As Illawarra Hawks and New Zealand Breakers players filed into Auckland City Arena on October 24, 2019, the night promised much more than a run-of-the-mill NBL encounter between two struggling teams.
It would be the first showdown of two teenage basketballers destined for the NBA.
By game time, almost two million international viewers were watching the NBL’s Facebook Live stream — the single largest viewership figure in league history.
Scouts from NBA teams hovered in courtside seats, eager to eye the talent on display. The atmosphere was undeniable.
As a reality TV star since early adolescence, Illawarra’s 18-year-old point guard LaMelo Ball was used to such attention.
Throughout Australia, his boyish features looked down on motorists from roadside billboards.
But that wouldn’t make him immune from the sting of criticism if his first pro encounter with an American prospect panned out badly.
That prospect was the Breakers’ R.J. Hampton, a bouncy Texan whom some analysts projected as a top-10 pick in the 2020 draft. Like Ball, he’d arrived to much fanfare.
LaMelo needed an early, confidence-boosting bucket.
The Hawks’ win-loss record of 1-5 should have been the main concern, but it wouldn’t be the only time LaMelo’s interests were put before the team’s that season.
The plan was simple: on Illawarra’s first possession, a set play would leave LaMelo open for a simple lay-up.
After the Breakers opened the scoring, it came together perfectly. Guarded by Hampton, LaMelo passed the ball and slinked towards the basket.
Hawks center Josh Boone applied a screen that took out Hampton’s left leg, sending him face-first towards the floor. LaMelo, meanwhile, made perfect position to receive a return pass.
Then it happened.
Rubbery and quicksilver fast, Hampton somehow regained his footing. He used the momentum of his near-fall to accelerate into an acrobatic leap, blocking LaMelo’s lay-up with an emphatic thud.
Social media immediately lit up with vein-bursting reactions from around the world. NBL executives swooned. The moment everyone had been waiting for was more dramatic than a marketeer’s fever dream.
The pandemonium in the arena suggested Hampton had swatted the ball halfway back across the ditch.
In fact, the ball had stayed in play. Leaving LaMelo in his wake, Hampton sprinted back down the court and passed to his teammate Corey Webster, who drilled a three-pointer.
Forty-three seconds into the most anticipated NBL game in decades, the Breakers led 5-0.
On the Illawarra bench, feet shuffled and eyes darted. Everyone tried to avoid thoughts of omens. A few hours later, the Hawks were 1-6 — embarrassed in a 31-point blowout, fearing locker-room reprisals.
A confusing legacy of mayhem
If not for the COVID-19 pandemic, later this morning Australian time, newly minted NBA draftee LaMelo Ball would be striding across the stage of Brooklyn’s Barclay Center and collecting his team cap from league commissioner Adam Silver.
Fittingly, Ball will take an alternative route, sequestered elsewhere to celebrate privately.
Meanwhile, the Australian team that provided his NBA launching pad is unrecognisable from its pre-LaMelo form.
In the time since Ball’s departure in January, the Hawks have shed their coach, most of their backroom staff, three-quarters of their rostered players from the 2019-20 season, and finally, even the Illawarra name.
The latter decision was made by the team’s new owners. Oh, yes — they also went broke.
A lot of that carnage can be traced back to before Ball’s arrival. The team’s $100,000 loss from LaMelo’s season was a triumph compared to the $1.7 million black hole of the two campaigns previous; voluntary administration had stalked them for years.
And Hawks fans who now bemoan the desecration of the team’s name must bear some blame.
Even with LaMelo on the court, they barely half-filled their 6000-capacity home stadium, whereas larger arenas around the country filled for Hawks games.
The most forlorn figures are the former Hawks staff who saw LaMelo’s arrival as a chance for financial consolidation and strategic re-birth, then watched their dream turn into a twisted nightmare.
Happier are NBL executives, whose wildest expectations of LaMelo’s stay were exceeded. They secured the international exposure they craved. LaMelo’s Hawks jersey became a must-have accessory. More than 85,000 Australian fans turned up to see LaMelo live and will likely return this season to soak up the NBL’s showbizzy atmosphere.
Although NBA scouts still consider it a “mid-tier” competition, following LaMelo’s success story there will not be quite as much laughter when the NBL refers to itself as the second-best league in the world.
And it’s still hard to shake the unreality of a star like LaMelo passing through Wollongong, of all places.
