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.
Brandon Ingram could hardly breathe. He’d try and try, inhaling deeply as he walked along the beach near his home in Los Angeles, but each attempt fell short. Stuck, somehow; a full breath just out of reach. He’d return home and continue to practice breathing by pacing up and down his four flights of stairs. But he’d still end up gulping for air, frustrated and confused. And more than a little scared. Not being able to do something so fundamental, so simple, was jarring. How am I ever going to get back to being the player I was? he’d think. It was March. He had just had surgery for deep venous thrombosis, also known as a blood clot, in his right arm, prematurely ending his third season for the Lakers. The two-hour procedure included removing part of his rib, which in turn, affected his lungs. His breathing. Doctors had him use a machine that prompted him to suck in air, and a corresponding tube would shoot up and down, telling him how much pressure he could produce. “First week, I’m coming up short. Real short,” Ingram says. “I kept building up, building up.” It took about a month to capture his normal cadence.
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. 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.
Giannis Antetokounmpo leans against a table at the Bucks practice facility in downtown Milwaukee and watches a boy dribble. The boy’s legs turn into scissors as he slices a basketball between them. A white band that says “God is here” dangles from the boy’s wrist, seeming to further lengthen his 7’2″ wingspan. He is 6’7″ and crafty. Energetic. Probably because he knows Giannis is watching. He yearns to impress Giannis, and Giannis in turn sees in him a younger version of himself. A slimmer version of himself. The boy starts toward the hoop from the three-point line and softly lays the ball in. Too softly. Giannis’ eyes narrow. His shoulders stiffen. There’s a sense of urgency. Always is when he watches 17-year-old Alex Antetokounmpo, his youngest brother, the one he nurtures, protects and mentors, almost like a father would. “I get more nervous going to watch Alex play in a high school game than playing in the Eastern Conference Finals,” Giannis says.
After the game, on the way home, Greg noticed blood on James’ ear. The lobe was smashed and the skin had an abrasion. Later that night, James told Greg he had his “bell rung.” He also told his father it wasn’t the first time something like this had happened. “Oh, I’ve gotten my bell rung before,” James said. “What?” Greg asked. “What do you mean?” “I’ve had my bell rung before,” James replied, nonchalantly, as if it were as common as running a route or completing a pass. “I’ve been hit so hard I’ve seen stars before.”
Patrick Beverley had to stay awake. His mom was counting on him. He was eight years old, sitting in the passenger seat of her green Ford Tempo. She had pulled off the road, finding a vacant spot on a side street on the West Side of Chicago. The sky was dark. Blue-black. Lisa Beverley had just finished her overnight shift. Third job of the day. She and Patrick didn’t have much, so Lisa worked constantly: at a phone company, painting nails, babysitting. Every day, she’d keep from collapsing by telling herself: If I don’t make it, we don’t make it. I can’t fail my son. She turned off the engine, and Patrick climbed onto her lap. She hugged him tightly, his tiny body melting into the curves of hers. But he was worried. He could feel the tired on her. He didn’t want the tired anywhere near her. “OK, now you look at the clock,” she told him. “When the clock says this number, you wake Mommy up, OK? I just need some sleep so we can make it home. Help Mommy drive, OK?”
Patrick nodded, watching her eyelids slowly roll to a close. “OK, Mommy.” He began to stare at the clock, eyes open. Wide. Two white lights in a bleak, starless night.
Sabrina Ionescu woke in a panic. She didn’t know if she was still dreaming or awake. Whoa, she thought to herself. What’s going on? It took her a few seconds on this recent night to calm down, to gather herself. To realize she had been dreaming. But she couldn’t let the dream go. Lying under her covers in bed, she replayed it in her head. Every detail, every sound, haunted her. Especially that laugh. She kept hearing Gigi Bryant’s laugh in the dream. That sweet, high-pitched laugh that could jolt joy into the grumpiest of souls.
Mikaela Shiffrin didn’t want to drive home. The blizzard roaring outside her car windows wouldn’t let up. Snow pelted down as if it were angry—rebelling against something, someone. Shiffrin, riding with her mother, Eileen, thought it was a sign. A sign that she shouldn’t be in the United States. She should have been in Italy, in Cortina d’Ampezzo, competing in the World Cup Skiing Finals, but the event was canceled because of the COVID-19 pandemic. The snow raged on, turning a two-hour drive from Denver to Edwards, Colorado, into an eight-hour feat. A nightmare drive to culminate a nightmare season in which the people Shiffrin loved most fell away, one by one.
Four clear jars sit atop a wooden shelf, each containing a human brain. An actual human brain. A faded-yellow liquid, the color aging books turn, surrounds each brain, almost seeming to make them float. These brains are just for display, but nearby a hundred or so others are waiting to be examined for various neurodegenerative diseases on this morning in early August at Boston’s VA-BU-CLF Brain Bank. There will be a brain dissection in a few hours. Most of the brains are housed in large freezers, set at minus 80 degrees Celsius. It’s eerie, peering inside those freezers. Each is filled with dozens of small, square containers, which hold various portions of brains. The containers are stacked on top of one another, identified by seemingly indecipherable coding.These are people. People who had dreams, athletic prowess. Families, memories. Shortcomings, talents. Joys, disappointments. People now reduced to letters and numbers.