The crowd was dismal at Wintrust Arena on Tuesday. There were around 200 people sitting in one section, the rest of the venue was roped off.
Most were there to see former Simeon star Kezo Brown and celebrity sports dad LaVar Ball. It was the Chicago debut of the Junior Basketball Association, Ball’s brand new stab at a pro basketball league.
He wants to fill the hole between high school basketball and the G League, almost all of the players are 18-20 years old. It makes total sense, but because Ball is loud and controversial the league has faced a chorus of criticism.
“Everyone in the world doubted this thing and because it happened so fast they don’t know what to do with it,” Ball said. “There is a real league going on, they are really getting paid. They can’t stop us from doing what we are going to do, so we are already successful.”
Ball wasn’t worried about the low attendance. According to a league source there will be a focus on streaming and there may be more of a marketing push to get fans out when the league returns to Wintrust in late July. The games are shown on Facebook Live and some have more than 2.3 million views.
“I’m not worried about streaming and all that,” Ball said. “I’m worried about these guys getting better and chasing their dream, that is all it is about.”
The thought of kids graduating high school, going to play professional ball and losing their college eligibility enrages some Coach K loving members of the media. But college isn’t for everyone.
That was the case with some of the JBA players on Tuesday. One said he couldn’t imagine the thought of going back to the junior college he played at last year. A few said they were already taking college classes online. One said he had no interest in school.
“This is great for us,” said Chicagoan Lenell Watson, who graduated from Perspectives last month. “Some kids don’t like school, they just like basketball. We’re building history for younger kids that want to play somewhere that doesn’t have to do with school.”
Some of Ball’s critics think he started the league simply as a showcase for his sons. That could still prove to be the case, but right now he’s saying all the right things and the players are being paid on time.
“If anybody has a passion for doing something and you can do it and get paid for it you’ve won in life,” Ball said. “It’s not about making all the money in the world. After you’ve bought everything what is left? You have to have a passion for something.”
KEZO BROWN’S RETURN
Brown is one of those kids that has the passion. The ups and downs of his high school career have been well-documented.
His dad, Marquis Brown Sr., had the usual dream for his son: college basketball.
“We originally wanted to keep him at home at Chicago State where we could keep an eye on him,” Brown Sr. said. “But the change of scenery was good for him. It was good for him to get away. He got out to LA and spent some time around some guys that had the same goals as him. That was very helpful.”
Brown’s take on his first month in the JBA sounds a bit like the kind of thing a college freshman says.
“I’m meeting people, making new friends,” Brown said. “I’ve been eating new types of food and meeting all kinds of different people and learning their languages. It’s great hanging with people that have love for the game just like me.”
His dad was nervous about how things would go in the return to Chicago. The last time Brown played for a Chicago crowd he was leading Simeon to the city title. The former phenom did not disappoint, scoring 46 points to lead the Chicago Ballers to an overtime win against the Houston Ballers.
“Kezo did a great job,” Ball said. “We were having a scrimmage and he made one bucket and he looked over and said ‘I’m that guy.’ I told him if he was really that guy he didn’t have to say anything.
“Today I liked his poise, he remembered what I said, to let his game speak for itself. You don’t have to do all that jibbering. He’s a tough kid, he likes to talk back at you. But he led his team to victory and it was great entertainment.”
The overall level of play was higher than expected. The best player on the Houston team was 6-5 forward Curtis Hollis.
“I’ve been at the top level,” Hollis said. “I played in the EYBL for years, DeAndre Ayton was on my team. I liked the idea of the dream of this league and the work ethic of the people involved. Seemed like the right fit for me.”
Hollis said that Ball is planning on taking the best players from the JBA on a barnstorming tour of Europe. A pro contract overseas would be the next logical step for most of the players.
“I have no idea why people are hating [on the JBA],” Chicago Ballers coach Eddie Denard, a Foreman and Chicago State grad, said. “These kids get to focus on basketball, which is what they love. School isn’t good for everyone. And some kids don’t meet the requirements to go to college. [Ball] is just giving these kids an opportunity to display their talent.”
It’s difficult to see how the JBA can succeed financially under its current model. Tickets are far too expensive and there isn’t any marketing. The players are making $3,000 a month. Right now Ball’s sportswear company is footing the bill. But it is hard to shake the feeling that this is the right way forward for basketball.
Maybe it won’t wind up being the JBA, but there is plenty of space for a league that allows kids to prepare to play overseas or in the NBA without pretending to be students, without lying about grades and taking shady payouts from college boosters and shoe companies.
The JBA isn’t perfect, but it is certainly more honest than the NCAA.