Talk about a missed opportunity by me.
Did you know that LaVar Ball, the bombastic father of UCLA basketball star Lonzo Ball, was once a Carolina Panther?
Yes, Ball was actually on the Panthers practice squad for about two months in the inaugural 1995 season – from late September to late November (he had hurt his knee by then). Ball never played a down, so he’s not on the team’s 1995 roster.
But like all practice-squad players, he received a paycheck from the team and worked out alongside the starters. The Observer noted both when Ball signed a practice-squad contract with Carolina in its Sept. 27, 1995 editions and when he was replaced by someone in its Dec. 1, 1995 editions. Both entries were one sentence long and were listed as simple transactions -- the kind every NFL team makes by the dozen every year.
I covered that 1995 team, and I never interviewed him. Nor did anyone else at The Observer ever talk to a young LaVar Ball – or at least there's nothing in our archives to indicate it.
In our defense, Ball was a practice-squad tight end, and those guys don't get interviewed much. But my gosh – how much fun would that interview have been?
For the uninitiated, LaVar Ball has been making nearly constant headlines this spring by saying things like his son Lonzo Ball is already a better player than two-time NBA MVP Stephen Curry and is “Magic Johnson with a jump shot.” Or that LaVar Ball (who hardly got any playing time himself as a bench-warming college basketball player) could have beaten Michael Jordan in a game of one-on-one. Or that Lonzo Ball and his two younger brothers (who are high school basketball stars who plan to attend UCLA as well) will need a billion dollars to sign a shoe contract together.
So here I was standing near the Muhammad Ali of the Panthers locker room in 1995 – well, at least a mouth like Ali, although not the actual athletic talent. And I never interviewed him! Shame on me.
Panthers from 1995: Say what?
It’s not that Ball made a huge impression on his Panthers teammates, either. Frank Garcia started 14 games on the Panthers’ offensive line in 1995. Garcia said Thursday night about Ball’s brief stay in Charlotte: “Like you and everyone else, I don’t remember him at all.”
Said Dwight Stone, a special-teams star for the 1995 squad: “You are kidding me! The guy who says his son is better than Steph Curry was a Carolina Panther? I try to get to know everybody, and I have never heard of this.”
I called former Panthers wide receiver Mark Carrier, one of the stars of that 1995 team, and asked him if he remembered Ball on that team. Carrier was incredulous.
“I had no idea!” Carrier said. “Are you sure LaVar Ball isn’t making this up?”
Ball, in fact, has referenced his time with the Panthers briefly in at least one previous interview. In that 2016 interview, Ball said of his football talents: “ I was a speed demon. I was fast and could jump.”
But The Observer’s archives from 1995 offer proof that Ball could not have made up. Carrier said that it was “absolutely” possible that a practice-squad player could have come and gone without him ever knowing, for all NFL practice squads have something of a revolving door and the players often don’t travel with the team to road games.
“I will say this about the guy,” Carrier said of LaVar Ball. “You can like him or hate him, but he sure gets your attention.”
The Panthers were a run-first team that season -- Ball once said in another interview that he never liked to block in football -- and Pete Metzelaars was the starting tight end. Ball had only played basketball in college, but he was trying to make the transition from a basketball-first player to NFL tight end like several more notable players have (Jimmy Graham, Antonio Gates and Tony Gonzalez among them).
Ball never did play an actual snap in the NFL, although he was also on the New York Jets' practice squad before he got to Charlotte. While employed by the Jets, he was loaned to the London Monarchs in 1995 in the league that would eventually be known as NFL Europe and did apparently play briefly in that league.
Lasted longer than Goldberg
If I had talked to Ball in 1995, I am going to guess he would have said he could have played linebacker better than Sam Mills or quarterbacked the team better than Kerry Collins on that inaugural team and eventually wound up with his own bust in the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio – if only coach Dom Capers had given him the chance. Shoot, he might list himself now as the top Panthers tight end in history, edging out Greg Olsen and Wesley Walls.
Incidentally, Lonzo Ball wasn't born until 1997, and all of the Ball family's roots are on the West Coast now. But LaVar Ball had a brief stay in Charlotte on the first team so many Panthers fans remember fondly, just like the pro wrestler Goldberg.
Goldberg was a defensive lineman named “Bill Goldberg” then, and he was also the Panthers' very first cut, not even making it to the 1995 training camp.
Incidentally, Lonzo Ball would have played against North Carolina in an Elite Eight matchup Sunday -- but he was thoroughly outplayed by Kentucky point guard De’Aaron Fox (39 points) in the Wildcats’ 86-75 win Friday. After UCLA’s loss, Ball said he would enter the NBA draft, where he is expected to be a top-three pick this summer.
And whatever team selects him, like it or not, will get a former practice-squad tight end for the Carolina Panthers coming along for the ride.