Chino Hills (Calif.) boys basketball head coach Stephan Gilling hasn’t forgotten the deep voice shouting from the stands at a quarter-full Orleans Arena in Las Vegas. He knew exactly who was yelling. It was LaVar Ball, the father of Chino Hills’ LiAngelo, LaMelo and UCLA star Lonzo.
“Double team! Double team!”
The first-year head coach had won his first nine games of the season, but after a pair of close wins at the mid-December Tarkanian Classic, the Huskies faced another test against Roosevelt (Calif.) High. They went into the locker room at half trailing by 12. Chino Hills had been double teaming Roosevelt’s shooters for the first half, but Gilling needed to make an adjustment.
“I go into the locker room, and I tell the guys to stop double teaming – just stay with your man,” Gilling said. “You do that, we’ll definitely get stops and come back and win.”
Yet, there was that voice again in the second half: “Double team! Double team!”
When Ball would shout for the double-team, Chino Hills players reluctantly followed his instruction. Gilling would yell, “Stop trapping!” (The exchange was captured in the video below).
This continued for much of the second half until, eventually, Gilling’s message got through to his players. Chino Hills stuck to man-to-man defense and rallied to win, 76-68.
Gilling remembers an incensed Ball bolting straight for the locker room.
“He comes to me and says, ‘What are you doing? What are you doing?’ I said, ‘What do you mean? I’m trying to win the game.’
“He turns around and walks to our locker room,” Gilling said. “I said, ‘LaVar, don’t go into the locker room.’ He continues walking. I said, ‘LaVar, why are you trying to embarrass me?’ And he just kept walking and goes into the locker room. He’s in there sitting down with the team. And I’m like, ‘LaVar, get out!'”
Gilling says Ball refused to leave the locker room, so Gilling told his team to follow him back to the hotel while Ball’s sons, LiAngelo and LaMelo, stayed behind.
When the Chino Hills team made it back to their hotel, Ball still hadn’t cooled down. In fact, he was just getting started.
“An assistant coach comes up to me and tells me that he sees LaVar rallying the team up,” Gilling said. “I guess he got them out of their rooms on the 18th floor and tells the team that it was his system that won. That we’re doing what he says. ‘I run Chino Hills! I run UCLA, about to run the NBA!’
“He pretty much downplays me at the same time. My assistant coach sees him and says to him, ‘That’s not right. Is there any middle ground?’ He says, ‘No, there’s no middle ground.'”
This was the moment Gilling’s relationship with Ball changed for the worse, leaving the Chino Hills basketball team caught right in the middle of the season-long feud.
Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports
It wasn’t always like that.
Gilling was an assistant coach at Chino Hills under Steve Baik for two years. Together, Baik and Gilling’s staff led Chino Hills to an undefeated season and Super 25 title in 2016 with Lonzo on the roster. When Baik left for Fairfax (Calif.) before this season, Gilling was the easy choice to take over.
“Stephan was a guy who was close to the Ball family as well as me and it was a strategic hire. Both sides,” meaning Gilling and Ball, “knew what they were getting into,” Baik told USA TODAY High School Sports.
As Lonzo Ball’s success at UCLA continued, Ball became more polarizing. He regularly called into sports-talk radio shows and appeared in person at Fox Sports’ Los Angeles studio. He’d claim that his eldest son is better than 2-time NBA MVP Steph Curry. He’d boast that he could beat Michael Jordan in one-on-one. He’d exchange verbal blows with NBA Hall of Famer and TNT analyst Charles Barkley. Most recently he angered LeBron James. He has refused to back down from anyone, regardless of fame or basketball stature.
Ball did not respond to request for comment from For The Win. An associate, Alan Foster, told For The Win, “We’re not talking to USA TODAY anymore.”
Two people around the program confirmed Gilling’s version of events but requested anonymity because of the sensitivity of the situation.
After the confrontation in Las Vegas, Gilling noticed a change in LiAngelo and LaMelo Ball. He says the two looked at him differently, and he knew why.
“So, throughout the rest of the year, we had games that I would not talk to them (LaMelo and LiAngelo),” Gilling said. “The kids looked at me different. Not all of them, but some. They understood and knew they were caught in the middle of it all. It was sad for the kids because it was from that point on that they didn’t know who to listen to.
“It was also noticeable that things were being said at home, and brought back to the gym in a way of, like, they’re not listening to the coaches.”
Stephen R. Sylvanie/USA TODAY Sports Images
On March 14th, Chino Hill’s season came to an end shy of a state title. It lost, 87-80, to Bishop Montgomery in the CIF playoffs.
“I’m proud of my team. We had a great season, especially our seniors,” Gilling said. “We went 30-3. Our guys worked as hard as they can, and I’m proud of them.”
For Gilling, the loss was disappointing, but it was a chance to escape Ball’s cloud, which had hovered over the program since that Dec. 19 incident in Las Vegas. He tried to reach out to Ball after the season to clear the air, but none of his calls were returned.
Then, on Monday, Ball was a guest on ESPN LA’s Morning Show with Keyshawn, Jorge and LZ, and the target of that morning’s conversation was Gilling. Ball gladly blamed Gilling for the season-ending loss.
“Man, we were supposed to go to Sacramento, but that coach is hard-headed,” Ball said. “He wanted to do things his way. If we would have gotten along, we would have been in the state title easy. But he’s trying to have a little resistance towards me. And I’m like, ‘Man, try and do it your way. That’s why you lost three games.’
“Because once he run and just play and when my son really wants to play for you, we’re gonna do good. But when you have any kind of resistance towards me, and you the head coach, it don’t work out that good. I already knew he was going to lose that game.”
It was a disconcerting moment that compelled Gilling to publicly defend his tumultuous first year.
“I’m just trying to be positive,” Gilling said. “I’m not all that worried about what he’s saying, but I want to let the people know that it was tough throughout the whole year, starting with that one game.
“It was that much harder to bring the guys together after that game. Other than that, I’m fine. I came into this position ready to coach and do what I do. I’m still ready to continue coaching in the future for sure.”
Still, the last few months have made Gilling at times question the support he has at Chino Hills. He says the school administration never offered congratulations for the 30-win season and has remained oddly distant since the playoff loss. Chino Hills athletic director Jeff Schuld, however, stood by his basketball coach after learning of Ball’s radio comments.
“First I’ve heard that,” Schuld said. “I guess everyone is entitled to their opinion, but we absolutely stand by Coach Gilling.”
When asked if the school would side with Gilling over Ball, Schuld answered again, “Absolutely.”
Gilling hopes to be back at Chino Hills next season. He said he’s bonded with his team and is excited about the group returning. LiAngelo Ball is a departing senior who committed to UCLA. LaMelo Ball – also committed to UCLA – is just a sophomore.
But Gilling’s relationship with Ball? That won’t change anytime soon.
“He wants to shoot people down for him to look good,” Gilling said. “That’s how he is, but it doesn’t affect me.”
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