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I hear LaMelo Ball before I see him. “Sheeeeeeeeeeeesh!” he exclaims when entering a room, his electric, beaming smile bouncing off the walls. “Sheeeeeeeeeeeesh!” he moans on the Charlotte Hornets' practice court after an assistant coach scratches him across the eye. “Sheeeeeeeeeeeesh!” he whistles when I play Babyface Ray's recent banger, “Real N-ggas Don't Rap,” for him. The high-pitched screech is American vernacular at its wackiest, a sensational slang used all over TikTok to signify excitement and appreciation. But for LaMelo it's almost like punctuation. He's fluent in a patois drawn straight from the viral internet.
In fact, he regards himself as a kind of viral entity in his own right. “How do I feel about memes?” he ponders for a tick before giggling wryly. “I grew up with this shit.” LaMelo's impact on his teammates is “like getting infected,” he explains. “It's a whole different swagger and everything. N-ggas carry theyselves different. N-ggas goin' to they jobs different. Ya feel me?”
I'm not entirely sure that I do until I sit with James Borrego in the Hornets head coach's office and he cranes his head back and booms that familiar sound: “Sheeeeeeeeeeeesh!” I had asked Borrego to encapsulate LaMelo's fabulous rookie season. To which the coach cups his mouth, widens his eyes, and loopily blurts like his star player.
I start saying sheeeeeeeeeeeesh right back, and it goes on like this for a few seconds, as if we've lost control of our bodies.
“Sheeeeeeeeeeeesh!” Borrego says.
“Sheeeeeeeeeeeesh!” I shoot back. We both chuckle, contaminated like all of Charlotte by the LaMelo contagion.
But honestly, what other word is there? “Sheeeeeeeeeeeesh!” is the logical response to LaMelo's video game passes, all-court vision, and fast-break theatrics, which propelled him to one of the greatest statistical seasons by a 19-year-old in NBA history, the Rookie of the Year award, and the role of franchise centerpiece on the traditionally moribund Hornets. And it's in keeping with his massive online popularity with the next generation of basketball fans; he ranks sixth in Instagram followers gained and views generated in the 2020–21 regular season, according to internal NBA rankings—LeBron James and Steph Curry territory.
To hear LaMelo tell it, all this was preordained. “My whole life, I always knew I was going to the NBA,” he says. “I always knew. Everything about this felt normal to me. I knew I'd have stardom. I grew up into it. I already had my life planned out. My whole life, I thought I was the star…. I ain't even gonna say I'm a rock star. It's something other than that. I'm something rare.” He has been famous since at least the age of 15, when he scored 92 points in a high school game and his father, LaVar, started a publicity campaign touting the basketball talents of his three sons, which would often lead national sports news broadcasts.
LaVar had a dream built in the image of Richard Williams, Mario Andretti, and Archie Manning: Lonzo, LiAngelo, and LaMelo would become NBA superstars playing fun, run-and-gun basketball. And for a while the perfectly named Balls were the first family of hoops, the Kardashians of the court, with a reality-based Facebook show and a self-owned apparel company. If Lonzo was the brooding brother and LiAngelo the quiet type, LaMelo was regarded as the jocular one.
Then Lonzo struggled as the number two pick with the Lakers, LaVar retreated from the spotlight, and 16-year-old LaMelo decided to leave high school and skip college for professional basketball in Lithuania, where LiAngelo joined him, and then Australia. Naturally, he has no regrets: “You wanna go to the league, so school's not your priority.” He thinks the NCAA has to change and there should be more options for kids to make money before they get to the NBA (the Supreme Court opened a pathway toward that in a landmark ruling shortly after our interview). “We not trippin' off school. We not dumb. We know how to learn. We don't need school. And school not even teachin' you shit—what the fuck is school?”
He felt isolated in Lithuania, and the local fans weren't the kindest either. “N-ggas was throwin' waters and Gatorades and they drinks at n-ggas and all that shit,” he says. In Australia, he was a constant triple-double threat but, after playing just 12 games before sitting out the season, also a mystery. When he entered the 2020 NBA draft, “there [was] a narrative out there,” Borrego tells me. “It can be complicated bringing a player like Melo in. ‘Will it be just about Melo?’ ‘Can you coach the kid?’ ‘Is there gonna be a show in town?’ ‘How much is the family involved?’ Those were all questions that were being thrown at us.” When he was drafted, The Charlotte Observer wrote that the Hornets had made a mistake and he'd never mature into a star. “There were questions about this, questions about that,” his manager, Jermaine Jackson, says, smirking. “All those questions got erased real fast, as you see. All them people and reporters sayin' that shit, and you see what they doin' now?”
LaMelo's behavior matches his charmed life. He flashes and flexes the type of accoutrements that only a playful prodigy would enjoy. He drives a garish sherbet orange Lambo around Charlotte—a whip so icy folks flip out their phones to catch it, along, of course, with the city's new luminary behind the wheel. His bright custom grills and matching chain dance under the sunlight. One night during my visit, before attending a baseball game, he curated a loud fit equipped with sunglasses and studded, red-bottom kicks. He pays close attention to what others are wearing too, at one point poking fun at the Birkenstocks he'd seen me sporting during the course of our time together. “Mannn,” he says. “You love you some Jesus slides, huh?”
