LaMelo Ball tries to catch his breath, placing his hands on his hips as if holding on to them is all that is preventing him from falling down. His hamstrings burn. His knees creak. His white ankle socks have turned a dirty shade of gray from his beach sprints this October afternoon. As he stares out at the Pacific Ocean, his feet sink into sand so dense it might as well be tar.
The glittering, blue-green waves have no beginning, no end. Some might find it idyllic, relaxing, here on the beach in the sleepy, saltwater-scented beach town of Wollongong, Australia.
Not LaMelo. He doesn’t like to think about what’s out there.
It’s not just that he’s far from home, from all he knows. LaMelo is afraid of the ocean. Or more so, of everything in it. Tiger sharks, great white sharks, bull sharks. He is sure that if he dips his feet in, lets the water swirl around his toes, he’ll be swallowed up. This is the other side of the Pacific, but it’s the same ocean.
And there’s something else familiar, something else after him. He can sense it, see it out of the corner of his eye. He realizes he’s being watched. Two girls, one blond, one brunette, come closer. Close enough to see the imprint of his footsteps. The blonde pulls out her iPhone and starts recording LaMelo with one hand, holding an H&M bag in the other. The girls point and stare at him like he is an art exhibit. An animal. Like one of the sulphur-crested cockatoo birds hovering in the distance. The brunette asks LaMelo for a selfie. “Best day of my life,” she says a few minutes later before walking away.
A world away from where the Ball family is known for seeking such attention, I’m struck by the awkwardness of the scene, of the strangeness that is constant in this teenager’s life. But LaMelo doesn’t seem bothered. Smile, selfie, smile is the rhythm of his life.
“It’s always been like this,” he says. He can’t remember a time when cameras weren’t rolling, when he wasn’t being watched.
Maybe it began at age five, when kids lined up for his autograph as he played with his older brothers, Lonzo, now a guard for the New Orleans Pelicans, and Gelo, who played briefly at UCLA. Or age 10, when he was expected to outperform 15- and 16-year-olds. Or age 14, when he was playing for Chino Hills High School and recalls a random man coming from behind him in line at Yogurtland to pay for his order, knowing how highly he was ranked. Fans would stalk his family after his games that year, chasing them to whatever restaurant they chose. His father, LaVar, would remind him as the youngest, the one shouldering the heaviest of expectations: Don’t chase the money. Let the money chase you.
But LaMelo never chose this chase. Never had a say. “All my life, I felt like I was just supposed to go to the NBA, you know?” he says. “Ever since I was born, damn near, He’s going to be an NBA player.” He says he wants to be the greatest basketball player to ever play. Most boys who grip the peach-dotted leather, launching free throws into the air from their beds, share that dream. But no other American prospect has lived LaMelo’s life: prepping for the pros with a middle school body, dropping out of high school at 16 and moving to Lithuania to play pro in 2018. His every move was scrutinized, his every facial expression dissected: Is he happy? Is he sad?
I traveled to Lithuania for three weeks back then, to profile LaMelo—to look at how someone that young performed in front of that many eyes for that many years. And now, a year and a half later, I’m here in Australia, on a two-week trip to watch him play for the Australian National Basketball League’s Illawarra Hawks—here to see how he’s changed.
Ever since LaMelo landed in Australia, he’s been dazzling scouts with behind-the-back passes and uncanny court vision. The hype has increased. One scout has even likened him to Luka Doncic. For good reason: LaMelo has an extremely tight handle and is a gifted passer. He is creative, flashy, an instinctive playmaker. “The stuff I see is NBA stuff. His IQ is amazing,” says Aaron Brooks, the 10-year NBA veteran who played alongside LaMelo on Illawarra until he tore his Achilles in late October. “There’s no doubt about it: He’s ready for the NBA. His ceiling is so high.”
LaMelo plans to play with the Hawks through the end of the 2019-20 season, in February, before jumping to the NBA in June, when he’s sure to be one of the first names called in the draft. Wollongong, about an hour and 15 minutes south of Sydney by car, has never landed a prospect of that caliber. “This is definitely unprecedented,” Hawks general manager Mat Campbell says. The Hawks are the NBL’s smallest team and don’t have a history of success (their only title came in 2001). They’re 2-8 this season. It seemed strange that LaMelo didn’t choose a bigger, more competitive squad such as the Sydney Kings, where he could have played alongside former NBA No. 1 overall pick Andrew Bogut, or the Perth Wildcats, the nine-time NBL champions. “I just didn’t want any distractions,” LaMelo says.
