The crowd erupts as LaMelo Ball catches a cross-court lob and performs a blind backwards bounce pass to his teammate, Tomas Dimsa, for an easy layup. It took what seemed like forever to get here—to Prienai, this small Lithuanian city of about 10,000. But now that the Balls have arrived, it’s triple-B moments like these that stand out in their international debut.
My first impression of Prienai Arena, the Ball family’s new home away from home, is that it doesn’t even deserve to be called an arena. The home of Vytautas Prienai is no larger than the average high school gym. When I arrive two hours before LiAngelo and LaMelo’s debut, the parking lot is already full. One of two security guards tears my ticket as a pair of volunteers frantically dole out press passes to a stampede of media.
Outside of the press line, the scene is calm. There’s a laughably small wooden bar stocked with beer, soda, and Lithuania’s national snack, kepta duona, which is fried bread served with a mixture of cheese and mayonnaise. A pair of Vytautas warm-up shirts for sale hang on a nearby coat rack. That and a shelf behind the bar form the club’s entire merchandise store. No one seems to notice Tina Ball make her way into the stadium and onto the court.
BC Prienai, the Ball’s new team, currently bears the name of 15th century Lithuanian king and folk hero, Vytautas, but in previous years, they’ve also been named for sponsors like TonyBet and Rudupis. In 2008, their first year under head coach Virginijus Seskus, BC Prienai won the NKL, the second tier Lithuanian national league, and thus earned a spot to compete in the LKL, the premiere Lithuanian league. Since then, the club has slowly fallen to the bottom of the LKL standings, barely avoiding relegation in the 2014-15 season.
Two weeks prior to the Ball’s debut, I watched a game between Zalgiris and Olympiacos in front of a sold out crowd of 15,400 in Kaunas, Lithuania’s second-largest city. There was a four-sided jumbotron, multiple levels of seating, several concession stands, tons of merch, and fan-involving fun during commercial breaks. I make this point to say that it’s not like Lithuania doesn’t have impressive venues for their national pastime.
The team the Ball brothers face tonight is actually an under 18 squad of Zalgiris 2, the main club's reserve team. Based in Kaunas, BC Zalgiris is the most notorious Lithuanian basketball team. The club has made it to every LKL final since the league was created, and even played a few exhibition games against NBA teams in 2007. Donatas Motiejunas played for Zalgiris 2 before he went to the NBA.
As Vytautas warms up, a few eager fans take photos of the Balls but the stadium remains mostly empty. One wears a Lonzo Ball Lakers jersey. I tell him I’m from Los Angeles and ask him what he thinks about the younger Balls coming to Lithuania.
“It’s the best thing to happen in Prienai,” he says with a grin, “I’d like to see them play together in Staples Center one day.”
At least one young Lithuanian sees LaVar’s vision.
Around the time Zalgiris 2 begins warming up, more fans and cameras begin trickling in, and the scene starts to feel like something Lavar Ball orchestrated. The edges of the court nearest the doors become congested with spectators taking snaps of Melo and Gelo shooting. A smiling Ball family sits courtside behind a large LED strip emblazoned with triple B's while “X Gon’ Give It To Ya” blares from the loudspeakers.
The seating area reserved for the team’s sponsors is secured on either side by G4S security guards, yet another BC Prienai sponsor. As the warmups wind down, Jurgis Didziulis serenades the sold out crowd with his electric guitar. He sings “Welcome to Lithuania,” which earned his former band a second place finish in Lithuania’s Eurovision qualifier in 2006. I must admit I laughed when I heard the the final verse, “It’s somewhat depressive/I must say it’s true/We like to party/The first drink’s on you!”
Since they are wearing numbers 1 and 3 respectively, LaMelo and LiAngelo are the first players to have their names called in the pseudo professional lineup announcement, complete with cheerleaders and lighting effects. Melo starts the game on the bench while Gelo debuts from the get go. Gelo struggles initially, missing an open three and a few inside shots. He finally scores his first points from the foul line. Shortly after, Melo misses his first pro shot, a pull-up three from way out that hits the backboard then the rim (and draws groans from the fans).
