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With ‘Ball in the Family,’ Facebook Watch Finds an Unexpected Use: Counterprogramming

With 'Ball in the Family,' Facebook Watch Finds an Unexpected Use: Counterprogramming

In one scene from the penultimate episode of Ball In The Family, parents LaVar and Tina relish in each other’s company during a family trip to Honolulu (their three sons are off cage diving with sharks). Months before, Tina suffered a stroke that left her partially paralyzed and without the ability to communicate, but LaVar manages to turn their downtime into a rehab session. “Take your hand off there,” LaVar says to her as she reaches to balance herself against the jacuzzi wall. “You need to walk forward.” He’s clear-eyed about what must be done. If Tina is to walk without the assistance of a cane, no minute should be squandered. There is only one option: forward, to a full recovery.

The pursuit of self-actualization is a baroque endeavor on Ball in the Family, the Facebook Watch show that unfurls the lives of NBA rookie Lonzo Ball, his brothers, and their incendiary father, LaVar. The fulfillment of one’s potential stands paramount to the rhythmic machinations of reality TV, and the thrills of shock are traded in for riskier, at times messier, themes: moments of awkward adolescent love, brotherhood in transition, and vulnerability disguised as rigorous scrutiny from a tireless father figure. Thanks to the ubiquity of Facebook, the family’s travails loop endlessly in households the world over—a centralized narrative unto one’s self.

In public, LaVar’s style of play has always been anchored by his belief in brash individualism—that through grueling and persistent work, that by continually moving forward with an unyielding bent, there is no limit to what one can accomplish. It’s the kind of dogma that got Lonzo, the eldest Ball, drafted second overall; he’s now the LA Lakers’ starting point guard. It’s also the kind of attitude that, when colored the wrong way, has led people such as former college coach and current Nike executive George Raveling to characterize LaVar as “the worst thing to happen to basketball in the last 100 years.” But when you are father to perhaps the NBA’s next player family dynasty—LiAngelo, the middle son, is a rocketing talent at UCLA; and LaMelo, the youngest and most skilled Ball, once scored 92 points in a high school game; LaVar says all three sons will play for the Lakers—it can be hard to understate one’s magnitude, however riotous and stubborn it might sound.

In the past year alone, LaVar has eclipsed the prominence of his sons, drawing ire from legends like Charles Barkley and Michael Jordan (“I told my boys this: Somebody gotta be better than Michael Jordan. Why not you?”). According to an October report by ESPN, he “has been the most talked about member of his family on Twitter since March 1.” He’s been written about in USA Today and GQ, covered by TMZ, and reported on in publications as disparate as Yahoo Sports and Forbes—with much of the coverage casting him in an unfavorable light.

Some of the criticism was more than deserved: in May, during an appearance on The Herd Colin Cowherd, he spoke with such acrimony and disrespect in a tense exchange with show contributor Kristine Leahy that the air in the room seemed to constrict. “I never disrespect women,” he said, not once looking her in the eye. “But I’ll tell you what, if you act like that, guess what? Something’s coming to you, and it’s okay.” The resulting months have shown LaVar to be just as unforgiving. With the regular season underway, The OC Register has since labeled him “LaVarzilla.” Through it all, LaVar has played it straight up: he understands basketball as part of a larger narrative about power—that without control, how one is translated for public consumption can be hard to untangle.

Ball In The Family, which concluded its 10-episode debut season on Sunday night, presents LaVar in the whole: uproarious, uncompromising, and typically tough-minded, but just as loving and as considerate as you’d hope any parent would be. The show’s actions are oared by ideas about belonging (Gelo adjusting to college life), success (Lonzo navigating his rookie season on the Lakers; the family’s apparel company, Big Baller Brand), and commitment (Tina’s recovery becomes a major arc of the series). Such instances supply LaVar an opportunity to broaden the context through which he and his family are understood: The show’s vision of him is a stark contrast to the maniacal gatekeeper he’s been portrayed as time and again.

How is the self perceived? And who gets to control such an image? How do modern social tools help to warp or rectify our understanding of another?

In one scene toward the end of episode five (“The Making of a Leader”), LaVar rips into Melo after the loss of an AAU competition, which he chose to scarcely prepare for, staying up until 4 a.m. the night before playing video games (in a post-game tirade, he also insultingly credited the loss to the an unqualified woman referee). “You don’t have enough of this killer in you here. I don’t see it,” LaVar intones, later adding in a shred of commentary, “Melo understands that he has to grow up really fast if he wants to hang with his brothers. I can’t treat him like a baby, so I treat him like a grown man.” It’s LaVar as we know him: explosive and unsympathetic, only this time there exists a visible undercurrent of genuine love for his son. In control, the lesson is his to teach.

How is the self perceived? And who gets to control such an image? How do modern social tools help to warp or rectify our understanding of another? When Facebook Watch debuted in August, it did so with the promise that it would deliver a more substantial reach to the shows it hosted, well beyond traditional TV or streaming sites (Facebook ranks second only to YouTube for internet video). According to Gil Goldschein, CEO and Chairman of Bunim/Murray, the production company behind the show, Facebook Watch has allowed them to remain at the forefront of storytelling. “Watch has enabled us to engage the entertainment, sports and Facebook communities and bring them together around the unique Ball family,” he said. For a person like LaVar Ball, this can be consequential—with 24 million viewers watching the series premiere, the platform affords him the opportunity to shift skewed realities back into his favor, or at least challenge supposed false ones and the outcomes they inspire.

Cunningly enough, the show plays into the narrative of disquiet that has surrounded the family since Lonzo entered college last year for a single season (and led UCLA to the Sweet Sixteen in the process): It doesn’t attempt to silence the noise so much as it adds to it—the end result achieves a kind of impressionistic equilibrium. (A casual scan of the comments below a given episode are proof enough; as one of them puts it, “Lavar is AMAZING and his kids are power statements … they are legit family goals.”) In this way, the pursuit of self-actualization works doubly for the elder Ball. On the show, as he cares for his family, the textures of perhaps his truer character—the one his family has seen up close all their lives—reflect more vividly in real life, a worthy counternarrative to the one the media would rather he hew to.

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