LaMelo Ball waited a lifetime for this moment. The Hornets waited even longer for him.
Two hundred and seventy-nine days had passed since the last time the Charlotte Hornets had played a game at the Spectrum Center, and now they were back, albeit for a preseason game, and one that the spectators weren't allowed to attend. No matter. Ninety minutes before the start on December 12th, a Saturday, a small group gathered in front of the practice area in the back of the arena.
From the sidewalk, bystanders could see through the translucent sheeting that covered the windows. You could see the basketball activity inside - shooting and jogging and stretching - and no doubt some who gathered were there to take a look at the slender 19-year-old, a lithe 6-foot-8 and 180-pound who was the Franchise has given hope.
The sidewalks were mostly empty. The restaurants and bars that were usually crowded in the arena weren't. The bus stop across the street looked deserted. And yet there was also a bit of energy there, mostly because it was LaMelo Ball's first NBA game, preseason or not.
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Nineteen years old and still within its frame and now the draft's third overall win was playing an NBA game for the first time. Around the corner, one of the security guards was waiting outside the arena to give a verdict.
"The kid can shoot better," he said gruffly, noting that the NBA is and was a shooting league, perhaps ignoring the fact that perimeter shooting isn't why the Hornets designed Ball. that they designed him for his passerby skills, potential for leading a team, and the possibility that in time he could become a franchise identity.
It's been a long, and maybe a very long time - maybe decades - since Charlotte moved in a player who generated so much hope and anticipation before he even played a game. All one had to do was walk around the Spectrum Center and look at the mural above the box office to understand how difficult it was for this franchise to find a star.
This mural featured four players who were on the team in the mid-1990s, when every basketball-loving middle school student in North Carolina and good numbers around the world wore a teal, puffy Hornets starter jacket. It was a must have, this baggy sweater with the big cartoon Hornet logo on the back that looked cool and mean while bouncing a ball.
The Hornets had been something of a national phenomenon at the time, to do with the likes of Muggsy Bogues and Alonzo Mourning and Larry Johnson - he from those memorable Converse commercials where he wore a wig and a dress and a dark one Nana named Grandmama transformed. In addition to these three, there was also Dell Curry - the first curry to become known in basketball.
It was 25 years ago, not since 1995, since Bogues, Curry, Johnson and Mourning played together for the Hornets and yet they were there on the mural above the box office. They were joined by Kemba Walker, who went on to become an All-Star in Charlotte every year but still largely went unnoticed. He had been gone for more than a year.
How significant was it that none of the players promoting the franchise on the mural above the ticket window were still on the team? Or that four of the five hadn't played together in Charlotte since the heyday of the 1990s? But now there was hope that maybe it might be a bit like the 90s again, and part of the hope was that the Hornets had acquired Boston Hayward's Gordon Hayward.
An even more important part of hope was the arrival of Ball. Now, this Saturday night in mid-December, he was about to make his debut on the pitch. The game didn't count and it was just an exhibition, a kind of warm-up exercise, but Ball had learned from a young age that everything counts; that in the fishbowl he lived in, people were always watching and judging and waiting for what he could do - waiting to confirm the hype or to reject it.
"The kid can shoot better," the guard said, and people had something to say about Ball for much of his 19 years. He had done his first media interview when he was 8 years old, he told The Observer, and he had said when he was 15 he realized he had to grow up and that the days as a kid were over.
And now he was about to make his debut, and the experiment - whether Ball could become the kind of player the team would one day put on a mural - slowly began. He is the one most responsible for his success, and it is a burden that he accepts but does not carry alone.
Prior to the draft, a delegation from the Hornets traveled to California to watch Ball practice and interview him. Attendees included Mitch Kupchak, the president for basketball and general manager, and Buzz Peterson, the assistant general manager, and James Borrego, the team's 43-year-old head coach, who was doing his third year in Charlotte.
Borrego had his doubts about Ball, as people have wondered about him for various reasons. Ball is the youngest of the three Ball brothers, all of whom have become professional basketball players. His eldest brother, Lonzo, has been the most successful to this point, and he's the one the Los Angeles Lakers designed in 2017 after his lonely year at UCLA, finishing second overall.
The Ball brothers are the son of Lavar Ball, himself a former professional athlete who spent a few months on the Carolina Panthers training team in 1995. Now Lavar is more known for his noise, for the wild things he has said over the years, things that have been well documented and questioned and sometimes condemned for their exaggerated absurdity.
Some of the older Ball's feelings were mostly harmless, if not ridiculous, when he once said he could have beaten Michael Jordan one-on-one in basketball. In other cases, his candor has been more inflammatory and condemnable, including his comments on or against women.
Lonzo Ball, now in New Orleans, only spent two seasons with the Lakers, and during those two seasons his father sometimes expressed displeasure with the way the team used his son. He criticized the Lakers' then coach Luke Walton, suggesting that he might not know exactly what he was doing.
