Never break. DeMar DeRozan’s father used to say those two words, again and again, as his son was growing up in Compton, California. Many times, DeMar came close. Close to unraveling, close to shutting down. He couldn’t trust many people around him. As soon as he got attached to someone, they would disappear. Uncles, friends, classmates. He would come to school, see an empty desk that remained unfilled for days, and nothing more needed to be said. Gunshots, gangs, and funerals haunted his neighborhood. He almost became numb to the violence, the possibility of death. Every time he left his house, he knew he might not return. He understood, as his mother, Diane, puts it, “You’re here today, and maybe gone tomorrow. You have to make the best of it.”
Giannis Antetokounmpo and his family didn’t have much time. They had until sundown to get out of their apartment. They had fallen short on the rent. Again. They were being evicted. Again. The landlord, in Sepolia, Athens, where Giannis and his family lived, had been barging into their apartment, telling them they had maybe a day, maybe two, to leave. But this time, the family wasn’t so lucky. Veronica, Giannis’s mother, told him and his brothers to pack their things. Thanasis, the oldest of the four; Giannis; Kostas; and Alex, the youngest, didn’t ask any questions. They didn’t want to add to the burden. So they nodded, kept quiet, gathered their clothes. But after packing all their belongings, Giannis and his brothers looked at each other, staring at their massive fridge in the kitchen, each thinking, What are we going to do with this? Charles, their father, looked around, trying to find something to leverage the fridge with.
Every morning, Debbie talks to Tyler. Good morning, she says quietly, walking downstairs, taking a deep breath, facing another day. I’m going to take the dogs for a walk now. Little things to let him know she’s thinking about him.She often walks to the giant mural of Tyler, right across the street from Santa Monica High School, which he attended, and where she coaches softball. Cars, buses whiz by. It’s eerie, as Debbie walks to the mural, stares at Tyler there. It’s still incomprehensible that he is on this wall and not in her arms. “It’s been hell,” Debbie says. “The whole year feels like a blur.” Getting up every day is an accomplishment. So is making dinner. Calling people. Working. Talking. Breathing.
Something magical happens when a girl touches a basketball for the first time. Power is in her palms. She can do anything, be anything. When she is on the court, she doesn’t have to shrink. She can call a play as loud as she wants. And she can count on the court. The court never changes. It is the same when she arrives on a Monday, a Friday. To love basketball, as a young girl, is to love something in a way that only other young-girl hoopers can understand. It’s different from family love. Different from friend love. Different from relationship love. It’s a deep-down love that resists explanation. Gianna “Gigi” Bryant had that deep-down love.
LaMelo Ball tries to catch his breath, placing his hands on his hips as if holding on to them is all that is preventing him from falling down. His hamstrings burn. His knees creak. His white ankle socks have turned a dirty shade of gray from his beach sprints this October afternoon. As he stares out at the Pacific Ocean, his feet sink into sand so dense it might as well be tar. The glittering, blue-green waves have no beginning, no end. Some might find it idyllic, relaxing, here on the beach in the sleepy, saltwater-scented beach town of Wollongong, Australia. Not LaMelo. He doesn’t like to think about what’s out there. It’s not just that he’s far from home, from all he knows. LaMelo is afraid of the ocean. Or more so, of everything in it. Tiger sharks, great white sharks, bull sharks. He is sure that if he dips his feet in, lets the water swirl around his toes, he’ll be swallowed up. This is the other side of the Pacific, but it’s the same ocean.And there’s something else familiar, something else after him. He can sense it, see it out of the corner of his eye. He realizes he’s being watched.
Davante Adams could feel his daughter’s eyes on him. Watching him. Intently focused on his arms, his legs. His face. Then-15-month-old Daija couldn’t look away as her dad worked out in the middle of a gym inside their Danville, California, home last April. So he strapped Daija into a bouncer a few feet away that allowed her to jump and jump until her little legs grew tired. Normally, when bench-pressing heavy weight in front of his Packers teammates, Davante would struggle to complete one rep. But with Daija watching, he easily completed three. She’s watching me, he thought to himself. I have to show her that her daddy can do this. That her daddy is strong.
Keegan Murray calls for the ball. A sweat stain lines the back of his gray shirt. He’s been shooting jumper after jumper in a gym about 10 minutes away from downtown Chicago. Midrange off the dribble. Five spots of 3s. Jab left and pull up. He often won’t move to the next spot until he executes each drill perfectly. Until each release feels just right. It’s drizzling outside on this late-April morning. The sky is a deep gray-blue. A park sits across the street. This unassuming gym, which has a sign near its entrance that reads “To whom much is given, much will be required,” is where he’s been training for this week’s NBA combine in Chicago. Murray is one of the most intriguing participants in attendance. He leapfrogged from a barely recruited prep to a superstar sophomore at Iowa, to a projected lottery NBA pick in next month’s draft. Some mock drafts even have him projected to be a top-five pick.
It was pitch black outside, but Jabari Smith Jr. didn’t need to see. He just needed to feel. His feet knew where to jump, his arms knew when to pump. It was 5:30 in the morning, an hour before Jabari, then in eighth grade, was supposed to wake up to get ready for school. But something tugged at him to hop out of bed and jump rope outside his home. To push himself harder. His mother, Taneskia Purnell, didn’t realize what was happening at first; she kept hearing a loud, persistent noise. It was cold when she went outside and found him, wiry body bouncing up and down, rope whipping in the wind. She wished he would let himself sleep just a little bit longer. But he was too determined. Too awake. “I’m OK, Mama. Don’t worry,” he told her. “I’m OK.”
A cacophony of whistles, buzzers, and sneaker squeaks permeates throughout a nine-court gym. A teenager with a familiar last name and a silver cross dangling from his neck clutches a basketball in one corner, far from the horde of cameras clicking across the court. He can see some of his Compton Magic teammates jockeying to get into the frame on this mid-May morning in Anaheim, California. The teen, standing a gangly 6-foot-7, doesn’t seem to hear any of it. He dribbles side to side, staring ahead. He doesn’t break a smile, doesn’t say a word. He is keenly aware that he’s in the spotlight. People know his name. Now they want to see if he’s any good, especially since he recently picked up scholarship offers from Kentucky, Kansas, and UCLA. Sometimes it takes referees a second to figure out who he is: “Stojakovic …” one will say. “Why do I know that name?”
Javier “Chicharito” Hernández glances at the ink that lines his arms. He points to a tattoo of a yin and yang symbol. Then one of two elephants, a larger one and a smaller one, drawn across his right forearm. The elephants represent what he refers to as his childish side and his mature side. He calls these competing parts of him his “dualities.” And there are others. His ego versus his essence. His light versus his shadow. Chicharito versus Javi—the name he’s known by all over the world, and the one used by family and loved ones. “I have two sides,” he says. “And it’s not just because I’m a Gemini. I think we all have it.”