Ball-mania has struck the humble Lithuanian town where LiAngelo, LaMelo will play

Some BC Vytautas fans donned homemade Big Baller Brand shirts for their game on Saturday. (Jaunius Mališauskas)

Two weeks before LiAngelo and LaMelo Ball are scheduled to arrive in Prienai, Lithuania, one of the town’s most popular restaurants has already begun preparing to make them feel welcome.

A scrolling electronic sign above Tango Pizza’s front door flashes the message, “PRIENAI GOT BALLS!!!” An American flag now accompanies the Lithuanian one that already hung above the bartop. Owner Jaunius Mališauskas is even considering mounting some Ball family memorabilia on the walls, cordoning off a VIP table for LiAngelo and LaMelo and adding some of their favorite American dishes to the menu.

“At first nobody could believe this is happening, but now, everyone is talking about it and a lot of the people are excited,” Mališauskas said. “If my 63-year-old mother is talking about the Ball family, it must be a top topic in Prienai, trust me on this.”

Since last week’s announcement that LaVar Ball’s two younger sons have signed with BC Vytautas for the rest of the basketball season, the town of Prienai has been abuzz about their imminent arrival. Two globally famous teenagers don’t often visit Prienai, a humble 10,000-person town in the south of Lithuania surrounded by miles of scenic rivers, lakes and forest.

Last Saturday, at the first BC Vytautas home game since LiAngelo and LaMelo signed, the team’s play-by-play announcer sang a song welcoming the Balls to Lithuania and several fans showed up in plain white T-shirts with the BBB logo of the Big Baller Brand scribbled across the front in black ink. Tickets for the Ball brothers’ first scheduled games next month sold so quickly last week that BC Vytautas has since decided to more than double the price.

The media coverage has also been jaw-dropping for a little-known town not used to having the eyes of the basketball world on it. Not only did every major Lithuanian outlet cover the story for the first two or three days after the Ball brothers signed, prominent news organizations from across the United States and Europe have also descended on Prienai to try to learn more about the far-flung outpost where LiAngelo and LaMelo will make their professional debuts.

“We are happy that Prienai and Lithuania have had so much coverage this week, maybe even more than your President,” Alvydas Vaicekauskas, the mayor of Prienai, wrote via email. “It’s like a Christmas gift for Prienai because we couldn’t have thought of a better and more affordable way of advertising.”

An aerial photo of the town of Prienai from a hot-air balloon. (Simona Vaicekauskaite)

While many people in basketball-mad Lithuania were aware of the Ball family before news broke that LiAngelo and LaMelo were coming, the hubbub must be terribly confusing for those just learning about them for the first time. After all, it’s not easy to explain how LaVar Ball has so quickly evolved from the loud-mouthed patriarch of a Southern California basketball family to launching his own shoe-apparel company, starring in a reality TV series and goading the likes of Michael Jordan, LeBron James and President Donald Trump into public feuds.

LaVar’s far-fetched goal is for LiAngelo and LaMelo to someday join older brother Lonzo with the Los Angeles Lakers, but his meddling has forced the younger Balls to follow an atypical, obstacle-laden path.

LiAngelo parted ways with UCLA earlier this month after LaVar became frustrated with the length of the suspension the freshman guard was serving for shoplifting in China. LaMelo left Chino Hills High School a few months ago to be home-schooled because LaVar no longer got along with the school’s new basketball coach. LaVar had been looking for an overseas pro team willing to try to develop his younger sons when BC Vytautas came calling.

The man who spearheaded BC Vytautas’ pursuit of LiAngelo and LaMelo Ball was the team’s 21-year-old communications director. Erikas Kirvelaitis learned that the Balls’ agent had been rebuffed by a bigger, more successful Lithuanian team and wondered if LiAngelo and LaMelo might consider coming to BC Vytautas instead.

Without the knowledge of any of his bosses, Kirvelaitis sent an unsolicited Twitter direct message to agent Harrison Gaines posing the idea. To Kirvelaitis’ surprise, Gaines quickly got back to him and expressed interest in learning more.

