The Lonzo Ball beat is anything but ordinary

by Wes Goldberg

The scrum surrounded Lonzo Ball following a loss to the Sacramento Kings. The usual questions ensued. What could the Lakers have done better in the fourth quarter? Why did you lose? And so on. Then the really tough questions came.

“How many people do you expect over on Thanksgiving?”

Turkey Day was just a few days away, and this was the last game for the Lakers before a brief break for the holiday.

“30, 40,” Lonzo answered with the same wispy charm as when he talks about running a fastbreak. “It’ll be at our house this year, but my grandma is still cooking.”

Not one, but two more questions about Thanksgiving followed. Will his brothers be there? Do you do anything in regard to hosting? (“Nah, I just eat,” Lonzo said to a chorus of laughs.)

The No. 2 pick in the draft. Drafted to the Los Angeles Lakers. Surrounded by the unyielding Los Angeles media. Recklessly hyped by new Lakers show runner Magic Johnson before the season. Asked after a loss to the Kings about his Thanksgiving plans in a way stretching beyond casual banter and nudges a sort of Kardashian family obsession.

This, just two days after his dad appeared on CNN to respond to personal shade thrown at him by the President of the United States. Ancient history. Such is the life when covering the Lonzo—erm, Lakers—beat.

*****

Harrison Faigen covers the Lakers as a credentialed writer for LakersNation.com and hosts the podcast Locked On Lakers. In the first open practice after Thanksgiving, he said, Ball dropped a news bomb.

“He’s a ham over turkey guy.”

“Woah.”

“Yeah, critical quote for us to get.”

This is a rarity. However useless the information, it isn’t often Lonzo makes news with what he says. What he does, how he plays, what his dad says—that’s usually what grabs headlines.

“His haircuts get a Bleacher Report update,” Faigen said. Lonzo will have fun by superimposing his face over a Nas cover, or vacillate between shoe brands, but he’s not going to bring attention on himself with what he says to the media.

“He’s not that compelling of an interview,” said Bill Oram, the Lakers beat writer for the Orange County Register. “He’s a really nice kid, he comes off as very, very humble, He doesn’t say anything controversial, he’s very deferential to other players, he talked about only wanting to win and get better. He really is from a team standpoint kind of your dream player because he’s not going to say anything that makes the team look bad.”

Ball is a pleasant person to talk to. He takes his time and makes eye contact instead of the usual NBA player long-distance stare over a reporter’s head. He’s personable, even if uninteresting.

“He’s probably been answering questions with reporters since he was 14 or 15, and it’s almost like how he reads a defense. I think he can just read your answer, figure out what you’re trying to get from him, and then just give you that back,” Faigen said. “He reads it like it’s a defense.”

Faigen has given a lot of thought to how he goes about covering Lonzo. The national media is largely critical and full of knee jerk reactions. Faigen decided he can differentiate himself by taking a more patient stance—something typically afforded to rookies, even second overall picks.

Oram’s situation is a bit different working at a daily newspaper, as opposed to Faigen’s Lakers-centric blog. The demand for content is higher, and headlines are important to grab readers. Before the season, he and his editors often discussed how they’d cover Lonzo.

“We kind of chipped away at it in conversations when we were planning out how we wanted to attack this season, and we knew we had a player that was going to draw more media attention than anyone since Kobe,” Oram said. “What we landed on is that you go day by day, and you see what the story of the day is, and you write it.”

That’s probably the only way to approach the season when you don’t know what to expect. From a purely basketball perspective, Lonzo is already polarizing. Will his funky jump shot translate to the NBA? How valuable is a pass-first point guard in today’s game? Should the Lakers have bailed on D’Angelo Russell before Lonzo even took the floor? His celebrity throws gas on the flame. His dad is a wild card who has the ESPN scroll at his mercy.

“I mean, Lonzo Ball, we’re setting the bar really high in terms of what the media coverage for him is going to be in terms of numbers—you could argue we’re not setting it very high at all,” Oram said. “It’s a unique situation because of how new he is to the NBA and how young, and also because he’s not the one who is saying anything that is really headline grabbing.”

That would be LaVar, patriarch of the Ball family and, seemingly, the one-man band in charge of Big Baller Brand.