But distractions still swarm him. LaMelo lives with Jermaine Jackson, his mentor and manager and former coach at SPIRE Institute, but LaVar and the rest of the family (minus Lonzo) are here filming this week for their Ball in the Family Facebook reality show. Even without them, LaMelo is followed like a Kardashian. Against Melbourne United, one man dodged security, reached the door leading to the locker room and banged again and again, screaming for LaMelo. Recently, LaMelo wore sparkling diamond earrings to Steelers Seafood & Grill. “It was massive talk of the town,” says Molly Wharfe, a barista at Utopia Coffee House. “We can’t believe he’s here. This is crazy.”
The NBL has profited from LaMelo’s talent, securing ESPN and Facebook deals to broadcast the games. Brittany Gray, the Hawks’ marketing and media manager, says that the announcement of LaMelo’s signing generated 1.6 billion impressions across the NBL’s web and social channels. Over a million viewers in the U.S. streamed LaMelo’s debut against the Brisbane Bullets on Facebook, an NBL record.
For LaMelo, this is the same script, different continent. “People done made money off this kid for years,” says Jackson, who played in the NBA from 1999 to 2006. “I don’t really want to use the word, but it’s damn near like he’s a prostitute.”
People here seem to always mention LaMelo’s social media following, his global presence—so much so that he has almost become the tweet, become the Instagram story. “He’s a little bit like our spotlight to the world,” says Larry Kestelman, the NBL’s owner and executive chairman. “Because until people have a look, because of LaMelo, to see what we have, you don’t necessarily know we exist.”
But as much attention as he attracts, he doesn’t want any of it. He drags when asked to film scenes for Ball in the Family. He just wants to play basketball. He is bubbly but soft-spoken, friendly but guarded, trusting few. When he smiles, you can see a faint glimmer, a rhinestone of a cross he lasered on a tooth near the corner of his mouth. It’s a testament to his faith, as are the tattoos “Fear” on his left wrist and “God” on his right. “I look at this every time I wake up,” he says, referring to the angel wings he has tattooed on his chest. “It makes me feel like I have angels with me. For all the stuff I’ve been through.
“People don’t know me, know me as a person. They don’t know what I’ve been through.”
The more he speaks, the words begin to tumble out as if they’ve been held in for a long time. He is acutely aware of how people view him, treat him. “People don’t look at you as a human,” he says. “People look at you as a dollar sign.”
Today, LaMelo is brighter than anything in the Snakepit, the Hawks’ practice court, where the first NBL game was played in 1979. It’s not just his colorful tights underneath his shorts: red-and-green plaid (tomorrow, black-and-white checkered; the day after, green camouflage). It’s the way he rushes to the worn, copper-colored court while his teammates, many a decade older, head in slowly, softly.
“Caaaaaaaaaashhhh!” LaMelo screams, popping a three a few seconds after throwing his forest green backpack on the sideline. He doesn’t start close to the rim, like most do. His first shot is always a three. Then a longer three. “I might not miss a shot today!” he says to his teammates, still lacing up their sneakers on the sideline.
This is his joy, his peace. His enthusiasm changes the gym’s mood from dormant to vibrant.
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“He keeps me upbeat and energetic,” says David Andersen, a 39-year-old Hawks forward and four-time Olympian. “That’s a good trait to have as you go through the grind of a professional season.”
LaMelo greets Todd Blanchfield, a guard who is teaching him to play the sport of cricket. “G’day, maaaaaate!” LaMelo jokes. Then he spots Brooks. “Oooh! Oooh!” LaMelo squeals, trying to cross Brooks over. “You dancing now!”
The first time they met, Brooks told LaMelo, “Your brother’s really good,” referring to Lonzo. LaMelo stared at him and said, deadpan, “I’m better than him.” He also believes he can play in the NFL right now: “Swear to God, I can be an NFL quarterback!” Any such dreams were squashed, though, when LaVar said the fashion-conscious, sneakerhead teenager would have to closet his sneakers and wear cleats all day every day of ninth grade if he wanted to play football.
