Black Excellence

LaVar: Good or Bad Black Father?

My dad used to tell me that I could do anything I put my mind to as a boy. Coming from Chicago, where hopes and dreams were less powerful than likes and shares on Facebook, I laughed at the idea of accomplishing anything as a black male pretty early on. As an adult, I now know that anything is possible for blacks. But in most instances, you really just have to have the right amount of luck. The right set of people who believe in you. The kind of environment that is either good enough for you to succeed, or bad enough for you to want to succeed. And, in many cases, a solid, consistent father-figure. Introducing: LaVar Ball.

The thing that initially got me hooked onto this subject was the incomparable LaVar Ball, the verbal, boisterous, and brash manager/promoter/dad of Lakers rookie Lonzo, ex-UCLA student Liangelo, and high school up-and-comer LaMelo Ball, and recent guest-wrestler on WWE. For the longest time, I found this man to be a conundrum. Some kind of caricature. Something of an anachronism, despite the fact that we live in a world of Cake Wars, Keeping up With the Kardashians, and four iterations of The Real Housewives.

For the past year, or so, leading up to Lonzo getting picked first round for the Lakers, LaVar has promoted his Big Baller Brand (with sneakers that have a max price tag of over  $1,200 after taxes). He recently admonished Donald Trump after he “negotiated” his son Liangelo’s release from Chinese jail after an infamous shoplifting incident. LaVar said he wouldn’t thank the Prez because, well, he felt he didn’t really negotiate anything. So, as it tends to happen when he’s mentioned, Mr. Trump admonished LaVar for this slight, calling him “the poor man’s version of Don King.”

Initially, I, like most people at first glance, was appalled at Mr. Ball’s behavior, his treatment of his sons’ successes, his apparent delusions, his boastful, Kanye Westian haughtiness and attention hoggishness. But don’t be misled—I love ‘Ye for his talent, mastery of his craft, business acumen, and ability to diversify; however, he tends to have the other-worldly ego that alienated guys like Miles Davis, Ali, and Dali. Then, as I was searching the Internet to dig up more articles to confirm my bias against Lavar Ball, I car crashed into a brick wall of truth in an unexpected—at least for me—place: Charlamagne tha God.

Controversial radio personality Charlamagne tha God, host of the wildly popular The Breakfast Club, had some choice words for Hall of Famer Charles Barkley. Barkley has been quite the vocal critic of LaVar Ball.

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Charlamagne brought up some pretty crucial points that changed my mind about LaVar in an 11 minute clip. These are just to name a few:

LaVar is thoroughly involved in the lives of all of his sons.

He has never had any sort of sex scandal.

There have been no signs of abuse toward his kids.

He has always praised each and every child and challenged all of them to better himself.

I do believe he can be a bit heavy-handed with how great his expectations for his sons can be, but in what world should we limit the ability of our black kids? My father always pushed for greatness for me and my siblings. Always. Maybe a sense of self-worth and high goals isn’t the worse thing to give kids prone to disenfranchisement.  

As you might expect, Charles Barkley was awarded “Donkey of the Day”, for making statements like “[Ball] represents everything that’s bad about sports. It’s all about him. You know I just feel bad for those kids because everybody’s talking about ‘he might be a good father,’ this and that. No he’s not. He’s just exploiting his kids.”

To which Charlamagne replied, truly on point: “Let me ask you a question, Charles. What is LaVar doing that a white agent wouldn’t be doing? Or a white manager? Or the white executives at these sneaker companies? Would you be more comfortable with them being exploited by white corporate executives?” And those words really struck me as being too real, too similar to my own experience as a dark-skinned child with ambitions that were bogged down because of how many people who were against me.

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Photo by Joshua Blanchard/Getty Images

What do people want? Is it more acceptable to be the stereotypical father figure we’ve all come to accept in the black community? Maybe like Shawn Kemp, who fathered seven children from six different women; Chris Bosh, who left his girlfriend when she was 7 months pregnant with their child and then refused to pay child support; or even a Karl Malone, who I thought was a pretty cool dude until I learned he stayed out of his daughters’ lives until they were 17.  These are the parental figures the media expects blacks to be proud of, to aspire to be like.

I was pretty much garbage at every sport, except for track and field, and so Dad and I never tossed around a ball. My brother, on the other hand, was great at everything I was not, so he can suck on a dirty rock. Adored for baseball, football, celebrated for gymnastics, he was always held on a pedestal by my father. And because he was six my senior, I had to hear about it until I was old enough to start carving my own shelf of accomplishments and medals in high school. Then my parents split and thus began the time of tribulation. My father was there for me from the time I was 11—once he gained full custody.

black father, lavar ball, black fatherhood, ball in the family, big baller brand, black excellence, black familiesBefore that, I was surrounded by the worst type of male role models the world can imagine. I mean wife-beaters, drug users, pimps, thugs—my mother took more interest in their endeavors than she did my own well-being. I’m so lucky to have a father like I have because he carried me through a lot. With all the role models I didn’t have, I can only count my good fortune after years of abuse. Outside of my dad, I can only think of a man like LaVar as inspiration, because I’ve actually never seen a Brother who was more of a cheerleader for his kids.

Criticism follows each path LaVar takes with his kids. And his decision to send his youngest two (because LiAngelo left UCLA due to a suspension imposed on him after the failed heist he pulled in China, and LaMelo can go to school anywhere) to Lithuania, to sign with the basketball club Prienu Vytautus. It’s not uncommon for basketball stars to go overseas to hone their skills in preparation for a shot at the NBA. Most notable would be Kobe Bryant traveling to Italy before his pro career started. He still speaks pretty decent Italian, too.

You may have noticed some offerings on Facebook’s newest creation, Facebook Watch, pop up randomly on your wall feed. Now streaming are a variety of shows, from comedy, like Loosely Exactly Nicole, to documentary Humans of New York, to the Ball Family’s reality show, Ball in the Family. Of note is a heart-string-tugging episode where LaVar, whose wife Tina recently suffered a stroke, is seen coaching her now-mute, now-cane-wielding body through a simple routine of walking. He’s as determined with her as he is while mentioning his children. The passion is there, as well as the love. And it really accents his dedication to her, to his family, to what he truly loves in his life. In the end, I now feel that above anything, LaVar wants the spotlight to be on his kids and the brand that he has created for them.

Something you see too little of is support from blacks to other blacks. That’s not to say it doesn’t happen, because it certainly does—we just rarely see it, because of half-truths or myths like the absent black father, even though the CDC reports regardless of whether or not they live under the same roof, black men spend more time with their kids than any other race. It is in this light, that we should view men like Mr. Ball, the one of the supporting father, and not the media hog nearly all seem to be thrusting him in. Because strong, supporting black fathers are rarely highlighted in any section of media today, sadly. And great momentum can be gathered as soon as one is, in order to break him down for being there, not absent.

Alex Miller

Alex Miller is a freelance writer living in Harlem. His work has appeared in Forbes, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and other places.