When LiAngelo and LaMelo Ball signed with Lithuanian hoops club Vytautas Prienai–Birštonas back in December, a lot of people figured that there would be some serious culture shock for a pair of American teens to get yanked out of prestigious prep programs to go play low-level ball in Europe.
Since then, we've witnessed a number of video clips (and write-ups) of the brotherly duo's on-the-court exploits, but there has been a noticeable lack of coverage of how their day-to-day life is away from the arena. This is sort of odd because that seemed to be the development that intrigued the public the most, and it also seemed to be the development that will certainly provide fodder for a 30 For 30 someday.
However, you won't have to wait for that probable documentary to release two decades from now because, on Wednesday, Bleacher Report Magazine ran a feature on what 16-year-old LaMelo's life is like both on and off the court. The piece was written by Mirin Fader, who profiled LaMelo over the course of the three weeks she spent in the Ball's current hometown of Prienai.
In the story, Fader points out what most who have paid any honest attention to the Ball's time in Lithuania already knew (which, frankly, does not appear to be many people), which is that the numbers the brothers have compiled are pretty fraudulent, because their great games have come against weak competition in the exhibition-minded Big Baller Brand Challenge Games:
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.”
(...) Five days later, during Melo’s LKL debut against BC Lietkabelis on Jan. 13, the team and Melo are far from awesome. This contest counts for standings, unlike BBB Challenge games. And this one is against pros—last year’s runners-up—a departure from the first BBB game in which Melo breezed past the amateur squad of Zalgiris Kaunas.
Fader also highlights what a dreary winter in Prienai is like, and contrasts it with LaMelo's previous residence in Southern California:
The sky is black. It’s nighttime. Sixteen degrees. Knuckles burn, toes freeze. As I walk outside the Prienai Arena, I can’t feel my nose. The cars in the three-row parking lot look like igloos. January in Lithuania is a far cry from the mild 50-degree winter Melo grew accustomed to in California.
(...) Few people speak English. Oftentimes, meals at the Vytautas Mineral SPA hotel, where the family is staying, consist of pork, cabbage and potatoes. Again and again. The mini chocolate chip croissants are stale. There are no movie theatres, no malls, no taco trucks like the ones in Los Angeles, where I live. And certainly no Lamborghinis like the black one Melo received when he celebrated his 16th birthday in Chino. It takes me 10 minutes to scrape off all the ice on my Toyota Corolla rental. I laugh, imagining if Melo had to do the same for his Lambo.
Additionally, Fader highlights that if the idea of going to Europe was to prep LaMelo for the NBA, the lack of getting the actual Euro-basketball experience is likely hindering that effort (which was probably the sole positive from a long-term standpoint). In fact, LaMelo's much written about dad, LaVar, frequently yells at Vytautas' coaches to get his son back in the game. And Fader writes that the 16-year-old is hardly (if ever) pushed in practice, and that the coach of the team even conceded that he avoided criticizing LaMelo for making dumb mistakes:
When Melo 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.
Not shockingly, most of LaMelo's experience seems to be engineered by LaVar. As Fader wrote:
I listened to LaVar 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.
Not everything in the article is bad, necessarily. It just highlights the unorthodox path that appears to have been chosen for the youngster. Go read the whole thing over at Bleacher Report. It's very, very well done.