LaMelo’s confidence can easily be mistaken for arrogance, his playfulness for lack of focus. I spent enough time around him in my two weeks to see that that’s not the case. He listens intently, and he yearns to be coached. But he is 18. Not yet mature but not immature. He’s just a boy. Problem is, he can’t speed up time. He can’t jump to the NBA yet. He can’t be a man yet, either, let alone his own man.
He’s trying to be, though. “People think he’s just Lonzo’s brother or just LaVar’s son,” says RJ Hampton, a close friend and fellow top draft prospect who plays for the New Zealand Breakers. “Melo’s his own person.”
He can snake his way into the paint and handle physicality despite his lanky, still-growing 6’7″ frame because he’s crafty. It is easy to get pickpocketed at his size, but LaMelo rarely loses the ball. He has struggled in Australia in terms of shooting percentage, but his “tremendous upside” is clear, says Hawks head coach Matt Flinn. “Can you imagine him in four years?”
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He is still a work in progress, most glaringly on defense. His teammates have not babied him either. Once, a teammate took off for a fast break but missed the layup. He yelled at LaMelo, trailing at half court: “F–king run with me! You should have f–king been there to put it back!”
Earlier this season, Flinn gathered the team to talk about accepting roles. He told them there are two wolves living inside them: the bad wolf, responsible for whining, self-loathing, self-pity; and the good wolf, responsible for playing hard, loving teammates, having confidence. “The two wolves are inside you, fighting constantly,” Flinn said. “The one that leads your life, determines what you do, is the one you feed the most. Do you know which wolf wins in the end?”
Players fell silent, some looking down at their sneakers. LaMelo waited a second or two before poking his head through the huddle, saying softly, “The good wolf!”
It’s around 10 p.m., and LaMelo is hungry. We walk to the McDonald’s he frequents. If he isn’t here, he’s at Chicko’s, a chicken spot up the street; or at the cafe Coffee Club, eating a Caesar salad (he hates most vegetables—won’t chew them, has to swallow them whole—but lettuce is OK).
Once inside McDonald’s—or “Macca’s,” as the Aussies call it—LaMelo heads toward six large machines. “You gotta order on these things,” he says. He breaks into a smile once he has his large Oreo McFlurry. “They use more Oreos than in America,” he says, a couple of cookies crumbling down his white tee. “In America they be stingy with the Oreos!” It’s true; the Australian McFlurry seems to have cookies inside and not just on top. Still, this dessert feels like home.
His nearby apartment, however, does not. It’s small, modest—far from his family’s spacious estate in Chino Hills. In the living room, there are two giant cardboard boxes draped in front of the curtains to keep the sun’s glare off the TV so LaMelo can play Fortnite. There is a wooden hand flipping the middle finger. There’s LaMelo’s bed, which he makes every morning. He brought a couple dozen shoes, including the fuchsia Gucci shoes he’s wearing tonight, but not much else. He can’t take much. “I’ve been on the road so long,” he says.
For LaMelo, home is wherever he happens to be. He is 18 hours ahead of his friends back in California, but at least people here speak English. At least Wollongong is much warmer, much more cosmopolitan, than the freezing, rural town of Prienai, Lithuania. But days here are just as monotonous: weights, practice, working out, video games, napping, eating. “Then wait for time to die,” he says. “People think playing overseas is easy. It’s not.” He doesn’t complain, though. He learned not to as a child.
When LaMelo was six, he jumped from a high wall to the pool in the family’s backyard. “Y’all, this is funnnnnnnnnnn!” he squealed to his brothers. The next time, he slipped and fell hard. He couldn’t walk, so Gelo gave him piggy-back rides the rest of the week. LaMelo remembers LaVar yelling at Gelo: “Why the f–k you giving this dude a piggy ride? Put his ass down!” But when LaMelo tried to walk, his ankle throbbed. Didn’t matter. He had to walk through pain.
As the years wore on, as Lonzo’s fame increased, as LaVar’s proclamations became more brazen, LaMelo realized that he could not slip. He had to perform. But performing, always performing, has left little time for processing. “Melo can’t really relax,” Jackson says.