But for all the big-time swagger and adult-size responsibilities, he's also still just a teenager who loves Stranger Things and is afraid of spiders, thanks to his time Down Under. “Nahhhh, man. In Australia? Big-ass spiders. I'm talking this big,” he says, tilting his head back in disgust, measuring the size of his shaggy locks to demonstrate. “Hellll naw! That bitch was too big!” As for Stranger Things: “The concept? The way that shit look? Number Eleven? She goin' crazy! That shit hard as fuck! Her lil' nose be bleedin'?” LaMelo begins to wipe his nostrils, emulating the rapper Young Thug. “Slime! Kill a n-gga!”
To spend time with him is to listen to an endless assortment of mantras and boasts, an Ali-esque aplomb filtered through Aaron McGruder's and Dan Harmon's eyes. He describes himself mainly in internet parlance and lavish eccentricities. In conversation the dialogue becomes a zigzag. One minute he's “something you've never seen,” the next he's “one of one,” then he's “rare” or “the golden child” or he's “not from here.” (Catchphrases like these will adorn his first Puma signature sneaker, out in October.)
Take the way he explains one of his current favorites while we're talking on a balcony in his apartment building in Charlotte. “Everybody always asks me what's my slogan—kids, old people, adults. Two words, breh: Be you. Because if you ain't you, you being somebody else and you already fucked up from the jump. So now whatever you trying to do, it ain't never you. Either you gonna be unhappy or something is fucked up,” he says, wistfully gazing out across the city. “Say you building something and you got all the instructions and you fuck up from the beginning? N-gga, you ain't never gonna build that shit. Ever. You just gotta be you from the jump, and whatever supposed to happen gonna happen. But if you ain't you, you already lost.” He's rolling now, occasionally turning and staring for a second as if I'm supposed to know his punch line before he delivers it, offering a tiny grin between his words, motioning and winking like I'm in the front row of his comedy special. LaMelo congratulates himself on his homily. “That's a fact. That's a big fact!”
Historically speaking, playing in Charlotte has come with frequent calamity—the team has not progressed past the first round of the playoffs in 20 years, and it owns the worst regular-season record of all time. Hornets owner Michael Jordan is often mocked for the ragtag crews he shepherds onto the court each season. But getting superstars to flock to small-market franchises is virtually impossible, meaning the bulk of the team building has to come through the draft. In LaMelo, Charlotte basketball has a future for the first time since Kemba Walker came to town a decade ago or Larry Johnson and Muggsy Bogues controlled Buzz City in the '90s.
At this point, LaMelo's talent is undeniable, “a jolt this program has needed, this city has needed,” Borrego says. Still, Borrego feels that someone has to hold LaMelo accountable. “There's times you have to speak the truth to young players, and Melo's no exception,” Borrego explains. LaMelo didn't immediately follow the patterns that turn boys into men and rookies into professionals in the NBA, he says. “The habits of being on time. Not skipping a weight session. Studying your playbook. Knowing your plays. These are areas of growth that he's working on.” He's trying to drill those habits into LaMelo now. “Let's not wait three or four years, when he's too far gone and already a star. Then you can't pull him back.”
LaMelo is a star right now. The goal for all parties is for him to mature into a bona fide supernova and even bring a championship to Charlotte, which sounds unlikely now but, if LaMelo progresses as he should, is no longer completely crazy to dream of. “That's definitely the plan, man,” LaMelo says. “I want to be here for a long time. I love the game. I love being around it. This is what I wanted to do with my life.” All summer he's been in Charlotte, perfecting his craft with tailored workouts and 2 a.m. gym sessions. If LaMelo stays healthy this season—he missed 21 games last year—Charlotte has a chance to evolve from League Pass Legends to the national stage as frisky fringe contenders in the Eastern Conference. Borrego believes LaMelo can transform the Hornets' fortunes: “He has the potential to lead that charge more than anyone we've seen in this city in a long time.”
While I'm sitting with Borrego, I hear a cacophony of “yerr”s from down the hallway outside his office. It turns out that Miles Bridges, Charlotte's other young talent, has just surprised LaMelo with the Rookie of the Year trophy on camera. Before I can get there, he's darted away from the arena in that Lambo, his prize in hand, disappearing into the maze of downtown Charlotte.
I thought I'd lost him, but I catch up with LaMelo later that day on the balcony, sipping a smoothie, enthralled by his own bliss. LaMelo is almost two hours late for our meeting—but then, this is the wunderkind Borrego lovingly describes as a “spirit of curiosity.” Of course LaMelo is late. He has more important shit to do than this.
“It's the life of a busy man, ya feeeeeel me?!” he says with a chuckle, kicking his feet up, getting relaxed. “I ain't gon' lie, I was definitely late,” he says. And then he offers yet another LaMelo mantra: “But when a n-gga finally get here? That shit be fireworks.”
Tyler R. Tynes is a GQ Staff Writer.
A version of this story originally appeared in the September 2021 issue with the title "Generation LaMelo."
Photographs by Kennedi Carter
Styled by Sebastian Jean
Grooming by Adoria McIntyre
Tailoring by Suzie Gruber
Produced by Liz Stovall/Fenton Pictures
With special thanks to the Charlotte Hornets
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