Chino Hills — “Do you know Lonzo Ball?”
Since 2012 -- the year that Lonzo and his family forced Chino Hills, Calif., into the public consciousness -- that’s the inevitable follow-up question I get when I tell people where I’m from.
To be fair, it’s not a totally unreasonable question. Chino Hills is a relatively small town consisting of roughly 80,000 people, and I’ve lived in the neighboring city, Chino, my entire life. Ball is also only a year younger than me, and played basketball at the Neighborhood Activity Center (NAC) like I did for years.
Unfortunately, the answer to that question is no: I do not know Lonzo Ball. Most people in the area don’t, because he likes to keep his circle small. But while not a lot of people know Ball personally, almost everyone feels like they know him and his celebrity family.
Like most families in Chino Hills, the Balls are regulars at the Applebee’s on Grand Ave., and do their grocery shopping at the local Albertsons.
“I remember bagging their groceries and always thinking ‘How in the world do these people eat two full carts of food every single week?’” former Albertsons clerk Lauren Gayoso said of the Ball family. “But years later, when I found out they were training three boys for the NBA, it made way more sense.”
However, to say the Balls are a “normal” Chino Hills family would also be inaccurate.
Lonzo Ball (21 years old) is the starting point guard for the Los Angeles Lakers, one of the most well-known and storied franchises in all of sports. LiAngelo Ball (20) was the subject of a high-profile arrest in China during his brief time at UCLA. And their youngest brother, LaMelo Ball (17), is arguably one of the most famous high school basketball players of all time.
Their father, LaVar Ball is, well, LaVar Ball. Tina Ball, Lonzo’s mother, is the only member of the family that has managed to stay out of the spotlight (or as out of the spotlight as you can while being on a reality show, at least).
But before all of the national attention, the Saturday Night Live parodies and the public feuds with the President of the United States, the Balls were just a basketball family with plans of doing something big. That plan started with Lonzo, the oldest of the Ball brothers.
Lonzo always stood out from the rest of his peers when he was young -- not because he was the most talkative and energetic in the crowd, but because of his size. By middle school, he was already taller than the average American adult, according to Steve Baik, Lonzo’s former coach at Chino Hills High School. Lonzo’s lean frame made him look even taller than he was.
Lonzo stood out on the basketball court for those same reasons, but his natural feel for the game made him even more difficult to ignore.
In the summer of 2010, when Lonzo was in sixth grade, the Chino Hills High School Huskies hosted an all ages summer basketball camp run by Baik. Lonzo and his two brothers attended the camp and impressed Baik with how well they performed drills.
On the last day of camp, Lonzo caught Baik’s attention with the type of play that would draw the eyes of the world soon after.
“We finished the camp with some full-court (scrimmaging), and he dribbled through a player and threw full-court length bounce pass. Perfect timing, and it hit the guy perfectly in stride,” Baik said.
“If I were to have a varsity player at that time make a play like that, I’d be impressed. As a sixth grader, the fact that he did this on top of all the skills that he had … I just knew at that moment this guy would potentially be an NBA player.”
Two years later, Baik got the opportunity to coach the bright-eyed young man he saw at that camp.
The summer before Lonzo’s freshman year of high school, Chino Hills held tryouts for their basketball teams. Lonzo would regularly arrive an hour and a half before everyone else to shoot by himself, Baik said.
Chino Hills wasn’t the basketball powerhouse they would ultimately become, though they did have a few talented players. Cameron Curry (no relation to Steph), the Huskies’ starting point guard at the time was named the team’s MVP his junior year after making the Sierra League First Team, and was drawing interest from Division I colleges.
In other words, Lonzo had an uphill battle to make the varsity team, but he did. And not only did he make the team, but he started alongside Curry, who said Lonzo made the game easy on him in their lone season together.
“Playing with Zo, he’s so unselfish that he kind of just lets you score and do whatever you want. I know that if I’m going for threes and I’m hot, he’s going to keep passing me the ball until I miss, or even if I do keep missing,” Curry said. “Being a point guard, you always look to get others involved, but it’s also fun playing with another point guard so you can get involved in the fun of scoring.”
To this day, Baik says Curry and Ball are responsible for one of his favorite seasons as a head coach.
“There were literally two point guards on the floor. The ball moved so well, people got shots. It was just a lot of fun,” Baik said.
Curry would go on to make the All-Sierra First Team again as a senior, as would Lonzo as a freshman. Lonzo also earned an honorable mention for MaxPreps’ Freshman All-American teams. Future NBA first-round picks Harry Giles and Thon Maker were named to the first team, while Jayson Tatum and Josh Jackson were named to the second.
Everything went right for Lonzo that season until the second round of the CIF Southern Section Boys Basketball Playoffs.
