For three decades we’ve covered many amazing basketball characters, but some stand above the rest—not only because of their on-court skills (though those are always relevant), but because of how they influenced and continue to influence basketball culture, and thus influenced SLAM. Meanwhile, SLAM has also changed those players’ lives in various ways, as we’ve documented their careers with classic covers, legendary photos, amazing stories, compelling videos and more.
We compiled a group of individuals (programming note: 30 entries, not 30 people total) who mean something special to SLAM and to our audience. Read the full list here and order your copy of SLAM 248, where this list was originally published, here.
The entirety of 2017 belonged to the Ball family. No one came anywhere close in the basketball universe when it came to media coverage and fanfare. And similarly, no media company came anywhere close to the access and trust with the family that SLAM received, and the result was a whole lot of incredible content.
When the fam decided they wanted to take an unconventional route and challenge the status quo, it was SLAM they called to exclusively break each of their historic announcements—from launching their own signature sneakers to a first-of-its-kind semi-pro league. And while those happened in 2017 and 2018, it was technically in 2016 when SLAM and the Ball family first embarked on the wild ride.
In the spring of 2016, right after Chino Hills High School (led by senior Lonzo Ball, junior LiAngelo Ball and freshman LaMelo Ball) went undefeated with a 35-0 record and was ranked No. 1 in the country, we took a cross-country trip to sunny California to produce the family’s first major magazine shoot. We did some stills at the school in their high school uniforms and then some stills at their home in…Big Baller Brand merch. This was almost a full year before BBB would become a hot topic of discussion. A little sprinkle of foreshadowing.
A few months later, we reconnected for a fun YouTube video titled “Christmas Day with the Ball Family.” It was the reality show before the reality show, essentially, and helped demonstrate the fun but competitive personalities of not only the brothers but also their parents, Tina and LaVar. It’s amassed close to 13.5 million views on YouTube alone, making it SLAM’s most watched original content video of all time; and, FWIW, it has significantly more views than any standalone original piece from many of our competitors.
And then came spring of 2017, when Lonzo, the most talked-about prospect in that year’s NBA draft, announced with SLAM exclusively that he was going to keep it in the family, turning down a traditional sneaker endorsement deal to launch his own signature sneaker with BBB. The momentous announcement went viral, of course, easily the No. 1 trending topic on Twitter that day, and the first of many announcements that SLAM helped break with the family.
A couple of months later, just 48 hours after the 2017 NBA Draft, we did our first cover shoot with the brothers at their home: Zo wearing his new Lakers uniform, Gelo donning the UCLA colors and Melo with the Chino Hills threads. LaVar guest-wrote the cover story. WATTBA.
And then, two months later, we returned to Chino Hills to shoot another announcement. This time, LaMelo was becoming the first HS player ever to launch his own signature sneaker at just 16 years old. The video and photos (including Melo’s famous Lamborghini) from the shoot are forever etched in hoops history.
The following year, LaVar decided to launch his own professional league for HS players, the Junior Basketball Association, a historic endeavor that paid HS kids to hoop around the US and embark on a tour throughout Europe. LaMelo and LiAngelo both joined, and just like the other Ball family announcements that SLAM broke, it did numbers, as every sports talk show joined in on the conversation. In collaboration with the family, we also announced LaMelo’s decision to return to HS in the US later that year, when he joined SPIRE Academy in Ohio.
All those exclusive videos and announcements aside, we’ve shot multiple other covers as well—LaMelo has given us time for two solo covers in the past four years. And we’ve also done some cool merch collabs with LaMelo’s LaFrancé brand over the past year.
SLAM’s unique relationship with the Ball family has grown and evolved continuously, just like the family members’ individual careers. In many ways, our journey together seems like a fitting pairing. We both value family, loyalty and the fearlessness to do things in your own unique way.
An argument could be made that many of those historic announcements helped pave the way for today’s HS landscape, which gives power to student-athletes like never before. For one, the family deciding to launch their own brand and profit off their name, image and likeness (NIL)—even though it risked LaMelo’s (and Lonzo’s) eligibility to play in college—helped drive the conversation around kids being allowed to make money without losing college eligibility. Today, thanks to new NIL policies, high school kids are allowed to do the same things that cost LaMelo the opportunity to play college ball. Similarly, LaVar’s JBA league drove conversation around the need for HS kids to have alternative options to the traditional high school basketball experience, and lo and behold, there are now numerous leagues that offer to pay high school players.
The Ball family’s revolutionary journey has led to plenty of conversation and even planted seeds for new opportunities that weren’t there for HS kids at the time. SLAM is just glad to have played a small part in all of it.
Portrait by Atiba Jefferson.