ALY RAISMAN IS TAKING DESTINY INTO HER OWN HANDS

Inside Exxcel Gymnastics, young girls crowd around a photo collage, boxing each other out for the best view of their hometown Olympian plastered across the wall. Among the cluster of pictures in this Newton, Massachusetts, gym is an image of 10-year-old Aly Raisman, so determined to hold her position, her little arms holding up the entire weight of her body, while her legs and toes point to the ceiling.

Back then, Raisman was not the most skilled. Just strong. She was smaller than everyone and burned to beat everyone, whether it was press handstands or chin-ups. “Can we do a contest?! Can we do a contest?!” she’d exclaim. If she did 20 chin-ups yesterday, she’d pull off 21 the next day, even if it was not a contest.

She was seven years old.

There are also black-and-white newspaper photos of 22-year-old Raisman, roaring, as she wins gold at the 2016 Olympics, next to headlines like: “Gold Fever!” and “Alexandra the Great!” The young girls who train at the gym had huddled around a television that year, cheering Raisman’s every move in navy T-shirts that said “Team Aly.”

The girls see that Raisman was just like them: Poised. Relentless. Driven by dreams bigger than their bodies. “She is a hero,” says 10-year-old Stella Bjork. Ally Chilton, 13, gushes that she shares the same name as Raisman. “She’s really calm under pressure, which I find really inspiring,” Chilton says. “Competitions are really stressful and it’s hard to stay calm. But she does it.”

Throughout her career, Raisman kept everyone calm. She was a leader in a sport of individuals, telling nervous teammates to “Trust your training. Just breathe” before competitions. “She is there for people more than she is for herself,” says Maggie Nichols, a close friend and USA teammate since 2013, who now competes for the University of Oklahoma.

That is how Raisman found herself standing in front of a podium in a courtroom in January. Shoulders back, teeth clenched. Laser eyes, stiff upper lip. It was her time to speak. In this moment, Raisman was fighting not for herself but for the safety of girls everywhere; girls just like those at Exxcel. 

Raisman didn’t stutter or flinch. Her words were quick, calculated, piercing. She hung on to each syllable a little bit longer as she stared Larry Nassar, the man who abused her and allegedly more than 200 athletes, dead in the eye, over and over, during these sentencing hearings.

Imagine feeling like you have no power and no voice. Well, you know what, Larry? I have both power and voice, and I am only beginning to just use them.

Lyndsy Gamet, a survivor who testified the day before, was moved by Raisman’s words. “When Aly spoke, it made me feel proud,” Gamet says. “I was proud that she would put [herself] out there for little girls to look up to. It showed the nation that it was OK to share your truth.”

And to demand change.

I will not rest until every last trace of your influence on this sport has been destroyed like the cancer it is.

Raisman grew louder, more forceful. She was in control now.

Abusers, your time is up. The survivors are here, standing tall, and we are not going anywhere.

There were also dozens and dozens of testimonies from women you may not know. Women who are now wading in the trenches—not for headlines but for the back-breaking work of ensuring this moment becomes a movement. They are calling themselves an Army of Survivors.

“It gave me more power than I ever had in my life,” Gamet says of her own testimony. “In that moment you understood how impactful one voice can be.”

And another and another. There was Rachael Denhollander, who refused to be silenced despite losing her church and her closest friends. There was Mattie Larson, who said she was so desperate to escape Nassar’s abuse at the Karolyi Ranch that she purposely tried to give herself a concussion.

Raisman, who hadn’t planned to speak in court until she heard the girls and women before her, has become one of the movement’s boldest leaders.

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NATE ROBINSON BATTLES INNER DEMONS IN QUEST FOR NBA RETURN

Nate Robinson’s eyes are hooked to the TV. It’s 9 a.m. and he’s too dialed in to sip his special concoction of orange juice mixed with lemonade. Sitting in a booth at the Skillet Diner in Seattle in late May, he’s watching highlights from Game 7 of the Western Conference Finals from the night before: Houston bombing 27 straight attempts from three, Chris Paul sitting out with a hamstring injury.

