We often hear how important it is for adults to set a good example. We tell story after story about how our kids try to model our behaviors, copying what we say and what we do. And we know too well that the prejudices and bad behaviors of far too many children were learned at their knees of their parents, particularly their dads.
For the past year or so, the sports media has been flush with tales of what an extraordinary father LaVar Ball is. How he has prepped his three sons for careers in the NBA. How he has built a multi-billion-dollar brand for them. How he has instilled a focus and discipline unlike anyone before him. How he and his kids are every bit as talented, if not more so, than the likes of Michael Jordan or Stephen Curry.
We were so enamored with the Ball family story that we overlooked how the patriarch strong-armed the NBA to ensure that his eldest son, Lonzo, would only be able to play for the Los Angeles Lakers. And we excused the brashness (or offensiveness, depending on perspective) of LaVar, seeing him as some magical mix of John Wooden, MJ, Phil Knight, and P.T. Barnum, where everything he did was for the good and the success of his offspring.
So when middle child LiAngelo was arrested earlier this fall before a UCLA game in China, we were again willing to give the Ball clan the benefit of the doubt. LiAngelo seemed contrite after U.S. President Donald Trump sprung him from a Chinese jail cell, and even stoically accepted his indefinite suspension from the Bruins squad. We were even willing to overlook the petty Twitter fights LaVar had with Trump post-jail break or his rants on how stealing sunglasses in China wasn’t nearly as bad as the trouble a college basketball player gets into in the states.
Then we had LaVar instructing the LA Lakers on how best to coach his eldest, publicly proclaiming that they were managing Lonzo the way he would and could.
And this week, we have LaVar pitching the ultimate of hissy fits, withdrawing LiAngelo from UCLA from entirely, declaring LiAngelo was done with college ball and that LaVar would prepare his middle son himself for a life as an NBA star (setting aside that every scrap of NBA intelligence is saying that LiAngelo was not bound to be drafted into the league in June).
Who knows what the future even holds for youngest child LaMelo, originally scheduled to enroll at UCLA in the summer of 2019, holding what many say is the most talent in the entire extremely talented basketball family.
Yes, I appreciate how talented the Ball family is. And I appreciate how hard LaVar has worked to get all three of his sons on the path to professional success and how much he believes in all three of his sons and the skills they possess. But at some point, one has to ask about the example he has set for his sons with his own actions.
What does it say when you disrespect your sons’ coaches, whether they be at UCLA or the Lakers? What does it say when you minimize the severity of the charges against LiAngelo, and insinuate that skills with the basketball trump adherence to the law? What does it say when you constantly call out and attack the very professionals your sons idolize? What does it say when you don’t make your kids suffer the consequences of their actions? And what does it say when you quit and storm off the first time things don’t go your way or you don’t like the resolution of a problem?
I’ll never know what it is like to be LaVar Ball or any of his sons. I’ll never know what it is like to possess such incredible physical gifts that a path to fame and riches was never in doubt. I’ll never know what it is like to tell companies like Nike or institutions like UCLA that they can sit and spin because they won’t do exactly what I demand of them, when I demand it.
But I also know that LaVar will never be as self-aware as I am about the example a dad sets for his kids. That he will never have to experience coaching a child through an incredibly difficult patch, knowing that victory will never be grabbed, but the perseverance was the goal. That he will never know how hard it is to build self-esteem in a child who has been bullied or sees his or her own shortcomings. And that he will never know what it is like to automatically assume that the struggles and challenges your children face are of your doing and your responsibility, whether true or not.
Those who know me know that parenting, particularly fatherhood in the modern day, is incredibly important to me. In my award-winning book, Dadprovement, I go deep into exploring what it means to truly be present in your kids’ lives and the hard lessons I learned in transitioning from one solely focused on that professional brass ring to one that fights every day to try and put family first. That the last thing LaVar Ball’s success as a parent will be measured by is how large each of his three sons’ NBA contracts may be.
As dads, we should be modeling empathy to our sons, not bullying behavior. We should be modeling perseverance, not quitting. We should be modeling acceptance of imperfections.
I’m an imperfect father with imperfect kids, and that’s just perfect for me … even if it means I’ll never have my own shoe line.