LaVar Ball attempts to fill the shoes of global sports brands – at a price

Controversial figure has patented the Z02’s by Big Baller which retail at a whopping $495

LaVar Ball:  has positioned his three sons to  become the new dominant name of pro-basketball and therefore frontrunners in the limitless endorsement opportunities. Photograph:  Josh Lefkowitz/Getty Images

LaVar Ball: has positioned his three sons to become the new dominant name of pro-basketball and therefore frontrunners in the limitless endorsement opportunities. Photograph: Josh Lefkowitz/Getty Images

 

It is, unbelievably, over quarter of a century since Spike Lee teamed up with Michael Jordan for the lightly ironic black and white Nike advert series, ‘Is It the Shoes?’

Always, is their answer, and evermore. But how much is too much for a pair of sports shoes? How much is immoral?

This is the latest debate sparked by LaVar Ball, who has bypassed Nike and the other overlords of sportswear by patenting and producing an independent label for his son Lonzo, who is expected to go as number one pick in next month’s NBA draft.

His shoes – Z02’s by Big Baller – are hitting the shelves and are yours for $495, fluctuating dollar-to-euro rate notwithstanding.

On one level the price is, of course, obscene. True, nobody bats an eyelid at the discreet tags on the seasonal offering from Louboutin or Weitzman– neither of which offers ankle support or that all-the -better-to-execute-your-360-reverse -spin pivot grips.

High street haute couture is the arena of the privileged. The global basketball shoe market is centred on youth and a fair proportion of those who covet the newest Kyrie or LeBron cannot afford a retail price that can come at around $200 dollars.

So the audacity of hoops’ self-appointed first family in creating their brand – Big Baller was patented as recently as March 7th – and then releasing their signature shoe at over twice the price of the leading brand names in world sports has attracted an instant outcry.

Shaquille O’Neal, the retired LA Lakers centre who achieved a kind of cartoonish global recognition for his strength and power, has shoes selling at 16 dollars in discount stores across the USA and online.

Stephon Marbury, an often vilified point guard from Coney Island who reinvented himself as a star of Chinese basketball, made a genuine attempt to produce and market decent-looking basketball shoes in his name for under $15.

Associated prestige

LaVar Ball’s perspective is unashamedly commercial in its outlook. Responding to a barrage of criticism at his latest assault on the pernicious world of big-time sports merchandise, he sent out a Tweet on Thursday evening declaring: If you can’t afford Zo2’s, you’re not a Big Baller.

As a tag-line, it is crass and hollow and has a ring of truth. The cost of the shoes is going to make them more desirable. For decades, young people – and young men, in particular – have been attracted to the overpriced shoes of their idols because of the associated prestige.

The rush for fashion turned dark in the 1980s with the advent of Jordan’s range of ‘Air’ sneakers, with multiple stories of young men killing each other in order to acquire the must-have shoes, in particular for the limited-edition versions which were and periodically released. Sports Illustrated ran a cover story in 1990 around the infamous case of a 15-year-old boy killed in a dispute over Jordan shoes.

One of those featured in Sneakerheadz, a 2015 documentary on the phenomenon of shoe-collecting was Carmelo Anthony, the New York Knicks star player who has shoes named after him and who is one of the leading brand names in world sports.

Anthony lost count of how many pairs of sports shoes he owned after a thousand. The film suggested that an estimated 1,200 people – mainly young urban American – -lost their lives each year in fights and disputes over trainers. Just two years ago, Stephon Marbury directly criticised both Nike and Michael Jordan in a tweet that read: ‘Jordan been robbing the hood since. kids dying for shoes and the only face this guys makes is I don’t care’.

That’s the world which LaVar Ball has invaded with a shrewdness which has underlined his sudden, explosive impact on US sports culture.

Ball senior was an excellent athlete whose ability took him to the very fringes of the NFL in the 1990s before he dedicated himself into transforming his three sons into hoop prodigies capable of eclipsing the best in their age group in the country. Lonzo, the oldest, this year played for the perhaps the most famous basketball college of all, UCLA, where he has won nothing.

During the March tournament, his father’s proclamations became more absurd by the week, claiming that Lonzo was a better player than Steph Curry while he himself would have ‘killed’ Jordan in his prime.

Sensationally talented

The claims were calculatedly ridiculous and thus managed to stand out in the age of noise and opinion. Lonzo Ball underperformed at the March Madness basketball tournament – which Ball senior quickly attributed to the slowness of his three white team-mates, attracting inevitable howls of protest.

Still, Ball is a sensationally talented young player and will probably go first among the one percent of the very best college players who will actually sign an NBA contract. It places him in a highly promising position and will make him instantly wealthy. It also leaves him with an enormous burden of expectation.

With his younger brothers LiAngelo and La Melo already committed to play for UCLA, Pere Ball has positioned the trio to become the new dominant name of pro-basketball and therefore frontrunners in the limitless endorsement opportunities. LaMelo, just 15, has already racked up millions of YouTube views and reports of a 92-point scoring show in a high school game travelled the globe.

The coach at UCLA is a former NBA shooting guard named Steve Alford. In what was practically another life, Alford was the captain and all-round voice- of reason in A Season On The Brink, John Feinstein’s celebrated fly-on-the-wall account of a winter spent following Bobby Knight’s Indiana college team.

Knight was fast on his way to a compromised legacy; a brilliant coach but a complicated figure capable of extraordinary boorishness. One of the most unforgettable passages contains the return to Indiana of Landon Turner, a former player who broke his back in a car accident.

Knight was reportedly heartbroken at the news and dedicated himself to setting up a fund for his player and made him captain for the season even though he wouldn’t play basketball again. When Turner made a surprise visit during the ’85 season around which the book revolves, he was wearing brand new Jordans.

Knight favoured military discipline and appearance so his delight at seeing his favourite turned to irritation when he saw the expensive, flamboyant trainers he wore. He asked Turner where he got the trainers and the player excitedly told him that Jordan had sent them personally. Knight nodded, hating everything the shoes represented about the way the game was going. “Yeah, well, they make you look like a ‘******.

By then, the movement of footwear-as-fashion had already gone stratospheric. It hasn’t paused and perhaps the most incredible element of the story has been Jordan’s ability to stay relevant and hip as a brand despite retiring some 14 years ago and celebrating his 50th birthday in 2013.

But MJ is Nike’s perpetual poster boy and icon. What makes LaVar Ball’s assault on the sneaker market so eye-opening is that he is raising a middle finger to the boardrooms of the global sports brands by going it alone.

If any of his sons come to dominate the scene through performance and longevity in the way that LeBron or Kobe Bryant has done, they are going to sell an inestimable number of shoes to kids who want to be like them – if only in their footwear. And if it works, then it could spell the beginning of the end of the big corporate ‘owning’ global sports stars.

So through his mad, entertaining rants and prophesies, LaVar Ball knows the answer to the old advertising riff and the cold commercial question.

Is it the shoes?

No: it’s the guy who wears them.

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