“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.
On this October day in South Bend, every pass must be crisp, every cut full speed. Notre Dame’s players sprint up and down, whipping passes faster, faster, faster in this full-court practice drill. Then one player screws up; she tosses an overhead pass that is deflected. Players drop to the floor to hold a 30-second core plank for punishment. Even Muffet McGraw, the 62-year-old Hall of Fame coach, is planking. Teeth clenched, McGraw doesn’t allow her navy sweatpants and light blue polo to graze the floor even for a second. Arike Ogunbowale looks irritated. About-to-take-over-the-game irritated. Arike Mode is thrilling and terrifying, depending on which team you play for.
Inside Exxcel Gymnastics, young girls crowd around a photo collage, boxing each other out for the best view of their hometown Olympian plastered across the wall. Among the cluster of pictures in this Newton, Massachusetts, gym is an image of 10-year-old Aly Raisman, so determined to hold her position, her little arms holding up the entire weight of her body, while her legs and toes point to the ceiling. Back then, Raisman was not the most skilled. Just strong. She was smaller than everyone and burned to beat everyone.
“Here, what we believe in is: You either get better or you get worse. You never stay the same.” Sean McVay, the 31-year-old coach of the Los Angeles Rams, the youngest head coach in modern NFL history, is standing outside the offices of the team’s training complex in Thousand Oaks, California. He speaks with the conviction of a man who cannot, will not, stomach complacency. And he isn’t just talking about his players; he’s talking about himself.
Carr isn’t cold. He hails from the sleepy city of Fontana, about 55 miles east, where the cutting wind threatens to knock you over. Cars shake. Trash cans fly. Street lights sway. This wind doesn’t bother Carr, though. He has withstood things much worse—things that could have swept him up as a child and then a teen. He chose to keep running. So fast that college coaches drooled at the way he flew downfield and then planted one foot and instantly zoomed the opposite direction. His motto was: “Slow feet don’t eat.”
He plays the position of receiver like he’s playing basketball, not football. His explosion off the snap is deceptive, like he’s crafting a route to the hoop, not showing his highest gear of speed until he’s already past you. At 6’3″, 225 pounds, he fights for a catch like he’s boxing out, establishing position in the post before leaping in the air. And he attacks the open space like it has wronged him, like a rebound is suspended there and he cannot wait for the ball to sail into his palms. JJ Arcega-Whiteside is, as his quarterback at Stanford, K.J. Costello, calls him, “an outlier.” “The way he runs routes, the way he operates,” Costello says, “is just not normal.”
Coleman probably shouldn’t have competed in back-to-back races while rehabbing, but he doesn’t see limitations. Never has. That’s why one afternoon, the summer before heading off to college at the University of Tennessee, while hanging out with some friends at the house of his former high school coach, Mark Tolcher, Coleman declared that he was going to sprint down the driveway, past a downward slope and clear Tolcher’s 20-foot-wide pool. Coleman was a dominant long-jumper at the time. He was also out of his mind.
Kayvon Thibodeaux couldn’t help that he sprouted to 6’2″ by age 13. He couldn’t help that he charged through kids in his Pop Warner All-Star Game that year like they were hollow figurines. An ambulance was called when one boy couldn’t get back up. “He didn’t mean to hurt anyone. He was just strong,” says his mother, Shawnta Loice. “They couldn’t stop him.” Until referees did. They were so concerned for the other team’s safety that they pulled Thibodeaux out and didn’t allow him to re-enter the game.
Romeo Langford is clanking step-back after step-back at the elbow with his trainer, Dion Lee, here at Central High School in Louisville. Langford’s poker face doesn’t break. But Jonathan Jeanty, a family friend looking on, knows Langford is pissed. “He expects to make every shot,” Jeanty says. “He’s kind of a perfectionist.” He’s not flicking his wrist hard enough. It’s been sore since landing awkwardly in a January game. The follow through was one of the first things Tim taught his son. “Romeo, you got to feel it,” he’d say to his young son. “What do you mean, Dad?” “You got to feel it. You got to know it’s going in. It’s a feel thing.”
Up, down, up, down. It’s a rhythm all basketball players know and try to control. But the older you get, the more you realize how little control you have. You can do everything right and lose. You can do everything wrong and win. You train your body beyond its limits, but it fails you. “Why can’t I be healthy? Why can’t I catch a break?” Parker has questioned. She has felt disappointed about not yet capturing the six rings she set out to win to match Michael Jordan. But the black-and-white lens in which a young Parker once viewed success has grayed. She’s learned to live with outcomes, not as she wants them to be but exactly as they are, in all their glory and agony.