Then, with two minutes left in the first, he makes up for it with the aforementioned no-look pass. Near the end of the quarter, Melo takes a fastbreak pass to the hole with what may be considered a dunk and the crowd eats it up, chanting “Ball Komanda” over and over. “Komanda” is the Lithuanian word for team. Melo’s next few passes are unsuccessful but not because they’re bad, it seems the intended players just aren’t expecting them. The kid doesn’t telegraph his passes, which will lead to some spectacular assists when his teammates start to adjust to his style of play. These turnovers coupled with a few steals by Zalgiris leads to the coach benching Melo with about five and a half minutes left in the first half. The last Ball touch of the first half is a brilliant steal by LiAngelo followed by a missed layup. Vytautas trails Zalgiris 2 by two points at intermission.
At halftime, it seems like half the arena is crammed into a small gated smoking area outside the doors opposite the entrance. “What do you think of the game so far?” I ask a group of young Lithuanians.
“Melo is immature, he makes dumb decisions,” says a man between drags of his cigarette. “Did you not see that pass?” retorts a woman wearing a Vytautas jersey nearby.
A heated discussion ensues but the excitement is palpable. I decide it’s best to move on to the next group chatting in English. While no official story has yet been penned that outlines the reasons for the creation of the BBB Challenge—a series of exhibitions the team is playing— and the decision by the club to leave the Baltic Basketball League for this season, I hear some juicy local gossip. Apparently, an entrepreneurial young Lithuanian, Antanas Baksys, attempted to negotiate a deal with ESPN on behalf of BC Prienai. He sought to monetize broadcast rights to the Baltic Basketball League games, in which the Balls were expected to play most. It turns out that the BBL itself, rather than the team, owns the exclusive rights to air the games.
When the enterprising young man tried to create a win-win deal for the club and the league, they told him to get lost. Perhaps this is why the team decided to pull out of the BBL and create their own exhibition series. The 5,000 Euro fine (nearly $6k USD) the club is forced to pay should be offset by whatever Facebook is paying the club for the rights to livestream the Big Baller Brand Challenge series. Word is that Baksys himself engineered the current deal with Facebook for an undisclosed amount.
The second half begins with Melo and Gelo both on the bench. Vytautas begins to build some momentum with excellent ball movement and great defense. It’s clear this team has chemistry and the Balls haven’t quite found the same rhythm with their other teammates. After close to eight minutes of play, Vytautas leads Zalgiris 2 53-47 and Melo takes the court once again. Not even thirty seconds later, he takes another deep three that misses the mark. This one isn’t any closer. The fans aren’t amused but Seskus is smiling. The Vytautas coach is known for his liberal approach, he allows his players to improvise and is happy to tolerate an errant shot or two in the name of creativity.
As if to affirm his confidence in the young point guard, Melo makes a beautiful reverse layup that receives an ovation from the crowd. A few minutes later, Melo drives the lane again and delivers an exceptional behind-the-back pass to Dimsa who is fouled hard on his layup attempt. The third quarter ends with pair of made freebies by LiAngelo and a ten point lead. The fourth quarter is all Gelo, he scores ten points, four of them off passes from his younger brother. Melo then misses one last three in the final seconds.
Though it was by no means a standout performance, LaMelo’s passing was impressive. The nine assists recorded don’t accurately reflect his instincts and decision making. He created lots of opportunities for teammates. When the rest of the team learns to anticipate his bold passes, he’ll have double digit assists in every game. Gelo led the team with 19 points despite missing all but one of his threes and half his shots from inside the arc. When the jet lag wears off and the team builds chemistry, Vytautas will probably be as fun to watch as Lavar Ball's postgame celebration.