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.”
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.”
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.
Everything Rasul Douglas wanted seemed out of reach. He had just signed on to become a member of the Arizona Cardinals practice squad, and his NFL career to that point had been anything but stable. The cornerback had previously spent three seasons with the Eagles, helping them win Super Bowl LII in 2018, but the team waived him during final roster cuts in September 2020.
He spent the next season with the Panthers, finishing with a career-high 62 tackles (50 solo) and nine pass breakups, but was released after the season. Then the Raiders cut him. Then the Texans—a mere six days after they signed him in late August 2021. His next stop was the Cardinals, and he tried to stay optimistic about his chances to make it to the big team. But early on in his stint there, a security guard at the practice facility stopped him. The guard didn’t recognize him and wouldn’t let him into the building.
“Nah, I play here,” Douglas said, flashing his team-issued iPad. “Oh, well, we have to ask,” the guard said.
Destiny Littleton closes her eyes. Clears her head. The lights dim as the national anthem starts to play. She tells herself to stay ready. Whether you play a lot, a little, or none at all, be a great teammate, she thinks to herself. Believe in yourself, hit shots, and be you. As the game gets underway, she watches and waits from the bench. She cheers and claps. Minutes pass. Sometimes, the entire first half. She doesn’t know when she’ll be called into the game. Some games her number isn’t called much at all. But when it is, she has to be on. Even if she has sat all game, her arms and legs turning completely cold—she has to deliver.South Carolina coach Dawn Staley counts on Littleton to come in and nail a big 3. Get a stop. Energize her teammates.