Oram said while he doesn’t set out to cover him, if LaVar makes news, he has to cover it. Getting called about by Donald Trump? “That’s all part of the Lakers story, as much as they might not want it to be, I mean, that’s the truth.”

LaVar has become his own celebrity, and Lonzo now finds himself answering for his dad. He’s the straight man of the Ball family or, as Oram puts it: “He’s kind of Sarah Hukabee Sanders out there facing The White House press core for Donald Trump, and trying to make sense of what Trump has said. We go to Lonzo.”

LaVar is at almost every home game, and will make appearances on the road—like in Philadelphia and New York—and though he doesn’t seek out reporters or muscle his way into scrums, he makes himself available if they want to talk to him. He’s part of the environment at Staples.

Photo by Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE via Getty Images

After a game in Phoenix in which Montell Jordan (“This Is How We Do It”) provided the halftime entertainment, reporters approached LaVar to get a quote about Lonzo finishing an assist shy of a triple double.

“LaVar sees Montell Jordan and he starts singing that song and dancing for Montell and says they should have a duo act,” Oram said. “It was a really funny moment that would have made for a viral video, and Tania—the beat writer for The [Los Angeles] Times—and I were both standing there with our audio recorders, and obviously that’s something you need the visual of to truly convey to the public.”

“It was that moment on that I was like ‘I’m never going to not record LaVar.’ If I’m interviewing LaVar, I will have video of him because he’s going to something that makes you wish you did.”

On the road, the Lakers beat writers hear the same questions all the time. How much pressure does he feel because of his dad? Lonzo’s answer never changes. The only pressure is to win games, and to become a great player.

For the Lakers players, all of this attention on the Ball family means they can often fly under the media’s radar. If Brandon Ingram, the second pick in the 2016 NBA Draft, has a bad game, chances are it’s a secondary story to the latest developments in the Ball household. For those with credentials, it could mean greater access for exclusives. That is, if they can pull themselves away from the scrum around Ball.

NBC Sports recently ran a piece about Jordan Clarkson, who voiced his displeasure with his playing time in the fourth quarter (ironic, given the amount of national media attention given to Lonzo’s playing time at the end of games). In the story, the reporter mentions Clarkson opened up to them after the rest of the media dispersed following Lonzo’s media availability.

“It’s just logic, right,” Faigen says. “If everyone is swarming Lonzo, and other guys are waiting and they’re making themselves available, then you can go up and talk to them and you get those one-on-ones, and ask them about things and have things that other people don’t have.”

It’s not just the media and LaVar. The Lakers have contributed to Lonzo’s celebrity as well. When Magic Johnson introduced him, he made the expectations clear. Lonzo will be a Lakers legend. It all makes him the biggest story of every day.

“Sometimes you have to tear yourself away from the Lonzo story to make sure you’re doing justice to what else is happening with the rest of the team because, somehow, there is something with Lonzo Ball every single day,” Oram said. “Whether it’s the way he’s playing or what’s going on with his family, or if something else is said, there’s really always a story. You can probably write Lonzo every day.”

The only thing that has trumped the Ball story this season has been Kobe Bryant’s jersey retirement ceremony. The Lakers lifted both No. 8 and No. 24 in the rafters. Magic Johnson has already made clear his expectations that Ball’s No. 2 will join them.

The Lakers haven’t seen this sort of media attention since Bryant’s final season. But, as Oram said, at least the Kobe retirement tour had an expiration date.

For what it’s worth, every reporter I talked to said they enjoy covering Lonzo. He’s pleasant, humble and generous with his time. He never rolls his eyes at a question about his dad or the leader of the free world.

Lonzo is 20 years old and, if everything breaks the right way, could be playing in the league for another decade plus. The conga line of personalities orbiting Lonzo’s world—from LaVar and his brothers, to Magic and Trump—keeps the headlines coming.

“I have no idea how this is going to play out, it’s impossible to say,” Oram said. “It’s one of the most unpredictable developments in sports that I’ve ever seen. I think it would be a little foolish to try to anticipate where it’s going to go. I mean, it’s crazy.”

Wes Goldberg is a contributor to The Step Back and the host of the daily Miami Heat podcast Locked On Heat.