Ball is Life: How Three High Flying Brothers Led America's Top High School Hoops Team
The Ball brothers are UCLA and NBA bound. But first they led Chino Hills to an undefeated season and a California state high school basketball championship.
The Chino Hills High School Huskies' sprint to the California state basketball championship ended fittingly, with three consecutive alley-oops in the last minute of a 70-50 rout of De La Salle High. If you're wondering how a team even gets three possessions in the last minute of a blowout, I should first tell you that the Huskies actually had four. Chino Hills pressed, swarmed, and leaked out for buckets until the final buzzer cried mercy.
On their way to an undefeated 35-0 season, the Huskies turned one high-profile match-up after another into a hoops mixtape posse cut, and thanks to the presence of the Ball brothers—Lonzo, a senior; LiAngelo, a junior, and LaMelo, a freshman—Chino Hills games often took on a block party vibe. They had five Division I prospects in their starting lineup; the only one who couldn't dunk was an eighth-grader, who launched threes from the volleyball line when he wasn't setting the others up. Fans of all ages would cram in wherever the Huskies played this season, and never left disappointed. De La Salle's attempted strategy of letting the air out of the ball only delayed the inevitable.
Here were Chino Hills' famed Ball brothers in all their glory, doing their surname hard as ever. The funny thing about high school basketball is that people like to root for the favorites. And in the case of Chino Hills—a tiny suburb tucked in the southwestern corner of San Bernardino County—how could you not? The Huskies won in style, by playing fast, free, and together; they were a family affair that stayed defiantly local; and for all their playing to the crowd, they didn't preen. With scholarship offers and now a consensus national title in tow, the members of the best high school basketball team in the country look ahead to a future that seems limitless. They are exuberant, and yet vulnerable. They're kids, in other words.
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The Balls didn't need to ship off to a basketball factory prep school, because they practically grew up in one. They've been playing since they were three; Melo has been playing in organized leagues since he was five. LaVar Ball, their dad, was a two-sport athlete who played in the NFL, and his wife Tina played college basketball at Cal State LA. Chino Hills' opponents this season weren't just facing three winners of the genetic lottery, but boys whose love of the game had been nurtured into a discipline.
"The reason they play like they play is because they treat basketball as entertainment," said LaVar relaxing at home a few days before the game. "We know how to entertain a crowd. They've been playing basketball all their lives, that's what they do. They treat basketball like the palm of their hand."
The brothers practice with the team every day, come home and eat, then shoot some more in the backyard. No days off, Melo tells me. "I've always loved it," LiAngelo says.
I asked him whether his feelings for the game had evolved as the commitment had intensified. He seemed to doubt the premise.
"I was serious about it when I was young, because I always knew I wanted to go to the NBA. But it's still fun."
It's hard to tell sometimes. Counting on any of the Balls to show emotion on the court, even as they draw it so easily out of others, is a losing bet.
Fortunately, they're not the only ones playing. Rounding out the Husky starting lineup were Onyeka Okongwu, a 6'9 shot-swatting frosh with a smooth pick-and-roll game, and Eli Scott, a hoppy junior forward with a keen sense of timing for off-ball cuts and putbacks. In addition to providing chunks of counting stats for the team, the pair counterbalances the muted confidence of the Ball brothers. Okongwu, currently ranked seventh in the class of 2019, tends to skip upcourt when the amazing happens; Scott actually gives his Shawn Kemp-grade dunks Shawn Kemp-style reactions.
Outside the context of a real game, the whole squad loosens up. Three days before the Huskies pasteurized De La Salle, LaVar moseyed into the gym where the team had just finished practice. "Lonzo!" Lavar called to the newly-anointed Naismith Prep Player of the Year, who was demonstrating his unassailable handle for the blinking shutter of a USA Today photographer. "You gonna ice?"