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It’s morning, but the sun has disappeared. It’s windy, overcast. Few are outside walking their dogs along the Blue Mile, a path adjacent to the beach. The waves crash gently, a quiet hum for a smaller audience.
I meet LaMelo and Jackson at Jackson’s white Kia Cerato to head to a team weightlifting session. I tell LaMelo I returned my own rental car because it was terrifying driving on the left side of the road with the steering wheel on the right side of the car. He tells me he drove here once. “Wasn’t hard, though. I’m just cold at driving, period,” he says, laughing. “Coldest driver ever!”
Jackson is less chipper. Forbes published an article a few hours earlier examining NBA teams’ interest in LaMelo, but instead of assessing his on-court skills, it focused more on his commercial, global appeal. The academy director at SPIRE Institute was quoted saying, “The viewership and social media metrics back up the value of taking LaMelo Ball and the financial return on investment it brings prior to him even stepping on the court.” Like LaMelo is a piece of stock.
LaMelo hasn’t seen the article, so Jackson tells him about it. LaMelo stares blankly at Jackson, nods three times. His head drops, and he looks out the window. Something in him quiets, shuts down. Then he blasts G Herbo’s “Summer Is Cancelled”: “They tellin’ me I’m the man, I ain’t even settle in yet // Gotta get youngin’ together, they starve on the regular // I came from sparkin’ competitors // My life was never no regular degular”
LaMelo cranks the dial up, switching to Meek Mill’s “Cold Hearted II”: “Scream, ‘Ride or die,’ I thought you would ride with me // Found out you was jealous, you wouldn’t even grind with me.” LaMelo is moving his entire body now, rapping along: “Goin’ city to city, can’t take my son to school when I want to // Can’t see my mama, my family when I want to.”
He almost always has his cherry-red headphones on. They teleport him to a place beyond Australia. A place where he is understood as he is: a kid who doesn’t seek awards, acclaim. He hasn’t kept a single trophy except his Chino Hills state championship ring freshman year. Back when he was 14. Back before everything changed.
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Most days in middle school, LaMelo would run hill after hill in Chino. As the sun beat down his back, sometimes he wished he could hang out with his friends. Play NBA2K.
But he couldn’t. He was supposed to go to the NBA. And his brothers were, too. “You weak as hell! You think you good, but you ain’t!” Lonzo would scream, battling one-on-one, in challenges laced with love. Exhausted, playing against people older than him, LaMelo wanted to quit at times. “Moments like, Man, I’m done, bruh. I’m not trying to do this,” he says. “But at the end of the day, my dad was like, ‘What else you gon’ do, to be honest?'”
LaMelo never had time to contemplate. LaVar pulled him out of Chino Hills High his junior year, and he had to leave his friends behind and head to Lithuania—and now, Australia. “People don’t know how much he sacrificed,” Jackson says. “If you go back to the most times in your life you really had fun, when was that? The years he missed.” LaMelo never thought he’d grow up across the globe. “Definitely not,” he says. “I thought I was gonna do four years at Chino Hills. I thought I was going to go to USC and from there go one-and-done.”
“I just saw life different,” he says. “Not being a normal kid, not going to dance parties, not going to school.” He doesn’t know whether that’s good or bad because, he adds, “I don’t know any other way.”
I remember watching practice every day in Lithuania, struck by how no matter how freezing it was outside, no matter how miserable he was inside, LaMelo kept a stiff upper lip. He played hard. He didn’t complain. “It was like a scary movie,” LaMelo says. “It just made me want to go home.”
Mindaugas Kulbis/Associated Press
LaMelo wouldn’t call Lithuania tough, though. Tough was seeing his mother, Tina, in a wheelchair, shivering in her BBB puffer jacket, in the cold Lithuanian gym, forcing a smile for Ball in the Family cameras despite recovering from a stroke. “My mom could have possibly died,” LaMelo says.
Seeing her continue to suffer guts him. So when he is with her in offseasons, he pours her water, tears open the straw. He hops in the pool, holding her hands as she completes rehabilitation exercises. He becomes the parent, she the child.
People don’t see those moments. Many think LaMelo is egotistical, disrespectful. Spoiled, immature. Too loud.