Now Borrego was flying to California to meet LaMelo Ball, and no doubt some of these things had to be on Borrego's mind: That the youngest of the Ball brothers had grown up in a different family environment; that his father wasn't afraid to publicly suggest that an NBA head coach, someone at the top of his or her career, didn't have what it took.
"For me, I'm trying to build a program and a culture of people who want to be part of something that is bigger than themselves," Borrego said in a recent interview on the phone. “You want to be part of a group - not an individual. And I wasn't sure what to find, see, or hear. "
What he saw was this: when LaMelo Ball walked into the gym, he took a lap and said hello to everyone who came over and shook hands with everyone. He turned on the music and jumped up and down and started his workout.
"And my first impression was energetic, infectious mind," said Borrego. After the practice, the interview came and Borrego's concerns, whatever they were, began to fade. He appreciated the way Ball sat in the chair opposite - upright, looking Borrego eye to eye - and liked the way Ball responded to questions and conducted the conversation alone.
"Just a real mind, an authentic mind," said Borrego. "He would ask as many questions as we would ask."
Despite being young, Borrego understood the universal truth that a prospect will sometimes deceive you. He said he was previously fooled by players putting on a good show prior to draft, only to turn out to be different types of characters. He asked Ball questions that Borrego hoped would reveal Ball's true self, and among those questions was this:
What do you value most in life?
Ball's response, deeper than Borrego expected, became part of why the Hornets designed it.
“His answer to me was family,” said Borrego. "'I love my family.' And he says we haven't figured it all out, but we love each other and we pull for each other. And that was - I thought it was pretty impactful for me anyway. That the first thing that came out of his mouth was family.
“And ultimately we want to be part of a family here. That is what we want to build with the hornets here, a culture that revolves around a family. As we draw for one another, we are connected. We laugh at ourselves, we hold each other accountable. And that reaction to me had a huge impact. "
The NBA is not a patient place, either for underperforming players or for coaches who cannot make the most of their teams' talent. There is now pressure on Ball to perform to justify his high design position, but arguably there is even greater pressure on Borrego to build the kind of relationship and trust with Ball that will give him a better chance to thrive.
The main priority, Borrego said, "is to make sure he knows what this is about and to hold him accountable for it." But then there's another part that's just as important, which Borrego called "extremely important". And that, he said, was "to build that relationship and trust" with Ball, who rarely had anything but success in basketball.
How could it be after a loss, or when the ball fails, or when the team is out somewhere, the games are running together, the players are tired of each other and the grind, if only for a moment? There was no way of knowing, but Borrego was trying to build a foundation with Ball and now their futures had become interdependent, at least for the short term.
"He knows I'm there for him," said Borrego. “He knows I love him and I trust him. And now it's about building and growing. "
There's nearly a decade in age between Ball and Bismack Biyombo, the 28-year-old veteran of the Hornets, and they grew up two oceans and a continent apart.
Ball grew up in a biracial family - his father Black, mother White - in a posh community outside of Los Angeles. Biyombo was born in Lubumbashi, Democratic Republic of the Congo. Ball had a scholarship offer to UCLA - and was actually required to play there - when he was 13 years old. Biyombo was discovered by a boy scout who was mining Africa for basketball talent.
Their backgrounds and paths to the NBA could not be more contrasting, and yet their different journeys have crossed in Charlotte. They have already gotten close, the teen from the California hills and the man from literally the middle of Africa.
This is not necessarily the plan, said Borrego. He hoped Charlotte would get a veteran security guard, someone who could "be there and put his arms around LaMelo." But that someone turned out to be Biyombo, known as "Biz" among his teammates, who likes to poke fun at Ball for making a habit of walking around shirtless.
"A funny kid," Biyombo said of Ball during a recent interview on Zoom, laughed and punched in the punch. "He just has to learn how to put on his shirt."
"Oh, here he goes with it," said Ball, laughing himself when he heard what Biyombo said.
It's not entirely clear how they connected or clicked, but they did and in their relatively short time together, "Biz has been a great mentor" for Ball, Borrego said. Biyombo may not be familiar with everything that Ball experienced, such as growing up in a fishbowl.
Yet Biyombo was a top 10 draft pick himself in 2011 (Charlotte, then known as the Bobcats, picked him up on Sacramento Draft Night, and Biyombo spent the first four years of his career in Charlotte before moving to Toronto and Orlando worked). He's been in the league for a while now and understands what allows a player to stay beyond talent.
"The average player ... is two and a half years (in the NBA)," said Biyombo, knowing that fact immediately. "If I play back 10 years now, all of this information that I got from veterans has really helped me stay on the ground, and 10 years later I can continue to learn from others. ...
"The NBA is a fraternity and we all want to make sure we help the next."
Ball is the youngest player on the Hornets roster, even younger than the other rookies. He only turned 19 in August. Some of his teammates are losing their hair, and one of them, Hayward, made his NBA debut when Ball was only 9 years old. There are generational and cultural differences, and Biyombo is committed to facilitating Ball's transition.
