A father's ambition, a son's dreams, and the price of trusting the wrong people in the NBA business landscape
When the Los Angeles Laker selected Lonzo Ball with the second overall pick in the 2017 NBA Draft ahead of players like Jayson Tatum and De’Aaron Fox the thought was that the Lakers had their point guard of the future. Ball was a highly touted recruit out of Chino Hills, California and had an excellent freshman season at UCLA where he was selected as an All-American before declaring for the Draft.
Fast forward to today, and Ball is on his third team with fears that his injury history might force him into retirement at the age of 25. After missing over a season and a half after signing a free agency deal with the Chicago Bulls, it is hard not to feel sorry for Lonzo. A cautionary tale of a young man trying to help his family out with poor investments and a failed sneaker company in the Big Baller Brand. His story is one that reminds us of the fragile gift that is an NBA contract and the difficulties of starting a business in an established market.
The Loud Audacity of LaVar Ball
Back in 2017, as Lonzo Ball was entering the NBA Draft and scouts were beginning to scout his younger brothers LiAngelo and LaMelo, the person in the spotlight was their father, LaVar Ball. Ball was a collegiate athlete with mixed success at the Division II level and as a forward for Washington State. Ball later would go on to join NFL rosters and play in the World Football League but did not see much action. It is a story that many athletes have but a story that is rarely told, a testament to just how difficult it is to make it as a professional athlete in America.
So when it came time for his son to enter the league, LaVar turned into a one man media machine. He appeared on shows on ESPN and Fox Sports and began making audacious claims about himself and Lonzo. Ball described Lonzo as the second-coming of Magic Johnson, better than Stephen Curry, and as the best player in the world before even joining an NBA roster. Ball even boasted about himself, despite his lackluster on-court accomplishments, claiming that he would beat Michael Jordan in a game of one on one. The claims were derided as ridiculous by the media, but they were reported which was all that truly mattered to LaVar. He was the vessel, the megaphone to keep his son in the limelight.
This eventually led to the creation of the Big Baller Brand (BBB), an athletic wear company that was founded by LaVar and Alan Foster as the company that will feature his sons. LaVar was convinced that all three of his sons were well on their way to NBA stardom, and that they would all have signature shoes. This was the formula that would help the brand compete with the likes of Nike, Adidas, and Under Armour. Along the way, the brand received an F from the Better Business Bureau (the real BBB), raised concerns about durability, and faced backlash for pricing and shipping that ultimately led to the biggest mistake of Lonzo Ball’s young life.
Tearing Apart at the Seams
The sneaker industry is massive, projected to be worth over $100B by 2026. It is a space that is dominated by a few companies. Nike, Adidas, New Balance, and Under Armour rule the category, especially in basketball. These are massive companies with huge budgets to match. They spend a ton of money every year on research and development to gain a reputation of reliability among customers and NBA players alike. It is no mystery why Nike and its sub-brand Jordan account for 75% of the shoes worn by NBA players. The company has created a reputation of reliability for the best athletes in the world.
As a result, it is incredibly difficult for a newcomer to enter the space without a huge financial backing and some level of name recognition behind it. Even when Steve and Barry’s introduced the Starbury shoe, they had the benefit of an aggressive pricing strategy and the backing of a known commodity in the NBA in Stephon Marbury. In the case of Big Baller Brand, they were banking on the fact that Lonzo Ball would be a star eventually and that would increase demand for his signature shoe. The issue was that they priced the shoe as if he was already an international superstar with an eye-watering $495 price tag.
The pitch was that these were “high-end” basketball shoes, worn by a player that was going to be the future of the league. This issue was that the sneakers were terrible. So terrible in fact, that during a Summer League game Lonzo had to change shoes at the end of every quarter because the shoes couldn’t withstand the rigors of NBA action. Quality issues eventually led Lonzo to stop using BBB shoes altogether in favor of more reliable Nike shoes. But the problems did not stop there.
Alan Foster, an old friend of LaVar’s, had convinced LaVar and Lonzo that creating a shoe company as opposed to signing with one of the big shoe manufacturers for guaranteed money was the way to go. Lonzo invested a bulk of his money in the company and ultimately never saw $1.5M of his investment return to him after Foster was a subject in an FBI investigation. Lonzo at the time had a 51% stake in Big Baller Brand where Foster and his father each only had 16% stakes. Ball fell victim to something that sadly seems to plague many athletes: trusting the wrong people to handle amounts of wealth that they could never dream of managing.
Falling Into the Trap
In the ESPN 30 for 30 documentary Broke, there are a number of athletes being interviewed that talk about the many ways that athletes blow their fortunes only a few years after retirement. There are a few reasons listed in the documentary, but one has always been interesting to me: the way that family members and old friends act when an athlete makes it to the league. Former Browns Quarterback Bernie Kosar shares a particularly disheartening story of how his father managed his money and took a decent chunk of it to pay off his mortgage and other bills.
Other athletes often talk about feeling a need to give back to where they came from, taking care of those that helped them get to where they are. Additionally, athletes tend to have a bit of a Superman complex when it comes to their longevity. A player will enter the NBA, for instance, and think that they will be around for 15 years and be able to amass wealth and fame. The reality is that the average NBA career lasts only 4.5 years. It is in that context that what has happened to Lonzo Ball is most unfortunate.
There is no denying that Lonzo has made good money as an NBA player. He has made over $100M in his 6 year career, most recently signing his deal with the Bulls a couple of years ago for 4 years and $85M. But he has left a lot on the table in the wake of the Big Baller Brand fiasco, and lingering theories that those shoes and their poor quality set him up for failure as a professional. This was all due to the convincing that his father and Alan Foster did to sell him on the dream of creating the next Jordan brand. The issue that they conveniently overlooked, is that Michael Jordan signed with Nike before any of that was possible.
And yet that is the reality with athletes and the people that they grow up with. The differences in managing a portfolio for someone that makes $100K a year and someone that becomes a multimillionaire overnight are night and day. Those people are simply not equipped to handle the complexities of those sorts of finances. Lonzo Ball has learned this lesson the hard way. Sadly, it seems that the damage may be already done as his injuries have gotten so chronic that he might never play basketball again. If nothing else, Lonzo is a cautionary tale. A warning that creating a shoe brand is not easy, and that success and prosperity in the NBA is incredibly fleeting.