Lonzo, who stands a reedy 6'5, flipped the ball in the basket and received it from the net. "I'm 'bout to," he said, about as convincing as a kid promising to turn off the PlayStation: one last game. Okongwu and LaMelo, fresh off whipping this writer in horse and seeking bigger prey—had returned to the court to challenge the team captain. "Give me all three freshmen!" Lonzo laughed, and the third made it a 3-on-1, make-it-take-it, game to 21.
Their sixth-year head coach, Steve Baik, pulled up a chair beside me on the sideline. At the beginning of the season, Baik recognized that an offensive system wasn't necessary for this talent to mesh—three of these guys had played together for the past decade. "We've gotten a couple of calls and emails asking for our practice plan, but there's no way to copy it or teach it," he said as the freshmen play keep-away from Lonzo. "We can only do this because of the players we have."
Had the brothers joined a superteam like Oak Hill or Montverde, it's difficult to imagine all three starting at the same time, let alone playing like this.
In yielding the offensive reins to his players, Baik licensed the kids to play like kids. On every night this season, it's been enough.
Lonzo backs out his dribble to halfcourt, sucking a double-team toward him, and then he's gone, leaving the 5'10 Melo grasping at his jersey. "They do things just off of instinct," Baik says. "They're so far ahead of the opponents that we play that it's ridiculous. It's in their blood."
What's clear watching them in practice is that they just love to play. After Lonzo finishes off the freshmen with a long triple, he collapses to the floor in hysterics. "They trash!" he cries. Okongwu falls to the hardwood in mock exhaustion. LaMelo has been playing the game under protest: "I could win 3-on-1 too, if I got all the calls." Baik rubs it in: "You guys are sorry!"
Before the Huskies headed up to Sacramento for the final, I asked LaVar what he would want his sons to savor about the championship game. He dismissed the idea out of hand. "I don't want them to keep no high school moment!" he said. "My boys understand that everything that comes with this high school thing, it's just a step. It doesn't mean anything. You work hard, get all these accolades, that's fine. But don't think you're the best in the world because of that."
It comes off as joyless, but it was meant with reverence for the NBA—not only as a pantheon of competition but, as Tina says, an opportunity for the kids to make a living doing something they love. All three Ball brothers have committed to UCLA, which has sent more players to the pros than any college program besides Kentucky. Nbadraft.net currently has Lonzo going 8th overall in their 2017 mock draft.
Recruitment and prospect rankings notwithstanding, their classmates insist the Balls are just regular high school students. "You would think Lonzo would be Hollywood and stuff," says Guy Holloway, a senior on the Chino Hills football team, "but he's chill. When I first met him, I didn't know who he was, we were in class together, and I didn't know anybody, and he was rapping. We were all rapping together."
With four minutes to go in the final and De La Salle out of striking range, Melo went to work in isolation from the top of the key, his highlighter Adidas and caramel-dyed Swaggy P haircut setting off the Huskies' slate gray unis. After a few dribbles toward the right corner, Melo suddenly whirled back and slashed toward the key. The play seemed to materialize out of nothing: he scooped the ball to the sky to meet Scott, who had cut backdoor from the opposite corner, and made the connection above the rim for a one-handed jam.
Even the ushers lost it. "Shoot, man, the whole arena lost its lid on that one," said Alan Cheeseman, who was working Section 105 that night. "I had my hands on my head. I'm supposed to be neutral, but that was live. That was exciting." Scotti was flying around the court, saluting the bench, pointing at anyone he knew. Melo stole glances at the video board.
Less than five minutes later, the season is over, the kings crowned. Lonzo daps his teammates but mostly looks aloof. LiAngelo nobly accepts the hardware. Only Melo seems to get it—we can at least see his teeth. Standing courtside, their parents are hugging everyone in their vicinity. Forget what LaVar said before, they're savoring the moment. "Too much Ball power!" he cheers.
I caught up with Tina and asked her what they'd do to celebrate. "We're catching a flight to Chicago," she said, for the McDonald's All-American game. And then? "Whatever they want."