Lately I’ve been tuning in every Sunday to watch the latest episode of the Facebook reality web series Ball in the Family. It provides a nice little break from the writing. I’ll open up Facebook Watch on my laptop, sit back, a tall glass of milk and a chocolate orange on standby, and start the episode, looking down every now and then to mess with Gardenscapes. It’s my guilty pleasure. But why is it a guilty one?
Maybe it’s because the term “reality television” conjures up a lot of the worst aspects of the entertainment industry; namely the celebration of materialism and vulgar behavior. Maybe it’s because a lot of these shows are deceptive, claiming to be a representation of real life when in fact a lot of the scenes are staged. Or maybe it’s because of a nagging fear that enjoying it makes me less of a “true” sports fan?
2017 has seen the Ball family rise from small-town eccentricity to nationwide- hell, global– fame. A lot of sports fans take issue with Lavar Ball’s loudmouth antics and the idea that he might be exploiting his children for fame and fortune. Scroll through any comment section on Bleacher Report or Sportscenter and you’ll see a high tally of Likes in support of calls for them to stop reporting on the Ball family and get back to covering “real sports”. I suppose it’s the rhetoric of such fans that made me hesitant to start watching the show; the idea that to do so would be to abandon my status as a hardcore sports fan, that I would be crossing over to the realm of “showbiz”.
Is it the case that the media outlets are trying to force us to jump aboard the Big Baller hype train, or are they merely catering toward our growing interest? The phrase “just stick to sports” sounds familiar, doesn’t it? You’ll find such angry comments under articles that cover athletes fighting against racial inequality, athletes getting married, or- off the top of my head- yesterday’s announcement that the Orlando Magic hired Becky Bonner as director of player development, thereby paving the way for the NBA’s first female GM. Truthfully, the world of sports has always been about more than just what happens on the court. It’s always been a reflection of society at large. And I’m not necessarily saying that the journey of the Ball brothers compares to such events as Muhammed Ali protesting social injustice, or Magic Johnson’s advocacy for HIV prevention. But the reality is that Lonzo Ball is interesting and relevant.
Before he even entered the NBA, Lonzo was more famous than most of the league’s active players. Who can recall a rookie under such a spotlight? Ball in the Family is interesting because it’s covering the day-to-day life of the Lakers point guard in his debut season. We don’t know yet what his legacy will be. The show documents events as they’re happening. It gives us an inside look at the life of Lonzo in between the games we watch on TV. And it has value because- whether intentionally or not- it does give us an intimate portrait of a family thrust into stardom. I can’t help but like the Ball family because they are going all-out; they’re reaching for the stars and not even entertaining the idea of failure. At the end of the day, can we fault them for chasing their dreams?
The show covers everything from Gelo’s arrest in China to Melo’s homeschooling. It also chronicles their mother Tina’s battle against the aftereffects of her stroke, and as we see Lavar helping her regain her speech, helping her walk again, we realize that the show is indeed more nuanced than we thought. There’s an emotional depth to it. I like it in the same way I like vlogs- I’m fascinated by the human experience, about family life, and the juxtaposition of the stardom with these more emotive, mundane moments is what elevates it above the trash we usually associate with the term “reality television”. I guess what I’m saying is: there is substance to it; it’s not just glitz and glamor. I’ve always been interested in what kind of lives basketball players live, and the seeing the more mundane aspects of their time is somehow comforting. It strips away all the crap we attach to celebrities and we see that underneath all the fast cars and swimming pools, these superstars have a lot of the same concerns and social dynamics that we do. And who are the Ball family? They’re a family just like any other.
I first discovered Lonzo Ball in 2016 when he was the subject of a video by popular basketball Youtuber Mike Korzemba. I’m not a Laker fan, but I enjoyed watching him play at UCLA and I’m rooting for him now in Los Angeles. Does he have what it takes to become the talisman for the storied franchise in the post-Kobe era? We’ll have to wait and see. It’s a helluva ambitious task- but that’s what makes it worth watching. At the end of the day, it’s the narratives we look for in sports that makes it so damn entertaining. Be it Lebron’s “The Kid From Akron” storyline as he chases the ghost that played in Chicago, or Jimmy Buckets’ rags-to-riches tale of grit and determination- sports has always been about entertainment. The Ball family is trying to create a dynasty- it’s a tale of three brothers from Chino Hills, all of whom possess an exciting and unconventional playing style. I, for one, can’t wait to see how it ends!