“When I first heard the rumors they might sign with another Lithuanian team, I thought we needed to take advantage of this opportunity,” Kirvelaitis said. “I thought, ‘Why not us? Why couldn’t our team have the Ball brothers on its roster?'”

The next step in Kirvelaitis’ pursuit was persuading team officials that signing the Ball brothers was a good idea, no easy feat since it’s unlikely either LiAngelo, 19, or LaMelo, 16, will be able to help BC Vytautas win games in the Lithuanian League this season. NBA scouts familiar with LiAngelo considered him a mid-major level college prospect had UCLA not taken him as part of a package deal with his brothers. LaMelo has the potential to play high-level professional basketball someday, but scouts believe he is nowhere near ready to play against grown men right now with his current slender build.

What Kirvelaitis emphasized was that a financially struggling team like BC Vytautas needed to consider the attention signing the Ball brothers would bring. LaMelo’s 3.1 million Instagram followers are a couple hundred thousand more than the entire population of Lithuania. If adding LaMelo and LiAngelo could attract new fans and sponsors, it could help elevate BC Vytautas in the future regardless of whether the brothers were capable of making an impact on the court.

“Here in Lithuania, teams have a win-first mentality, so it’s kind of tough to convince the team to sign two young players who maybe don’t give anything to the team yet basketball-wise,” Kirvelaitis said. “But I felt this was a gamble we needed to take part in. After all the speeches and the conversations within the club, we decided to try and see how it works.”

When BC Vytautas staffers spoke further with Gaines, they learned that guaranteed playing time was more important to the Ball family than money. The team laid out a plan for LiAngelo and LaMelo to play right away for BC Vytautas in the lesser-competitive Baltic League against lower-level teams from Lithuania, Latvia, Belarus and other surrounding countries. If the Ball brothers fared better than expected in those games, then the team would consider giving them an opportunity to play against higher-level Lithuanian League opponents.

Those terms must have been amenable to the Ball family because the deal was done within a week. The contracts run through the end of the Lithuanian season in June, however, both sides have the option of opting out after a month.

“Of course we want them to help on the court,” said Vilius Vaitkevičius, sports director at BC Vytautas. “Basketball is the most important thing. Also if their popularity will make fans love basketball more and come to the arena to watch more games, then that is good for us too.”

BC Vytautas already landed one new sponsor immediately after signing LiAngelo and LaMelo and has had discussions with a couple others. The club is expecting the Ball brothers to arrive on Jan. 4 and to potentially make their debut on Jan. 9 in a Baltic League game against BC Tsmoki-Minsk of Belarus.

While the signing of LiAngelo and LaMelo has brought BC Vytautas the attention it craves, some of the coverage in the international media hasn’t painted Prienai in the best light. Americans who previously played in Lithuania have predicted the Ball brothers will experience massive culture shock trading sun-splashed California for a snow-covered town with little to do. BC Vytautas officials have actually had to alleviate concerns from reporters about whether Prienai has television or high-speed internet.

The coverage inspired one Lithuanian basketball fan to shoot a parody video last week welcoming the Ball family to Prienai. Kaunas resident Vytautas Mikaitis posed as a tour operator in the video and poked fun at the town’s lack of high-end stores, familiar restaurants or English speakers.

“People in Lithuania think of Americans as living in these magical places, L.A. or New York or whatever, but I’ve been to the United States 15 times and the places most people live are quite similar to here,” Mikaitis said. “In the United States, most of the people who saw the video realized it was a very good joke. In Lithuania, some people would come up to me and tell me, ‘Good video. Good video.’ Others would tell me, ‘Why would you show how bad it is here? You’re going to scare the Ball family away.'”

But while some in Prienai don’t appreciate their hometown being portrayed as Siberia, most are very enthusiastic about the arrival of the Ball brothers and the attention it has brought. Mališauskas is hopeful Tango Pizza will become a destination not just for the Ball brothers but for tourists hoping to catch a glimpse of them.

“We are surprised by the amount of international attention our town and BC Vytautas gets, but we love it,” Mališauskas said. “We invite everyone to come and visit us!”

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Jeff Eisenberg is a college basketball writer for Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at daggerblog@yahoo.com or follow him on Twitter!

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