Even some Sydney sportswriters had never made the trip down the Pacific Highway to the Wollongong Entertainment Centre.
The team didn’t have a travelling physio until LaMelo’s arrival. Even with LaMelo on board, Hawks players brought their own lunches.
The three-ringed circus
Back in early 2019, there was an awkward truth confronting both parties when NBL executives first presented LaMelo’s entourage with the option of holding his NBA audition in Australia: not a single NBL team wanted the kid.
The first problem most foresaw was the three-ringed circus that would accompany Ball’s father LaVar, who’d spent half a decade making Mike Agassi and Richard Williams look like wallflowers.
In addition to his relentless boasting about his sons (Lonzo currently plays for the NBA’s New Orleans Pelicans), LaVar once claimed he could beat Michael Jordon one-on-one.
Even after assurances LaMelo would travel with a minder — former NBA journeyman Jermaine Jackson — and that LaVar and his theatrics would stay in the US, all bar two NBL teams baulked.
From a practical standpoint, most couldn’t guarantee LaMelo much playing time, particularly when it was hard to obtain any credible footage from which to assess his attributes.
Teams made do with film edits of LaMelo’s ill-starred ‘pro’ stint in Lithuania, which one NBA scout described as “a circus league”. Others suspected it was little more than a content-harvesting exercise for the family’s TV show.
Even in the limited vision available, LaMelo appeared non-committal bordering on inept in defensive scenarios, a deal-breaker for the higher-ranking NBL teams.
One coach called the clips “a car crash”.
Once their final rival dropped out, the cash-strapped Hawks made a case for signing LaMelo on purely commercial grounds, effectively sacrificing the development of other players in the process.
Even then, they agonised over the decision for three weeks.
Considering his lowly place in the pecking order at that point, LaMelo’s subsequent rise is stunning.
Early in 2019, most experts ranked him in the 40s for his draft class. LaVar was set on sending him to China, where American players weigh the benefit of handsome contracts against perceived drawbacks like cultural and language barriers, and playing regulations that limit their minutes.
For a draft hopeful, there’s another major problem: play doesn’t go close to replicating US college game styles, let alone the NBA.
Into the breach stepped NBL commissioner Jeremy Loeliger and league owner Larry Kestelman, the former having devised the ‘Next Stars’ marketing program to entice college-age talent down under.
Their pitch was compelling: enjoy an Australian summer and a fat, guaranteed pay cheque, play against mature professionals in a competitive league, and we’ll do everything in our power to improve your NBA Draft prospects.
The deal was finalised by a delegation including head coach Matt Flinn, general manager Mat Campbell and the Hawks’ then-owner Simon Stratford, who met the Ball entourage in a Las Vegas casino lobby.
If they were under any illusions about life in LaMelo’s orbit, they got a preview when they rose from their chairs and watched the teenager being mobbed by fans.
When the news of Ball’s signing became public, an NBL staffer turned to Hawks counterparts and summarised the reaction: “Barack Obama now follows you on Twitter.”
Life in the fast lane
It is not merely LaVar Ball’s feats of self-promotion that pushed his son to the top of the NBA Draft pile.
As Hawks teammates discovered the minute he arrived, there were things LaMelo could do with a basketball that few others could. He couldn’t defend, sure. And many blanched at his endlessly-scrutinised jump shot.
But his passing and playmaking became more astonishing with each outing.
The day LaMelo confirmed his brilliance started in surreal fashion: on a crisp September morning last year, NBL staff entered the breakfast room of their Hobart hotel and saw 25 NBA scouts taking their morning coffee.
They were in town for the NBL Blitz, a pre-season competition that normally doesn’t make Australian news bulletins, let alone prompt worldwide buzz.
In his only Blitz appearance, LaMelo stared down Perth Wildcats veteran Damian Martin — six-time NBL champion, six-time defensive player of the year — and calmly dropped 19 points to go with 13 rebounds and seven assists.
The basketball world went berserk: Ball rocketed from a projected 30-something pick to a top-three prospect.
The Hawks’ brains trust breathed a sigh of relief, too. Not only did they have a world-class talent on their hands, all agreed the apple had fallen reassuringly far from the tree: LaMelo was humble, polite, even shy.
He was fun to be around and he lived for the game. He was also obliging with fans; Hawks staff marvelled at his patient submission to endless selfie requests. NBA scouts said he’d never looked happier.
