Why Is Donald Trump So Obsessed With LaVar Ball?

Children are starving to death in Yemen, Puerto Rico is still in crisis, and Donald Trump is fixated on demanding gratitude from the father of a UCLA basketball player.

Have you ever done a good deed for someone? Can you think of something particularly generous you did to help someone who really needed it? I’m not just asking rhetorically: Put that deed in your mind.

Now imagine, after doing that good deed, you go on Twitter and say how grateful the person you helped should be — and even ask publicly if they are going to thank you for it.

That’s gross, right?

Now imagine being the president of the United States and being so starved for attention — so deeply needy for adulation and praise, so hooked on being in the spotlight — that after you did a rather simple good deed, you got on Twitter and made clear how good your deed was, and how much you wanted that person to be grateful for your good deed.

This saga is about what is lurking behind Trump’s obsession with the three UCLA basketball players and one of their fathers.

Well, on November 15, that’s exactly what Donald Trump did. He had just played a role in getting charges dropped against three University of California-Los Angeles basketball players suspected of stealing from a local mall in China. But the saga is so much worse than that: It’s about what is lurking behind Trump’s obsession with the three UCLA basketball players and one of their fathers. It’s about how Trump can fixate on black people in America and make ridiculous demands that he would only make of them: that they never fail to express gratitude to Trump for their freedom.

Let’s look at how this happened.

First, Trump, speaking of himself in third person (which is weird), said: “Do you think the three UCLA Basketball Players will say thank you President Trump? They were headed for 10 years in jail!”

That’s not normal. First, 10 years in jail is not the automatic sentence for such a crime in China. The justice system there has an option to dismiss the charges if the merchandise is returned. That option was exercised.

Second, the young men immediately held a press conference once they returned to the United States, in which they each thanked, among other people, Donald Trump.

Trump asked for their public gratitude and they obliged. At that point, Trump had already done too much. He had already made himself look desperate and thirsty for attention.

But Trump’s gonna Trump. So four days later, he moved the goal posts. Now he said he wanted public praise from one of the parents of one of the basketball players. The teenagers thanking him publicly was clearly not enough. Again, this is not normal.

Have you ever done this? Have you ever known of a single time when someone did a good deed, publicly demanded gratitude for it, got it, then went public with how they needed it from someone else as well? I’ve never seen such a thing in my entire life.

This time, Trump attacked LaVar Ball, parent of LiAngelo Ball, one of the basketball players, for not giving him the praise and thanks he thought he deserved.

On Twitter (of course), Trump said, “Now that the three basketball players are out of China and saved from years in jail, LaVar Ball, the father of LiAngelo, is unaccepting of what I did for his son and that shoplifting is no big deal. I should have left them in jail!”

Six hours later, Trump was still raging that he had not gotten praise from LaVar Ball and tweeted some more about it. “Shoplifting is a very big deal in China, as it should be (5-10 years in jail), but not to father LaVar,” Trump tweeted. “Should have gotten his son out during my next trip to China instead. China told them why they were released. Very ungrateful!”

I have to pause here.

This thing started out horribly, with Trump, who appears to have actually helped, tweeting that he wondered if the kids were going to thank him. That was tasteless and classless but was pretty much in line with what we have come to expect from Trump. It was bad, but in scheme of Trump-isms, on the more harmless side of things. Then, Trump got ugly.

The man had a simple conversation that got three college freshmen out of jail, they thanked him for it, but when one of the parents didn’t publicly express his thanks, Trump decided that he “should have left them in jail.” That’s outrageous! First off, they weren’t in jail: They were in their hotel. Second, that Trump, in four short days, turned from wanting praise, which he received, to wishing three American teenagers were in a Chinese jail is fundamentally disturbing. Who wishes that on someone? And who wishes it on someone so badly that they want the whole world to see it?

This may be shocking, but it is not completely out of step with Trump’s history. The man literally took a paid ad out in the New York Times advocating for black teenagers who had been wrongly arrested for a brutal assault in Central Park to get the death penalty. Those teenagers were eventually convicted and served a huge chunk of their lives in prison before it was determined through DNA evidence and testimony that they actually had absolutely nothing to do with the crime.

Three days after his initial salvo, in yet another tweetstorm, Trump again demanded praise from LaVar Ball. He can’t let it go. He’s obsessed with it. In this instance, Trump tweeted:

It wasn’t the White House, it wasn’t the State Department, it wasn’t father LaVar’s so-called people on the ground in China that got his son out of a long term prison sentence – IT WAS ME. Too bad! LaVar is just a poor man’s version of Don King, but without the hair. Just think… LaVar, you could have spent the next 5 to 10 years during Thanksgiving with your son in China, but no NBA contract to support you. But remember LaVar, shoplifting is NOT a little thing. It’s a really big deal, especially in China. Ungrateful fool!

Are you aware that children are literally starving to death in Yemen right now?

Are you aware that hate crimes have increased drastically in the United States?

Are you aware that human beings are currently being bought and sold as property for $400 all over the world, with the sales caught on video?

As our nation and our world struggle with very real problems, the president of the United States is fixated on the gross ridicule of LaVar Ball and his family — throwing out public insults, calling the man an “ungrateful fool,” like gossipy teenager.

Trump is attacking a black man who is so free, so loud, and so proud that he is the living embodiment of everything that unnerves an American racist.

It’s not just unseemly, it’s wrong. Maybe Trump really is that sensitive. Maybe Trump is so outrageously needy for praise that when he doesn’t get it, it unnerves him. But I actually think Trump is attacking LaVar Ball, calling him names and saying he wishes he left his son and two other teenagers in prison, for a far more nefarious reason.

Trump’s bigoted, racist, white-supremacist base is eating this up. The tweets are not just an effective diversion tactic from so many other critical issues — like the fact that Trump’s onetime campaign manager has been indicted — but these tweets and the constant attacks on LaVar Ball and the three young black teenagers are like a dose of adrenalin for white supremacists.

Trump is not only overplaying the racist trope of black criminality, he is attacking a black man who is so free, so loud, and so proud that he is the living embodiment of everything that unnerves an American racist. Never mind the fact that LaVar Ball has been married to one woman his whole life. Never mind that all three of his sons have received full scholarship offers to UCLA. Never mind that he has started his own athletic apparel company and forced the nation to know about the Big Baller Brand.

LaVar Ball is the American dream — but a version of it that Trump’s base loathes.

Top photo: LaVar Ball films at the BIG3 at Staples Center on Aug. 13, 2017, in Los Angeles.

Join The Conversation