“I’m sorry, I’m playing WOUNDED!” Robinson exclaims, referring to Paul not playing. “They can’t get a bucket, and there’s a bucket-getter right here!” He squeezes an imaginary ball between his palms, tighter and tighter, like it’s the ruby slipper that will magically transport him through the screen and back into the NBA.

It would not be the first time Robinson defied time and space. Crafting an 11-year NBA career at 5’9,” 180 pounds in a league of giants, he once leaped sky-high to miraculously swat the shot of Yao Ming, the 7’6” former center. He won the Slam Dunk Contest three times and dropped three 40-point games. “Pound for pound, he is one of the best athletes I’ve ever been around,” says Doc Rivers, who coached him with the Celtics. “It’s rare when a guy that is small also has power.”

Robinson was the living, breathing, “Break Glass in Case of Emergency” lever teams would pull to inject energy when in a jam.

“He played with passion. He came to play every night,” says Hall of Fame guard Clyde Drexler.

But Robinson’s overflowing personality also irritated NBA coaches. Some found him disruptive and immature, especially during his early years in the league.

He exasperated Knicks coaches Larry Brown and Mike D’Antoni. He once shot at the wrong basket against the Nets. He went flying into the crowd while fighting with JR Smith in the Knicks-Nuggets brawl. Sometimes he’d imitate his coaches behind their backs during practice, according to former teammate Malik Rose. He could be a liability on defense when forced to switch on screens. D’Antoni benched him for a month for his antics.

Robinson was the exclamation point and the run-on sentence; the behind-the-back dime when a simple chest pass would have sufficed.

“He was a hell of a talent. I don’t know if he maximized the talent level that he had,” says Alvin Gentry, who coached him with the Pelicans. “The guy pretty much won seven, eight games by himself when he was with Chicago. He had that ability. I don’t know if he took it seriously all the time.”

Robinson, now 34, shakes his head when hearing things like that. He’s suited up for New York, Chicago, Boston, Denver, Golden State, Oklahoma City, New Orleans and the Los Angeles Clippers, and memories of coaches telling him to tone himself down all blur into one.

“They misinterpreted how I was,” he says. But later, a part of him softens. “I will take my cake and say I was immature.”

Robinson is both unapologetic and repentant. And his ability to return to the NBA—what he hopes for and works toward—hinges considerably on whether or not he can find peace within those two sides to him, something he could not do while still in the NBA.

“I’m a Gemini. Geminis have split personalities. Good, bad,” he says. “I feel that within myself. I look at myself, my imperfections that I see in the mirror. … I feel like it’s two separate people that live within one.”

The devil and the angel. The devil says, “Dunk over someone and make the crowd roar.” The angel says, “Pull it back out and reset the offense.” The devil says, “Belt out ‘yo mama’ jokes that’ll have teammates howling.” The angel says, “Pipe down, Coach is speaking.”

“It’s like Spider-Man, that Venom. I never wanted that Venom outfit to just consume me,” he says. “I wanted to be Spider-Man. I wanted to be positive. I never wanted that dark side to come out because I know what that dark side could do.”

THE LAMELO SHOW

The doors swing open. The boy with the floppy blond curls rushes into Prienai Arena. A group of Lithuanian teens, who arrived 60 minutes before tipoff, scurry over to get a closer look, but the boy ignores them. He’s locked in his own world as he spots two stone-faced security guards looking on from just outside the locker room. The boy, sporting a pair of black headphones and a Big Baller Brand sweatsuit, grins while Bruno Mars and Cardi B’s “Finesse (Remix)” blasts in the background.

It’s his time.

Sixteen-year-old LaMelo Ball clutches an imaginary rock. Dipping his shoulders left, then right, he rushes toward the two security guards and crosses over both men.

But a few seconds later, I watch fans abandon LaMelo for the man from whom he gets his smile. Here comes LaVar Ball.

Puffing out his chest, LaVar shimmies left to right in a navy suit and light-blue pocket square. He’s energized by the eyes set on him. Three cameramen from the family’s Facebook reality show Ball in the Family follow nearly his every move.

Now, it’s his time.

