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.”
Evan Mobley’s family had a fish tank, filled mostly with oscar and African cichlids variations. One afternoon, his father Eric returned home and went to feed them. As he was facing the tank and preparing the fish flakes, a loud noise startled him. “WHOOP!”
He craned his neck and saw a pair of long legs whiz behind him. Eric realized those legs belonged to his youngest son. Evan, then a sixth grader and already taller than 6 feet, had performed a backflip over the marble floor in their house, shaking the ground upon landing on his feet. It could have been his head. Evan was thrilled. Eric was terrified.“Did you just do a backflip?!” Eric said. “Yeah, Dad!” Evan squealed. “Please don’t ever do that again,” Eric said, trying to maintain composure. “That is not safe.” Eric knew then: His son was different.
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.
Cori Gauff was playing at a smaller pro tournament, with few people in the crowd, in Charleston, South Carolina, last spring. Her parents were there. Some local fans. But hardly anyone knew Gauff’s name that afternoon. She was only 15. Just starting to make her mark. Trying to prove she belonged on a court with women twice her age. She had maybe a few thousand Twitter followers. She wasn’t yet Coco. Right after her match, though, a little Black girl, about five years old, ran up to her and wrapped her arms around her. Barely up to Gauff’s knees, she hugged her for a few seconds and looked like she didn’t want to let go. “I like watching you play!” the little girl screamed, smiling.
Everything Rasul Douglas wanted seemed out of reach. He had just signed on to become a member of the Arizona Cardinals practice squad, and his NFL career to that point had been anything but stable. The cornerback had previously spent three seasons with the Eagles, helping them win Super Bowl LII in 2018, but the team waived him during final roster cuts in September 2020.
He spent the next season with the Panthers, finishing with a career-high 62 tackles (50 solo) and nine pass breakups, but was released after the season. Then the Raiders cut him. Then the Texans—a mere six days after they signed him in late August 2021. His next stop was the Cardinals, and he tried to stay optimistic about his chances to make it to the big team. But early on in his stint there, a security guard at the practice facility stopped him. The guard didn’t recognize him and wouldn’t let him into the building.
“Nah, I play here,” Douglas said, flashing his team-issued iPad. “Oh, well, we have to ask,” the guard said.
Destiny Littleton closes her eyes. Clears her head. The lights dim as the national anthem starts to play. She tells herself to stay ready. Whether you play a lot, a little, or none at all, be a great teammate, she thinks to herself. Believe in yourself, hit shots, and be you. As the game gets underway, she watches and waits from the bench. She cheers and claps. Minutes pass. Sometimes, the entire first half. She doesn’t know when she’ll be called into the game. Some games her number isn’t called much at all. But when it is, she has to be on. Even if she has sat all game, her arms and legs turning completely cold—she has to deliver.South Carolina coach Dawn Staley counts on Littleton to come in and nail a big 3. Get a stop. Energize her teammates.
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.
Few could have predicted the 6-foot-8, 215-pound swingman would be here. He grew up surrounded by miles and miles of cornfields in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. He’s a late bloomer whose thin stature—he was about 6-foot and 145 pounds as a high-school freshman—largely caused him to fly under the radar. Now, after a late growth spurt and a breakout sophomore season at Iowa, he might just be the steal of the draft.
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.
Every day on the bus ride to elementary school, 8-year-old Jae’Sean Tate would clasp his hands, tuck his head down, and pray to God: Please don’t let me get in trouble today. Please let me be good today.
After arriving, he’d calmly walk into his classroom, find a seat, and think to himself: I’m not going to get in trouble today. I’m going to be good today. And then, the anger would swell inside him, threatening to boil over. Teachers would wonder why he’d randomly start disrupting class, distracting fellow students, and throwing tantrums. He’d get in trouble so often he’d have to eat lunch with a school counselor. The principal’s office had a designated chair for him.
He didn’t want to get in trouble. He wanted to be good. He wanted to be seen for what he was: a loving, hard-working, studious boy. What he wanted most, however, was to not hurt anymore. To not break down. His classmates didn’t know about the sadness that lay underneath his hardened shell. Jae’Sean didn’t want to talk to anyone about where his pain came from.
Andre Drummond was trying to adapt. Trying to be what others wanted him to be. Trying to be what others thought he should be. So every day a few summers back, when he was still playing for the Pistons, Drummond dedicated an entire offseason to just shooting from far out. The 6-foot-10, 279-pound big man abandoned post workouts for the 3-point line and would endlessly catch and shoot, catch and shoot. From farther and farther away. It must have been a strange sight. The NBA’s reigning rebounding champ was out of his element. But around the league, centers were beginning to shoot 3s more regularly, so he felt like he needed to become a center who shot 3s more regularly. Traditional big men like him who played with their backs to the basket were a dying breed. So he tried something drastic. Sure, Drummond had always implemented offensive drills within his workouts, but just offensive drills? And nothing but 3-pointers? It was jarring. It was uncomfortable. It was opposite of his focus—of everything that had made him a lottery pick, a two-time All-Star, and a walking double-double. He was known for his tenacity on the boards, making 20 rebounds a night look … easy. Routine. His size, presence, and hustle allowed him to morph into one of the NBA’s all-time best rebounders. And that made him him.
But scoring on the perimeter? That wasn’t him. “This is crazy,” he thought to himself.