Like many a child star, he seemed more content in the company of animals.
Much of his time outside the team bubble was spent with club sponsor and local business identity Tory Lavalle, whose sprawling property had a basketball hoop and dogs LaMelo would play with for hours on end; once injury grounded him, he would travel daily to the stables of Lavalle’s racehorses and feed one named in his honour.
Teammates said Ball could also be heartbreakingly innocent.
During one team pep talk, Flinn deployed a well-worn legend, explaining that each Hawks player hosted an internal battle between a good wolf and a bad wolf.
As veterans strained not to roll their eyes, LaMelo’s were glued on Flinn as his oratory peaked with a rhetorical question: ‘Who is going to win, the good wolf or the bad wolf?’ LaMelo almost jumped out of his seat to answer: “The good wolf!”
Most found it refreshing to have a player so un-cynical and engaged, but the drawbacks of gearing an entire sporting organisation around the needs of a coddled teenager would soon become painfully clear.
One step forward, two steps back
Make no mistake: Illawarra’s 2019-20 season was a train wreck. Entertaining to neutrals? Sure. But the Hawks finished dead last with 23 losses from 28 games and almost ceased to exist.
They had as many failed imports as wins. That’s not to mention the dedicated staff who were left out of pocket when it all crashed down.
On court, the problems were immediate and irreversible. For one, every opponent was primed to take LaMelo’s scalp, acutely aware of how many people watched his games.
Where most rivals rose to the occasion, some Hawks were blinded by the spotlight.
Frustrated at losing much of their game time to LaMelo, the team’s younger brigade shot the ball confidently in practise but abysmally come game time.
All struggled with Flinn’s hybrid schemes, which some saw as an attempt by the coach to prove himself a cerebral tactician, but which ultimately led to confusion and second-guessing.
Preparation was a bone of contention. Training on non-game days started at 8am, which was meant to promote clean living, but later acknowledged as a well-intentioned mistake.
For one thing, the Hawks’ American players would arrive with sleep in their eyes after spending half the night catching up with family and friends in different time zones.
Meanwhile, LaMelo was fulfilling another lucrative contract — playing the Fortnite video game at all hours.
Then there was the Hawks’ roster, assembled at the last minute.
Ideally, it would have been constructed around LaMelo; instead he was the final piece of a jigsaw that didn’t fit together — too many kids, too few leaders, and with LaMelo exposed so often in defense, too many leaked points.
Games were often done by half-time.
The presence of hard-nosed NBA veteran Aaron Brooks as a back-court mentor had been a decisive factor in LaMelo’s agents ticking off his Hawks deal, but early in the season Brooks frequently started on the bench.
Speculation around the league suggested he was frustrated by the on-court chaos and not keen on playing with LaMelo.
Flinn was an unlikely candidate to be LaMelo’s first head coach.
A former Hawks role player in the league’s heady days of the 1990s, and an assistant since 2007, he was embarking on his first season in the top job.
Those around the team said his background as a school teacher helped LaMelo, turning mistakes into learning moments. And Flinn was positive, energetic and diplomatic. But he was working against the odds to harness such a surreal sideshow.
For all his talent, LaMelo was raw and unrefined, his deficiencies often exposed by well-drilled opponents.
He rarely got into his defensive stance, so other teams attacked him relentlessly.
Unable to ‘get off the help’, he constantly caused the breakdowns that allowed opponents to score easily.
Early in the season, Hawks coaches grimaced at their rookie star’s ‘plus/minus’, the statistic measuring the point differential when players are in and out of a game. It was a diabolical minus-84.
And for all the highlight-reel passing, LaMelo’s inexperience was a problem on offense too.
He had limited understanding of coaching terminology and schemes.
He was poor at organising the team, rarely calling his plays down the floor, nor using the hand signals coaches developed for him.
In huddles, when veteran big men were happy to be bossed around, LaMelo was almost non-verbal.
Unsurprisingly, losses stacked up and morale sagged, but coaches feared pinning too much of the blame on the teenage rookie and destroying his confidence.
Intimidated by LaMelo’s celebrity status, teammates wouldn’t call out his mistakes.
Yet, LaMelo’s inexperience was not the only problem confronting the Hawks.