“Bet you didn’t think I could look this good, huh?” LaVar screams in delight at Virginijus Seskus, Melo’s coach. Seskus laughs, nervously. He doesn’t speak English.

It’s January 23, and tonight LaVar will join the bench as assistant coach for Prienai-Birstonas Vytautas, the low-level, last-place, professional team Melo and his 19-year-old brother, LiAngelo, play for. The opponent? Alytaus Dzukija, a team that could pass for a Division III squad.

I watch LaVar smile as he takes selfies with fans, parading around like he did when he watched his eldest son, Lonzo, courtside when the Lakers visited Madison Square Garden. Except here there is no Jumbotron or tunnel or VIP lounge or concession stand. Just creaky hardwood and worn, gray seats. Only 1,500 of them. This gym, here in Prienai, Lithuania, a tiny town in the Baltic region of Northern Europe, sits next to a tall, snowy smokestack and an abandoned road. It’s where Melo has become the youngest American pro. It’s the perfect setting for the debut of a father with no collegiate or professional coaching experience, only AAU.

Just hours before, Big Baller Brand became an official team sponsor, a move after which BBB logos shamelessly graced the court and the backs of referees’ burnt-yellow jerseys for five games. The contest is broadcast live on Facebook. An MVP is awarded BBB kicks signed by Lonzo.

The game starts. Melo easily maneuvers through the wide-open key. Alytaus Dzukija seems allergic to defense. Melo throws no-look dimes and scoops in layups. The game quickly turns into who can make the most wide-open threes. Alytaus Dzukija’s Gediminas Zalalis drills one after having three Mississippi’s to get his feet set.

“Good defense,” Seskus manages in English, turning to me sarcastically right after the shot, breaking the fourth wall. Seskus begins to look like he’s getting boxed out of his scene altogether as LaVar rises from the bench and yells:

“Knockdown!”

“Yessirrrrrrrrrrrrrr!”

“And one!”

“There you gooooo!”

When he screams, “No. 10, come in,” it becomes apparent to me, after being around the team for six games and just over two weeks of practice, that LaVar still doesn’t know guard Paulius Ivanauskas’ name. Ivanauskas rolls his eyes. This isn’t the first time LaVar has attempted to “coach.”

Melo drains five consecutive threes as few bother to close out on him. By the end of the game, he drops a whopping 43 points. Vytautas wins with a video-game score of 147-142. Melo looks blank-faced, tired, somewhat resigned. LaVar is whisked away for an interview, eyes ablaze, his reality show finally becoming real life.

No. 1 RECRUIT KAYVON THIBODEAUX LARGE AND IN CHARGE OF HIS DESTINY

Kayvon Thibodeaux couldn’t help that he sprouted to 6’2″ by age 13. He couldn’t help that he charged through kids in his Pop Warner All-Star Game that year like they were hollow figurines. An ambulance was called when one boy couldn’t get back up.

“He didn’t mean to hurt anyone. He was just strong,” says his mother, Shawnta Loice. “They couldn’t stop him.” Until referees did. They were so concerned for the other team’s safety that they pulled Thibodeaux out and didn’t allow him to re-enter the game.

Thibodeaux, known then as Diesel, weighed 10 pounds when he was born. The toddler would even crawl out of his crib, pour milk into his bottle, sip, then climb back into his crib and sleep, according to his uncle, Isaiah. Thibodeaux grew accustomed to cruel comments as he got older: He’s too big! He’s old! Just look at him! Parents demanded he provide his birth certificate. Kids would exclude him on the playground. He wasn’t a troublemaker, but teachers assumed he was the culprit if something happened in class.

He has a red skateboard signed by Tony Hawk, but never learned how to use it because he thought he was too big to ride.

What made him an outcast as a middle-schooler now has him the nation’s No. 1 overall recruit in the class of 2019, according to 247Sports. In October, the 6’5″, 235-pound senior defensive end is expected to choose between Alabama, USC, Florida State, Oregon and LSU. “His upside is tremendous,” says Charles Collins, his coach at Oaks Christian School in Westlake, California. He racked up 20 sacks and 99 tackles in 2017, including 70 solos and 28 tackles for loss to guide his team to a CIF Southern Section Division 2 crown.

