The Burden of Ball: Lonzo Gets a Rude Welcome to the NBA – Sports Illustrated
LOS ANGELES — Even when the game was over, when the pullover was on, when the fans were headed to the parking lots and the players to the locker rooms, Lonzo Ball could not escape. Back came Patrick Beverley, charging at him from 94 feet away, in his face and his chest and his ribs one more time. It wasn’t enough that Beverley had stripped him and smothered him, crashing his professional debut and wrecking his Opening Night. Now he wanted to sneak in one last word, and not a “good game” or a “head up” or any other phony form of encouragement. Beverley wanted to leave the rookie with a message that would ring in his ears as he studied an empty stat sheet.
“I told him, due to all the riff-raff his dad brings, he’s going to get a lot of people coming at him and he has to be ready for that,” Beverley said. “He has to perform on a stage like this every night. It’s not only going to be me. It’s going to be a lot of people trying to go at his head.” With that warm NBA welcome, Ball staggered down one tunnel and Beverley surged down another, hollering about “weak-ass motherf——“ and their rightful disembowelment. Six months of big-baller bluster blew back through Staples Center.
That’s how the evening ended. It began much differently, with Magic Johnson perched in the tunnel, watching the Dodgers thrash the Cubs on the Jumbotron while reminiscing about his own debut 38 years ago. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar hit a game-winning hook shot from the free-throw line at the San Diego Sports Arena, Johnson jumped into his arms, and Abdul-Jabbar chided the zealous rook for overreacting. Here was Ball, another prodigal point guard, again facing the Clippers. “I can’t imagine being him,” Johnson said. “He probably couldn’t sleep the last two or three nights.” Actually, Ball napped Thursday afternoon and then ate his traditional pre-game lunch, a Spicy Italian sandwich with extra lettuce and mayonnaise from Subway. He slipped on a Dodgers jersey and left his home in Marina del Rey early, at 3 p.m. so he could get treatment on his sprained left ankle.
A crowd of 18,997 came for Ball. So did Beverley. Johnson warned his protégé about the Clippers’ Doberman Pinscher, comparing him to Defensive Player of the Year Draymond Green. “Beverley plays mind games,” Johnson said. “You’ve got to stay strong.” Out of the Clips’ pre-game huddle, Beverley hopped and hollered like a Miami defensive back, eyes fixed on his mark. At the first stoppage, Lakers head coach Luke Walton called Ball over to chat, and Beverley went with him to eavesdrop. Four minutes into the first quarter, Beverley tangled with Ball at center-court, and Beverley shoved him to the floor. “Had to set the tone,” Beverley cooed. After the whistle, he climbed right back into Ball’s personal space. The Clipper bench erupted in approval.
Ball did not score until late in the first half, with a three-pointer over DeAndre Jordan, but Beverley picked him clean on the next possession and raced end-to-end for the layup. Beverley crowded Ball, testing the rookie’s lateral quickness, and he struggled to turn the corner on the balky ankle. The Clippers paid extra attention to Ball’s go-ahead passes, a trademark, and for the most part they shut them down. Ball sat out the fourth quarter, finishing with three points, four assists and nine rebounds in a 108-92 loss. Beverley played the heel with all the flair of LaVar Ball, grabbing fistfuls of Lonzo’s jersey and wagging his index finger to the crowd, a reminder he made first-team All-Defense last season. At one point, Jordan tried to settle him down. But Beverley had circled this game since the schedule was released in mid-August, his first as a Clipper and Ball’s first as a pro. After LaVar crowed on ESPN that Steph Curry wouldn’t try to guard Lonzo, Beverley inserted himself into the conversation on Twitter: “But imma guard him the first game and we will see about that!!!” Then he told Hoops Hype’s Alex Kennedy: “You don’t really entertain the bulls— of LaVar Ball and all that because we’re so busy during the summer. But it’s go-time now.”
The NBA showcases its bold-faced names, accompanied by swollen entourages, camera crews and signature sneakers. Ball is the latest to join the glittering ranks. But the guts of the league are still grinders like Beverley, a second-round pick of the Lakers, who traded him the next day to the Heat. “Not for a person,” Beverley said. “For cash.” He wound up on a second-division club in Ukraine, taking 21-hour train rides and heating his apartment with his oven. He scrapped for every sliver of notoriety. He never knew his father, referring to his mom’s boyfriend as his dad, even though the man was a gang member who carried a gun when they played one-on-one. He died in a shooting when Beverley was in junior high school.
Wherever Ball goes, he will face some degree of resentment, if not from the Currys then certainly the Beverleys. “With his stardom, much is given and much is required,” Beverley said. “He’s a great talent. Don’t get me mistaken. In a couple years, he’s going to be a really, really, really, really good talent. He has a good feel for the game. But due to a lot of extra stuff outside basketball, it’s a lot of pressure.”
The burden is nothing new for Ball, and neither is the slow start. In his first summer-league game, also against the Clippers, he scored five points on 2 of 15 shooting. Five days later, he put up 36 and 11. Not every opponent employs a pest like Patrick Beverley, and Friday night in Phoenix, openings will be much easier to find. Eventually, the Lakers will turn Ball’s telepathic passes into points. But he will never forget the 2017 opener. When Magic thinks of his debut, he thinks of Kareem. When Ball thinks of his, he will think of Pat Bev. “He’ll appreciate this,” Beverley said, “when he looks back on it.”