Nassir Little mixes up a defensive rotation. The freshman is in the wrong spot now. Confused. Frustrated. North Carolina head coach Roy Williams halts practice. “What were you doing?” Williams asks him on this recent afternoon in Chapel Hill. Little doesn’t know the answer. Just doesn’t. He wishes he did. He lifts his chin. Doesn’t hide. Doesn’t give lip. “I don’t know,” he admits. “Where should I be?” He never found himself searching for answers like this in high school. He was so athletic that if he wanted to block a shot, he’d simply stretch his long noodle arms and swat away the ball. If he wanted to steal a ball, he’d simply roll his arms into the passing lane, and magic happened.
The Herro family woke up around 9:30 a.m. one morning and saw red—everywhere. Red spray paint on the side yard. Red spray paint on the green grass. Red spray paint on the tree branches, which, for good measure, were also laced with toilet paper. FUCK B.B.N.! GO WISCONSIN! the spray paint read, on that summer day last year. Then there were handwritten letters, routinely delivered to Tyler Herro’s high school, Whitnall of Wisconsin. His coach, Travis Riesop, carefully combed through them. Most were too vile to let Tyler, then a senior, read. One was from a man who said he hoped Herro injured his leg the way Gordon Hayward did—a particularly gruesome fracture.
Marcus Smart doesn’t take his eyes off the court. Not once. Seated under the basket, he’s polite—warm, even—in answering questions on this February morning. But a faint scowl lines his face. Not in a rude way. In a how can you stare at a court and not want to tear it up? kind of way. It’s 10 minutes before shootaround. Nine hours until the Celtics play the Cavaliers in Cleveland. But when Smart is near a court, he loses track of time. Loses himself between the lines. Enough talking. He’d fly off his chair right now and chase down a loose ball if he could. Screw his knees. His ankles. His arms. His back. Any ligament or joint in his body, really. If a ball is rolling, Smart is diving.
Matt McMahon, Murray State’s head coach, calls for Morant. McMahon is suddenly a point guard, not the coach. He skips up the court and motions for Morant to cut to the basket. Morant beelines to the free-throw stripe. Flying into the air, he takes a pass from McMahon and flushes the ball down through the hoop.
Morant screams. McMahon squeals, practically giddy to be sharing the court with college basketball’s most dynamic player. Even a coach can get caught up in it. That fun. That electricity. That high. Morant makes you believe you’re better than you are. More confident. More dangerous. You hold your follow-through a little bit longer. You puff your chest out a little bit farther.
Tariq Owens was tall and skinny and uncoordinated but determined. He was 12 years old and a skilled football player, losing maybe two games in four years with his Pop Warner team in Baltimore. But then his legs decided they wanted to be longer. His knees chose to creak in anticipation. His body just shot up and up and up, and soon he woke up at 6 feet. And where do 6-foot middle schoolers go? “Dad,” he said, sitting in the family’s living room. “I want to play basketball.” Renard Owens had been waiting to hear those words since the day his son was born. Growing up, nothing in life had made Renard feel the way he felt on the basketball court: calm and powerful and in love.
Sabrina Ionescu gets nervous. Too nervous to sleep. Lying in her bed, wrapped in her gray blankets, she’ll try to meditate. Inhale, exhale. Inhale, exhale. Doesn’t work. She’ll turn over right, then turn over left. Right, left. Right, left. Still nothing. She hardly sleeps during the season. Especially nights before games. The thoughts will just get louder in her head. What if we don’t win? We have to win. What if my shot’s off? How are they going to guard me? 2 a.m. … She’ll replay mistakes she can’t let go of, losses she’s still ticked off about.
“PHEEEESSAA!!!!!!” She’d hear the word bellow out of coach Geno Auriemma at a practice, and she’d know she was about to get called out. Again. Another mistake. And the worst part? She knew he was right. She was playing too deferential. Too timid. Napheesa Collier had a long way to go. But that didn’t mean it didn’t kill the now-senior UConn forward to hear it from the team’s legendary coach.