Getting to Know the Real Lonzo
In the last year, 20-year-old Lonzo Ball was named First-Team All-American at UCLA as a freshman … played in the NCAA Tournament after finding out his beloved, supportive, strong mother had suffered a stroke … become the No. 2 overall draft pick for his hometown Lakers … received NBA Summer League MVP honors heading into one of the most scrutinized NBA rookie seasons in recent memory … (tired yet?) … posted numbers that mirror those from Jason Kidd’s rookie season, but missed several games with various minor injuries … started a brand … produced a rap album … filmed a reality TV show … and, oh yeah, found out his girlfriend is expecting his baby.
How about all THAT?
To understand how Ball has handled all of this, it’s informing to understand how he grew up in Chino Hills, with the full support of a strong family that continues to center him. I recently sat down with Ball to go back to the beginning, tracing his earliest memories of basketball, discuss what he’s like off the court, relate his close relationship with his younger brothers to how tight he is with his young Lakers teammates, and much more.
Below is a full transcript of our conversation:
MT: What are your first memories of basketball?
Ball: I started to play when I was 6 at the YMCA in Ontario. Chino was all baseball. There wasn’t really a basketball league. Ontario was also the only league that would let me play up (with older kids). My dad was the coach, and put me in it. It was natural, it was easy for me. I played baseball too, and flag football, but basketball was the easiest for me. Then when I was 12, my dad asked me what I wanted to do, and I said ‘Be an NBA player.’ Since then, he started training me. He told me he was going to guide me. My dad had me start lifting weights at 12, and for me it was fun. He made it a competition. Running miles, trying to beat your time, working out with my brothers. The NBA was always the goal. That’s the highest point you can reach. My dad helped me work to there, and his philosophy was, he made it to the NFL with no help at all, so if he’s helping me, he liked our chances of getting to the league.
MT: I’ll assume you were good right from the jump?
Ball: I was pretty good right when I started, and I was bigger than all the kids, faster than most of them. It came easy for me. I played guard my whole life, and liked having the ball in my hands.
MT: When did your younger brothers, LiAngelo (age 19) and LaMelo (age 16), start playing with you?
Ball: Gelo started at 5, and Melo at 4. Me and Gelo went at the same time. I played with Gelo pretty much my whole life, but it took him a little longer. He wasn’t that good at first, but when he was in 8th grade, that’s when people started noticing.
MT: So at age 14, you get to Chino Hills High School. Did you start right away at Chino, and did you ever play AAU?
Ball: Yup, my whole career, I started. And I didn’t play AAU until one of my dad’s friends called him for a favor when I was a sophomore or junior in high school.
MT: At what point does it turn from a dream to being very much realistic? As you start winning a ton in high school? Before that? Recruiting letters?
Ball: I didn’t get my first letter until I was a sophomore, because I started so late in the AAU scene, but once I made my mind up in 7th grade, I wasn’t turning back. I saw I was more physically gifted than a lot of kids where I was from, so that helped a lot. And then with my dad, it’s always just put 100 percent into whatever you do, so I went full force at it. Then when I got to high school, that was a better gauge, and still doing great as a freshman playing against seniors (was a sign). Then getting the first letters, and it went from there.
MT: You committed pretty early to UCLA, right?
Ball: Yeah, I committed so early that I only had three or four schools on me, when I was a junior. But that’s when everything piled up, everything got crazy.
MT: Before you got to the point where most of your life started to get crazy, what do you remember most aside from sports? Music? Girls? Friends?
Ball: In Chino Hills, everybody is cool with everybody, so I had a lot of friends. My house was kind of the hang out house, where everybody would come over. I didn’t really have a lot of girls like that. I was cool with everybody, but I wasn’t chasing girls left and right. Just nice to everybody. My middle brother, now he had a lot of girls. But I was always focused. Letting stuff happen organically and not really chasing after nothing. I was always active in the community, going to Friday night football games, hanging out with the players after or catching some baseball games. I was always active in the community.
