It has been more than 20 months since Ball played in an NBA game, with three knee surgeries and a few devastating setbacks under his belt. And while what the executive observed from Ball as he completed his daily rehab process might have seemed mundane, it was notable.
Ball hasn’t progressed to the point in his rehab where he has picked up a basketball, but the progress he has made, though small, gave the 2017 No. 2 overall pick the confidence to declare he will “definitely” play again.
“After the other surgeries, this one has definitely gone the best as far as [the] recovery process,” Ball told ESPN outside the training room while the rest of the team began training camp in Nashville this week. “The last two rehab processes I had, I was getting better and then it just hit a standstill and it started going down. And I haven’t hit that yet.”
Ball is finally getting through his rehab process — starting on the training table, an intense stretching routine, followed by mobility and strength work — without the lingering pain and discomfort that had plagued him since the start of 2022.
“Honestly, being out for as long as I’ve been out and all the injuries I have to deal with I think you just have to be positive,” he said. “First and foremost. If you lose your mind, you’re going to lose the battle. So it always starts with being positive and hoping for the best.”
Ball has been hoping for the best since Jan. 14, 2022, when he checked out of the fourth quarter of a blowout loss to the Golden State Warriors, the last time he saw action in an NBA game.
If and when Ball returns — he has already been ruled out for the 2023-24 season, but is targeting a 2024-25 return — he will have missed more than 1,000 days of action. Returning from such an absence to be a productive player is incredibly rare. Still, Ball, who will turn 26 later this month, isn’t discouraged by the history or the long odds.
“It’s motivation for me because there’s been people that have been counted out,” Ball said. “For me, it’s about getting back and doing what I want to do and love to do, which is play basketball.”
BALL HAS KNOWN he would play basketball professionally since at least the seventh grade.
His father, LaVar, made sure his three sons — Lonzo, LiAngelo and LaMelo — were always competing against older kids until the trio reached high school. Lonzo and LaMelo dominated high school basketball, going 35-0 at Chino Hills in 2016, winning a state title and ranking No. 1 in the nation.
However, Lonzo Ball’s first five NBA seasons (two with the Los Angles Lakers before being traded to the New Orleans Pelicans in 2019, then joining the Bulls via sign-and-trade in 2021) have been slowed by injuries. And while he had arthroscopic knee surgery before training camp in 2018, he has never before gone this long without playing basketball.
“That’s been the hardest part, not being able physically to play,” Ball said. “It’s hard for me to watch the games honestly because I know what I can do out there, and the fact that I literally can’t help on the court, it’s hard for me to deal with. … But just seeing the light at the end of the tunnel and knowing that if I keep getting better and putting the work in, I’ll be able to play again.”
Ball still watches his share of basketball, especially games including his brothers (LaMelo stars for the Charlotte Hornets, and LiAngelo plays for their G League affiliate, the Greensboro Swarm), but for the most part, Ball has dealt with his time away from basketball internally, mostly leaning on his family and friends to stay grounded.
“He’s had to go through this on his own a lot,” Bulls guard Zach LaVine, who tore the ACL in his left knee in 2017, told ESPN. “That’s what injuries are. It’s in between the ears. That’s how you keep yourself going.
“As a friend and as a teammate, I just try to help him whenever he asks. He’s a guy that doesn’t ask for a lot. You can tell, he doesn’t want to rely on other people.”
Instead, Ball has turned to hobbies off the court to fill the time basketball once occupied. He’s playing video games for the first time — some NBA 2K, but mostly Madden — and is working on a documentary on his high school team that went 35-0. But mainly, he has started writing music again.
Ball released a few rap tracks earlier in his career and even competed on “The Masked Singer,” but he hadn’t dropped any new music since 2020. Now, during his time away from basketball, he has found solace in music again, producing songs to fit the documentary.
“I like to write,” he said. “Whether it’s in my notes, on my computer, on my iPad, I’m always writing something.
“It’s just like a release. As far as music for sure. I get to just write about what’s happened in my past and what I see with my own two eyes and just put it on paper. It helps me get stuff out.”
WHEN THE BULLS brought Ball in during the 2021 offseason to team up with LaVine and DeMar DeRozan, they envisioned a high-powered offense that would lead them to the top of the Eastern Conference. And for a brief moment, that’s exactly what they got.
Chicago started the 2021-22 season 27-13 and led the East by a game over the Miami Heat when Ball last played. With him out of the lineup, they lost four of the next five games to drop out of first place, and slid all the way to sixth by the end of the season.
Ball first had surgery to repair a torn meniscus in his left knee in 2022 with an initial return timeline of six to eight weeks. When his knee did not improve, he underwent a second surgery in September 2022 near the start of training camp.
Last year, amid season-long uncertainty about whether Ball would be able to return, the Bulls battled just to reach the play-in tournament, where they fell to the eventual Eastern Conference champion Heat in the game for the eighth seed. In March, Ball underwent a cartilage transplant surgery on his left knee, which resulted in him being ruled out for all of 2023-24 as well.
“We all know how much we love and miss Lonzo,” LaVine said. “You can’t replace a guy like that.”
Although the Bulls remain optimistic, sources said the organization is still unsure if Ball will ever play for them again, knowing he still has a long way to go in his rehab process. But his progress following this most recent surgery has given all parties involved reason for hope.
“It’s good to see him in good spirits because it’s never a good thing when you have somebody that’s that talented and basketball is taken away from you,” LaVine said. “To see him working his way back, being around the team, seeing him in the weight room, seeing him on the court doing things, it’s a sight for sore eyes.”
The last two players to go more than 1,000 days between games are Emeka Okafor and Greg Oden, according to research by ESPN Stats & Information, and neither played even 30 games in the lone season they played after their returns.
The most optimistic comparison for Ball is perhaps Bill Walton, who was a two-time All-Star and NBA MVP by the time injuries forced him to miss three out of four seasons, including more than 900 days in a row at one point. Walton came back to play 245 games after missing all that time, including 80 games in 1985-86 (when he won Sixth Man of the Year honors), and played his final game at age 34.
Klay Thompson missed two whole seasons because of knee and Achilles injuries before returning in 2021-22, then leading the NBA in 3-point field goals in 2022-23. Shaun Livingston suffered a devastating knee injury while playing for the LA Clippers in 2007, when he was 21 years old. He missed most of the next two seasons, but ended up playing 10 more seasons and winning three championships with the Warriors.
That’s a level Ball, an All-Rookie second-team selection in 2017-18, believes he can get back to.
“For me, it’s just putting the work in and letting the chips fall where they may,” Ball said.
If Ball keeps improving without feeling discomfort, he plans to get back on a basketball court in January. Despite not being able to participate in basketball activities, he joined the team in Nashville and plans to split time rehabbing between Los Angeles and Chicago.
“Any step positive for him promotes a better outlook,” DeRozan told ESPN. “He’s been the most positive a person can be through this whole process of taking away something he was so great at for these last couple years. … Even the other day on the team plane, you realized how much we even missed him: being the DJ, playing cards, laughing, joking, talking s—. You miss that. Just to see him in rare form like that means a lot.”
And while it might come as a surprise, maintaining that positive outlook, even in the face of such an extended absence, has come naturally to Ball.
“That maybe sounds hard, but for me at the end of the day, I know that I’m still very blessed and I’m still better off than a lot of people in the world,” he said. “I can’t complain about the injuries that I’ve had. I still have a great life. A lot of my family is healthy. Besides basketball, there’s no real struggles in my life and I’m just blessed for that.”