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Trump’s war with LaVar Ball, basketball’s most famous stage dad, explained

The president says three UCLA basketball stars should have been left in a Chinese prison.

2017 Las Vegas Summer League - Los Angeles Clippers v Los Angeles Lakers Ethan Miller/Getty Images

President Trump has yet to tweet about the sexual abuse allegations against Republican Senate candidate Roy Moore, the political chaos in Zimbabwe, or even Hillary Clinton’s weekend comments about how she likes mystery novels “because the bad guy always got it in the end.”

But he’s found plenty of time to ramp up a Twitter war with the father of one of the three UCLA basketball players who were arrested in China about two weeks ago for shoplifting — and then, at least according to Trump, released after he personally interceded with the Chinese government.

Trump’s fury was triggered by comments from LaVar Ball, the father of one of the freed players, who told ESPN that Trump didn’t deserve any credit for getting his son and the other two athletes out of China. The elder Ball, basketball’s most famous stage dad, stars in a reality show on Facebook and runs Big Baller Brand, a company built around his three hoops-playing sons that sells sneakers for $395 and up.

"Who?" Ball said Friday in response to a question about Trump’s role in the mini international incident. "What was he over there for? Don't tell me nothing. Everybody wants to make it seem like he helped me out."

This will shock absolutely no one, but those comments didn’t sit well with the commander-in-chief, who came out swinging.

Think about that for a second: The president of the United States is saying that American citizens should have been left to rot in a Chinese prison because Ball didn’t do enough to publicly thank him.

There’s a lot to unpack here, from the shoplifting case itself to the details of what Trump did, and did not, do to win the players’ release. And then there’s a new question, one being asked publicly by some of Trump’s harshest critics: Is there a racial component to the president’s demands that an outspoken black man like Ball make a point of showing public gratitude?

Trump’s frenemies on MSNBC’s Morning Joe think the answer is pretty clear.

“There’s racist overtures here,” co-host Joe Scarborough said Monday. “The black man was not appreciative of what the white man did for him, and it’s a dog whistle, to say the least.”

There are two things we can say for certain. First, Ball is almost as good at getting media attention as Trump — and just as willing to say pretty much anything, even if the man on the other end is the president. And second, the fight is yet another reminder that sports have become the newest battlefield in the cultural wars of the Trump era.

This all began when three UCLA basketball players were accused of shoplifting in China

The Ball fight is a strange one, even for Trump, because his own comments are tarnishing something that — rightly or wrongly — seemed like a clear win for a president badly in need of one.

The saga began earlier this month, when Ball’s son LiAngelo Ball, Cody Riley, and Jalen Hill, three freshmen expected to star on the UCLA basketball team, were arrested during a team trip to China and accused of shoplifting a pair of Louis Vuitton sunglasses — priced at 4,900 yuan, or about $750 in US dollars — from a store in a luxury mall near their hotel.

The three were put under house arrest in their hotel, but were freed after Trump raised the case with Chinese President Xi Jinping during his recent 12-day trip through Asia. In an interview with the New York Times, White Chief of Staff John Kelly described the conversation between the two world leaders:

“Our president said to Xi, ‘Do you know anything about these knuckleheads that got caught allegedly stealing?’” Mr. Kelly said. Unaware of the episode, the Chinese president dispatched an aide to get more information. “The president was saying, ‘It’s not too serious. We’d love to see this taken care of in an expeditious way,’” Mr. Kelly added.

As my colleague Jen Kirby has detailed, the three players, their coach, and the head of the athletic conference that had helped organize the trip all made a point of thanking Trump. The president, for his part, seemed to revel in the gratitude, and even threw in some Trumpian life lessons for good measure:

The gracious (at least for Trump) words don’t seem to have impressed the elder Ball, whose comments to ESPN are what triggered this entire spat. There’s a lot to know about the Ball family, but this may be the most important thing: When it comes to attracting media attention, Trump and Ball are far more alike than either would want to admit.

Meet LaVar Ball, Trump’s newest adversary

College basketball has never really seen anything quite like LaVar Ball. As Kirby notes, Ball had been traveling in China with the UCLA team, along with his son and LiAngelo’s younger brother LaMelo, for their Ball in the Family reality show on Facebook, and to open pop-up shops for their Big Baller Brand, which sells comically overpriced sneakers and other athletic wear. (The oldest of the three Ball brothers, Lonzo, starred for UCLA and is now a rookie on the Los Angeles Lakers.)

During Lonzo Ball’s single year at UCLA, the elder Ball routinely made news for outlandish comments like his insistence that he could beat Michael Jordan in a one-on-one game. (Jordan, arguably the greatest player in the history of the NBA, said he’d beat Ball even if he only had one leg.)

Ball’s defenders say he’s just looking for any way he can to build his sons’ profiles to increase the chances that they get picked high in the NBA draft and earn lucrative endorsement deals as soon as they turn pro. His critics — and there are a lot of them — deride him as a failed college basketball player trying to live vicariously through his sons and to profit from their skills on a basketball court.

The truth is probably somewhere in the middle, but at least Trump’s current Twitter war has far lower stakes than his normal ones. He’s not picking a fight with the paranoid dictator of a nuclear power like North Korea; he’s sparring with a man who says his son — currently averaging 8.8 points per game — is the best player in the NBA. He and Trump, in a strange way, kind of deserve each other.