There hasn't been too much serious conversation yet, at least, and Biyombo said he would keep those that happened private. But he's also there in the smaller moments when Ball has a question about a game or needs to know where to defend himself. Biyombo was there to help Ball fit into the locker room and build relationships with his new teammates.
"When you get into the league it's a lot of pressure," said Biyombo, who had followed Ball's journey for a bit before Ball got into the NBA. With all the attention, it would have been difficult not to follow him. "... I think he understands what pressure is. He knows how to handle it and of course we are all here to make sure we help him with whatever he needs.
"... To be able to help him through the whole process, I think it'll be fun," and it already sounded like what Biyombo was happy to give ball about his lack of shirt-carrying with the heartache and a more tender scene captured by a photographer during a preseason game for the Hornets: Biyombo with one arm wrapped around a ball, whispering something - maybe serious, maybe not - in his ear.
Ball has conducted so many interviews and answered so many questions that it is difficult for him to remember when he did his first interview and which questions he is most tired of answering.
When did he first have a camera or a microphone on his face? He had to think about it.
"It's probably been a long time," he said before deciding it must have been when he was 8 years old. And of all the questions that have followed him for years - about his father, or growing up with his brothers, or about expectations - Ball admitted that "I feel like it's always the same questions."
But he said, "I don't really get sick when I talk about anything."
And so he said of his father, whose publicist said he was too busy to be interviewed for this story: "He will say what he wants. I think he usually talks about Lonzo (more) than to me. That's why he probably calmed down too. "
And that's exactly what Ball, whose family was the focus of a reality show and who entered the NBA with an Instagram following (@melo) of more than 6.1 million, said that he had lived in public for most of his life : “You can certainly get lost with it. But when you're grounded you know what you're doing, focus ... you'll be cool. "
And that's what he said of playing overseas for over two years and completely skipping college after the shoe company Big Baller Brand, founded by his father, gave him a signature shoe that made his college eligibility difficult: “The path I've taken is the one I (wanted). I love my route and if I could repeat it I would do it again. "
And finally, Ball said of pressure, "I really don't have any pressure. I just feel like I'm out there doing what I love. At the end of the day, I'm going to feel that pressure when you can't eat or one Need shelter. Something like real life, you know?
“Don't just play a basketball game. There is no pressure to be honest. "
There are people around Ball who are responsible for its success, people like Borrego and Biyombo and his manager Jermaine Jackson, who lived with Ball when he played in Australia. But Ball's path leads to Ball, and when he does one of those interviews that he has done a million times, he doesn't sound like a kid just finding his way.
He sounds like someone who never had much time to be a kid anyway. When asked if he had to grow up quickly, Ball said: “Yes, of course. For example when I was 15. Then it started. "At that point he started to take things 'more seriously' and to shoot - learning how to live alone, be alone. Things of all that nature."
Outside of games and exercises, he lives mostly alone in an unfamiliar city that he allegedly never visited before the hornets picked him. Ball felt they could. He remembered seeing Kupchak playing and practicing in Australia. Now, Ball said, Charlotte seemed "cold" even though he noticed that it was "far east," far from home and family.
He had won over Borrego and others in part because of the answer he had given about his family during his interview. the value of his relationships with those closest to him. Now, however, he and his brothers were all dispersed, and for better or worse, Ball the Baby was across the country and thousands of miles from where he first made a name for himself.
He had followed in his older brother's footsteps, and his father's actions had taken him on a career that started early but now started over with the same old exam. Millions of people waited to judge him or to praise him based on the next climax.
"I'm not worried about other people and the things they think," said Ball. "Because honestly, it's mostly about the other people around me who are closest. If I can deal with them well, I am usually just fine with me. "
Ball failed to score in this first preseason game. Much to that guard's likely dismay, he missed all eight shots from the field. Yet every time he got off the bench and stepped onto the court, the pace of passing increased and sometimes he did things that showed why the Hornet leadership believed and why so many others do too.
One of those moments came in the middle of the third quarter when Ball tossed a no-look pass behind the back of Miles Bridges at a runaway, who caught the pass with a step and lay down during a foul. It was one of his four assists that night, and one of several other times Ball came over to hasten the offense.
The pass went viral on Twitter behind the back, and it was agreed that Ball had enjoyed seeing him again after all this time. Less than two weeks later, YouTube accounts for the play called "SICK" or "FLASHY" had already been viewed tens of thousands of times.
That's the hype and attention that surrounds Ball. In another preseason game in Orlando, another of his passes went viral - this was a bounce pass that he unleashed like a bowler, spinning over a quarter of the space in front of Malik Monk, who caught him and hit him in one move. ESPN's SportsCenter tweeted the clip, calling it an "unreal penny," and that was two days after Dwyane Wade made his own assessment on Twitter:
"Not so breaking news," wrote Wade. "LaMelo Ball is a problem."
And that was all before Ball had even played a real game, one that mattered anyway. It starts now, Wednesday night in Cleveland. His real live NBA debut. Ball had been getting ready for a long time, pretty much all his life, and maybe it was fitting that Charlotte had called him in.
After all, the Hornets have waited even longer for the player they hope will become.
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