Inside Exxcel Gymnastics, young girls crowd around a photo collage, boxing each other out for the best view of their hometown Olympian plastered across the wall. Among the cluster of pictures in this Newton, Massachusetts, gym is an image of 10-year-old Aly Raisman, so determined to hold her position, her little arms holding up the entire weight of her body, while her legs and toes point to the ceiling.
Back then, Raisman was not the most skilled. Just strong. She was smaller than everyone and burned to beat everyone, whether it was press handstands or chin-ups. “Can we do a contest?! Can we do a contest?!” she’d exclaim. If she did 20 chin-ups yesterday, she’d pull off 21 the next day, even if it was not a contest.
It’s a windy, 65-degree November day, chilly for Los Angeles. Students struggle around USC’s campus in puffer jackets, scarves and boots. Running back Stephen Carr, then a true freshman, walks into the team’s media room in a cardinal and gold Trojans T-shirt, sweatpants and slides.
Carr isn’t cold. He hails from the sleepy city of Fontana, about 55 miles east, where the cutting wind threatens to knock you over. Cars shake. Trash cans fly. Street lights sway.
This wind doesn’t bother Carr, though. He has withstood things much worse—things that could have swept him up as a child and then a teen.
He chose to keep running. So fast that college coaches drooled at the way he flew downfield and then planted one foot and instantly zoomed the opposite direction. His motto was: “Slow feet don’t eat.” But he had more than speed. He caught balls like a receiver, he pass-protected, and he arrived at USC physically ready for battle as a 6’0″, 210-pound tailback. “He’s built for it; he’s born for it,” says Nick Matheny, Carr’s former coach at Summit High.
Kayvon Thibodeaux couldn’t help that he sprouted to 6’2″ by age 13. He couldn’t help that he charged through kids in his Pop Warner All-Star Game that year like they were hollow figurines. An ambulance was called when one boy couldn’t get back up.
“He didn’t mean to hurt anyone. He was just strong,” says his mother, Shawnta Loice. “They couldn’t stop him.” Until referees did. They were so concerned for the other team’s safety that they pulled Thibodeaux out and didn’t allow him to re-enter the game.
Thibodeaux, known then as Diesel, weighed 10 pounds when he was born. The toddler would even crawl out of his crib, pour milk into his bottle, sip, then climb back into his crib and sleep, according to his uncle, Isaiah. Thibodeaux grew accustomed to cruel comments as he got older: He’s too big! He’s old! Just look at him!
Everyone in New Albany has a story about Romeo Langford. Drive a few miles down Charlestown Road in the sleepy Southern Indiana city and listen to the legend growing around the 5-star, 18-year-old prospect.
Inside Kroger, a silver-haired man is bent over and unpacking Philadelphia Cream Cheese and Noosa Yoghurt. His eyes widen as I ask about Romeo.
“He’s the best we’ve ever had,” Chuck Stroud tells me. Stroud’s been a New Albany High School season-ticket holder for 20 years. “He’s humble. He’s a good kid. And that don’t happen too much anymore.”
Romeo smiles and signs autographs for more than 90 minutes after every game, even as his hand grows stiff, even as his slice of pizza turns cold.
Up, down, up, down. It’s a rhythm all basketball players know and try to control. But the older you get, the more you realize how little control you have. You can do everything right and lose. You can do everything wrong and win. You train your body beyond its limits, but it fails you.
“Why can’t I be healthy? Why can’t I catch a break?” Parker has questioned. She has felt disappointed about not yet capturing the six rings she set out to win to match Michael Jordan.
But the black-and-white lens in which a young Parker once viewed success has grayed. She’s learned to live with outcomes, not as she wants them to be but exactly as they are, in all their glory and agony.
Asia Durr isn’t blinking. Her No. 9 Louisville Cardinals are facing No. 5 Ohio State. Durr’s brown eyes are frozen, teeth clenched. She doesn’t see anyone. Doesn’t hear anything. In this moment, on this hardwood at Nationwide Arena in Columbus, someone is going to suffer. Scratch that. With the ball in her possession and 30 seconds to strike, an entire team will.
Durr jabs hard to the left, then crosses to the right—too quick, too slick—and her defender inevitably bites. Durr pops a step-back three, leaning like she knows it’s good. Of course it is. It’s only the first quarter, but she’s got that look in her eye.
Terry Durr, Asia’s father, who is seated directly across from the Louisville bench, recognizes that look immediately.
“She’s ready to destroy someone,” Terry says of his daughter.
They used to call him Noodles. Inspector Go Go Gadget. String Bean. Brittle (short for Brittle Bones). Praying Mantis.
Mikal Bridges was so skinny and lanky and his arms were so long—”freakishly long,” Bridges tells me—that his Villanova teammates roasted him with a range of nicknames. The 6’7” swingman was an easy target then: a freshman. A young freshman (17 years old). About 185 pounds. Gangly shoulders, little head (they called him “Pea-head,” too).
His mother, Tyneeha Rivers, sympathizes. “My wingspan is the same as World B. Free,” Rivers tells me. She laughs, remembering the Noodles days, back when no one was calling her son, now a redshirt junior, a potential 2018 NBA draft lottery pick. When he redshirted his first season to bulk up, he was simply a punching bag to the upperclassmen. “Any chance they got to try to punk him or go at his body or be physical with him, they’d do that,” guard Phil Booth says.