Given Thibodeaux’s speed, power and athleticism, some claim he’s a once-in-a-millennium talent. Those closer to him are a little more measured with their analysis but still see his immense potential. “It’ll be another 20 years until another Kayvon comes around,” says Antonio Patterson, his mentor and former youth coach. “His intensity is like no other. He never takes plays off.”

Yet in his daily life, he is still treated as the odd man out. He has grown accustomed to the stares and whispers that follow him and cast him as a threatening figure. “I walk into a room, and people are automatically intimidated by me,” Thibodeaux says.

He transferred to Oaks Christian from Dorsey High his sophomore year for better academic opportunities. But the posh, predominantly white school was unlike anything he had experienced.

“He’s like, ‘I’m a big kid. I’m a big, black kid in a really white neighborhood,'” says Jordan Jones, a close friend at Oaks. “‘I have spiky hair. I’m 6’5″, but I’m not some kind of monster. I’m not some crazy guy. I hit people on the football field, but I’m literally just a normal person.'”

While people focus on his size, they miss his depth. He has a 3.8 GPA and is a bookworm who aspires to become a lawyer after the NFL. His brain moves as quickly as his first step. One minute he’s discussing the politics of John Howard Griffin’s Black Like Me, and the other he’s reciting lines from J. Cole’s “Love Yourz.” He’s a trash talker on the field and a sweetheart off it. A mama’s boy, a class clown and a member of his school’s chess club.

He rarely watches the NFL or college football. He couldn’t tell you what channel ESPN is. He jokes he might do the worm on draft day should Commissioner Roger Goodell call his name. He dreams of transforming the South Central neighborhood he grew up in and now lives apart from.

“But everywhere I go, people just want to talk about how big I am,” says Thibodeaux, who will compete in the Nike Opening Finals from June 30 to July 3.

It’s a painful thing, when everyone thinks they know who you are but few really see you.

UNASSUMING INDIANA BASKETBALL PHENOM ROMEO LANGFORD JUST WANTS TO PLAY BALL

Everyone in New Albany has a story about Romeo Langford. Drive a few miles down Charlestown Road in the sleepy Southern Indiana city and listen to the legend growing around the 5-star, 18-year-old prospect.

Inside Kroger, a silver-haired man is bent over and unpacking Philadelphia Cream Cheese and Noosa Yoghurt. His eyes widen as I ask about Romeo.

“He’s the best we’ve ever had,” Chuck Stroud tells me. Stroud’s been a New Albany High School season-ticket holder for 20 years. “He’s humble. He’s a good kid. And that don’t happen too much anymore.”

Romeo smiles and signs autographs for more than 90 minutes after every game, even as his hand grows stiff, even as his slice of pizza turns cold. He takes photos with babies. He visits the sick in hospitals. And every night, he puts on a show. Scoring from anywhere—midrange, from three, at the rim—he is so unstoppable in the open floor that he is considered a “once-in-a-generation” talent by Jim Shannon, his New Albany coach.

Langford immortalized himself in Indiana hoop history this season, as he finished his high school career fourth all time with 3,002 career points (132 points shy of the top mark), including a 63-point outburst against Jennings County.

“I’m surprised they ain’t named a street after him already,” Stroud says.

Kolkin Coffee Co.’s owner, Gary Almon, calls him “New Albany’s No. 1 son.” Alan Butts, Coffee Crossing’s owner, runs through his favorite Romeo moments: Romeo draining an unthinkable 70-footer against Providence. Romeo, 6’5″, throwing down a thunderous one-handed dunk over 6’11” Jaren Jackson Jr., who just declared for the NBA draft. Romeo pouring in 46 against Southport in the state semifinals as a sophomore.

“You can’t guard him,” Butts says.

Linda Morgan, owner of Make the Cut, a men’s hair salon, tells me how Romeo says “yes, ma’am” and “yes, sir.” She points to a wall with a portrait of PGA Tour star and New Albany native Fuzzy Zoeller. Then she points to a blank wall. “I’ve been saving this side for Romeo,” she says.

