Lonzo Ball, left, driving past Dennis Smith Jr., was named Las Vegas Summer League MVP after averaging 9.3 assists per game. More than most cities, Los Angeles loves its stars, but Ball just cares about playing. (Ethan Miller/Getty Images)
LAS VEGAS — Like many Los Angeles Lakers fans, 13-year-old Jake Overbay spent his vacation here waiting and watching. He stood in line at The Boulevard Mall for hours, wearing his new Big Baller Brand shirt that urged in gold foil caps to stay in yo lane, for the chance to meet his new favorite player. But before Overbay could get his autograph at the July 9 promotional event featuring basketball’s most publicized family, Lonzo Ball was gone.
Instead, the youngest and more conspicuous Ball brother, LaMelo, chicken-scratched on Overbay’s soft cotton shirt, which retails for $60.
Lakers fan Jake Overbay wears the shirt he would later get autographed by LaMelo Ball. (Candace Buckner/The Washington Post)
“So he left, like, an hour in,” recalled Overbay, a Lakers loyalist despite living in Sacramento Kings country. “Just walked out. He was quiet.”
Lonzo Ball had to get to practice. Basketball is above everything else in his world — even the business of selling himself and building his brand with his throng of followers who helped set NBA Summer League attendance records. For that, he can rely on his ubiquitous and polarizing father, LaVar Ball, who is more than capable of speaking for his quieter son. And LaVar realizes, more than most, that Lonzo, the much-acclaimed Lakers rookie who was named the Most Valuable Player of the Summer League that ended with a Lakers’ championship on Monday night, plays in the one city that measures star power as an advanced statistic.
With all apologies to Sedale Threatt, Nick Van Exel and Cedric Ceballos — names from the forgettable ’90s — the Lakers’ best players have doubled as outsize personalities off the court. Since Magic illuminated the Forum with Showtime, and Kobe and Shaq mixed in a dash of drama while hanging three banners above the heads of the A-listers inside Staples Center, players known by just their first names have crafted the Lakers into a worldwide franchise.
Next up: Lonzo, the calm teenager with a slight case of acne who shrugs often while speaking in a monotone. He has yet to show the off-the-court charisma befitting the role of face-of-the-franchise, and his boss is already trying to alleviate some of that pressure.
“He doesn’t have to be the savior,” Lakers President of Basketball Operations Magic Johnson told The Post. “We have Brook Lopez, Brandon Ingram and Jordan Clarkson to help. It’s not all on him.”
But on the first weekend of the Vegas Summer League, it was all about him.
[Kings troll Lakers fans hard by asking about rookies Shawn Carter and Ned Stark]
Fans in purple and gold packed the Thomas & Mack Center and for the first time, the NBA had to stop selling Summer League tickets a day before the July 8 matchup between the Lakers and the Boston Celtics. A Fresno State college student named Shan was part of the unprecedented 17,500 sold-out crowd. He and a buddy drove six hours from campus because being a Lakers fan can be a religious experience.
“We’re waiting on our next Kobe,” Shan said. “We were spoiled by him and we’re waiting to see the next person that we’re going to ride on … He’s like a god to us. We just pray to him every day.”
Before he’s played a game that counts, Lonzo Ball inspires Lakers fans to make signs. (Ethan Miller/Getty Images)
Those supplications were answered as Ball produced the only two triple-doubles at the Vegas Summer League since 2008. He finished the 11-day, 67-game tournament with the highest assist-per-game average, 9.3 — fulfilling one of the great expectations heaped upon him.
“He’s a pass-first guy and I think he makes everyone around him better,” said Nick Cirello of San Diego, who showed up for Ball’s debut in a blue No. 2 UCLA jersey.
Cirello echoed other devotees who crowed about Ball’s passing. After months of inhaling constant hype, Lakers fans sound as if they’re reading from the same script when referring to Ball.
While their leading man has shined on the court, he could blend into taupe wallpaper away from it.
By all accounts, Ball keeps to himself. His girlfriend, Denise Garcia, describes him as being “nonchalant about everything.” Through nearly two weeks in Las Vegas, with all of its vices, Darren Moore, manager and longtime trainer, said Ball mostly wanted to work out, sleep and practice shooting. Former NBA player Tracy Murray spent all of last season around him as the UCLA basketball radio analyst and only heard rumblings that Ball dabbled in hip-hop.
“But he’s extremely quiet so I wouldn’t know,” said Murray. In May, Ball revealed himself to be a SoundCloud rapper, releasing a song in which he flowed over the beat from Drake’s “Free Smoke.”
Ball received rave reviews for his comedic turn in a recent Foot Locker online spot, “Father’s Day.” The director allotted two hours but he needed just 30 minutes to knock out the lines; with a blank stare and deadpan delivery, which didn’t seem to be much of a character stretch, Ball recited outlandish moments about his father, LaVar.
Whatever Lonzo may lack in presence, LaVar Ball provides in surplus, never meeting a microphone he didn’t like.
“He perform on the court. I perform off the court. I perform on the court too, it don’t matter to me,” LaVar said. “We all do our thing. Everybody’s different. Got different personalities. I’m just loud like that, I always been like that.”
While Magic Johnson doesn’t need him to be the savior, LaVar, the publicity mastermind that he is, has no problems anointing his son for the role.
“He is the savior. What you talkin’ bout?” LaVar Ball boasted. “It’s been four years ain’t nobody did nothing! He’s the savior god dangit!”
LaVar Ball, Lonzo’s father, left, doesn’t mind interacting with fans or providing a boastful quote on his son’s behalf. (Ethan Miller/Getty Images)
Ball’s smile widened as he reached peak brashness, knowing how his words will find their way into some clickbait headline.
“He’s ready for that too, but this is what I’m saying,” Ball continued, his voice softening. “This game right here, look how many Laker people came out. That’s how you change the culture.
“Can you make these people say, ‘You know what? Instead of going to the movies, how ’bout I go watch the Lakers play?’ Because it’s entertainment.”
Lonzo Ball was dejected by the Lakers’ first loss on July 7 as well as his own poor performance (he missed 13 of 15 shots and 10 looks from the three-point arc). Following his media obligations, Ball held a pair of his ZO2 sneakers and listened as Moore shared encouragement to move on. Then, as an ESPN reporter moved in and requested a one-on-one, Ball instead headed for the exit.
Moore believes Ball will grow into his celebrity status. After all, he has sold out gyms since he was in high school and appears to be comfortable with the attention. For now, Moore says Ball is a basketball-first guy, and that’s all the personality fans should want after years of watching uninspiring Lakers teams.
“He’s true to the game. He’s not about the extra stuff. He’s not about the parties, he’s not about doing this and doing that. And as a fan, that’s what you want,” Moore said. “You want somebody that’s all about the game, that just wants to get in the gym and get better, that wants to learn, that wants to win. That’s what it’s about. It’s not about the glitz and the glamour, that’s going to come with it if you work hard. But he’s all about basketball. That’s all that matters to him and I believe that people 10 to 15 years from now are going to appreciate that.”