Because I said so.”
It didn’t matter that Big Ballers lost 104-92; the crowd didn’t leave disappointed. LaVar walked in surrounded by cameras and microphones, giving handshakes or acknowledgments to anyone calling out his name. People in the crowd began Snapchatting as soon as he went to sit next to Lonzo during the game prior, and kids waited around after the game to take photos with LaVar.
“They’re gonna have to get a bigger venue,” LaVar said after the game. “When the Big Baller Brand come to town, better get something big.”
When it comes to coaching, most of the headlines LaVar Ball has made in the last several months haven’t been positive. Chino Hills High School saw its head coach depart after each of the last two seasons, with reports stating Ball’s influence played a part. Two videos in the spring and summer saw Ball berating his Big Ballers team after a loss, and then last weekend, Ball pulled his team off the court after earning a technical foul for arguing a call. At the time, the Big Ballers were winning by nine points, but had to forfeit the game.
Wednesday almost felt like deja vu, as Ball picked up a technical foul early in the second half and then suddenly walked off the court with 1:15 remaining. Ball returned minutes later, but not before widespread confusion filled the stands.
Ball told ESPN in a pregame interview that he doesn’t regret what happened last week.
“The referees were cheating,” Ball said. “I can see cheating when I see it. But when I said let’s go, not one of my guys turned and looked at the other guy and was like, what are we doing, what’s going on? They all got their stuff. Loyalty, let’s go. We go as a team, we come as a team. That’s what people didn’t get. They were like, ‘Oh he’s quitting and doesn’t know the parents want to see the kids play.’ They don’t understand. Every kid on that team, I train. Nobody does that.
“What they going to say? Who’s going to ask me why about anything? When I do things, they roll with me, no matter what. Right or wrong, they’re gone. I got their best interest in their kids. I’m not going to let them guys get fouled and knocked down, they’re 13, 14 years old. It’s better for me to say, ‘Yo let’s go,’ before I turn into a raving maniac when you break my son’s leg or something. I know what to do. I’m going to get out of there before it really gets crazy.”
While the Big Ballers have plenty of attention due to the success of Lonzo and the popularity of LaVar, they’re a very small AAU team in reality. They don’t play on any of the three major sneaker circuits, with their appearance in this week’s Adidas event essentially a one-off occurrence. For most of the spring and summer, the Big Ballers played in independent regional events.
With LaMelo the last of the three brothers in high school, there’s only one high-major recruit on the team.
It’s not a roster filled with players that college coaches are going to flock and see. It’s local players that Ball trains throughout the year.
“You can’t compare me to nobody,” Ball said. “Them coaches ain’t doing the stuff that I do. I have my own team, I pick them myself. These guys were not playing on anybody else’s team, on the fact that nobody would pick them. And I don’t charge them nothing. I just bring them with me and let’s go.”
Ball exited the Cashman Center in a similar fashion to his arrival four hours earlier. Security leading the way, a few handshakes here and there, with media, cameras and microphones flanking him the entire way.
Waiting outside was a crowd, just hoping to catch a glimpse and hear a few words from Ball.
“Hope y’all enjoyed the show,” LaVar called out as he entered his van with the team.
And the leading star was gone, back to his hotel to rest.
He has two more performances this week.