The Huskies faced off against Rancho Verde, who had only lost one game in the regular season. Chino Hills was undefeated, or as LaVar would say, they “nevah lost.” As expected, the game was tightly contested, with neither team able to pull away in regulation. But with 10 seconds left in the game’s second overtime period and the teams tied at 49, Chino Hills had an opportunity to win the game.
Like he had throughout the season, Lonzo grabbed a long rebound and surveyed the court to try and make one of his famous outlet passes. Except this time Ball fumbled the ball and it rolled out of bounds. The next possession, Chino Hills fell asleep on defense and allowed Rancho Verde guard Jalen Hall to get off a floater in the lane. Chino Hills, 49; Rancho Verde, 51.
Baik recalls Lonzo being “devastated,” but he also remembers something else that impressed him.
“He was the last to leave the locker room as a freshman,” Baik said.
That wouldn’t be the last time Lonzo experienced failure in the playoffs.
The following year, Chino Hills would lose to Stanley Johnson and Mater Dei in the Southern Section Open Division final. Johnson scored 28 points, including the game-winning free throws.
The year after that, they lost in the regional finals to Centennial High School in an overtime heartbreaker.
But Lonzo’s inability to lead his team to a championship didn’t diminish his potential as a prospect. In fact, by 2014, Lonzo had already committed to UCLA — along with his two brothers. But there was no denying that his playoff failures bothered him, and he made sure to make his senior year one to remember.
With the help of his brothers, Lonzo led Chino Hills to a 35-0 record en route to a state championship. Lonzo left no room for error this time around, beating De La Salle 70-50 in the final. He ended the game with 15 points, 10 rebounds and 7 assists. On the season, he averaged 23.9 points, 11.3 rebounds and 11.5 assists per game.
“For us to do that and have the 35-0 year, people don’t know how crazy that was,” Baik said. “For a public of school of neighborhood kids to do that and the way he did it with his style of play, involving his teammates, playing for his city, playing for others. He never played for himself, that’s the thing about it. He’s an individual that has never played for himself, he’s always played for others.”
Once a local high school basketball phenomenon, Lonzo blossomed into a national star.
“I look at my phone, on my ESPN app, and here’s a feature of a highlight of Lonzo Ball on ESPN and I’m like ‘Okay, wow,’” Baik said.
One of Ball’s closest friends, Austen Awosika, said that going out in public with Ball became nearly impossible.
“It’s really crazy ‘cause we’ve got this tight-knit group and sophomore and junior year, we could go anywhere and there would be no problems. Then, once they went 35-0, that dude could not go anywhere in Chino Hills without someone asking for a picture or signing autographs. He’s literally a superstar out there,” Awosika said.
Lonzo’s spotlight got even bigger during his record-breaking season at UCLA, and bigger again when he was drafted by his hometown Los Angeles Lakers with the No. 2 overall pick in 2017. Meanwhile, things were changing quickly at Lonzo’s old stomping grounds in Chino Hills.
The season after Lonzo left the Huskies, Baik resigned from his head coaching position to be closer to his family in Pasadena. Baik’s replacement, Stephan Gilling, enjoyed success in his first year with Chino Hills, leading LiAngelo, LaMelo and the rest of the team to a 30-3 record, but LaVar regularly and publicly criticized Gilling’s ability to coach. By the end of the season, Gilling was let go.
Following Gilling’s departure, LaVar told ESPN that he wasn’t the reason Gilling was relieved of his duties and that it was protocol for the head coaching position to be open every year. Chino Hills High School Athletic Director Sam Sabbara did not respond to repeated requests for comment.
The following season, in 2017, Dennis Latimore was named the head coach of the Huskies. Latimore had a vision for the team, and it was different from what LaVar had envisioned for his youngest son LaMelo’s junior season. As a result, LaVar pulled LaMelo out of high school and took parting shots at Latimore and the school.
“I’m not dealing with the coach over there,” Ball told Ramona Shelburne of ESPN in October of 2017. “I’m not dealing with the administration over there. I don’t want no distractions on Melo. So therefore I’m going to home school him and make him the best basketball player ever.
“It’s a new coach and I don’t like him one bit. He’s on track for UCLA, but he doesn’t have to be dealing with those knuckleheads. I’m not letting them mess with his head anymore. You can put that on the principal and the coach over there. That coach has his own frame of mind on how he wants to play and who he picks in the team. OK, y’all got all that going on, let’s see how you do without my tutelage. Without me training those players at my house. It seems like anyone who’s training over there that coach don’t want him in the team.”
So without Lonzo, LiAngelo, LaMelo and the support of LaVar, how would Chino Hills survive? As it turns out, they wouldn’t just survive — they’d thrive.
