Never break. DeMar DeRozan’s father used to say those two words, again and again, as his son was growing up in Compton, California. Many times, DeMar came close. Close to unraveling, close to shutting down. He couldn’t trust many people around him. As soon as he got attached to someone, they would disappear. Uncles, friends, classmates. He would come to school, see an empty desk that remained unfilled for days, and nothing more needed to be said. Gunshots, gangs, and funerals haunted his neighborhood. He almost became numb to the violence, the possibility of death. Every time he left his house, he knew he might not return. He understood, as his mother, Diane, puts it, “You’re here today, and maybe gone tomorrow. You have to make the best of it.”
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.
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.
It was pitch black outside, but Jabari Smith Jr. didn’t need to see. He just needed to feel. His feet knew where to jump, his arms knew when to pump. It was 5:30 in the morning, an hour before Jabari, then in eighth grade, was supposed to wake up to get ready for school. But something tugged at him to hop out of bed and jump rope outside his home. To push himself harder. His mother, Taneskia Purnell, didn’t realize what was happening at first; she kept hearing a loud, persistent noise. It was cold when she went outside and found him, wiry body bouncing up and down, rope whipping in the wind. She wished he would let himself sleep just a little bit longer. But he was too determined. Too awake. “I’m OK, Mama. Don’t worry,” he told her. “I’m OK.”
A cacophony of whistles, buzzers, and sneaker squeaks permeates throughout a nine-court gym. A teenager with a familiar last name and a silver cross dangling from his neck clutches a basketball in one corner, far from the horde of cameras clicking across the court. He can see some of his Compton Magic teammates jockeying to get into the frame on this mid-May morning in Anaheim, California. The teen, standing a gangly 6-foot-7, doesn’t seem to hear any of it. He dribbles side to side, staring ahead. He doesn’t break a smile, doesn’t say a word. He is keenly aware that he’s in the spotlight. People know his name. Now they want to see if he’s any good, especially since he recently picked up scholarship offers from Kentucky, Kansas, and UCLA. Sometimes it takes referees a second to figure out who he is: “Stojakovic …” one will say. “Why do I know that name?”
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.”
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.
When she feels as if she is running on shards of glass, when her legs feel like they are about to split open, when she thinks she can’t possibly run one more mile, Courtney Dauwalter starts visualizing the pain cave. It’s a place she constructs in her mind with elaborate detail. She conjures every crevice of the cave’s architecture: a large space with different tunnels inside. The cavernous paths in her mind can be wide or narrow, depending on the length and duration of the race. But with Courtney, they’re usually impossibly long. Dauwalter, 37, is considered the world’s best female ultramarathon runner. She might just be the greatest ultrarunner of all time, period. She races astonishing distances of 100- and 200-plus miles, even once attempting a 486-mile course. She is often on her feet for a mind-bending 24 or 48 straight hours, in the harshest environments imaginable, from steep terrain and high elevation to extreme weather.
Each race, she intends to go into the pain cave. She almost craves it. She warns herself, standing at the start line right before the gun goes off, that she is about to embark on another uncomfortable journey to the cave. “It’s not always going to feel great,” she tells herself. “But that’s going to make us better. We’re going to get better from visiting it.”
Austin Reaves took his customary seat in the back row of the Lakers’ meeting room while the team reviewed film from the previous night’s game against Oklahoma City. Lakers coach Frank Vogel paused the tape on a clip of Reaves defending Thunder guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, who had the ball on the right wing. “Should we double? What do y’all think?” Vogel asked the group. Essentially, Vogel was asking if Reaves would need help—or if he would be able to handle the assignment by himself. LeBron James was the first to speak up, according to Reaves, asserting that he could take SGA by himself. A chorus of agreement poured in, with multiple players saying: “No, he can guard him.” Then Trevor Ariza chimed in: “This motherfucker can guard him,” Reaves remembers Ariza saying. “We don’t need to [double].”
Dozens of young girl hoopers logged on to their computers, hoping to virtually meet their idol. Usually they’d be lining a tunnel in Seattle, watching Breanna Stewart as she runs onto the court. No matter. The girls were just excited to see her on their screens. Watch her. Maybe even talk to her. The girls were wearing muscle tanks, shorts. They looked ready to compete. They looked like her. Stewart started setting up video calls with young girls’ teams across the country last spring, during the height of quarantine, hoping to inspire the next generation of players while gyms were still closed. She wanted to tell them how to challenge themselves (she has to make 100 3s before she leaves the gym, 10 in a row at each spot). And she wanted to tell them about the voice in her head. The one that pushes her, the one that chases perfection. I have to be the best. I have to be the best.