“I’m just misunderstood,” LaMelo says. “About everything.” That’s, of course, partially because of his father. Assumptions that people have are fed by whatever his father says or does. “It gets attached to us,” LaMelo says. “I mean, at the end of the day, that’s my dad. I know him. He knows me. That’s always going to be a bond.”
“I just play basketball,” LaMelo adds. “Whatever he say, he say. I don’t—” He cuts off. It’s hard to explain. He can’t control much but the backspin on his jumper, the precision of his passes. He can’t control what his dad says about him. About anyone. But when stripped of the labels both have been assigned—outspoken father, prodigious son—they are, at their core, still a father and a son. A father and a son who will have years where they understand each other, years where they don’t. Moments they feel tethered, moments they feel distant.
“You not gonna turn on your dad. You only get one dad in the world,” LaMelo says. “People say to me, ‘He’s ruining your career.’ I mean, no he’s not, because he made me who I am.”
For most anyone, approaching adulthood means beginning to look, really look, at your parents as separate from you. People who have their own lives, problems, emotions, ambitions. People who are flawed, human. You inherit the best of them, the worst of them. And you try to figure out who you are because of them or in spite of them.
That’s part of what LaMelo is going through now…but going through it while living a half-world away from his home, while living with someone hired by his father to groom him in the father’s image of what he should be. (LaVar and the rest of the family declined, through Jackson, to be interviewed for this article.)
LaMelo remembers one afternoon in a gym in a rough neighborhood in Los Angeles when he was four. He remembers shooting off to the side with LaVar while Lonzo and Gelo were playing pickup with grown men. Someone fouled hard, and a verbal altercation broke out. “All right! All right! I’mma be back!” one man threatened.
He did come back. He slid through the back door with a black hoodie on, carrying a gun. “Shot the whole gym up,” LaMelo says. “Pop pop pop pop.” He remembers how in a split second, his feet dangled in the air, his tiny body sheltered by his father’s stomach. LaVar had scooped him, Lonzo and Gelo up in his arms, somehow carrying all three while running, running so hard, out of the gym.
Hearing this story, having seen the way this family operates for so long now, I think of how LaVar would operate with a similar protective instinct in the coming years, shielding his sons before harm touched them. Maybe that’s why he pulled LaMelo out of high school and kept him from playing college basketball. From being exploited by powerful systems that other boys cannot escape.
The sad part is, the vultures still got to LaMelo. He is still prey. Still treated like a dollar sign.
“It’s LaMelooooo Balllllllllll!” says guard Angus Glover as LaMelo enters WIN Entertainment Centre for shootaround, hours before the Hawks’ season opener against the Brisbane Bullets. LaMelo starts popping threes. “Damn, my s–t butter,” he says. “Smack!”
Critics have questioned his shot selection and his unconventional form. LaMelo has been tinkering with it for the last year and a half or so. Nowadays he launches 260 in the morning and 340 at night without leaving the ground, working on a balanced, fluid motion: up, rather than out.
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He used to chuck 35-footers without settling into the offense, but these days he is more thoughtful. Selfless. “He tells us, if you run, I’ll find you,” says guard Sunday Dech. LaMelo is aware of his weaknesses. He isn’t a lockdown defender. He is still growing into his body. “He’s 18,” center Josh Boone says. “Everything is new to him.”
But competition in the NBL doesn’t compare to that of the NBA. Guards here are solid, but the bigs are two steps slower. In this practice, Hawks players are moving through shell drill with little go. It is usually like this: low intensity, little defense. LaMelo makes a turnover, but no one calls him out.
Sitting next to Jackson on the sideline, I ask why LaMelo’s family sent him here when there are much more competitive destinations, like Sydney, or teams in the EuroLeague. Perhaps Spain. “Connections,” Jackson says. He won’t reveal which ones, instead saying: “If you know someone at a hair salon, you’re gonna go to that salon. It’s never about what’s best for the kid. It’s about what’s best for the rest.”
LaMelo stays on the court to shoot after practice. “I’m finna make 20,” he tells Jackson. “This s–t easy, dawg.” He makes five, misses the sixth. “This rim ass.” He finally hits 20. “Wraps!” He puts on red pajama pants but is compelled back to the court.
He stands on one end and rolls the ball perfectly to the other end. Then he stands on one sideline and bounces the ball so it lands immaculately inside the ball rack. He dances, pleased with himself. Then he gets more excited: It’s time for his Caesar salad.
