O’Brien: LaVar Ball’s JBA isn’t perfect, but it’s more honest than the NCAA

Kezo Brown (2) blows past a Houston player in JBA league action played Tuesday at Wintrust Arena 06-26-18. Worsom Robinson/For the Sun-Times.

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.”

LaVar Ball at Wintrust Arena. Worsom Robinson/For the Sun-Times.

LaVar Ball at Wintrust Arena. Worsom Robinson/For the Sun-Times.


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.

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  • Tasia Brown

    All these comments about these young men being “steered away” from an education are missing the mark. A lot of college basketball players are not getting a quality education when they play college ball in the first place. They take bird courses and get passed to meet their academic requirements. Many of these JBA players couldn’t get into college or don’t have the money to go. This is a second chance for them. And all the complaints about Lavar being in it for himself? Laughable. Like the NCAA doesn’t make billions off the backs of their players, who play for free. Who is really exploiting who?

  • bballjunkie

    College education only pays off if you become something like a lawyer, doctor or engineer. Most student athletes major in dumb subjects like psychology, general studies or sociology. When they graduate, they have no job skills and are 20k in debt. Let these kids get paid to play ball and let them go to trade school where they can be an electrician, plumber or mechanic. These jobs pay 40-60k. Having a college education helps but it doesn’t guarantee success. I know people who didn’t go to college and they became bus drivers, worked for UPS, the airport, etc. and they make 40-60k and are doing better than most college graduates because they don’t have student debt and they spent their time working instead of sitting in some anthropology class learning about what caveman ate for dinner. College is over rated unless you become something like a nuclear engineer.

  • Rashad Ali

    I love this idea it gives children a different route it’s in it’s first season. They have some great talent in this leauge Kizo Brown is Phenomenal!!!! This leauge will really grow within the next year. Every team has some really nice prospects. It’s doing Great to say it’s never been done Before!! Much Love and respect

  • Wscfantoo

    So what’s the (realistic) end game here? The NBA for a few? Many? A job out of the game for most? How does this compare to minor league baseball A-ball? When I was recently out of college and the Kane Co. Cougars began, I worked with 2 people who ‘adopted a Cougar’, meaning they rented a room to a new minor leaguer. I don’t know how those players ended up. Obviously the success rate in baseball is really really low, are these kids expecting something different? I’ve been around the youth leagues long enough to know too much talk in 6th/7th and up revolves around ‘going D1,’ talking up some player who in most instances is just bigger than their peers. Too much talk about the level you need to reach to be considered a success —is unattainable for most.

  • bobby

    This league and LaVar Ball is a joke. Steering these kids away from education and leading them to think they will be in the NBA. Shame on you Michael Obrien, I thought you were better then this, I am done reading your work.

  • BBall fan

    I enjoy your opinions and usually agree with you Mike, but not on this one. LaVar Ball is in this solely for LaVar Ball. This is gonna work out about as well as those younger Ball brothers playing in Lithuania did.

  • TheTruth

    The JBA is more about Lavar and his promotions, including his own sons, than placing kids into a decent-paying basketball career – even if overseas. He has dangled a carrot in front of them to the tune of $3K/month for 4 months, luring them away from an education that they could receive by playing college ball. He discounts the value of a higher education – a reflection of his own lack of intelligence. He is a salesman portraying a George Jefferson-on-steroids character, more concerned about Facebook clicks, selling tickets, pop up shops, and #GetUrMerch. The JBA is not about the kids as he claims. Where will he be in these kids’ lives next year when they have blown through the nominal cash they made in the JBA with no financial path to a higher education? Abandoned.

  • jkaye33

    I have total respect for Vision’s opinion and agree with some of what he says because I am a firm believer in education for LIFE’S sake, but I also believe what he had to say would have more credibility if he took the time to check his spelling..

  • Vision

    Mike, I respect your writing but I completly disagree with you.

    All this make shift league does is provide young men with a temporary fantasy of playing professional sports. Going to college and getting an education has proven to be a better long term solution to winning in life. Those athletes blessed with the talent and work ethic to skip out on their edication and go pro should take full advantage of it. Those athletes ruining their amuter status in a rush and panic to make money or fulfill a dream without the talent or skills are insolvent of reality. They are bankrupt of reasoning and rationale. All of these young men in this fantasy league should use basketball as a means to gain higher education not to enrich themselves. The truth is this league is a failure. It provides a fantasy to kids who probably have no likelihood of ever entertaining fans for real money. This is another attempt for LaVar ball to trap us in his nonsense, mosgnistic, indiotic world that disrupts the real value of our game.

    I find it alarming that you criticize college coaches who are under Federal indictment for crimes they may have committed, no verdict has been rendered in those cases I might add, but you praise LaVar Ball. He is a disgusting person who disrespects the foundation of basketball. A person who disrespects women, his sons coaches, and kids. Any person with moral values would not tolerate someone who engages in his behavior or be associated with anything they do.

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