Two-hundred and seventy-nine days had passed since the Charlotte Hornets last played a game at Spectrum Center and now they were back, albeit for a preseason game, and albeit one that spectators were not allowed to attend. No matter. Ninety minutes before tipoff Dec. 12, a Saturday, a small group gathered outside the practice court built into the back of the arena.
From the sidewalk, the bystanders could peer through the translucent film covering the windows. They could see the basketball activity inside — shooting and jogging and stretching — and undoubtedly some who gathered were there to glimpse the slender 19-year-old, a lithe 6-foot-8 and 180 pounds, who has given the franchise a reason to hope.
The sidewalks were mostly empty. The restaurants and bars that might have normally been crowded around the arena were not. The bus station across the street looked deserted. And yet there was a bit of energy, too, mostly because it was the first NBA game, preseason or not, for LaMelo Ball.
Nineteen years old and still growing into his frame and now the draft’s third overall pick was playing an NBA game for the first time. Around the corner, one of the security guys outside the arena was waiting to cast judgment.
“The kid better be able to shoot,” he said, gruffly, noting that the NBA is a shooter’s league, and has been, and perhaps disregarding the fact that perimeter shooting is not why the Hornets drafted Ball; that they drafted him for his skills as a passer, his potential for running a team and the possibility that maybe, in time, he could become the identity of a franchise.
It has been a long time, and perhaps a very long time — maybe decades — since Charlotte had drafted a player who’d generated so much hope and anticipation before even playing a game. Indeed, all one needed to do was walk around the Spectrum Center and look up at the mural above the box office to understand how difficult it has been for this franchise to find a star.
Up on that mural were four players who were on the team back in the mid-1990s, when every basketball-loving middle school kid in North Carolina, and a good number across the globe, had themselves a teal, puffy Hornets Starter jacket. It was a must-have, that baggy pullover with the big cartoon Hornet logo on the back, looking cool and mean while bouncing a ball.
The Hornets had been something of a national phenomenon then, what with the likes of Muggsy Bogues and Alonzo Mourning and Larry Johnson — he of those memorable Converse commercials in which he sported a wig and dress and morphed into a dunking Nana named Grandmama. In addition to those three, there was also Dell Curry — the first Curry to gain basketball prominence.
It had been 25 years, not since 1995, since Bogues, Curry, Johnson and Mourning had played together for the Hornets and yet there they were on the mural above the box office. They were joined by Kemba Walker, who became an annual All-Star in Charlotte but who still remained largely unappreciated. He’d been gone for more than a year.
How telling was it that none of the players the franchise was promoting on the mural above the ticket window were still on the team? Or that four of the five hadn’t played together in Charlotte since the heyday of the 1990s? But now there was hope that maybe it could be a little like the 90s again, and part of the hope was because the Hornets had acquired Gordon Hayward from Boston.
An even more significant part of the hope was the arrival of Ball. Now, that Saturday night in mid-December, he was about to make his on-court debut. The game did not count and it was only an exhibition, a kind of warm-up, but Ball had learned at an early age that everything counted; that in the fishbowl in which he lived people would always be watching and judging, waiting to see what he could do — waiting to confirm the hype or reject it.
“The kid better be able to shoot,” the security guard had said, and people had had things to say about Ball for a good portion of his 19 years. He’d done his first media interview when he was 8-years-old, he told The Observer, and he’d said that when he was 15 he realized that he had to grow up and that the time for being a kid was over.
And now he was about to make his debut, and the experiment — whether Ball might become the sort of player the team would put on a mural one day — was slowly beginning. He is the one most responsible for its success, and it is a burden he embraces but does not carry alone.
Before the draft, a delegation from the Hornets traveled to California to watch Ball work out, and to interview him. Among those on the trip were Mitch Kupchak, the president of basketball operations and general manager, and Buzz Peterson, the assistant general manager, and James Borrego, the team’s 43-year-old head coach, entering his third year in Charlotte.