MT: Your youngest brother, LaMelo, has quite a presence on “Ball In The Family,” which reveals how much you and Gelo like to mess with him and try to handle him…
Ball: He’s crazy. He’s a lot. He’s the worst (laughs). He doesn’t even show it on the show. That’s how it’s always been. My dad always had the three of us together. Gelo and I were like twins; we used to wear the same clothes. On all the same teams. And he always told us to look out for Melo, so that’s how we grew up. We had a little mini movie theatre in our house where we’d watch movies on the weekends.
MT: A few go-to movies?
Ball: I liked “Coach Carter” and “Glory Road.” I was real big on basketball movies. I know my dad liked “Bad Boys.” Gelo always had some funny movie on, like “Norbit” or “Friday,” and Melo usually just fell asleep.
MT: Your dad grew up in South Central … so were you raised on N.W.A., then solo Ice Cube and Dr. Dre and so on?
Ball: Yup, all that. That’s what he put us on. Ever since I remember riding in the car with my dad, it was always like that. But the first rappers that he put me on were probably DMX, 50 Cent, and then 2pac.
MT: Every generation, we do this thing with music, where we don’t understand what younger people are listening to. I grew up in the 90’s, so I’m more into 2pac, Biggie, Wu Tang and A Tribe Called Quest, then moving into Jay-Z and Kanye. Some current rap sounds more like that – Kendrick Lamar, J Cole – and some sounds so much different, like I can hardly follow it.
Ball: Yeah, I’ve been thinking about how that’s going to happen to me (one day)…
MT: So what do people like me not get about trap music or mumble rap?
Ball: It’s a different kind of energy. Not really focusing on what they’re saying, but more on how they say it. It just sounds good. Some of the new rappers, I don’t like, but as far as Migos, or Travis Scott, I like them a lot. The beats help a lot, too. You can tell it’s a different beat from the 90’s compared to now.
MT: You released your own album earlier this year. What’s it like being in the studio, and how has that passion come around for you?
Ball: First off, it’s just fun. I’ve been playing basketball my whole life, and everything I deal with revolves around basketball, so when I’m in the studio, it’s kind of like I get to get away for a little bit. Just say whatever I want and be free in there. That’s what I like. It’s therapeutic.
MT: Your girlfriend (Denise) mentioned on “Ball In The Family” that music is where you reveal how witty you are, which doesn’t always come out when you’re just going through your day. You agree?
Rapping: For sure … more creative ways to express yourself is how I view it. I really don’t talk too much, even in the media, but in the studio, I can say whatever I want.
MT: I have to talk to you on camera almost 100 times a year for various Lakers outlets … seems to me you “could” often say more than you do … that there’s more in your thoughts than what you’re saying?
Ball: My whole life I’ve been like that, interviewing the same way. I just answer the questions. I could expand … but that’s how I am. I try to be respectful still. Part of it, in my family, my dad can talk forever, so a lot of listening goes into that.
MT: How’s your mom doing*?
Ball: She’s doing much better now. She’s back home in Chino Hills. I see her and her parents at every home game now. She’s made a lot of progress. Just like my dad, she’s always been there for me as well, always cooking, picking me up from school, everything. It was kind of tough, but now, she’s strong, and she’s getting through it. She pretty much understands everything, but it’s just hard for her to communicate back. When you’ve been with her so long, you know what she’s saying or what she’s trying to say.
*Lonzo’s mother, Tina, suffered a stroke last May.
MT: Pretty brave for your mom to fight through all this, and still be willing to be on the Facebook show and support the family.
Ball: I think so, and she has fun being on camera with me and my brothers and my dad. She loves being (around us). At first she was a little worried about her hair, because she didn’t have any, and always wanted to wear a hat or a beanie or something. But we were joking around with her, telling her we’d cut Melo’s hair too. She just had fun with it, and now it’s like the cameras aren’t even there.
