Lithuania Rumors

I watch LaVar smile as he takes selfies with fans, parading around like he did when he watched his eldest son, Lonzo, courtside when the Lakers visited Madison Square Garden. Except here there is no Jumbotron or tunnel or VIP lounge or concession stand. Just creaky hardwood and worn, gray seats. Only 1,500 of them. This gym, here in Prienai, Lithuania, a tiny town in the Baltic region of Northern Europe, sits next to a tall, snowy smokestack and an abandoned road. It’s where Melo has become the youngest American pro. It’s the perfect setting for the debut of a father with no collegiate or professional coaching experience, only AAU.
The game starts. Melo easily maneuvers through the wide-open key. Alytaus Dzukija seems allergic to defense. Melo throws no-look dimes and scoops in layups. The game quickly turns into who can make the most wide-open threes. Alytaus Dzukija’s Gediminas Zalalis drills one after having three Mississippis to get his feet set. “Good defense,” Seskus manages in English, turning to me sarcastically right after the shot, breaking the fourth wall. Seskus begins to look like he’s getting boxed out of his scene altogether as LaVar rises from the bench and yells: “Knockdown!” “Yessirrrrrrrrrrrrrr!” “And one!” “There you gooooo!” When he screams, “No. 10, come in,” it becomes apparent to me, after being around the team for six games and just over two weeks of practice, that LaVar still doesn’t know guard Paulius Ivanauskas’ name. Ivanauskas rolls his eyes. This isn’t the first time LaVar has attempted to “coach.”
When LaMelo Ball arrived in Prienai, his new team shockingly didn’t seem interested in challenging him on the court. I observed him at daily practices and games for three weeks, and in that time I didn’t see him or his teammates run a single suicide or timed up-and-back sprint. I didn’t see any punishment for blown layups or defensive errors, either. And games were scheduled against lesser opponents. How can Melo soar when his father has cleared any hurdle that might come his way?
I listened to LaVar Ball tell me, proudly, in an exclusive 56-minute interview, that his son is embarking on a journey that is uncharted. But what I saw was the exact opposite: Every bit of the Lithuania experience is charted, every bit of it is staged, by LaVar himself. By the end of January, he leapfrogs to head coach, manipulating the team and the competition to tip the scales in his son’s favor. But as LaMelo Ball walks out of the gym after the Alytaus Dzukija game, disappearing into the starless night typical of Prienai, nearly 6,000 miles from everything that was once familiar, I wonder: How can a boy with so much talent ever become the NBA star of his dreams—of his father’s dreams—if he isn’t challenged?
I pressed Vaitkevicius about why they named the series the Big Baller Brand Challenge. He responded with a smile. “You know what is the focus,” he says without elaborating, as if my question is self-explanatory: We all know why we’re in Lithuania. The Challenge is five games against second-rate teams (two of them amateur) to guarantee minutes for Melo and Gelo, who log far fewer minutes in the more challenging portion of the team’s schedule, the Lithuanian Basketball League (LKL). “It is just a joke,” Steponas Kairys, a Lithuanian coach who helped establish the LKL in 1993, tells me. He calls the Balls’ Lithuania experience a “show,” especially in that the team can guarantee playing time for the brothers without their earning it first. “It’s not real. It’s not honest.”