There might as well be a handbook for what it takes to be the star of the Los Angeles Lakers, one that Lonzo Ball would do well to study. Comfort in the spotlight helps, but preparation for polarization is paramount.
Kobe Bryant set the mold for split opinions-so much so that the Lakers will retire not one, but two numbers on his behalf. He was Shaquille O’Neal’s trustiest sidekick and his sworn enemy. He was Phil Jackson’s biggest pain and best bet. He sinned on and off the court, but Lakers Nation made him a saint anyway.
Who knows what Ball’s tenure will ultimately look like? By all accounts, he’s more agreeable than the moody Mamba. He’s humble, deferential, quicker with a pass than he is with a shot, almost to a fault.
All of which would make him, on paper, the Anti-Kobe.
But Ball’s already been far more of a lightning rod than Bryant was at such a young age.
His slingshot jumper inspires skepticism in basketball purists, though so far it’s gone in just fine for the most part. His rhymes have invited ire from some in the hip-hop community, though it’s clear Zo has some flow. His father LaVar and his Big Baller Brand, more ubiquitous by the day, have incited citations from concerned observers (not all parents themselves) for hovering like a helicopter.
Throw that all before the fervor of the NBA’s most rabid fanbase, sprinkle in a reality show on the world’s largest social network, and millions of online followers combined among his family and voila! You’ve got a 19-year-old who’s unwittingly driving deep differences of opinion among the public while bringing his teammates together on the court.
Isn’t that all that really matters here?
One way or another, in a world where everyone has the power to shout loudly and proudly at everybody and nobody in particular all at once, there’s bound to be a spectrum of opinion-especially if you play basketball for a franchise that happens to have the greatest renown in the known universe. There must be an extraterrestrial somewhere who grew up a Lakers fan.
And maybe that extraterrestrial has come home to fulfill his childhood dream.
Once upon a time, that was Kobe. He came from far away. He idolized Magic Johnson. When he lived in Italy while his father Joe played overseas, his grandfather would mail him tapes of the Lakers great.
LaVar Ball showed his eldest son plenty of Magic, too, though probably more on YouTube than VHS.
There was no such division or derision driven by Earvin Johnson. As a player, he was a friend to even his frostiest foes, a consummate teammate, an idol to Lakers fans of every stripe. As an executive, he’s a smiling face selling Showtime to a new generation like he’s the NBA’s answer to J.J. Abrams. As a person and a personality, he’s a unifying force.
So Lonzo might be, too, even if he doesn’t have the voice for it just yet. He’s following his father’s advice and staying in his lane.
That lane? To make sure everyone else is filling theirs properly, preferably on the break.
He will polarize because his dad will say something uncouth. He will polarize because he’ll have off nights as he adjusts to the league. He will polarize because that’s simply what happens when you’re the most visible player in Purple and Gold.
So far, Lonzo looks like he’s capable of handling all that comes with his place as the “new face of the Lakers.” Only time will tell if he actually is.
His predecessor couldn’t, or didn’t. Either way, same result.
D’Angelo Russell and his departure are still wedge issues in certain corners of Lakerland.
Was he too disconnected to be a leader? Was his apparent talent as a scorer and passer enough to justify the headaches he induced, on defense and behind closed doors? Did the Lakers give up on him too soon? Did they get enough in return?
The answer to all those questions is the same: The Lakers were never Russell’s team. They might soon be Ball’s.
All you can be sure of is, whatever he does (or doesn’t do) will be the subject of scrutiny on every conceivable side-including the one occupied by LonzoWire.
Because that’s what it means to be a viral star, period, particularly if it’s your job to wear a Lakers jersey. That outbreak continues in earnest with his rookie season, his first real step into that same spotlight that’s left some sizzling and sent others soaring, but has always inflamed passions all the way around.