In their first season without the Ball brothers, Chino Hills lost more games than they’d cumulatively lost in the three seasons before, but the Huskies caught fire in the playoffs and won the CIF State title. This past season, they were able to run it back and win back-to-back CIF State titles, something they weren’t able to accomplish even when they had all three Ball brothers on the roster, two of whom were five-star recruits.
A big part of their sustained success has been due to a 6-9 big man named Onyeka Okongwu, who played alongside the Ball brothers during his freshman and sophomore years. While he was an integral part of their 35-0 title run in 2015, Okongwu wasn’t the star he is now.
Onyeka’s brother, and my childhood friend, Nnamdi Okongwu also played for Chino Hills before he tragically passed away from a skateboarding accident on July 17, 2014. He was 17 years old.
Nnamdi’s teammates, including Lonzo and LiAngelo, carry on his legacy by having “RIP Nnam” in their social media bios. Onyeka honors Nnamdi on the court by wearing his number, 21.
In the two years since Onyeka’ became the focal point of the Chino Hills basketball team, he’s been named California’s Mr. Basketball twice. The last big man to receive California high school basketball’s highest honor in back-to-back years was Aaron Gordon in 2012 and 2013. Before that, Tyson Chandler — Lonzo’s Lakers teammate in 2019 — did it while he was in high school in 2000 and 2001.
Anthony Bell, a senior guard at Chino Hills High, said that Onyeka has helped the Huskies step out of the shadow left by the Ball brothers.
“I think we all try to build our own legacy and one of the people who I think has really done that is ‘Big O.’ He played with Zo and then after he left, a lot of people didn’t think we would be able to accomplish as much as we have and I think ‘O’ kind of led us. He really stepped up and helped us to stay relevant, and at the top of our game,” Bell said.
Onyeka himself downplays the time he spent playing with the Ball brothers, telling Mark Whicker of the Press Telegram that he “rarely” every speaks to them, but he did acknowledge that things were different when they left, and for the better:
“To be honest, I was just a freshman back then and all I wanted to do was play basketball,” he said. “I didn’t care about the spotlight. When Coach (Latimore) came in, it was good for us because it was more like college basketball. Before, we just ran LaVar’s system.”
Latimore wasn’t critical of “LaVar’s system” during his interview with Whicker, but he said he didn’t want it for his team:
“They trapped, didn’t want to play defense, and shot 3s,” said Latimore, who played at Arizona and Notre Dame. “That works if you have superior talent, and Eli Scott (now at Loyola Marymount) is pulling down 20 rebounds a game. Otherwise you have to work harder, practice harder, be accountable, be careful with your language, even something like just being on time. Some guys struggled with that. Some didn’t want to be coached. It’s a work in progress.”
Okongwu is set to attend USC this fall alongside Isaiah Mobley, who is ranked 15th in ESPN’s 2019 recruiting database. Okongwu is ranked 19th, one spot ahead of LaMelo Ball, who is doubtful to play in college this year after his brief professional stint in Lithuania.
Meanwhile, Lonzo is currently working his way back from an injury he suffered in February. The 21-year-old point guard played in just 47 games for the Lakers this past season, which is five fewer games than he played in his injury-riddled rookie season.
On top of that, Lonzo will be juggling fatherhood, a new agent, a lawsuit with a family friend-turned-business partner, and potentially a new shoe deal. It’s not an understatement to say this will be the biggest and most hectic summer of his young NBA career, if not his life.
There’s a growing possibility that Lonzo won’t be with the Lakers next season after he and a handful of teammates were heavily involved in trade rumors in February, but regardless of what happens with him, Lonzo will always have the support of his hometown, according to his former teammate KC Cyrpian.
“I think Lonzo is well-liked by everybody. Anybody who’s ever come to interact with him — teachers, coaches, people in restaurants, the whole city of Chino Hills. I think we all just embrace him because he’s always a cool guy, always humble. It’s just his dad that gives him more haters, per se, which is undeserved on him because he did nothing to warrant that. I think everybody in Chino Hills rocks with Zo,” Syprian said.
Baik believes that the love between Lonzo and Chino Hills is mutual.
“I don’t think he was just an impact on Chino Hills,” Baik said. “He took so much pride in where he came from. He could have gone anywhere -- Mater Dei, any powerhouse school -- but he and his family embraced that they were from Chino Hills and this is the school they wanted to put on the map, and they literally put Chino Hills on the map. You talk about one of the more obscure new cities that people know internationally and it’s because of the Ball brothers.”
All quotes obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted. For more Lakers talk, subscribe to the Silver Screen and Roll podcast feed on iTunes, Spotify, Stitcher or Google Podcasts. All stats per NBA.com and Basketball-Reference.com. You can follow Christian on Twitter at @RadRivas.