The looming shadow
Standing courtside during Illawarra’s fourth game — a plucky four-point loss to South-East Melbourne at a packed Melbourne Arena — you couldn’t help but notice the eye-catching sports coat of a man prowling the Hawks’ bench area.
It was Ball’s minder and coach, Jermaine Jackson.
As Flinn addressed the team during a time-out, Jackson leaned across a barrier and issued personal instructions to LaMelo.
An NBA scout nearby muttered: “You wouldn’t see that at more successful teams.”
There are lots of fun and endearing Jermaine Jackson stories, it’s true. As LaVar Ball’s proxy, Jackson was no less energised or quotable than his boss and a boon for the NBL’s media machine.
When I spoke to him in mid-November 2019, he had a colourful rebuttal for every popular criticism of LaMelo: “People say ‘Oh, he’s logging a lot of minutes on a losing team’,” Jackson said. “What the hell has that got to do with the price of tea in China?”
Based on the outcome of the NBA Draft, you could also say that Jackson has honoured his simple promise to LaVar: “I got this”. And nobody around the Hawks’ squad felt Jackson had anything but LaMelo’s best interests at heart.
Of course, that was also the problem — he had only LaMelo’s best interests at heart.
To the chagrin of players and coaches, Jackson was LaMelo’s shadow — from practise courts and airport departure lounges to the Hawks’ bench on game day.
Most say it made it impossible for players and staff to treat LaMelo like an ordinary teammate.
Naturally, Jackson gave me a slightly different picture of LaMelo’s frictionless feedback loop: “I have asked the coach several times, ‘Coach, cuss his ass out, he’ll play better’.”
Yet he didn’t deny his inability to suppress his coaching instincts in the courtside area.
“I mean, you know how hard it is for me to sit there and watch what’s going on?” Jackson said.
“But I respect Illawarra’s coaching staff, I do. I have nothing against them. But it’s just me being a coach on all levels.”
“There are situations I see and I’m like, ‘F***, do this, do that’, playing the game within myself. I’m not walking over to the coach telling him what to do, I’m just playing the game within myself. That’s what that is.”
Inevitably, divisions formed: the ‘in’ crowd of players whose talents Jackson rated was invited into the gilded circle of friendship and private workouts.
The dismissed ‘out’ crowd was excluded and unable to react with anything stronger than rolled eyes when Jackson’s stinging criticisms occurred within earshot.
Jackson painted this in lighter shades, too.
“I like every kid on this team,” he said.
“They’re great kids.”
Moments later, discussing the team’s shooting struggles, he was less effusive: “Why would it just be about the 18-year-old kid missing shots? Shouldn’t it be about others?”
There was the time when the team had settled on a new import and Jackson was the bearer of bad tidings from LA: the Ball camp considered the signing inferior to LaMelo’s free agent brother LiAngelo — no scout’s idea of a viable prospect — and would have no problem bringing LaMelo home if the other player was signed.
There was the startling contractual clause: Ball’s deal prevented the Hawks from intervening in Jackson’s personal coaching regime, including weights sessions and on-court workouts outside the Hawks’ official program.
It became impossible for conditioning staff to assess the workload going into Ball’s spindly, growing frame.
One eye-catching item in the Jackson-Ball training program was repeatedly recorded by the press, and best summarised by Jackson when I asked him to clarify how the average non-game day started: “Basically, we hit the beach at 5am,” he said.
In time, the story involved a revolving cast of beaches, so that LaMelo wasn’t mobbed by locals — a tale all the more perfect for being impossible to disprove.
Once he’d stopped laughing, one Hawks staffer summarised the prevailing view within the team: “Absolute bullsh*t.”
Yet no Jackson story ranks with the events of November 3, 2019, when the Hawks travelled to AIS Arena for a ‘home’ game sold to an eager audience in Canberra.
LaMelo would post a stat line of 19 points, nine rebounds and five assists, but the chaos behind the scenes was more compelling.
On the morning of the game, keen observers noted that LaMelo and Jackson were absent from the team shoot-around.
It soon became known they’d told Hawks management that LaMelo was feeling ill, and he was promptly sent back to the team hotel.
Yet soon after, a Hawks staffer saw the teenager eating a stack of pancakes in the hotel restaurant.
As game time approached, Ball and Jackson were suddenly back in the arena, preparing like nothing had happened.
Logically, another player had been prepped to replace LaMelo in the starting five, but some wondered: if LaMelo didn’t start, would he play at all? Such an absence would be a public relations disaster for the Hawks.
