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I'll Pass On The $495 Sneakers, Pablo Torre Says

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Did you pay a little bit extra for that last pair of sneakers - maybe even a lot more so that some sports star's name could grace your ankles? Well, sports commentator Pablo Torre says you can now pay an even bigger premium for the mere potential of star power cache.

PABLO TORRE: If you haven't heard of a man named LaVar Ball, consider yourself an endangered species. LaVar's son, Lonzo Ball, is a relatively quiet kid, a point guard out of UCLA and a surefire top pick in June's NBA draft.

But Lonzo has very little to do with why his dad is dominating the sports news cycle or why LaVar was called the worst thing to happen to basketball in the last hundred years by an executive at Nike, which passed on signing his son to a shoe contract, as did Adidas and Under Armour. All of that is happening because LaVar says stuff like this, from an ESPN segment.

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LAVAR BALL: We going to get a billion dollars. Trust and believe that. I've told my boys this. Somebody got to be better than Michael Jordan. Why not you?

TORRE: He also says stuff like this.

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BALL: I have the utmost confidence in what my boy's doing. I'm going to tell you right now, he better than Steph Curry to me. Here, put Steph Curry on UCLA's team right now. And put my boy on Golden State, and watch what happens.

TORRE: ...And also stuff like this.

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BALL: I don't care if I'm viewed off the rails 'cause guess what? I am off the rails. So it don't matter what y'all say.

TORRE: In that aforementioned quest for a billion dollars, notably, the Ball family had been seeking a business partner for Big Baller Brand, the family's apparel company, instead of the typical endorsements for Lonzo. But with none of those giant corporations interested, Big Baller Brand was left to set its own retail price, which is why Lonzo's custom-designed sneaker can now be had for a mere $495, which is more than twice as expensive as any Nikes endorsed by LeBron James. When this was announced last week, NBA coaches like Golden State's Mike Brown had roughly the reaction you'd expect in response to a reporter's question.

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UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Would you buy your kids a pair of shoes for $500...

MIKE BROWN: (Laughter).

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: From an unproven NBA player?

BROWN: No.

TORRE: But while LaVar may be a delusional huckster, we should also be clear about something. He isn't the downfall of basketball culture. In fact, the guy is just playing by the rules of the game. Yes, demanding a business partnership sounds ludicrous, until you realize that LeBron, who preaches seeking equity over endorsements, is pioneering that very model himself. And yes, $495 sounds like an arbitrarily exorbitant price point for a basketball sneaker, until you realize that $200, objectively, is too.

And yes, unabashed self-promotion sounds like a self-defeating tactic, until you realize that the most precious resource in the Internet age is attention, which LaVar generates nearly as easily as the president of the United States. So no, you don't have to buy his son's sneakers. But in sports, as in politics, you should never underestimate the upside of going off the rails.

INSKEEP: Commentator Pablo Torre is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.