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People in Lithuania sensed immediately that something big had happened, even if they did not quite know who the boys were. This is a basketball-mad country, and the eyes of the sport had suddenly turned its way.
Over the next few days, Lithuanians learned the basic facts: LiAngelo, 19, and LaMelo, 16, are the younger brothers of Lonzo, the star rookie point guard for the Los Angeles Lakers. The boys’ father, LaVar, has become famous in his own right over the past year, most recently entering the news cycle for goading the president of the United States into a Twitter feud.
“It is the talk of the country,” said Althea Cawley-Murphree, an official at the U.S. Embassy in Vilnius.
The teenagers, for now, may be more fame-adjacent than truly famous, and scouts have doubts about their realistic prospects in the game. But for Vytautas, a financially struggling club looking for ways to raise their profile for sponsors and sell more tickets, that was enough.
“One of the brothers on Instagram has as many followers as Lithuania does people,” said Adomas Kubilius, the director of the club. “At the beginning, it seemed almost like a joke, just something for fun.” He paused for a second and shrugged. “And then it got serious.”
At 2 a.m. the night the brothers signed the contract, Kubilius was awakened by a phone call from Vilius Vaitkevicius, the team’s sports director. Social media was simmering over the news.
“The whole world knows us,” Vaitkevicius said on the phone, peppering the call with expletives.
The impending arrival of the Ball brothers — they are scheduled to come to Lithuania on Jan. 4 and could play their first game five days later — has sent a jolt through Prienai, a small town on the banks of the Neman River with a population of around 9,000 people.
One of the handful of restaurants in town, for instance, changed the text of its scrolling LED sign almost as soon as the news was announced.
“TANGO PIZZA WELCOMES BALL FAMILY TO PRIENAI CITY!!!!!” it read, casting a red glow on a sleepy, snow-covered intersection below.
Jaunius Malisauskas, the owner of Tango Pizza, has been plotting with his wife, Dovile, and the rest of his staff to come up with special ways to welcome the two Americans to town.
“We’re thinking maybe we can make a special VIP table for them, and they can come, and it will be always open for them,” he said on Saturday night as servers shuttled thin-crust pies around the dining room.
On Saturday, the team’s arena — a drab, boxy building on a sprawling plot of land — filled nearly to its capacity of 1,500 for a game against Zalgiris Kaunas, the league’s first-place team. The concessions consisted of a single table of snacks — including wedges of bread fried to a crisp and seasoned with garlic. On the opposite side of the hallway, a woman served generous bowls of stewed grains from an enormous steel vat.
Inside the gym, a small but raucous cheering section chanted to the beat of a bass drum. Between quarters, cheerleaders danced in flowing white dresses adorned with ribbons in the colours of the Lithuanian flag.
Just across the river, in a town called Birstonas, the luxury spa hotel where the Ball brothers will live was humming with activity, too. Guests strolled through the lobby in white bathrobes and slippers on their way down to the balmy, subterranean pool and sauna facilities. In the restaurant, a live band played old jazz standards and Red Hot Chili Peppers covers.
“We don’t know how they’re going to feel here, but we will try to do everything to make them feel at home,” said Rolandas Aleksandravicius, whose son, Bartas, 18, is the youngest player on the team. “We are not like a Third-World country. We don’t only have basketball, but beautiful nature, beautiful women. We want them to be successful.”
Many people in Prienai are self-deprecating about their stature relative to the rest of the world. Still, some said they were bruised by the more condescending characterizations of their humble town.
“For me, it’s already tiring, this attention,” said Alvydas Vaicekauskas, the mayor of Preinai. “There’s been a lot of ironical information about Prienai, and people might get the feeling that it’s on the outskirts of the world.”
Americans last week, for example, seemed to particularly fall in love with a factoid that Billy Baron, an American who briefly played in Lithuania, had relayed to a number of news media outlets in the United States: that Virginijus Seskus, the coach of Vytautas, sold meat out of the back of his car after practice.
“I can tell you about the meat,” Seskus said on Saturday, eager to clear up the apparent confusion.
The truth, he said, was this: There is a store in Prienai that produces particularly delicious traditional meat products, such as lasiniai, or smoked pork fat. When he was coaching in Vilnius, where Baron played, one of the players often requested that he pick some up for him.
“That guy would ask me, ‘Coach, please, bring some meat,’ ” Seskus said. “And if someone asks me, I’ll do anything. My wife tells me, ‘Please, be half as good to your family as you are to others.’ But of course, they would pay me for the meat, because I brought it for them.”
Seskus, 50, is a fixture of Lithuanian basketball, known for his intensity on the sidelines and droll manner away from the court. He insisted the language barrier with the Balls would not be so difficult to overcome and that his English was not as poor as people seemed to think.
“I won’t be able to tell my Lithuanian jokes,” he said in Lithuanian, before switching to English and adding, “But I have two weeks.”
During the game — in which Vytautas got manhandled — Seskus stalked the sideline and yelled with the force of his entire body, displeasure animating his extremities. He spent the entire second half in a heated argument with Eigirdas Zukauskas, the team’s captain, often screaming inches away from his face.
Stricken by injuries, Vytautas had dressed only eight players. Seskus later joked that the brothers had missed an opportunity for some playing time. He said he was interested to meet the boys’ father despite his reputation back home for clashing with his sons’ coaches.
Many American sports fans first heard of LaVar Ball, 50, earlier this year when he surprisingly claimed that he could have beaten Michael Jordan in a game of one-on-one basketball. Since then, he has developed a reality show and shoe brand for himself and his boys. Last month, after LiAngelo Ball and two teammates were accused of shoplifting from a Louis Vuitton store in Hangzhou, China, President Donald Trump scolded the elder Ball on Twitter for failing to thank him for his supposed help in resolving the situation.
For Vytautas, these were all appealing things. “I think he’s the perfect businessman,” Kubilius said of LaVar Ball. “He managed, in a country where it’s very difficult to surprise someone, to achieve such a level of publicity and a brand that is popular.”
And so, whether the boys’ move to Lithuania is a masterstroke or mistake, it has already seemed like a case study in the perceived value and remarkable reach of contemporary fame.
For the Balls, it is simply about getting their toes wet in the international market. The contract runs to May, and both sides have the option of ending the contract after one month.
For Vytautas, the goal has been to leverage their new players’ notoriety. The team brought on one new sponsor right after the deal was announced and has had discussions with a couple others. Kubilius said that tickets for the Balls’ first scheduled game, on Jan. 9, had been selling so briskly that the club decided to raise prices from €3 to €8. They have brought on five more people to their modest staff to handle the marketing workload.
“LaMelo Ball has more than three million followers on Instagram; Draymond Green from Golden State has 2.7 million,” Kirvelaitis said, explaining his rationale for his initial Twitter message to Gaines. “They are both young, talented players. But, also, the marketing could be huge.”