Before every race, Rosalie Fish stares at her reflection in the mirror. She pauses a few minutes and thinks of Indigenous women. Women who have gone missing, who have been murdered. Those whose names she knows, those whose names she’ll never know. Aunts, cousins, neighbors, classmates. Women who had families, who had ambitions. Who had children, friends, dreams, desires. She paints a giant red hand across her mouth, stretching across her cheeks. Red is the color that spirits, that ancestors, can see, according to some Native traditions. The hand over her mouth is meant to represent and honor the Indigenous women who have been silenced through violence—sexual violence, physical violence, psychological violence—an epidemic that receives little national attention. “I had always known I was a target,” Fish says.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
Half the Indian village of Dera Baba Nanak had gathered in the Singh family home. It was late July 2020, and relatives, friends, neighbors, kids, reporters, and even local politicians had poured into the modest four-room space, filling the house with the sugary aroma of pinni, a traditional Punjabi sweet that’s stuffed with almonds, pistachios, and raisins. People had come to celebrate the then-19-year-old Princepal Singh, who had just been selected to the NBA G League’s select Ignite team. Standing at 6-foot-9 and 221 pounds, Singh is the tallest person in Dera Baba Nanak, a small farming community of just over 6,000 in the Gurdaspur district of Punjab, India. It’s a village where everyone knows everyone else. And everyone knows Princepal, whose nickname is “Prince.” He is the village’s star, hope, and portal to possibility: that someone from here could become something beyond here.
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.
Some nights, Roberto Aguayo would just stare at the wall in his home and cry. Think to himself: What is happening? Stare at his foot: Why aren’t you doing what you’ve always done? Stare at himself in the mirror: Why can’t you do this? The pressure weighed on him. Consumed him. Pressure of missing another kick. Of being drafted in the second round out of Florida State in 2016 after Tampa Bay traded up for him in a stunning move. Of letting everyone down. He was angry. Angry at the fans who called him a “bust” and a “headcase.” Angry at the reporters who’d ask him over and over why he was failing. Angry because the painful reality was that they were all right. He was being paid to do a job that he could not do. He was not delivering. He was not living up to expectations.