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.”
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.
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.
Mikaela Shiffrin didn’t want to drive home. The blizzard roaring outside her car windows wouldn’t let up. Snow pelted down as if it were angry—rebelling against something, someone. Shiffrin, riding with her mother, Eileen, thought it was a sign. A sign that she shouldn’t be in the United States. She should have been in Italy, in Cortina d’Ampezzo, competing in the World Cup Skiing Finals, but the event was canceled because of the COVID-19 pandemic. The snow raged on, turning a two-hour drive from Denver to Edwards, Colorado, into an eight-hour feat. A nightmare drive to culminate a nightmare season in which the people Shiffrin loved most fell away, one by one.
Half the Indian village of Dera Baba Nanak had gathered in the Singh family home. It was late July 2020, and relatives, friends, neighbors, kids, reporters, and even local politicians had poured into the modest four-room space, filling the house with the sugary aroma of pinni, a traditional Punjabi sweet that’s stuffed with almonds, pistachios, and raisins. People had come to celebrate the then-19-year-old Princepal Singh, who had just been selected to the NBA G League’s select Ignite team. Standing at 6-foot-9 and 221 pounds, Singh is the tallest person in Dera Baba Nanak, a small farming community of just over 6,000 in the Gurdaspur district of Punjab, India. It’s a village where everyone knows everyone else. And everyone knows Princepal, whose nickname is “Prince.” He is the village’s star, hope, and portal to possibility: that someone from here could become something beyond here.
Four clear jars sit atop a wooden shelf, each containing a human brain. An actual human brain. A faded-yellow liquid, the color aging books turn, surrounds each brain, almost seeming to make them float. These brains are just for display, but nearby a hundred or so others are waiting to be examined for various neurodegenerative diseases on this morning in early August at Boston’s VA-BU-CLF Brain Bank. There will be a brain dissection in a few hours. Most of the brains are housed in large freezers, set at minus 80 degrees Celsius. It’s eerie, peering inside those freezers. Each is filled with dozens of small, square containers, which hold various portions of brains. The containers are stacked on top of one another, identified by seemingly indecipherable coding.These are people. People who had dreams, athletic prowess. Families, memories. Shortcomings, talents. Joys, disappointments. People now reduced to letters and numbers.
Some nights, Roberto Aguayo would just stare at the wall in his home and cry. Think to himself: What is happening? Stare at his foot: Why aren’t you doing what you’ve always done? Stare at himself in the mirror: Why can’t you do this? The pressure weighed on him. Consumed him. Pressure of missing another kick. Of being drafted in the second round out of Florida State in 2016 after Tampa Bay traded up for him in a stunning move. Of letting everyone down. He was angry. Angry at the fans who called him a “bust” and a “headcase.” Angry at the reporters who’d ask him over and over why he was failing. Angry because the painful reality was that they were all right. He was being paid to do a job that he could not do. He was not delivering. He was not living up to expectations.
There are people who do not want Andraya Yearwood to run. They are bothered by the sight of her. Angered by the thought of her. The black scrunchie on her wrist, the ponytail down her back. The steely stare she offers as coaches, parents and fans hurl insults toward her at track meets, not caring that she’s an earshot away. The vitriol intrudes before races. Afterward. In her Instagram comments. They say she has a “biological advantage.” They say allowing her to run isn’t fair. They do not recognize her as a girl. They insist she is a boy—a boy who shouldn’t compete in the girls division.
“I hope Bru dies.” That’s what one man said when Horace McCoy Jr. answered the phone. Others found him on LinkedIn to threaten death to his son. Shelby McCoy remembers being stopped at the supermarket. The dentist. High school games. Remembers receiving a Twitter direct message saying the NFL would never touch a headcase like her son and that she had raised a failure. Alexa McCoy heard it at parties at her college. What the hell is your brother doing? Why would he ever do that? In the aftermath of Bru McCoy’s transfer from USC to Texas and then back to USC, all in the span of six months back in early 2019, he was called every name you can imagine. And no matter how much the 5-star receiver tried to not read the comments, he couldn’t escape them. They found him. Hounded him. The internet was not some abstract place, something that shut off once he closed his laptop