PRIENAI, Lithuania >> Flying into a frenzy of camera flashes, cheering fans and funk music, the Ball family discovered in an instant just how much Lithuania has been anticipating its arrival.
The star treatment continued for more than 90 minutes on the road from Vilnius airport as a party bus took the younger brothers and father of Los Angeles Lakers point guard Lonzo Ball to the small town of Prienai on the banks of the Nemunas River.
From the coffee shop, where “Prienai Got Balls” flashes on a red neon sign, to the pizza parlor adorned with American flags, this town with a population of around 10,000 provided the Californians with a welcome to savor on Wednesday.
After the fanfare, 19-year-old LiAngelo Ball and 16-year-old brother LaMelo today finally started shooting hoops in the small basketball arena where they will soon have to start living up to their star billing playing for BC Prienu Vytautas.
“It was really good practice,” LiAngelo said after being presented with the No. 3 jersey. “I’ve decided to come over here and use this opportunity. This is the place to be. People love basketball here, the country has great culture. I am ready to play.”
That could come on Tuesday in the 1,200-capacity arena, with LaMelo wearing the No. 1 jersey. Most tickets have already been snapped up, without the fans knowing if the American recruits will make their debuts in the Baltic league game against Tsmoki-Minsk.
The improbable one-year deals were struck in December by father LaVar Ball, who also created the Big Baller Brand of clothing and sneakers.
“The hospitality is superb,” he told reporters. “You are talking very good English to my boys and we appreciate that. It’s a great experience to all of us.”
But the teenagers will now be ineligible for college basketball. LiAngelo left UCLA where he was suspended after his shoplifting arrest during the team’s season-opening trip to China. LaMelo was removed from Chino Hills High in California to make this foray into the unknown.
Just how will his sons cope in the tough domestic championship?
“We are not afraid to get hurt,” LaVar said. “We are just too fast.”
Then, while signing a Lakers cap, a local fan asked when all three Ball brothers would be playing in Los Angeles. “2020,” their father predicted.
This is the only team in the Lithuanian league without foreign players and finished sixth at LKL championship last year.
“This is great opportunity not only for this club or Prienai town, but for entire Lithuania which will be known better to people abroad who probably never heard of our country before,” coach Virginijus Seskus said after a ceremony at the Vytautas arena where a large traditional tree cake was presented to LaVar.
The coach has the seal of approval from the boys’ father.
“He has energy,” LaVar said. “You don’t have to speak English if you have energy. He is not one of those rocket scientists who just keep on talking all the time.”
Despite the festivities and accompanying television crews, this foray into Lithuania is being taken very seriously by the family. La Var instructed staff of the spa resort they are staying to replace all alcohol with milk and mineral water in their rooms.
The town is putting a lot of faith in the Ball brothers to lead BC Prienai to glory.
“Our team budget is modest,” Prienai district mayor Alvydas Vaicekauskas, “but now with these new players we may compete for cups.”
In basketball-crazy Lithuania, basketball is often dubbed the “second religion” and attracts huge crowds to arenas even at small towns. There have been several Lithuania players in NBA teams, including Portland Trail Blazers center Arvydas Sabonis and Zydrunas “Big Z” Ilgauskas at Cleveland Cavaliers.
The Balls won’t be the first Americans to play for the club. Brad Tinsley, a former Vanderbilt guard, played here between August and October.
With the Ball brothers planning a longer stay, the locals are ensuring they feel at home.
“We are considering launching a couple of new burgers branded LiAngelo and LaMelo,” said Dovile Malisauskiene, owner of Tango pizza parlor, which was decorated with American and Lithuanian flags to honor the new members of his beloved basketball team. “I think those will be popular.”