If anything captured the essence of this year’s Chino Hills boys basketball season, it was the opening minutes of the team’s play-off game against Mater Dei in late February—a game that would help determine the best high school team in Southern California. The showdown pitted Chino Hills, a public school that has been in existence for only 15 years, against Mater Dei in Santa Ana, one of the largest Catholic high schools in the country.
In past years Mater Dei, whose fabled basketball program holds a record 22 Southern Section championships, had dominated the play-offs. But this year would be different. Having scored 100 or more points in 15 of its first 29 games—3 games shy of the state record—Chino Hills was not only unbeaten but ranked number one in the country. Virtually everywhere the team played, its games sold out as fans rallied to witness the ascendance of a basketball royal family. For Chino Hills had a unique triumvirate of brothers at its disposal—Lonzo, LiAngelo, and LaMelo Ball—who were blessed with the ability to routinely make the ridiculous shots you’d see attempted (and missed) by crazed NBA fans competing in halftime giveaways for a free vacation to Hawaii.
It had become a familiar pattern. The Ball brothers—all of whom have already committed to basketball scholarships to UCLA—would repeatedly force turnovers, which were quickly converted into layups, dunks, or rainbow three-point shots. And here it was happening again. In the opening seconds of the Mater Dei game, Lonzo, a six-foot-six-inch senior, buried a three-pointer and stole the ball. After two quick passes, LaMelo, a five-foot-ten freshman, hit another three. Moments later Chino Hills stole an in-bounds pass, resulting in an easy layup for LiAngelo, a six-foot-five junior. In less than two minutes, Chino Hills was up 12-0.
At the end of the first quarter—only eight minutes in high school games—Chino Hills was leading 33-6. The team seemed to be playing in a different gear, one that made rivals look like Honda minivans trying to lap a Ferrari. After the game, Mater Dei’s Gary McKnight, the winningest high school basketball coach in California history, said he couldn’t remember being beaten that badly: 102-54. “Our guys looked shell-shocked,” he said. By season’s end, everybody’s guys looked that way—Chino Hills finished 35-0, becoming the undisputed top-ranked team in the country.
One man who wasn’t shocked was LaVar Ball, a brawny 48-year-old personal trainer who, in addition to being the father of Lonzo, LiAngelo, and LaMelo, has assumed the role of career planner and motivational guru. Many basketball dads get stars in their eyes only when their eighth grader starts draining jump shots. But LaVar, who grew up in South L.A. and went to Washington State on a basketball scholarship before transferring to Cal State Los Angeles, was preparing for this moment before his sons were even born.
When he first spotted his future wife, Tina, at Cal State, he was smitten not just by her blond hair and blue eyes but by what a basketball scout would call her “length”—she stands precisely six feet. Sitting with Tina in the family’s kitchen one quiet afternoon, LaVar recounts their origin story. “I see this tall girl, very attractive, walking down a hallway and I go, ‘I don’t know what we’re going to do, but we’re gonna be doing something!’ ” he says with a roaring laugh. “Once that was in her head, I had her. I picked a big girl who was beautiful. A big stallion!”
“Wasn’t I the lucky one?” responds Tina, the athletic director at a middle school in Montclair, who’s clearly used to LaVar’s center-ring personality. LaVar ignores her rolling eyes. “These boys were born to go pro,” he says. “Your mom’s a P.E. teacher, I’m a personal trainer, your last name is Ball. How much more lined up can you be?”
In the Ball household, everything is part of a master plan. When LaMelo was in preschool, LaVar calculated that the age difference between the brothers was one year off if they were going to play a year of high school ball together. So LaMelo started first grade a year early. When he entered ninth grade last fall, he was still only 13, but after years of playing on travel ball teams with his older brothers, he was ready—on the court at least.
“They’re built for this,” says LaVar, eyeing his sons—nicknamed Zo, Gelo, and Melo—making shots in the backyard. “When the boys were seven, nine, and ten, they’d play against the eighth graders and they’d run ’em into the ground. Soon kids would want them to sign their backpacks or their basketballs. Melo was so young, he’d just sign with an X.”
Lonzo and LiAngelo committed to UCLA as high school sophomores; LaMelo did so the summer after he left middle school. LaVar says that UCLA men’s basketball coach Steve Alford is happy that the boys have none of the handlers often involved with top high school prospects. “It’s just me,” he says. Tina nods. “People come up all the time and say, ‘What’d you get?’ ” she says, referring to the under-the-table incentives college boosters often offer top recruits. “But that’s not the way it is with us. It’s just about basketball.”
It’s not uncommon for star basketball players from public schools to transfer to better-funded private institutions. Many parents think that well-heeled independent schools, which offer scholarships, can better showcase their kids’ talent. A Sports Illustrated study found that between 2013 and 2015 more than half of the nation’s top 100 high school basketball recruits attended multiple high schools, including one top recruit who spent time at seven.
“If you look at the USA Today national rankings, it’s traditional Catholic school powerhouses, prep schools, or quasi schools that are basically basketball academies,” says Frank Burlison, the longtime Long Beach Press-Telegram sportswriter who now runs the Burlison on Basketball Web site as well as a scouting service for colleges and NBA teams. “To have a public school like Chino Hills with so many great players all living within a seven- or eight-mile radius—that’s really a once-in-a-generation situation.”
That situation is largely a result of the Ball family’s decision to keep their kids at a school just blocks from their home. Add in Chino Hills starters Onyeka Okongwu, a freshman, and Elizjah Scott, a junior, and the team can seem unstoppable. Scott transferred to Chino after his freshman year at Upland High—and had to sit out his sophomore year after the California Interscholastic Federation, or CIF, ruled he moved for athletic reasons.
