Hype isn’t the new and hideous beast that each successive generation thinks they discover around the time they age of the demographic where booze and shoe companies are pitching directly to them—the apostles sold Jesus pretty hard—but it does transmute through the years and it has, as we’ve begun injecting media directly into our veins by being always online, occupied an increasingly prominent place in our culture. Which is mostly to say that we’re looking at ads all day, because any screen can be a billboard if the price is right, but we’re also more aware of what things are and what they’re getting at than ever. We’re sick with savvy. Reality TV, for instance, started out as a relatively naive documentarian experiment and is now a byzantinely self-aware exercise in which people who are themselves both in fact and in scare quotes do some stuff for the cameras and other stuff by accident and go on to hawk eyeliner or cookware on Instagram. Nearly everything that can be a brand is. The Seattle Seahawks tried to trademark the number twelve a while back. The Cash Me Ousside girl has a mortifyingly doomed rap career. It’s bleak and most people hate it and it keeps getting worse.
Okay, so: the Ball family. Patriarch LaVar has pulled LiAngelo out of UCLA because he hasn’t been playing following a shoplifting incident in China. He says he can prepare LiAngelo for the NBA better than UCLA ever could, which isn’t true because if that were the case, LiAngelo wouldn’t have gone to play college ball in the first place, but LaVar Ball is a serial liar, and you and I and he all know it, and yet he’s permitted to continue to say things into microphones and tape recorders because program directors and editors for whatever reason keep confusing a good quote with a loud man. This was obnoxious when LaVar was stumping for his eldest son Lonzo, comparing him favorably with Steph Curry and rooting for him to land on the Lakers, but Lonzo was at least a genuinely promising prospect. He mattered, in other words, independently of all the hooey his dad was slanging.
LiAngelo, bless him, is looking like the Stephen Baldwin of his brood. He was the tax UCLA was willing to pay to land his brothers. Both Lonzo and youngest brother LaMelo are touted as stars in the making (if not yet actual stars), but LiAngelo has never been a particularly celebrated youngster and he isn’t on any NBA franchise’s draft board right now. ESPN’s draft expert Mike Schmitz says that coming out of high school, LiAngelo projected as a scholarship player for a mid-major. In short, the dude doesn’t matter. He exists 1.) as a kid who should have just gone to San Diego State or wherever and had a good time, and 2.) as a trailer for a TV show that isn’t even in development yet. This isn’t LiAngelo’s fault and it doesn’t make him a villain. It’s perfectly okay to be irrelevant. Billions of people do it every day.
But like his other brothers, he’s made to suffer for his dad’s ambition. Lonzo is currently struggling mightily in the very early stages of his professional career. He shows occasional glimpses of the vision and understanding of the game that make him special, but he’s not a superior athlete and he can’t shoot, so NBA defenses are eating him alive. This doesn’t mean much for his future. All that’s clear at this juncture is that he’s got a lot to work on, but so have many other players who became great after some initial turbulence. And if Lonzo doesn’t dramatically improve, then fine, he’ll become a deeply flawed but kind of fun Ricky Rubio-like guard. Not for nothing, Ricky Rubio seems to have a blast being himself.
The only thing that would make Lonzo becoming just another NBA player seem like a tragedy is LaVar Ball’s maniacal drive to monetize the sweet hell out of his sons, but then that would likely do it. Lonzo Ball, at twenty-seven, playing sixth man minutes and shooting around forty percent would be a punchline. And for no good reason. Lonzo’s rookie deal is going to pay him at minimum $14 million and almost definitely $33 million. He’s already made it. Everything from here forward should be personal glory and charitable donations, though we know it won’t be, because Lonzo is obligated live up to an idea that wasn’t his in the first place. He gets to be what his father wants for him or something embarrassingly lesser than that. Why? Only LaVar Ball has the answer, and he doesn’t scan as a man who knows himself well, but a helpful place to start might be Mr. Show’s “More Money = Better Than” sketch. There are also probably some oblique answers in Das Kapital, but I can’t claim to have read it.
While Derrick Rose was in self-imposed exile last week, there were a few offhanded mentions in the media that if he were to retire now, he would be giving up some $50 million in Adidas money. While $50 million is indeed a staggering amount of cash in the abstract, um, why should the already immensely wealthy Rose care about it? Isn’t the best part about having a ton of money that no one can ever again compel you to do something you don’t want to do by enticing you with more? Rose is perpetually banged up, on the fringes of both the Cavs rotation and the league, and has generally, for the past few seasons, looked miserable playing basketball as half the player he used to be. If this bums him out as much as it appears to, he should leave the game and try to find something else that makes him happy. He need not be handcuffed to the NBA by superfluous income.
All of this points to what we’re all wearily familiar with: cash is king, only the strong, etc. This truth rings out in much uglier tones in arenas more consequential than sports. (Capitol Hill, for instance.) But it stands out a little more starkly in our less important pursuits, when teenagers have to back up their father’s bluster on national TV, and when we talk about the possible end of a once-great broken athlete’s career as a piece of business. The blaring squickishness of this indicates what’s wrong with us and the systems we inhabit. Things don’t need to be this way, but they are and are likely to remain so. Sometimes the only way to feel like a human being living beneath this is to express disgust, knowing it will change nothing.