Sure enough, LaMelo started.
The impact on team morale was unmistakable. It was another disastrous night on the floor for the Hawks — a 14-point loss that left team bosses wondering: could LaVar Ball have been any more difficult to manage?
A star is born
Another great what-if of LaMelo Ball’s time at the Hawks is the numbers he might have put up if injury hadn’t struck.
A lightbulb moment occurred in the game following Hampton’s rejection in Auckland. LaMelo played 32 minutes in a creditable five-point home loss to Perth.
In that game, Brooks — playing with renewed focus and tearing up and down the court — twisted awkwardly and tore his achilles.
The most experienced NBA guard to grace an NBL court was finished for the season. The Hawks had no choice but to hand the keys to LaMelo, a teenager not yet entirely capable of thinking for himself.
Thereafter, amazingly, the team briefly seemed to be turning a corner.
LaMelo’s jump shot finally dropped and his confidence grew. His stance off the ball improved, as did his defensive accountability. He even became more vocal.
Advancing up the floor, he was impossible to ruffle. Given licence to run, he dropped 24 points and nine assists in the Hawks’ thrilling two-point road win in Cairns.
It was the start of a glorious spree that lit up the season and secured Ball the NBL’s ‘Rookie of the Year’ award.
In an overtime win against Cairns on November 25, he totalled 32 points, 13 assists, and 11 rebounds, making him the youngest player to record an NBL triple double — a feat he backed up with 25 points, 12 rebounds, 10 assists against the Breakers.
Suddenly the basketball world asked: could LaMelo Ball be a No.1 draft pick?
Scouts became convinced he could easily average 10 assists in the NBA, especially on a functioning team with more consistent scorers. Was LaVar right after all?
Inevitably, the silver linings came with clouds. After the overtime game in Cairns, just as much media focused on the game’s aftermath: Jackson put LaMelo through a 2am workout session with Hawks shooting guard Sunday Dech, LaMelo’s closest friend on the team.
Long wary of Jackson’s ‘extras’, Hawks medical staff glowered.
That frustration was nothing compared to two days later, when Jackson arrived with LaMelo and some news: the teenager was too sore to train.
Far worse news came in early December when LaMelo fronted practise in a moon boot and informed teammates he’d suffered a foot injury that might keep him out for eight weeks.
In fact, after three wins from 12 madcap games, his Hawks career was done.
Nice knowing you
By late-January, Ball and Jackson were spending most of their time with Tory Lavalle, with whom they’d eventually launch an unsuccessful ownership bid for the team.
Once it became apparent that LaMelo was not returning from his injury, the Hawks were resigned to his departure on or around February 11, but one final moment of petty jealousy would draw the curtain sooner — a minor disagreement between Jackson and a Hawks staffer over signed items LaMelo was giving away to fans.
The morning of Wednesday, January 29 was like many other non-game days: an 8am weights session, an on-court workout and debrief.
As training progressed, unknown to players and coaches, lockers rattled with the vibration of incoming text messages.
As the Hawks filed back in for their meeting, phones were picked up and heads started shaking.
The messages were from Ball and Jackson, sitting in first class seats on a 10am flight to LAX, and the contents were blunt: thanks for having us, nice knowing you all, but we’re on our way home.
In the heat of the moment, some harsh words were spoken.
After all, everyone in the room had made great compromises to assist in Ball’s development, shielding him from criticism, acting with discretion always.
Most had bit their lips for months at Jackson’s antics, enduring a horror season in the process.
For a cathartic moment, everyone purged. It was then agreed the matter should go no further than the four walls of the locker room. It was time to move on.
Hours later, news of Ball’s departure became public.
Hawks captain Todd Blanchfield gave a candid interview to ABC Illawarra.
“It’s news to me, but [Ball’s camp has] got an agenda they have to take care of,” Blanchfield said.
“At the end of the day he’s thinking of the bigger picture and has bigger things in mind. We were teammates for half the season while he was playing, and we had our ups and downs, but it would have been good to say goodbye.”
Soon, Stratford registered his disappointment too.
They’d gone off script, daring to criticise LaMelo Ball, teenage phenomenon, NBA-bound star, global brand.
Yet to outsiders, the weary responses provided reassurance that had been a long time coming: finally, it was okay to tell the truth.