Borrego had his doubts about Ball, the way that people have wondered about him for a variety of reasons. Ball is the youngest of the three Ball brothers, all of whom have become professional basketball players. His oldest brother, Lonzo, has to this point been the most successful, and he is the one the Los Angeles Lakers drafted second overall in 2017 after his lone year at UCLA.
The Ball brothers are the son of Lavar Ball, himself a former professional athlete who spent a couple of months on the Carolina Panthers’ practice squad in 1995. Now Lavar is known more for his bluster, for the wild things he has said over the years, things that have been well-documented and scrutinized and, at times, lambasted for their over-the-top absurdity.
Some of the elder Ball’s sentiments have been mostly harmless, if not ridiculous, like when he once said that he could’ve defeated Michael Jordan one-on-one in basketball. Other times his outspokenness has been more inflammatory and worthy of condemnation, including his commentary about or directed toward women.
Lonzo Ball, now in New Orleans, spent only two seasons with the Lakers, and during those two seasons his father sometimes expressed displeasure with how the team used his son. He criticized the Lakers’ coach at the time, Luke Walton, and suggested that perhaps he did not quite know what he was doing.
So now Borrego was flying to California to meet LaMelo Ball and undoubtedly some of those things had to be going through Borrego’s mind: That the youngest of the Ball brothers had been raised in a different kind of family environment; that his father was not afraid to suggest, publicly, that an NBA head coach, someone at the top of their profession, didn’t have what it takes.
“For me I’m trying to build a program and a culture here of people that want to be a part of something bigger than themselves,” Borrego said by phone during a recent interview. “They want to be a part of a group — not an individual. And I went there not sure what I was going to find or see or hear.”
What he saw was this: When LaMelo Ball entered the gym, he took a lap and said hello to everyone who came to see him and shook everyone’s hand. He turned on some music and jumped up and down and began his workout.
“And my first impression was high energy, infectious spirit,” Borrego said. After the workout came the interview, and Borrego’s concerns, whatever they might have been, began to melt away. He appreciated how Ball sat in the chair across from him — upright, looking at Borrego eye-to-eye — and liked how Ball reacted to questions, driving the conversation on his own.
“Just a genuine spirit, an authentic spirit,” Borrego said. “He would ask as many questions as we would ask.”
Though Borrego is young, he has come to understand the universal truth that at times a prospect will fool you. He said he’d been fooled before by players who put on a good show before the draft only to turn out to be different kinds of characters. He asked Ball questions that Borrego hoped would reveal Ball’s true self, and among those questions was this:
What do you value most in life?
Ball’s answer, deeper than Borrego expected, became part of why the Hornets drafted him.
“His response to me was family,” Borrego said. “ ‘I love my family.’ And he’s like, we don’t have it all figured out, but we love each other and we pull for each other. And that was — I thought that was pretty impactful on me, anyway. That the first thing that came out of his mouth was family.
“And ultimately, we want to be a part of a family here. That’s what we’re trying to build here with the Hornets, is a culture that is built around a family. How we pull for each other, we are connected. We laugh at ourselves, we hold each other accountable. And that response to me had a major impact.”
The NBA is not a patient place, neither for underperforming players nor for coaches who fail to coax the most out of their teams’ talent. There is pressure now on Ball to perform, to justify his high draft position, but there is arguably even greater pressure on Borrego to build the kind of relationship and trust with Ball that allows him a better chance to flourish.
The most important priority, Borrego said, “is making sure he knows what we’re about here, and holding him accountable to that.” But then there is another part that is just as crucial, one that Borrego called “extremely important.” And that, he said, is “to build that relationship, and the trust” with Ball, who has rarely encountered anything but success in basketball.
How might it be after a loss, or when Ball fails, or when the team is on the road somewhere, the games running together, the players tired of each other and the grind, if only for a moment? There was no way to know, but Borrego was trying to build a foundation with Ball and now their futures, at least in the short term, had become dependent on each other.
“He knows I’m there for him,” Borrego said. “He knows I love him, and I trust him. And now it’s about building and growing.”
