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.”
Matt McMahon, Murray State’s head coach, calls for Morant. McMahon is suddenly a point guard, not the coach. He skips up the court and motions for Morant to cut to the basket. Morant beelines to the free-throw stripe. Flying into the air, he takes a pass from McMahon and flushes the ball down through the hoop.
Morant screams. McMahon squeals, practically giddy to be sharing the court with college basketball’s most dynamic player. Even a coach can get caught up in it. That fun. That electricity. That high. Morant makes you believe you’re better than you are. More confident. More dangerous. You hold your follow-through a little bit longer. You puff your chest out a little bit farther.