MT: My mom is a cancer survivor, and doing great now, but I was in high school when it happened and didn’t really know how to handle it. I really relied on her strength. But it does make you grow up a little bit, in my experience. How do you think going through this with your mom has impacted you? Ball: When stuff like that happens, you have no choice but to deal with it and cope with it. When I found out, I was at UCLA, and I took a leave of absence with my team to go with my dad. He said, ‘You have a tournament, you gotta go play, she’ll be all right. I got her, I’ll be with her the whole time. Call me every day, make sure she’s cool. Stay positive, keep praying and she’ll be all right.’ It was kind of tough blocking it out and getting ready for the tournament, but everything worked out how it was supposed to work out and she’s getting better now.
MT: A lot has happened in your life in just over a year, right? Going from UCLA, to the Lakers jumping up in the lottery to secure the No. 2 pick, to actually being drafted, to the introductory press conference, to Summer League in Vegas … not to mention Big Baller Brand launching, making an album, doing “Ball In The Family,” going through LiAngelo’s situation in China, all while being among the most scrutinized rookies in recent NBA history. Man.
Ball: It’s been moving pretty fast. I remember in the (early) summer it was just about working out, and everybody was saying ‘Lakers, Lakers, Lakers’ was going to happen, and then truly blessed that it did happen. From that day I got drafted it hasn’t really stopped. It’s just kept going. Obstacles keep coming up, but I’m close to my family, and that helped me deal with a lot of things. I can talk to them whenever. And recently finding out I’m going to have a kid … it just keeps going.
MT: And congratulations on that news, by the way, to you and your girlfriend! Do you know how many weeks?
Ball: I know the due date is July 16. I do know that!
MT: Boy or girl?
Ball: It’s a girl.
MT: Tyler (Ennis) has a girl who’s around seven months or so, and Julius (Randle) has a son…
Ball: Yup and KCP has two boys. I talk to Julius a lot, KCP too. I always see Julius on the phone with his kid and stuff, and I just ask him how he does it on the road all the time. He says it’s a love you can’t explain, having a kid.
MT: I have twin three-year-old boys, and there’s no question, being a dad is the best thing in the world. Now, we’ve talked before about how you love to sleep, and are a big napper, so depending on what the baby is like, that may be a bit of an adjustment!
Ball: Yeah, Julius did say that he got big into coffee and stuff. I don’t drink coffee, but he said ‘You’re gonna start.’
MT: But that’s just one thing out of a hundred you’ll learn being a parent, and most are great. I wonder how much of being a dad you think you’ll take from how your father was with you, since you’ve said many times how much you appreciate him?
Ball: Yes, that’s how I was brought up. I want to be the same way my dad was. Always there, always cared for me and supported me, and supports me in anything I do that’s positive. Making sure I stay out of trouble, and keeping me on the right path.
MT: Is it funny that you’re having a girl considering your family seems to be predominantly males?
Ball: Yeah it’s crazy. My whole family is all boys. We only have like two girls in the whole family. It’s just my mom and her mom. My dad has five brothers (and two sisters), I have my two brothers (obviously). All boys.
MT: OK, random: word is you love Dippin’ Dots?
Ball: I do. Especially banana split. I remember at AAU tournaments, they’d always have a Dippin’ Dots station. Whether I was playing or watching my brothers, I always had Dippin’ Dots.
MT: Any snacks that rival the Dots in your book?
Ball: I used to like a lot of sour candy, but I’ve been slowing down. Sour Punch Straws, Sour Patch Kids, all that. But our (assistant) strength coach Josh (Wright) told me it’s bad for recovery. I was like, ‘Whatever bro, I’m 20.’
MT: Well, sure. I mean, Kobe used to come to games with fast food sometimes when he was younger, but eventually, he learned how beneficial proper nutrition could be. And it’s 2018, so you have a full-time team nutritionist (Kristen Andrews) that’s on top of everything for you guys. So…
Ball: I can still eat whatever. I hear that (how nutrition can help), it just hasn’t hit me yet*.
*In February, I asked Kristen Andrews how hard it is to convince 20-year-olds that are among the world’s best athletes and in phenomenal shape compared to the average human to eat healthy, and she offered this: “It’s tough, especially with the young guys. It can be an uphill battle (to convey that) just because you don’t feel something right away doesn’t mean it’s not better for you and can elongate your career and prevent injuries.”
