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.
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.”
Austin Reaves took his customary seat in the back row of the Lakers’ meeting room while the team reviewed film from the previous night’s game against Oklahoma City. Lakers coach Frank Vogel paused the tape on a clip of Reaves defending Thunder guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, who had the ball on the right wing. “Should we double? What do y’all think?” Vogel asked the group. Essentially, Vogel was asking if Reaves would need help—or if he would be able to handle the assignment by himself. LeBron James was the first to speak up, according to Reaves, asserting that he could take SGA by himself. A chorus of agreement poured in, with multiple players saying: “No, he can guard him.” Then Trevor Ariza chimed in: “This motherfucker can guard him,” Reaves remembers Ariza saying. “We don’t need to [double].”
Dozens of young girl hoopers logged on to their computers, hoping to virtually meet their idol. Usually they’d be lining a tunnel in Seattle, watching Breanna Stewart as she runs onto the court. No matter. The girls were just excited to see her on their screens. Watch her. Maybe even talk to her. The girls were wearing muscle tanks, shorts. They looked ready to compete. They looked like her. Stewart started setting up video calls with young girls’ teams across the country last spring, during the height of quarantine, hoping to inspire the next generation of players while gyms were still closed. She wanted to tell them how to challenge themselves (she has to make 100 3s before she leaves the gym, 10 in a row at each spot). And she wanted to tell them about the voice in her head. The one that pushes her, the one that chases perfection. I have to be the best. I have to be the best.
Immanuel Quickley stared at the court. In front of him stood his new teammates, his new coaches. Excitement welled up inside him. It was his first practice as an NBA player—as a New York Knick. Quickley had dreamed of being here ever since he was a fifth-grader playing rec ball, back when his mother and coach, Nitrease, told him to take it easy on the other kids. “I’m going to need you to not take the ball from them,” she told him one game during a timeout. Quickley returned to the court and snatched the ball from the player he was guarding. He was just as persistent that fall afternoon in 2020, as his first Knicks practice began. The coaches quickly divided up players for teams. But when they got to Quickley, they handed him a green-colored jersey, which signified that he would be relegated to the third—and potentially even fourth—practice squad. Green? Really?
A couple more drives, a couple more minutes. Rewind, fast-forward. Rewind, fast-forward. There are hours of game film to dissect. It’s late at night in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, and the young man who shoulders the city’s dreams is not asleep. He’s mesmerized by the movements on the screen. Bryce Young needs to catch one last glimpse of film before he shuts his eyes. Never mind that no one has asked him to. Or that he has already watched plenty throughout the day, with his teammates, with his coaches; he wants more. He is attentive to detail when he watches film, same as when he plays. On the field, Young approaches the line of scrimmage almost knowing what’s about to happen, based on his initial look. He can see the play before the play—his mind moves quicker than his feet.