Donald Trump went after ubiquitous basketball Dad Lavar Ball this past weekend in a tweet, and TV networks everywhere must have gone mad with glee. This racially loaded and already intensely stupid situation has the potential to buttress ratings for years.
The backstory: LaVar Ball is the father of a trio of highly talented basketball players who all took an unconventional path to hoop fame.
Lonzo, LaMelo, and LiAngelo Ball followed their father’s master plan, which involved eschewing academically dubious “basketball schools” to play for their little-known hometown public school in Chino Hills, California.
LaVar became nationally famous when Lonzo Ball starred at UCLA last year. A point guard with brilliant court vision who has been compared to Magic Johnson and Jason Kidd, Lonzo is currently struggling as the prize rookie of the Los Angeles Lakers.
Some in the sports world blame Lavar for Lonzo’s troubles. The loquacious and argumentative sports Dad creates news virtually every time he opens his mouth. Sometimes it’s with harmlessly ridiculous boasts (like that he would have killed Michael Jordan in one-on-one “back in my heyday“).
At other times, LaVar called for a female referee to be removed from a game, and pooh-poohed son Lonzo’s loss in the NCAA tournament by blaming his son’s teammates, who included white players like T.J. Leaf (the specific quote said you couldn’t win a championship with three white starters).
Throughout this time, LaVar was trying to upend the sneaker-endorsement side of pro basketball by creating and marketing his own brand. His “Big Baller Brand” sneaker generated instant headlines, among other things because some of the shoes supposedly cost $495 or potentially even more (there were outrageous rumors of a $1,500 shoe).
Commentators were split on LaVar. Some said his antics put impossible and unfair pressure on his boys, particularly Lonzo. Player Marcin Gortat even said, “He will kill his son one day.”
Others pointed out that Lavar’s sons were all polite, hardworking and had succeeded in their father’s system. And others, including L.A.-born legends like Paul Pierce, called LaVar a “marketing genius” who was just trying to make money for his family.
It was this controversial personage who traveled to China when son LiAngelo went there with the U.C.L.A. team last month. During the trip, LiAngelo and two teammates were arrested for shoplifting from three stores. Trump reportedly intervened at this point with the Chinese government, to help get the young men released.
In his idiotic and inimitable way, Trump then tweeted what was essentially a demand for thanks, for something he should have done anyway for any American citizen (and which State Department personnel do routinely, without thanks, for Americans who get in trouble abroad).
Trump tweeted: “Do you think the three UCLA Basketball Players will say thank you President Trump? They were headed for 10 years in jail!”
The players did thank President Trump at a news conference back at U.C.L.A. Trump, gratified for a few seconds, tweeted about being thanked. Then he added a typical piece of unsolicited non-wisdom, telling the young men to HAVE A GREAT LIFE and to beware of the many pitfalls on the “long and winding road” ahead.
All done, right? Attention-hogging president demands public tribute from teens, gets it, story should be over.
But then LaVar Ball entered the picture and gave an interview in which he cast doubt on how much Trump had helped.
“Who?” he said of Trump. “Don’t tell me nothing. Everybody wants to make it seem like he helped me out.”
Now, LaVar Ball is clearly a publicity-seeking nut in his own right, but the actual players here had by then made their apologies and expressed their unnecessary gratitude to their terminally insecure president.
Nonetheless, Trump instantly took all of this out on the young men.
“I should have left them in jail!” he tweet-barked. “Very ungrateful!”
(What kind of president revels in the idea of leaving young Americans in a foreign jail?)
LaVar Ball responded by upping the ante. He told CNN that if he should be thanking anyone, it should be president Xi Jinping. He added: “I helped my son get out of China. I had some people that had boots on the ground that knew the situation.”
Trump in turn responded by calling Lavar a “poor man’s version of Don King. But without the hair” and an “ungrateful fool.”
Trump picking on anyone for not having hair is hilarious, given that he reportedly had to surgically massacre his scalp just to retain the ability to fashion his infamous wind-vulnerable cockatiel comb-over.
But whatever. A full-fledged flame war is on. And so here we are, probably at just the beginning of what will likely be an epic battle between two expert attention-grabbers who (interestingly) both have WWE experience.
If Trump has his way, the war will set back race relations decades. His motives in going after the Ball family from the start were clear. I have little doubt that his initial tweet wondering if the UCLA players would thank him was designed to coax LaVar out into a debate.
As with his public broadsides against the likes of Colin Kaepernick and Jemele Hill, Trump is appropriating the marketing power of the sports media to rile up his base with ritualized assaults on black celebrities. He knows exactly what he’s doing, what notes to hit.
He transformed Kaepernick’s silent and respectful protest about police brutality into an insanely offensive dog-whistle campaign, designed to tell white Middle America a blatantly phony story about black indifference to the sacrifices of soldiers.
This time around, Trump will once again cast Lavar Ball in the role of the “ungrateful” black man, which has always been one of the uglier tropes in the universe of race-baiting politics.
When Stevie Wonder – Stevie Wonder, one of the most beautiful human beings who’s ever lived! – took a knee before a Central Park concert in September, Republican congressman Joe Walsh tweeted that he was “another ungrateful black multimillionaire.”
The idea that Stevie Wonder owes white America for his fortune, and not the otherworldly musical gifts that are entirely his own and which he has spent a lifetime sharing with the world, is offensive beyond belief. But this odious idea resonates with a certain sector of the population, and Trump knows it.
This kind of politics is nothing new. There was an element of it in Bill Clinton’s (in)famous scold of rapper Sister Souljah. The Chicago Tribune’s Clarence Page called that “the most important moment in the 1992 presidential race,” since it helped Clinton boost his numbers with so-called “white-flight Democrats” at the time.
But Trump has made this kind of tactic central to his presidency. It’s why he disinvited the Golden State Warriors from the White House, why he’s spent so much time going after “son of a bitch” NFL protesters, and it’s why he’s going after LaVar Ball now.
Trump will be counting on Ball to seize upon every opportunity to engage the president in televised battle. Sadly, the two men have remarkably similar media instincts, the difference being that Ball is mostly trying to sell sneakers, whereas Trump is trying to sell race-hatred.
The problem is that the WWE-style media tactics both men employ depend upon the amplification and exaggeration of real controversies. Trump especially will be looking to find ways to take already horrible and inexcusable levels of racial animus and jack them up even further through a phonily poisonous battle concocted for cynical political ends. And it will get great ratings.
This will be the classic example of what Les Moonves of CBS talked about when he said Trump “may not be good for America” but was “damn good for CBS.”
We can only hope that Trump and Ball forget about each other over Thanksgiving. And that nobody reminds them of each other come Monday.