More than a thousand people came to James Ransom’s funeral. His parents, Greg and Courtney, and his sisters, Julia and Lillie, were in attendance, each one imbued with a sorrow that crashed like waves. James’ buddies were there; some wore bright yellow sneakers and ties—an homage to James’ love of SpongeBob SquarePants. His elementary and middle school teachers, his football teammates and coaches, his neighbors and other members of the community all came. Row by row, they packed the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints in Mission Viejo, California, full of grief, full of love.
“He never knew how many lives he touched,” Lillie says. “He never knew how many people loved him, how many people needed him.”
Giant poster boards bearing James’ face were sprinkled throughout the church. Greg made them. He had been too devastated to put them together at first, but Courtney nudged him to do it. He found joy in the process, however—combing through the albums, picking the photos he liked best, seeing his son’s doughy cheeks. His son in his football uniform, swallowed by giant shoulder pads, proudly clutching a football. His son dressed up as Harry Potter for Halloween. His son and wife rolling their top lips over, making funny faces.
Davante Adams finally takes a breath, cozying into a chair in his kitchen. It’s Tuesday, and he’s getting married in four days. There are guests to call, boxes to unpack, furniture to re-arrange here in his new home in Danville, California. But his mind quiets as a woman comes over and drapes a towel around his shoulders.
Ebonie Hegwood, a longtime family friend, begins braiding his hair. Row by row, she smooths over each strand with a mixture of natural Jamaican beeswax and Eco styling gel. Twisting, tightening, patting, prodding, she works each section with the precision of a surgeon and the warmth of a mother. Tilting his head forward and tucking his chin in, Adams is a kid again. Her hands feel like home in East Palo Alto. Like the way life was long before he signed a four-year, $58 million extension in December to become the Green Bay Packers’ No. 1 receiver this season.
Liz Cambage is in a hurry. The center for the WNBA’s Dallas Wings quickly steps out of the elevator, on the ninth floor, arriving at one of her favorite local restaurants, Mercury Chophouse. She struts to her customary table, the third one on the right, the one with the pea-green cushions.
The 6’8″ MVP candidate from Australia has just 40 minutes. She has to leave for a medical appointment to tend to what happened the night before.
Cambage was pulled to the ground as Connecticut Sun forward Jonquel Jones’ arm smacked her in the neck. She hit her head on the hardwood and was forced to exit the game. An offensive foul was called on Jones but not a flagrant one, surprising even the broadcasters.
“A lot of people are worried, but I’m fine,” Cambage says. “Just a bit of whiplash.”
All her life, she has been battered and bruised on the court and told she was too tall, too loud, too much off it.
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.
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.
Earlier this year, folks were whispering that Christian Coleman was in line to become the next great American sprinter. They were calling him “The Next Bolt.”
In November, he blazed past Usain Bolt at the IAAF World Championships in London, stunningly ending Bolt’s 45-race win streak during the semifinals of the 100 meters and finishing ahead of Bolt (but behind Justin Gatlin) again in the final. Then in February, about two weeks before his 22nd birthday, Coleman became the world record holder in the 60-meter indoor, running a time of 6.34 at the U.S. Indoor Championships in Albuquerque to shatter Maurice Greene’s 20-year-old mark of 6.39.
Coleman had already unofficially beaten Greene’s time in January, and he would beat it again in March. It was a stretch of utter domination that forced the world to take notice.
Now, only months later, the hype has been replaced with doubt.
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.