MT: OK well, Melo seems to exclusively eat fast food, according to your show.
Ball: He takes it too far. If my dad’s not around, it’s all bad for him. Skittles. Just Skittles.
MT: Like, JUST Skittles?
Ball: Skittles. And hot fries or hot chips. Yeah. He needs to be supervised. Like, my dad has to pay attention to him the most.
MT: What are your thoughts on Lithuania?
Ball: I don’t know what’s over there, but I am going out there for a week after the season, just to see them and see what it’s like. According to Gelo, he’s cool with it. He just says it’s cold. But Melo, he always wants to come home. But it’s good that they’re playing basketball. They both like that.
MT: What is the YERM squad?
Ball: That’s my childhood friends I grew up with. I don’t really know where that came from, to be honest. We just started saying it, and it caught on at Chino Hills. We’ve used it ever since. People always ask us what it means, and we always say ‘If you’re not in it, we can’t tell you,’ but I really don’t know. I think my friend John (Edgar) came up with it.
MT: OK, let’s shout out the YERM squad real quick…
Ball: John, Austen (Awosika) and Milan (Acquaah). They’re all in college, playing ball. Milan plays for Washington State, John plays for UC Irvine and Austen plays for Cal St. Fullerton.
MT: On your show, your girlfriend said that you take a long time to get ready. She claimed that you take an hour in the shower/bathroom, then change outfits multiple times. Guilty?
Ball: I don’t take a long time to get ready, I just take a long shower. The shower for me is very relaxing. I mean, I make the water really hot and always have music on, so I just be chillin’.
MT: You understand there’s a limited water supply in Los Angeles, right?
Ball: I do understand that. But it’s usually 20-25 minutes.
MT: The water stays hot that long?
Ball: You gotta just slowly, slowly keep turning it up. You can’t go straight hot.
MT: There’s an art to it, huh…
Ball: Definitely an art to it. I used to get in trouble for it at home, but now I live by myself so I can use all the water I want. My dad used to put me on restrictions.
MT: Rightfully so! In other news, what was your first impression of Kyle Kuzma, and how has your friendship – much of it broadcasted on Instagram Stories – evolved?
Ball: I played against him at Utah, but I didn’t talk to him at all, so the first time we talked was when we both came in after we got drafted to work out. We played 5’s that day, and there were some guys in there from the Raptors like DeMar (DeRozan), and (Kuzma) was just going hard. His shirt was all drenched. He was shooting threes and stuff … at Utah he was good, but I didn’t see the game he has now. He just put in work the whole summer, and then when we went to Vegas, he was my main target to give the ball to. Ever since then, we’ve just been cool.
MT: The on-court chemistry was obvious right away, when you were lobbing full court passes to him for layups. What about off the court?
Ball: After we met in the summer, we were cool off the floor. We both came in at the same time. He has a lot he wants to do with his career. I have a lot I want to do. We both have the same goals. We just talked about that, and built a chemistry from Day 1.
MT: Since you have your brothers, does that kind of relationship come natural to you too? Always giving each other a hard time, but in good fun?
Ball: Exactly, and him too. He talks about his brother all the time. It helps when you grow up in a family, with relationships. Kuz and Melo are always going at it, too. Melo gets bored a lot, so he always calls me, and Kuz is usually with me when Melo calls. They just go at it.
MT: I have to say, I’ve overheard some of that on the Lakers bus to road arenas from time to time…
Ball: It’s a lot of cussing. Lots of laughing. The jokes really don’t make sense most of the time, they just usually yell at each other and laugh. Kuz usually goes after Melo’s teeth, and Melo goes after Kuz’s outfits.
MT: You certainly join your brother in discussing Kuzma’s apparel.
Ball: I know he didn’t dress like that in Flint. There’s no way. But he’s branding. More attention. There are some smart things to it, you just have to have a lot of courage to wear what he wears.
MT: You’re often wearing BBB, naturally. How does that work? Do you just let D-Mo* know that you need a hoodie, or a long sleeve, or a t-shirt…
Ball: Yeah, I go through D-Mo, and he contacts whoever is at the factory to ship it.
