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Hoonhout: LaMelo Ball needs to play in college

| Friday, March 1, 2019

Before I begin, let’s make sure we’re on the same page: LaMelo Ball is the real deal.

Just over three years ago, Chino Hills High School hosted traditional California basketball powerhouse Mater Dei in the Southern Section Open Division semifinals.

The storyline couldn’t have written itself any better — It was public vs. private, brash vs. polished, upstart vs. old guard.

Chino Hills sat 30-0 and ranked No. 1 in the nation, thanks to the three-headed beast that was the Ball brothers. Led by senior point guard Lonzo, a five-star recruit and UCLA commit, the Huskies had taken a meteoric rise to the top, built on a style that was full throttle, full-court press. With Lonzo as floor general and his younger brother, junior shooting guard LiAngelo pouring in buckets, Chino Hills scored in bunches.

And of course, there was the baby-faced, golden-curled, diminutive freshman and youngest Ball brother, LaMelo.

Mater Dei was everything that Chino Hills was not. Led by legendary coach Gary McKnight — the winningest high school basketball coach in California history — the Monarchs were the status quo. McKnight played a no-nonsense, by-the-book style, and had knocked off Lonzo Ball and Chino Hills twice before. Even with all the hype surrounding the Ball triumvirate, Mater Dei held the belt, and for good reason.

But after one quarter in that game, the clout evaporated.

Mater Dei went down 12-0 to start.

33-6 after one.

102-54 final.

If you have the time, I highly encourage checking out the game on YouTube. You won’t regret it. The three brothers make one of the best high school basketball programs in the country look like a fourth-grade CYO team.

This was the Ball empire at its finest — pure, unadulterated, on-court swagger — before everything got away from the brothers and the game of basketball.

And boy, has it gotten away.

You know the rest — for all the buzz at the inception of “Big Baller Brand,” Ball family patriarch LaVar has paradoxically sabotaged his sons at every turn.

There is Lonzo’s struggles to take on the “savior” mantle for the Lakers — especially in the shadow of his idol LeBron James.

And LiAngelo has fallen well-short of the NBA, in many ways prompting the initiation of the real Ball circus when he was arrested in China for shoplifting before even playing a game at UCLA.

But then there’s LaMelo.

Pulled out of Chino Hills.

Dragged to Lithuania and back, sprouting to a lanky 6-foot-5 in the process.

Always caught in his father’s shadow.

Despite signing with an agent, playing overseas and in LaVar’s Junior Basketball Association (JBA) — and having multiple signature shoes, no less — LaMelo is back in high school for his senior season, playing at Ohio’s Spire Institute with and against other blue-chip recruits. While pundits throw shade on his college eligibility and video outlets pay thousands to record and upload his games online, LaMelo has drowned out the noise and stuck to what he knows — hooping.

He’s having a stellar season, establishing himself as a Zo-esque floor general with multiple triple doubles, and is the heartbeat of a team with plenty of other star recruits. He’s finally back on the recruiting boards with a deserved five-star ranking. There’s no question that he has tremendous upside and would be raking in top offers in any other alternative universe.

But because we can’t get past the dad, we see fit to punish the son.

For all the critiques and complaints I’ve heard on why LaMelo Ball can’t and won’t play in college, I haven’t seen one expert state the obvious — playing in college offers Melo something he hasn’t yet experienced: distance from his father.

While Lonzo was at UCLA, LaVar certainly spewed his mouth on more than one occasion, but Lonzo’s talent and the NCAA’s institutional barriers overshadowed any serious meddling — like what LaVar has done at Chino Hills, AAU, Lithuania and the JBA.

LaVar is a control freak, except when he actually needs to take accountability when things don’t go well. At that point, he throws a tantrum — it must be the coaches, or the refs or whatever other biased institution caused the problems.

Melo has had to deal with that terrible example his whole life and has so far gotten by with his natural talent. But if he actually wants to make it in the NBA, something needs to change.

It’s on us to recognize that.

Go and watch LaMelo’s highlights from this season. He has the talent to go places. But with a father who constantly belittles personal responsibility, the closer LaMelo gets to the promised land, the easier it will get to slip up. Just look at his two brothers.

LaMelo needs to play in college. Not because it’s what the fans deserve. Because it’s what’s best for him.

Let’s get back to the simpler times.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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About Tobias Hoonhout

Toby served as Managing Editor in the 2018-2019 term.

Contact Tobias