We arrive at Coffee Club, and LaMelo spots one of the cooks in the kitchen he has befriended: “My boyyyyyy!” A waitress brings a vase of water, and he giggles, filling everyone’s cup to the brim so the water teeters on spilling over. He orders his Caesar salad with a side of pancakes, drowning them with two cups of syrup.
I ask about practice: “Do you wish you were more challenged here?”
“Ummmmm,” he says, pausing. “I just gotta get through the year.”
“How do you do that, though? Get through it? It seems hard to do every day.”
“That’s like me asking how you do your job,” he says. “How hard is your job?”
“I mean, I think your job is harder than mine.”
“Nah, your job is way harder,” he says. “You gotta listen to me, write notes down, think about your next question, then ask more questions and then you gotta write the story. That’s hard.”
I try to imagine how many reporters have stuck a mic in his face since he was a child. How many fans, handlers, family members have asked for his photo, his time, his smile. All watching him but never really seeing him.
Security is tight a few hours later, two hours before the Bullets game. “We’ve got twice as much,” says Jonathan Malishev, a security guard. The Hawks’ content creator, Matthew Adekponya, and I walk to the back entrance, but another security guard doesn’t let us pass. “We’ve got a player here,” the guard says into his walkie-talkie, staring at Adekponya.
“Really?” Adekponya says, flashing his media badge. Adekponya is Australian but a dual citizen (Australian-Ghanaian). The guard apologizes and lets us in. “Racial profiling,” Adekponya says, sighing as we head into the arena. He says last year hardly any security existed: “It’s the LaMelo effect.”
The Hawks aren’t used to it. The media section doesn’t have any electrical outlets, and WIN holds just 4,000.
Ten-year-old Jovan Sierocki, wearing a Zion Williamson Pelicans jersey, is here an hour early for a glimpse of LaMelo. “Melo is awesome,” Sierocki says. “He is like Magic Johnson with his passes. And he splashes threes.” Two girls who also play basketball, Miller Bonham, 11, and Jesse Donovan, 10, explain why they love LaMelo. “Because he’s famous,” Bonham says. Donovan agrees: “Sometimes we see him train. I’ve got a photo of him training.”
LaVar and Gelo show up courtside. Tina follows, slowly, with her walker. Dozens of fans rush over and form a single-file line to take selfies with LaVar, who is wearing a black BBB hat and a Family Don’t Break Up T-shirt. He is exuberant, taking selfie after selfie, despite being countersued three days prior by Alan Foster, the BBB co-founder, who alleged that LaVar embezzled $2.5 million from the family-owned companies, exploiting his children for personal wealth and fame.
Earlier this year, back in April, Lonzo sued Foster for allegedly stealing more than $1.5 million from him. “It taught me a lot, you know? I see what [Lonzo] did. Everyone makes mistakes,” LaMelo says, adding later: “I been knowing, growing up, don’t be trusting nobody you really don’t know like that, just letting people into your life.”
LaMelo tries to just focus on basketball. And he impresses in this game, crossing his defender so badly, twice on one possession, that he falls.
LaMelo finishes with 12 points, eight rebounds, four assists and four steals, but he is icy against lackluster defense: 6-of-16 from the field, 0-of-5 from three. The whole Hawks team shoots woefully, and they lose by nine.
The real test is coming, this weekend: a road matchup against Perth, the defending NBL champion. The Hawks have beaten them just once in the past decade.
Preparing for Perth in practice isn’t going so well. Players are walking through drills. Flinn stops play: “Not good enough! You let balls roll this way, just let them roll. This is how we start games!” Guys let rebounds go during 3-on-2, 2-on-1. “Come on, fellas!” Andersen yells. “You can f–king do better!”
The team scrimmages. LaMelo drops a nice post-entry pass to Boone, who finishes inside. “Good s–t,” he tells Boone. But the next few possessions, he is less effective. He takes the ball all the way to the cup and misses. He isn’t used to running plays every single time down the court and is still learning how to be the focal point of an offense.
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Flinn huddles the group at half court. He singles LaMelo out: “I don’t give a damn if you’re 18. You need to be a BOSS!” LaMelo looks him in the eye, nods back. After everyone leaves, he shoots about 50 jumpers.
