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LaVar Ball Is Out of Bounds

From the first Morning Jolt of the week:

A Ball Goes Out of Bounds

A minute, qualified, half-defense of Trump’s otherwise inexcusable tweet about the three UCLA players who were arrested in China and ultimately released…

If you don’t watch much sports television or listen to sports radio, you may not know who LaVar Ball is. He had a short, unspectacular career in professional sports, and is the father of at least one, and perhaps two or three potential basketball superstars, his sons Lonzo (currently a highly-touted rookie for the Los Angeles Lakers) LiAngelo (currently a freshman at UCLA) and LaMelo, currently playing at Chino Hills High School. One suspects that if they ever made a gender-reversed basketball-focused reboot of the musical Gypsy, LaVar Ball would be Mama Rose, determined to push his sons to the heights of fame and fortune, no matter the cost.

Since his son Lonzo became a star, LaVar Ball has become an increasingly outspoken and high-profile sports personality, boasting that his son is better than NBA MVP Stephen Curry, contending that he himself could defeat Michael Jordan one-on-one, and that he expects his sons to make a billion dollars in endorsements over the course of their careers. There is, ironically, something Trump-like in his wild bombast that makes the national sports media turn their heads and instantly need to react.

It’s also worth noting that LaVar Ball is something of an idiot, making his sons’ entry into the realm of professional basketball much more difficult, with the perpetual potential of a camera-hogging, controversy-courting, expectation-raising maniac of a father following them throughout their careers.

The UCLA Bruins men’s basketball team was invited to China for a tournament last week. Chinese police accused LiAngelo Ball, Jalen Hill and Cody Riley of stealing sunglasses from a Louis Vuitton store near their hotel in Hangzhou, China. As the Los Angeles Times Bill Plaschke summarized:

The three UCLA freshman basketball players didn’t steal items from just one Chinese store, but three stores. Their loot was discovered only after police searched bags in the team bus and hotel. They were released back to the United States not for lack of evidence, but through the intervention of two presidents.

Yes, the players are young men, and young men do foolish things, but “don’t commit multiple acts of shoplifting in China” does not seem like an excessively harsh rule. A quick refresher: China is not a free country. It may be a wonderful place to visit, with many amazing sights and friendly locals, but it is not a free country. Visitors should not expect that shoplifting will be treated as a minor crime, or that their status as college basketball players will protect them from the legal consequences. The players embarrassed their team, their school, and their country.

During his two-day visit to China, President Trump asked his Chinese counterpart, Xi Jinping, to help resolve the situation. (Note that this is a case of the president of the United States not intervening to help a group that is unjustly imprisoned or suffering human rights abuses, but asking for leniency in a case of invited guests who indisputably committed a crime.)

During an interview with ESPN – where LaVar Ball seems to spend roughly half of his waking hours these days – the father examined the burning embers of a potential international incident and promptly poured gasoline on everything:

“Who?” LaVar Ball told ESPN on Friday, when asked about Trump’s involvement in the matter. “What was he over there for? Don’t tell me nothing. Everybody wants to make it seem like he helped me out. “

“As long as my boy’s back here, I’m fine,” LaVar Ball told ESPN. “I’m happy with how things were handled. A lot of people like to say a lot of things that they thought happened over there. Like I told him, ‘They try to make a big deal out of nothing sometimes.’ I’m from L.A. I’ve seen a lot worse things happen than a guy taking some glasses. My son has built up enough character that one bad decision doesn’t define him. Now if you can go back and say when he was 12 years old he was shoplifting and stealing cars and going wild, then that’s a different thing.”

You can’t begrudge Trump for grumbling that Ball is an ingrate – first denying that Trump had anything to do with the release, and then downplaying the seriousness of the crime. (Try the “I’ve seen a lot worse things happen” defense in a Chinese court and see how far that takes you.)

Out of all the people Trump has denounced in his little rants on Twitter… LaVar Ball probably had it coming a lot more than most. Perhaps it was an uncharacteristic lapse in judgment, but his son just embarrassed the country and created an international incident; a little humility, gratitude, and graciousness would be appropriate right now. And I’d bet a decent number of sports fans are tired of seeing Ball as the ubiquitous hey-look-at-me outrage-generating chatterbox of the basketball world.

Now, should President Trump be Tweeting his easily-understandable irritation with Ball? No, and this is why Twitter is dangerous in his hands; his initial, gut-level reaction is instantly broadcast out for all the world to see. Accounts of Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, and Bill Clinton show us that Trump is not the first temperamental, uncouth, or easily-angered figure to sit in the Oval Office. But those presidents weren’t given the technological freedom to vent their feelings to everyone on the globe without editing or preparation.

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