Under the microscope of basketball’s biggest helicopter dad, Jerry Vargas is pursuing his pro basketball dreams.
The Brooklyn native spurned college opportunities to join LaVar Ball’s Junior Basketball Association. And a few months later, he has no regrets.
Just don’t let him look up at the empty stands.
“It was really more about the exposure,” said Vargas, who plays for the Seattle Ballers. “It’s just — LaMelo Ball is playing, then it’s LiAngelo Ball in the league, now everybody’s watching.”
While that may be overstated, Vargas is confident the JBA is providing him with an adequate platform to be discovered, even if that platform isn’t traditional.
Comprised of eight teams and 64 players, the JBA was created by Ball as an NCAA alternative for players ranging from 16 to 21 years old. The JBA debuted on June 21 to a small crowd in Ontario, Calif., and has played in mostly empty arenas since then. Its All-Star game — tickets still very much available — will be held in a Chicago arena with a capacity of just 1,000 people.
However, the games have managed to pull at least 100,000 viewers on all but one of its Facebook Live broadcasts, with the Ball brothers consistently attracting at least 800,000 fans.
That viewership is plenty good enough for Vargas, who would have played at a small college if not for the JBA.
A 6-foot-6 forward out of EBC High School in Bushwick, Vargas honed his skills with the Elite 84 AAU team, linking up with the squad during his sophomore year.
“When I watched Jerry play at first, I saw a lot of raw talent, a lot of skills,” Elite 84 coach Joel Velasquez said. “He started playing basketball pretty late at his age, and the advantage that he had was his size, his size was extremely helpful.”
Vargas’ time with Elite 84 helped him develop as a player, and he finished high school holding several offers from schools including Buffalo State and Westchester College.
But he felt the JBA offered him a more comfortable environment and the chance to “take care of his mom,” Velasquez said.
That’s a big part of the lure of the league: Unlike the NCAA, where you are offered an education instead of a paycheck, it puts money in your pocket. Ball said on the Los Angeles radio show, “Big Boy in the Morning,” that JBA players are paid $3,000 per month.
“I was always good in school, but I don’t know if I would’ve kept up with all that work that college is doing,” Vargas said. “So I thought this was like the best s–t for me.”
While Vargas said he has ended up in good hands in the JBA — he’s coached by former UCLA national champion Charles O’Bannon — he admits that development in the league “depends on the coach.” Not all of his peers are as lucky as him; Chicago player Montrell Dixson was physically and verbally abused by his coach, Edward Denard, on July 12. (After the incident, Denard is now reportedly out as coach.)
Vargas, and the other 63 league members, bet their futures on a fledgling basketball league with no guarantees. Well, except one promise.
Vargas recounted a California training camp, around June 11, when Ball addressed all the players. According to Vargas, the (in)famous loud mouth delivered a lofty vow to anyone who failed to forge a pro career from the JBA: a job at Big Baller Brand.
It sounds absurd and unrealistic, for so many reasons. Will Big Baller Brand last? Could it possibly offer a livelihood to dozens and dozens of players it fails? But it does demonstrate Ball’s never-ending confidence, this time in his league to develop players. And there is at least one JBA graduate, as Chicago’s Kezo Brown departed the league to play in France.
Still, Vargas’ AAU coach believes in the merits of the traditional college route.
“I’m always gonna tell my kids personally to go to college,” said Velasquez, who ultimately told his protege to make the best decision for himself. “Just because you can have a backup plan just in case basketball doesn’t [work out] for you.”
Vargas sees himself playing in the JBA for another year or two, and has performed well in the league thus far. The forward is averaging a healthy 17.2 points per game on 62 percent field goal shooting, the fifth-best clip in the league.
“I already had a 30-point game, so it’s like, the league for me right now is going great,” Vargas said.
What does 30 points in a league that’s assuredly inferior to Division I mean? LiAngelo Ball averages a ridiculous 51.8 points per contest, with his Los Angeles team dropping 142.8 points on average. Viewers don’t automatically bring legitimacy.
Despite the mixed opinions of the league, Vargas’ phone has been buzzing with messages from people he played with growing up. The kids, at least, believe in LaVar’s latest venture.
“Everybody wants to play in the league now,” Vargas said.
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