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.”
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.
Immanuel Quickley stared at the court. In front of him stood his new teammates, his new coaches. Excitement welled up inside him. It was his first practice as an NBA player—as a New York Knick. Quickley had dreamed of being here ever since he was a fifth-grader playing rec ball, back when his mother and coach, Nitrease, told him to take it easy on the other kids. “I’m going to need you to not take the ball from them,” she told him one game during a timeout. Quickley returned to the court and snatched the ball from the player he was guarding. He was just as persistent that fall afternoon in 2020, as his first Knicks practice began. The coaches quickly divided up players for teams. But when they got to Quickley, they handed him a green-colored jersey, which signified that he would be relegated to the third—and potentially even fourth—practice squad. Green? Really?
A couple more drives, a couple more minutes. Rewind, fast-forward. Rewind, fast-forward. There are hours of game film to dissect. It’s late at night in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, and the young man who shoulders the city’s dreams is not asleep. He’s mesmerized by the movements on the screen. Bryce Young needs to catch one last glimpse of film before he shuts his eyes. Never mind that no one has asked him to. Or that he has already watched plenty throughout the day, with his teammates, with his coaches; he wants more. He is attentive to detail when he watches film, same as when he plays. On the field, Young approaches the line of scrimmage almost knowing what’s about to happen, based on his initial look. He can see the play before the play—his mind moves quicker than his feet.
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.”
Evan Mobley’s family had a fish tank, filled mostly with oscar and African cichlids variations. One afternoon, his father Eric returned home and went to feed them. As he was facing the tank and preparing the fish flakes, a loud noise startled him. “WHOOP!”
He craned his neck and saw a pair of long legs whiz behind him. Eric realized those legs belonged to his youngest son. Evan, then a sixth grader and already taller than 6 feet, had performed a backflip over the marble floor in their house, shaking the ground upon landing on his feet. It could have been his head. Evan was thrilled. Eric was terrified.“Did you just do a backflip?!” Eric said. “Yeah, Dad!” Evan squealed. “Please don’t ever do that again,” Eric said, trying to maintain composure. “That is not safe.” Eric knew then: His son was different.
Every day on the bus ride to elementary school, 8-year-old Jae’Sean Tate would clasp his hands, tuck his head down, and pray to God: Please don’t let me get in trouble today. Please let me be good today.
After arriving, he’d calmly walk into his classroom, find a seat, and think to himself: I’m not going to get in trouble today. I’m going to be good today. And then, the anger would swell inside him, threatening to boil over. Teachers would wonder why he’d randomly start disrupting class, distracting fellow students, and throwing tantrums. He’d get in trouble so often he’d have to eat lunch with a school counselor. The principal’s office had a designated chair for him.
He didn’t want to get in trouble. He wanted to be good. He wanted to be seen for what he was: a loving, hard-working, studious boy. What he wanted most, however, was to not hurt anymore. To not break down. His classmates didn’t know about the sadness that lay underneath his hardened shell. Jae’Sean didn’t want to talk to anyone about where his pain came from.
Andre Drummond was trying to adapt. Trying to be what others wanted him to be. Trying to be what others thought he should be. So every day a few summers back, when he was still playing for the Pistons, Drummond dedicated an entire offseason to just shooting from far out. The 6-foot-10, 279-pound big man abandoned post workouts for the 3-point line and would endlessly catch and shoot, catch and shoot. From farther and farther away. It must have been a strange sight. The NBA’s reigning rebounding champ was out of his element. But around the league, centers were beginning to shoot 3s more regularly, so he felt like he needed to become a center who shot 3s more regularly. Traditional big men like him who played with their backs to the basket were a dying breed. So he tried something drastic. Sure, Drummond had always implemented offensive drills within his workouts, but just offensive drills? And nothing but 3-pointers? It was jarring. It was uncomfortable. It was opposite of his focus—of everything that had made him a lottery pick, a two-time All-Star, and a walking double-double. He was known for his tenacity on the boards, making 20 rebounds a night look … easy. Routine. His size, presence, and hustle allowed him to morph into one of the NBA’s all-time best rebounders. And that made him him.
But scoring on the perimeter? That wasn’t him. “This is crazy,” he thought to himself.
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.