*Ball’s manager and longtime family friend, Darren Moore.
MT: I should have brought D-Mo up earlier. That’s your guy. How did that relationship start?
Ball: I’ve known him since I was a little kid. I used to throw him lobs … my dad trained him when he was in high school. He’s nine years older than me, so I was five when I knew him. I used to look up to him and (a player) my dad used to train named Skyler Moore who was supposed to go to the NFL before he got hurt. I was always around watching them work out. Run the hill, lift weights. Just looking up to them.
MT: So now, on a daily basis, you have somebody around that you know has your best interest in mind, in a time in your life where you have a lot of people coming at you?
Ball: Yeah. I live with him. Everything I do, you’ll catch me with D-Mo. It’s pretty cool how his story is, where he went overseas and came back. He played in Chile, and Italy. He came back because he got hurt, and called my dad, and my dad told him to come (work with us). He coached at Chino Hills, and just trained me until I got to college. He’s a people person. Really down to earth and chill. Talks to everybody. Communicates. He’s very easy to get along with, and takes care of all the deals that go on with me.
MT: Speaking of people you trust, your girlfriend and to-be mother of your baby girl…
Ball: I met Denise before I got more ‘known,’ so that’s part of why I care for her so much. I knew her before I committed to UCLA. She was there before all the letters, all the Twitter and Instagram followers. I know that’s genuine.
MT: I asked you about Kuzma a moment ago … what stands out to you about another of your talented young teammates, Brandon Ingram, who’s just one month older than you?
Ball: Yeah, people gotta remember he’s only 20. Watching him grow from when I first came in last summer until now is crazy. He puts in a lot of work. He doesn’t talk too much at first, but once he gets to know you, he opens up a lot more. He’s got the infectious laugh. Once he feels comfortable around you, he’s cool, just gotta get to know him.
MT: The chemistry has been good with you guys all year off the court. Suppose that doesn’t hurt.
Ball: Right, and it helps we’re all the same age or year so we can grow together. Me, Kuz and Josh Hart in our first year, and B.I. only 20. Being able to grow is going to be something special.
MT: You can’t possibly play as many video games as Hart, right?
Ball: I really don’t play video games too much. I used to when I was little, and I’ll still play NBA 2K when my friends come over. So I like video games, but I’m nowhere near Josh Hart’s level. He takes it way too far. I like watching movies and TV shows, though.
Ball: We just started “American Horror Story,” cause when we were in New Orleans, I guess they said it has something to do with Season 3. It’s not bad. I like watching “Power.” “Stranger Things” was good. Still gotta finish “Game Of Thrones” … I haven’t started season two yet.
MT: Come on man. You haven’t gone through that yet?
Ball: I know, I’ve been slacking. As far as movies go, I’ll watch any movie. Action, basketball, chick flicks, anything. Last couple I watched were scary movies. “Insidious,” and some movie called “Veronica” which was all Spanish. I don’t know. Denise is there. D-Mo is there. And then (some) of my friends might come over, too. We just watch a movie every night.
MT: Another basketball question before we get you out of here. You’ve spent much of the season answering questions about your shot, but were you aware that you led the NBA in steals and deflections in March? Is that significant to you?
Ball: (Wasn’t aware) until just now. And not really (significant). I just try to read passing lanes, for the most part. Most of my steals come off of people passing it. I just try to go get the ball. I’ve always gotten two or three steals a game my whole life. People don’t see it sometimes, because I’m not usually picking you up full court or ripping you straight up. It’s more reading passing lanes, or going to get the ball if the big man isn’t looking, but I try to just do whatever I can to help.
MT: Finally, you mentioned some shared goals you and Kuzma had that I didn’t follow up on earlier. What are those, specifically?
Ball: Just getting championships. That’s what it’s always been about for me, winning, and him as well. He wants to be MVP, like anybody would want to be MVP, but our common goal is to win a championship. We know we gotta put in work and stay together to do that. So, that’s how everything started.