There is almost a decade age difference between Ball and Bismack Biyombo, the Hornets’ 28-year-old veteran forward, and they grew up two oceans and a continent away from each other.
Ball was raised in a biracial family — his father Black, his mother white — in a posh community outside Los Angeles. Biyombo was born in Lubumbashi, in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Ball had a scholarship offer to UCLA — and, indeed, committed to play there — when he was 13. Biyombo was discovered by a scout mining Africa for basketball talent.
Their backgrounds and paths to the NBA could not be more contrasting and yet now their divergent journeys have intersected in Charlotte. Already they’ve become close, the teenager from the California hills and the man from the literal middle of Africa.
This wasn’t necessarily the plan, Borrego said. He hoped Charlotte would acquire a veteran guard, someone who could “be there and wrap his arms around LaMelo.” But that someone has turned out to be Biyombo, who is known among his teammates as “Biz,” and who likes to make fun of Ball for his habit of walking around bare-chested.
“A funny kid,” Biyombo said of Ball during a recent interview over Zoom, laughing, setting up the punchline. “He’s just got to learn how to keep his t-shirt on.”
“Oh, here he go with that,” Ball said, laughing himself, when he’d heard what Biyombo said.
It is not entirely clear how they connected, or clicked, but they have, and in their relatively short time together “Biz has been a great mentor” to Ball, Borrego said. Biyombo might not be familiar with all of what Ball has experienced, like growing up in the fishbowl, for instance.
And yet Biyombo was once a top-10 draft pick himself back in 2011 (Charlotte, then known as the Bobcats, acquired him from Sacramento on draft night, and Biyombo spent the first four years of his career in Charlotte before stints in Toronto and Orlando). Now he’s been around the league a good while, and he has come to understand what allows a player to stick, beyond talent.
“The average player … is (in the NBA) two and a half years,” Biyombo said, knowing that fact off-hand. “Now, looking back, as I’ve played 10 years, all this information I’ve got from veterans has really helped me to stay grounded, and 10 years later I get to continue to learn from others. …
“The NBA’s a brotherhood, and we all want to make sure that we help the next ones.”
Ball is the youngest player on the Hornets’ roster, even younger than the other rookies. He only turned 19 in August. Some of his teammates are losing their hair, and one of them, Hayward, made his NBA debut when Ball was just 9-years-old. There are generational differences and cultural differences, and Biyombo has taken it upon himself to ease Ball’s transition.
There haven’t been too many serious conversations, at least not yet, and Biyombo said he’d keep private the ones that have happened. But he’s there in the smaller moments, too, those moments when Ball has a question about a play, or needs to know where to be on defense. Biyombo has been there to help Ball fit into the locker room, and build relationships with his new teammates.
“When you come into the league, it’s a lot of pressure,” Biyombo said, and he’d followed a bit of Ball’s journey before Ball arrived in the NBA. It’d have been hard not to follow it, given all the attention. “… I think he understands what pressure is. He knows how to handle it, and obviously we’re all here to make sure that we help him with whatever he needs.
“… To be able to help him throughout the process, I think is going to be fun,” and already it sounded like it was, what with the grief Biyombo liked to give Ball about his lack of shirt-wearing, and a more tender scene that a photographer captured during one of the Hornets’ preseason games: Biyombo with an arm wrapped around Ball, whispering something — maybe serious, maybe not — in his ear.
Ball has done so many interviews and answered so many questions that it is difficult for him to remember when he did his first interview and which questions he’s grown most tired of answering.
When did he first have a camera or microphone in his face? He had to think about it.
“It was probably hella long ago,” he said, before deciding that it must’ve been when he was 8. And of all those questions that have followed him for years — about his dad or growing up with his brothers or about the expectations — Ball acknowledged that, yes, “I feel like it’s always the same questions.”
But, he said, “I don’t really (get) sick about talking about anything.”
And so this is what he said about his dad, whose publicist said was too busy to be interviewed for this story: “He’s going to say what he wants. I think he usually be talking about Lonzo (more) than with me. So that’s probably why he’s quieted down, too.”
