Every morning, Debbie talks to Tyler. Good morning, she says quietly, walking downstairs, taking a deep breath, facing another day. I’m going to take the dogs for a walk now. Little things to let him know she’s thinking about him.She often walks to the giant mural of Tyler, right across the street from Santa Monica High School, which he attended, and where she coaches softball. Cars, buses whiz by. It’s eerie, as Debbie walks to the mural, stares at Tyler there. It’s still incomprehensible that he is on this wall and not in her arms. “It’s been hell,” Debbie says. “The whole year feels like a blur.” Getting up every day is an accomplishment. So is making dinner. Calling people. Working. Talking. Breathing.
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.
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.
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.
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.