The first time LeBron James tests Lonzo Ball won’t be when he whips him his first no-look, cross-court pass when the Los Angeles Lakers begin their training camp this fall.
James’ first test for Ball actually came months ago, when the man known as The King took the player who is now his potential protege aside following the Cleveland Cavaliers 121-112 victory over the upstart Lakers in James’ first-ever NBA matchup with Ball, put his jersey over his mouth, and delivered a secret decree.
But what did James say? And what did it all mean?
The answer to the first question came quickly. Despite James and Ball’s efforts at secrecy, eventually James’ advice leaked thanks to an alternate audio feed tracked down by an enterprising reddit user.
“Find your zone and just stay f-----g locked in,” James told Ball. “The media is going to ask you what I told you right now. Tell them nothing. Just be aggressive every single day. It’s white noise to you. That’s all it is. All right? Let’s go.”
Josh Hart, the only other person in the frame of TNT’s cameras in a blink-or-you’ll-miss-it-cameo, didn’t hear what James said to Ball, but he does remember how big of a deal the moment became.
“I remember it blew up and that was this big thing the whole night and the next day,” Hart told Silver Screen and Roll recently. “It was crazy.”
The next 24-48 hours of the news cycle were hijacked by speculation over the meaning of this chance summit. Now that James has joined the Lakers, and even at the time amid endless rumors he would do so, it’s easy to come to a conclusion. James was testing Ball, telling the rookie a secret so publicly that he would be sure to be asked about it. LeBron needed to figure out whether or not a potential future teammate could be trusted with keeping private information private.
Blanca Cobb, an “internationally recognized body language expert” who has appeared on CNN, GMA, CBS, and other networks to analyze the body language of famous figures, didn’t need the audio to know that James was indeed testing Ball’s discretion.
“Both men have their bodies angled towards each other, which suggests camaraderie. You turn towards people that you like,” she wrote.
Cobb sent back screenshots of the body language that stood out to her, pointing out how Ball covered his mouth with his jersey just as LeBron did. Ball didn’t say anything, so there was no reason for him to cover his mouth. But Cobb said that the way Ball mimicked James still served an essential purpose.
“You tend to mirror behavior of someone you like, admire and trust. If you notice that someone is similar then you subconsciously start to connect to them and form a bond,” Cobb wrote.
“Many times this leads to trust.”
Cobb also noted other signs showing Ball was passing James’ test. She pointed out how Ball nodded after everything James said, making clear eye contact while doing so. Cobb said that humans give eye contact to people they “respect and like,” and that reciprocation of that eye contact can indicate mutual respect.
“Eye contact sends the message that you’re listening and engaged in the conversation,” Cobb wrote. “Through these actions you start to develop trust.”
But while Ball’s body language may have subconsciously helped him earn James’ trust, so did his actions.
After the game, James told Kristen Ledlow of TNT in his walkoff interview that “I didn’t tell [Lonzo] anything. It’s not for everybody. There’s enough noise out there already with ‘Zo, and it’s not for me to discuss.”
Later, Ball again mirrored James’ actions, telling reporters when pressed that James “didn’t tell me anything,”
Ball didn’t even tell his own teammates what was said.
“Nah, We didn’t really talk about it. That was a conversation that happened between them and we left it between them,” Hart said.
But why that advice? James surely sees a bit of himself in all the criticism and hype Ball has alternately received throughout his short time in basketball’s spotlight.
However, we also don’t know if James was actively thinking about joining the Lakers when he was talking to Ball. Hart certainly didn’t think so.
“Nah, that never really crossed my mind. I just thought that was the best player in the world just kind of having a conversation with Zo,” Hart said. “With all the criticism that he’s under, I thought that was just a cool conversation that he had with him.”
Still, in retrospect, it’s hard not to see James’ request for Ball to keep the conversation private as a dual-purposed act. Not only was James helping a rookie to keep his head up, he was also seeing if the Lakers’ newest young floor general was more trustworthy when it came to private conversations than their last one.
“If Lonzo didn’t show signs of listening, acknowledgement or agreement during the conversation, then LeBron might have felt that he couldn’t share information with Lonzo,” Cobb wrote.
Instead, Ball passed that test with flying colors, both consciously and unconsciously.
Or, as Cobb wrote: “Through body language and actions, trust develops.”
All quotes obtained firsthand unless otherwise linked. You can follow Harrison on Twitter at @hmfaigen.