And this is what Ball, whose family has been the focus of a reality show, and who enters the NBA with an Instagram following (@melo) of more than 6.1 million, said about having lived life in the public eye for nearly his entire existence: “You for sure can get lost with it. But if you’re grounded, know what you’re doing, focus … you’re going to be cool.”
And this is what he said about playing overseas for two years and skipping college completely after the shoe company his dad founded, the Big Baller Brand, gave him a signature shoe that complicated his collegiate eligibility: “The route I took is the one I (wanted). So I love my route, and if I could redo it, I’d do it again.”
And, finally, this is what Ball said about pressure: “I don’t really have any pressure. I just feel like I’m out there doing what I love. So at the end of the day, I’ll be feeling that pressure when you can’t eat or you need somewhere to stay. Something like real life, you know?
“Not playing just a basketball game. There’s no pressure, to be honest.”
There are people surrounding Ball responsible for his success, people like Borrego and Biyombo and his manager, Jermaine Jackson, who lived with Ball when he was playing in Australia. But Ball’s path is up to Ball, and when he does one of these interviews that he’s done a million times already, he does not sound like a kid who is just finding his way.
He sounds like someone who never had much time for being a kid, anyway. Asked if he had to grow up quick, Ball said, “Yeah, for sure. Like when I was 15. That’s when that started.” That was when he began to take things “more serious,” he said, “and shoot — learning how to live by yourself, be by yourself. Stuff of all that nature.”
Outside of games and practices he’s mostly by himself, living in an unfamiliar city that he said he’d never visited before the Hornets selected him. Ball had a feeling they might. He remembered seeing Kupchak at his games and practices in Australia. Now Charlotte, Ball said, seemed “chill,” though he noted that it’s “way in the east,” a long way from home and family.
He’d won over Borrego and others in part because of the answer he gave about his family during his interview; the value of his relationships with those closest to him. Now he and his brothers were all spread out, though, and for better or worse Ball, the baby, was on the other side of the country and thousands of miles away from where he first made a name for himself.
He’d followed his older brother’s footsteps, and his father’s actions had steered him into a professional career that began early but now came a new beginning with the same old scrutiny, millions of people waiting to judge him or praise him based on the next highlight.
“I don’t be worried about other people and stuff, what they think,” Ball said. “Because honestly, it’s mostly just about the other people around me, who’s closest. Like if I’m good with them, I’m usually just good with myself.”
That first preseason game, Ball did not score. Much to the likely dismay of that security guard, he missed all eight of his shots from the field. And yet every time he came off the bench and walked onto the court, the pace of the offense increased and, at times, he did things that showed why the Hornets’ leadership believes, and why so many others do, too.
One of those moments came midway through the third quarter when, on a breakaway, Ball threw a no-look behind-the-back pass to Miles Bridges, who caught the pass in stride and made a layup while he was fouled. It was one his four assists that night, and one of several other times Ball passed ahead in attempt to accelerate the offense.
On Twitter, the behind-the-back pass went viral and the consensus was that Ball had made the Hornets fun to watch again, after all that time. Not even two weeks later, YouTube accounts of the play that called it “SICK” or “FLASHY” had already been viewed tens of thousands of times.
Such is the hype and attention surrounding Ball. In another preseason game, in Orlando, another of his passes went viral — this one a bounce pass that he unleashed like a bowler, spinning it more than a quarter of the court ahead to Malik Monk, who caught it and scored in one motion. ESPN’s SportsCenter tweeted out the clip and called it an “unreal dime,” and that was two days after Dwyane Wade offered his own assessment on Twitter:
“Not so breaking news,” Wade wrote. “LaMelo Ball is a problem.”
And that was all before Ball had even played a real game, one that counted, anyway. That starts now, on Wednesday night in Cleveland. His real live NBA debut. Ball has been getting ready for a long time, pretty much his entire life, and perhaps it was fitting that Charlotte had drafted him.
The Hornets, after all, have been waiting even longer for the sort of player they hope he’ll become.
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