Matthew Sewell is the author of the popular “Popes in a Year” daily email series, and hosts The Popecast, a podcast about papal history. Matthew writes about intriguing stories from Church history, the messiness of the Christian life, and (occasionally) insights into Catholicism through Denver Broncos football. By day, he works at Flocknote to help parishes and dioceses build a more connected Church. Matthew, his wife, and their unborn child make their home in Spokane, Washington.
It’s a supreme irony that one of the biggest headliners in the college basketball world these past few months is neither a player nor a coach. In fact, LaVar Ball isn’t even technically affiliated with any school, but is instead the father of now-former UCLA star, Lonzo Ball.
The elder Ball, himself a former (albeit apparently mediocre) collegiate athlete, was a constant presence on the sideline during UCLA games this season, as any father ought to be. However, his notoriety has come from a habit of saying things bordering on the insane, like being able to beat Michael Jordan one-on-one in his prime, claiming his son is better than Golden State Warriors star Steph Curry, and guaranteeing that his overpriced apparel line, Big Baller Brand, will somehow garner a $1 billion endorsement deal in the next decade. As opposed to, you know, just clapping when his son scores points and other regular fatherly things.
ESPN’s Scott Van Pelt weighed in on Ball’s antics near the end of the recent NCAA tournament:
“All of this started...under the guise of [Ball] loving his sons. But this isn’t about loving his sons, it’s about loving a spotlight that he never had.”
Van Pelt spoke similarly, referencing his own children, a couple of weeks earlier:
“I have a daughter and a son -- they’re really little -- maybe someday they’ll play sports, maybe they’ll be like their old man, decent but nothing extraordinary. It’ll be fine if they don’t play at all. Who knows? Maybe they’ll be really good at them, or at something else. However it goes, goal No. 1 is to be around to see it, and 1A is to stay the hell out of the way and never be a part of their story. LaVar Ball has apparently done quite a job raising his sons -- all three will play basketball for UCLA -- but he’s done a lousy job allowing them to be the story.”
All of this calls to mind, if only inversely, the May 1 feast of St. Joseph the Worker, the devotion ushered in by Pope Pius XII in 1955 to foster an understanding not only of the virtue of human work, but also to call to mind the importance of fatherhood when it comes to passing on those very virtues.
St. Joseph, as my friend Marina Olson recently wrote, “didn’t make his vocation about himself.” He dutifully followed the dictates of both the Lord and of his well-formed conscience. He was a “just man,” as we read in Scripture, which we can perceive to mean that he gave to each their rightful due, which by and large started with a gift of great love.
Even more importantly, St. Joseph did this without seeking an ounce of credit for himself. Fr. Peter Armenio, a priest of Opus Dei, recently spoke about St. Joseph to that end:
“It’s very interesting to note that the greatest saint after Mary, and the greatest male saint, was not a priest. He was not a hermit. He was not a monk. He never founded an institution. He never founded an order. The greatest saint was enwrapped with ordinariness. His sphere of influence was his workplace, his friends, his neighbors. In fact, his life was so ordinary that it kind of obscured this highest level of love for God and love for others, because it was expressed as a carpenter, as a family man, as a dad, as a buddy.”
St. Joseph, in a manner of speaking, was a prime example to Jesus of “This is my body, given up for you.” LaVar Ball seems to be an example, in the (attempted) opportunizing on his sons’ collective basketball skill, of the opposite by saying, “These are your bodies, used by me.”
A good father is willing to risk his own body, mind, and ego for the good of his family. A bad father does just the opposite, and as a result places at risk the bodies and minds of those to whom he's been entrusted.
Now, to be sure we don't know the heart LaVar Ball. No one can know it but God, and I certainly don't claim to know it. But just as the actions of Joseph spoke loudly of his character, so too do the actions of LaVar Ball speak similarly to his -- even without considering his legion of ridiculous statements.
As if speaking particularly to fathers, C.S. Lewis once wrote, “True humility is not thinking less of yourself. It’s thinking of yourself less.” It’s something St. Joseph had in spades, and something LaVar Ball apparently could use more of.
So, today let us offer a prayer through the intercession of St. Joseph for the enrichment of all fathers -- past, present, and future -- that our world might be lifted up once more by the witness of strong, meek, humble men of the Lord.