Natasha Cloud was on the phone with her mother, Sharon, when she saw that she was being pulled over. She told her what was happening, and Sharon instinctively asked to stay on the line. Cloud agreed. Whatever could happen, whatever would happen, she needed her mom to hear it. Be there for it. Call for help if necessary. Just in case, Cloud thought to herself. Now she saw the police officer getting out of his car. The cop, who was white, approached Cloud’s Audi S4 walking sideways, slowly. Crouching low, clutching his gun. He looked angry. He looked like he was about to do something.
Sergio Rivas could hardly see. Could only find the soccer ball when it was right in front of him. Could barely make out teammates’ jerseys, and not their faces. He squinted, as if scrunching his face would yield clearer vision. Didn’t help. He sprinted ahead, but the grass was blurred, a faded forest green. Dusk was approaching—the pitch turning a muddy brown, the sky a charcoal black. Now Rivas really couldn’t see. Only feel. But he had to perform. The now-22-year-old soccer player still remembers how the college scouts huddled in the stands at that tournament in Dallas back in 2013. They looked like tiny dots to Rivas, who at the time was a high school junior. His defender pressured him, but his feet knew where the ball was, where it was supposed to go. They moved the ball, quickly, before the pressure closed in. For years, Rivas had been playing this way. He could barely see, but growing up he didn’t have anything to compare that to—didn’t know it was different for anyone else. He figured everyone else just saw faint colors, faint shapes, as he did.
Nassir Little mixes up a defensive rotation. The freshman is in the wrong spot now. Confused. Frustrated. North Carolina head coach Roy Williams halts practice. “What were you doing?” Williams asks him on this recent afternoon in Chapel Hill. Little doesn’t know the answer. Just doesn’t. He wishes he did. He lifts his chin. Doesn’t hide. Doesn’t give lip. “I don’t know,” he admits. “Where should I be?” He never found himself searching for answers like this in high school. He was so athletic that if he wanted to block a shot, he’d simply stretch his long noodle arms and swat away the ball. If he wanted to steal a ball, he’d simply roll his arms into the passing lane, and magic happened.
Bowen II was forced into exile, his childhood dreams possibly over. He should have been where other members of his 2017 class—former Arizona center DeAndre Ayton, former Duke forward Marvin Bagley III, former Missouri swingman Michael Porter Jr., former Texas center Mo Bamba—are: in the NBA. Instead, Bowen became somewhat of an unknown who needs a good showing at this week’s 2019 NBA Draft Combine simply to make the league. The irony of exposing the dark underbelly of college basketball was that people like Tony Bland and Brian Bowen II got lost in the light. One day they were coming up through, and entrenched in, a system. The next, they were on the outside, looking in.
Onyeka Okongwu walks into USC’s locker room and finds his cubby in the far corner. He touches the band around his wrist, black with green letters—NNAMDI OKONGWU #21, WE WILL NEVER FORGET YOU—and kisses it. He takes a seat, clasps his hands, shuts his eyes and begins to pray. In these moments, Nnamdi, his older brother is there. With him. In his chair, in his locker. On the whiteboard, on the door. Inside his sneakers, inside his jersey. Onyeka can feel it. Feel him. Nnamdi died in 2014 after suffering a brain injury from a skateboarding accident. He was 17 years old, a promising basketball player himself. “I think about him every day,” says Onyeka, now 19. Some days he wants to talk about it. Some days he doesn’t.
Attack. That’s all Brandon Ingram is thinking. He sees LeBron James dribbling at the top of the key, crossing over, left to right. Ingram approaches James and crouches down into a defensive stance. Tiny Dog versus The King. Yes, Lakers players still call Ingram “Tiny Dog”—”Tiny” because, as a rookie, he was so skinny, so light that he looked like he might blow away in the wind. “Dog” because he isn’t afraid to challenge anyone. Not even LeBron. Tiny Dog bends low, steadying his gaze on The King’s stomach. He swarms him with his gangly arms fully extended. He wants to make him feel his 7’3” wingspan, to make the words scrawled on his arms look close enough to read. It doesn’t matter. LeBron torches him from every spot he chooses. Ingram closes out to play him tightly. He slides his feet quickly. But LeBron hits one shot after another. On offense, Ingram gets solid looks. But his jumpers miss short, and he is unable to fall into a rhythm.
The 6 a.m. flight from Vegas to New York is brutal. But Liz Cambage is trying to make light of it. The 6’8’’ All-Star center from Australia is seated window-side, in emergency row 19, which offers a bit of a relief in terms of leg room. Elbow room is another story. It’s a three-seater. Her teammate JiSu Park, a 6’5’’ center from South Korea, sits two seats over, sticking her white Fila sneakers out into the aisle. A woman with blond hair is sandwiched between the two. When the flight attendant asks if they are comfortable performing emergency-exit duties, Cambage belts out an enthusiastic, “Yasssssss.” It’s the beginning of a four-game road trip. The Aces are brimming with talent, but as the flight progresses it is clear that they’re also drained. Disoriented. Last night, a 7.1 earthquake shook Mandalay Bay Events Center, causing the Jumbotron to sway for nearly 15 Mississippi’s.
The Herro family woke up around 9:30 a.m. one morning and saw red—everywhere. Red spray paint on the side yard. Red spray paint on the green grass. Red spray paint on the tree branches, which, for good measure, were also laced with toilet paper. FUCK B.B.N.! GO WISCONSIN! the spray paint read, on that summer day last year. Then there were handwritten letters, routinely delivered to Tyler Herro’s high school, Whitnall of Wisconsin. His coach, Travis Riesop, carefully combed through them. Most were too vile to let Tyler, then a senior, read. One was from a man who said he hoped Herro injured his leg the way Gordon Hayward did—a particularly gruesome fracture.
Marcus Smart doesn’t take his eyes off the court. Not once. Seated under the basket, he’s polite—warm, even—in answering questions on this February morning. But a faint scowl lines his face. Not in a rude way. In a how can you stare at a court and not want to tear it up? kind of way. It’s 10 minutes before shootaround. Nine hours until the Celtics play the Cavaliers in Cleveland. But when Smart is near a court, he loses track of time. Loses himself between the lines. Enough talking. He’d fly off his chair right now and chase down a loose ball if he could. Screw his knees. His ankles. His arms. His back. Any ligament or joint in his body, really. If a ball is rolling, Smart is diving.
Soccer wasn’t a space she had to be perfect in. She didn’t worry about failure. She just saw green—endless green—as she dribbled ahead, faster, faster. No thinking. Just flying. That was nine years ago. She isn’t 12 anymore. She’s 21 and coming to terms with who she is, where she is right now. She’s inked sponsorships with the likes of Nike and Gatorade, but she’s more of an X-factor than superstar on a team that hopes to repeat as champion at the World Cup, which starts this month in France. She’s competing for playing time with veteran forwards like Morgan, Carli Lloyd, Tobin Heath and Megan Rapinoe. It’s unclear if Pugh will come off the bench. That’s a lot to metabolize. A lot to think about. “There is a piece of her that has had to grow up,” says Sterling Joseph, her strength and conditioning coach. “In previous years, she’d just come in there with her eyes closed and just play, pretty much. And now, it’s different. It’s not like that.”