CIF Southern Section Commissioner of Athletics Rob Wigod says the rules are created and administered by its member schools’ principals and athletic directors. But it is rare that they bench a player. Asked to explain why the CIF hasn’t been able to stem the tide of transfers involving top players, Wigod says it’s difficult to prove intent. “I can’t get into a family’s head and decide why they moved,” he says. “To declare that student ineligible—how do I make that case? If a student goes to four schools in four different years, I can suspect athletic reasons all I want, but what credible evidence and proof do I have?” Wigod can’t gather his own proof, he says, because “I don’t have investigators.”
As schools grapple with budget shortfalls, hiring investigators to dig into the most egregious examples of athletic-inspired transfers is a tough sell. “For 95 percent of the principals, what’s going on with the elite athletes really doesn’t concern them,” says Burlison. “Do they want to spend the extra $500,000 a year to hire a half-dozen top investigators to deal with the situation? No way.” The results can be seen on the court, and they are stark. In this year’s CIF Open Division semifinals, it was Chino Hills and three private schools. No other public school made it past the quarterfinals.
Watching the team practice under Chino Hills coach Steve Baik, it’s easy to see that for all their shared excellence, the Ball brothers are individuals. Lonzo is highly focused and rarely shows any emotion. Li-Angelo, a classic middle child—levelheaded and low maintenance—has a warriorlike ferocity; when he drives to the hoop, he gives Lonzo an elbow as he lays the ball in off the glass. LaMelo, who’s wearing short shorts that haven’t been in style for decades, is always talking trash. Of the three, he is the most like his showboating father. When Lonzo is slow getting over to cover him, Melo chirps, “Too late!” Then he launches a 25-foot shot from the corner that hits nothing but net.
What the brothers share, other than genes and a surname, is their work ethic. When Lonzo was in eighth grade, he began watching the high school team’s spring league games, studying everyone’s moves. “The first summer practice, he was an hour early,” recalls Baik. “There was already a lot of hype around him. I remember one of our seniors said, ‘I got that guy.’ Zo just destroyed him.” Baik cites Lonzo’s “incredible IQ”: He has a 4.0 GPA. “If you talk to him, he’ll remember everything. He has an amazing ability to process new information. All his teachers say he’s their favorite student.”
Before the season started, Baik, who is 37, called several older coaches, asking them, “Do I start this freshman?” “They said, ‘No way—he’s gotta earn it,’ ” he says, recalling how Zo proceeded to do just that. “We already had a senior point guard, but I went, ‘OK, now we’ve got two point guards.’ ”
Not every coach would have embraced what might be called “the Ball Way,” which usually involves one of the brothers firing a shot from pretty much anywhere on the court and, if it misses, simply taking the next shot from even farther away. But Baik, who is of Korean descent, was himself an impassioned player at Arcadia High School. “If I wanted it, I had to go get it,” he tells me one day before practice. That made him a natural ally for the Balls, who remind Baik of his younger self. “When I played, I wanted my freedom,” he says. “I always had the utmost confidence in my abilities, and they feel the same way, so giving them their freedom was a no-brainer.”
That hasn’t spared him from having to negotiate with their father. “As a coach, I try to teach delayed gratification,” Baik says, adding with a smile, “LaVar does not understand delayed gratification.” After spending time around LaVar, it is clear that tact and conciliation are missing from his playbook. “I’m not diplomatic,” he acknowledges. Still, LaVar appreciates Baik’s ability—to a point. “I don’t want this to sound racist, but most Orientals are nonconfrontational. They’ll let things slide. I’m not like that,” he says. “Excuse my language, but if something needs to get done, I’ll go, ‘Motherfucker! We got to get this done!’ ”
Many of the team’s most impressive victories have been fueled not only by its potent offense, but by its suffocating full-court press. What makes the press work is, as Baik puts it, “having three kids who’ve played with each other for ten years and have instincts you can’t teach.” Lonzo agrees: “We always know what each other is doing.” Or, as LaMelo puts it, “We’ve got each other’s backs.”
LaVar never tires of touting the virtues of indomitability. Behind the family’s home is a rugged stretch of open land, topped by an imposing hill. When the Balls finish practice and lifting weights in the garage, they head over to the hill and sprint up it. “That’s where the boys really get into shape,” says LaVar. “After going up that hill, running up and down a basketball court feels like nothing.” One of the Balls’ oft-told tales revolves around La-Melo, who at five took a fall shooting hoops with his older brothers. When Tina wanted to “baby him,” LaVar recalls, “I go, ‘Leave him alone! He’s gotta learn to get his ass up!’ ”
That pitiless approach has paid off. As opposing teams discovered this season, it wasn’t easy to rattle Team Ball. When Chino Hills played Santa Margarita High in February, rival fans greeted the brothers with a derisive chant of “Overrated!” The Balls soon answered with a pair of monster dunks and a three-point shot from somewhere out in the hinterlands. “They should’ve left their fans at home,” LaVar said dismissively after the game, which Chino Hills won 100-66. “If Coach hadn’t taken the boys out, we would’ve won by 80.”
Long before this season’s outcome was decided, LaVar was already planning for next year. When Lonzo is off at UCLA—and he may not be a Bruin for long; he is a likely lottery pick in the 2017 NBA draft—it will fall to his younger brothers, along with some talented underclassmen, to lead the Chino Hills team. “Gelo is getting ready now,” LaVar says. “Extra jumping, extra shooting. It’s so he doesn’t have to hear next year, ‘ When’s the first game you lost without Lonzo?’ ” Jumping out of his kitchen chair as if going up for a rebound, LaVar adds, “My boys are Balls—they expect to win.”