I ask Flinn what being a boss means. “He’s gotta work on that part of his game and lead people not just by individual performance,” Flinn says. “A lot of the really great players make everyone else around them so much better.” Flinn praises LaMelo’s willingness to be coached but raises the possibility of him not starting at some point: “We have to be careful that we don’t sacrifice the development of one for everyone else.”
Arriving at the Qantas terminal in the Sydney Airport the next day, LaMelo, wearing black shorts with the logo from the TV show Friends, braces for a five-hour flight to Perth. A boy in a maroon vest nervously walks up to him. LaMelo gives him a hug and a selfie before making his way through security: “I know they got Krispy Kreme, dawg!” He’s got a sweet tooth, especially for Skittles, Reese’s, Jolly Ranchers. He’s in luck, as midway through the flight, attendants hand out Twix ice cream bars.
When game time finally rolls around, he is focused. He can’t hear the group of high school boys screaming his name, the ones who have each body-painted their stomach with a different letter: I-♡-M-E-L-O. ” He’s just like us. He’s literally the same age as us,” says one of them, Gavin Rozario. Perth Arena feels like an NBA arena, holding 13,000. All but 100 are here, as is a marching band, a blimp and a Wildcats mascot swinging from the ceiling.
Perth guard Bryce Cotton, the 2018 NBL MVP, is attacking with ease, scoring 23 in the first half alone, and the Hawks are no match. The posts aren’t running hard, missing easy layups, pouting and arguing with refs. LaMelo is the only Hawk who isn’t losing his composure. His face is so blank, devoid of emotion, you’d never know his team is down 30. He scores 15 points and has eight assists despite another cold outing: 4-of-14 overall and 1-of-6 from three in the 103-76 defeat.
When LaMelo emerges from the locker room, his frustration evaporates. He is smiling, greeting me with a familiar joke we’ve shared: “Damn, you still short.” (It’s true. I’m 5’0″.)
“We all can’t be blessed with NBA height, you know,” I joke back. “And who are you talking to like that?! You’re still a kid.”
He laughs. “Nah, nah, nah. I’m a grown man. I’m not a kid. Kid is a figure of speech!”
“Oh! You’re a grown man now? When did that happen?”
“I live a grown man’s lifestyle,” he says, eyeing the 50 fans lining up for his autograph outside the hallway.
As LaMelo walks toward them, they run toward him, suffocating him so he can’t move left, right. When finally free, he walks outside and raindrops tickle his face. “Damn,” he says. “We got smacked so bad they beat the water out of us!” Asked how he’s able to maintain a sense of humor, stay positive: “Got to,” he says. “This s–t will have your mind all the way messed up.”
By the time he’s back at the hotel, LaMelo is starving. He gobbles up steak and chicken, provided by the team. He wonders if McDonald’s is open. “My back hurts,” he says. Nothing serious, just sore. He’s tired. Jackson and Brooks join at the hotel bar. They wonder if the Hawks will even make the playoffs.
As LaMelo puts on his headphones, he’s interrupted by a woman: “Excuse me, would you mind taking a picture with my daughters?” LaMelo agrees. Takes the photo. As soon as he sits down, a man rushes toward him: “Melo! Hi! Can I get a selfie?” Jackson responds jokingly but not so jokingly: “Sure, if you pay for our drinks.” LaMelo rises slowly and takes the selfie.
Finally sitting back down, he pulls up NBA highlights on his phone. “My boy Curryyyyyy!” he says, watching Warriors guard Stephen Curry splash a deep three. Jackson and Brooks head out for another drink as LaMelo decides to stay in. He waves goodbye, then grows quiet, locked into his phone. He is mesmerized by the threes, by the possibility that he could soon be there.
But he is here. In the morning, he will fly back to Sydney. Back to Wollongong. Back to the beach, to face his future anew.
Mirin Fader is a staff writer for B/R Mag. She’s written for the Orange County Register, espnW.com, SI.com and Slam. Her work has been honored by the Associated Press Sports Editors, the U.S. Basketball Writers Association, the Football Writers Association of America and the Los Angeles Press Club. One of her stories was named a notable selection in the 2019 Best American Sports Writing. Follow her on Twitter: @MirinFader.