Folks here—and across the country—are anxiously waiting for the shooting guard to reveal his college decision. But Langford, who is the highest-ranked unsigned prospect at No. 5, is in no rush. He’ll pick between Indiana, Kansas and Vanderbilt by month’s end.

“I pray it’s IU,” Stroud says. So do the people at Hoopsters Sports Bar & Grill in Jeffersonville and Couch’s Body & Frame Shop in Clarksville, who have the same sign out front: “ROMEO LANGFORD PLEASE CHOOSE IU”. Fans chant “IU! IU! IU!” toward the end of games. Folks at Romeo’s barbershop in Louisville, just across the Ohio River from New Albany, are still trying to convince him to go to Kentucky or Louisville, though neither are in the running.

INTRODUCING COLLEGE BASKETBALL’S BREAKOUT STAR, MIKAL BRIDGES, THE KAWHI LEONARD CLONE

They used to call him Noodles. Inspector Go Go Gadget. String Bean. Brittle (short for Brittle Bones). Praying Mantis.

Mikal Bridges was so skinny and lanky and his arms were so long—”freakishly long,” Bridges tells me—that his Villanova teammates roasted him with a range of nicknames. The 6’7” swingman was an easy target then: a freshman. A young freshman (17 years old). About 185 pounds. Gangly shoulders, little head (they called him “Pea-head,” too).

His mother, Tyneeha Rivers, sympathizes. “My wingspan is the same as World B. Free,” Rivers tells me, referring to the wiry 76ers legend, as we sip tea at a Starbucks in Philadelphia in February. Mikal has a 7’2” wingspan. “He’s always had ridiculous, stupid-long arms.”

She laughs, remembering the Noodles days, back when no one was calling her son, now a redshirt junior, a potential 2018 NBA draft lottery pick. When he redshirted his first season to bulk up, he was simply a punching bag to the upperclassmen. “Any chance they got to try to punk him or go at his body or be physical with him, they’d do that,” guard Phil Booth says.

Bridges’ No. 1 nemesis? Josh Hart. “I kicked his ass,” Hart, now with the Lakers, tells me. Once, Hart cut in front of Bridges. Bridges couldn’t catch up, so he grabbed at Hart’s ribs. Hart grabbed back and threw him. “Like four or five feet,” says Hart, who easily scored inside while the rookie flew out of bounds.

His teammates challenged him because they knew what he could do with those long arms: sneak in the passing lanes for steals as well as block shots at their highest peaks.

Villanova coach Jay Wright needed those arms to not just deflect but disrupt. He needed Bridges, an animal lover (and onetime aspiring veterinarian) who still calls his grandmother to pray before every road game, to be a little more mean. If he found himself in a trap, he’d pivot backward, afraid of contact. If he had the ball on a breakaway, he’d softly lay the ball in rather than hammer it home for a dunk.

PUT SOME RESPECT ON CANDACE PARKER’S NAME

Up, down, up, down. It’s a rhythm all basketball players know and try to control. But the older you get, the more you realize how little control you have. You can do everything right and lose. You can do everything wrong and win. You train your body beyond its limits, but it fails you.

“Why can’t I be healthy? Why can’t I catch a break?” Parker has questioned. She has felt disappointed about not yet capturing the six rings she set out to win to match Michael Jordan.

But the black-and-white lens in which a young Parker once viewed success has grayed. She’s learned to live with outcomes, not as she wants them to be but exactly as they are, in all their glory and agony.

She says reading Chop Wood Carry Water by Joshua Medcalf on a flight shifted her focus from the result to the process. She reached page 49, a section about how golf balls were first created perfectly smooth, without any dimples. Then a man tested how far balls with imperfections would travel, given that such blemishes can create a thin layer of turbulence around the ball, which can affect its trajectory.

“They figured out that the balls flew better the more dented and hit they were,” Parker says. “So I was just like, ‘Wow.’ That’s kind of how it is. I feel like I’ve flown farther because I’ve been hit, bruised, challenged.”