Sabrina Ionescu gets nervous. Too nervous to sleep. Lying in her bed, wrapped in her gray blankets, she’ll try to meditate. Inhale, exhale. Inhale, exhale. Doesn’t work. She’ll turn over right, then turn over left. Right, left. Right, left. Still nothing. She hardly sleeps during the season. Especially nights before games. The thoughts will just get louder in her head. What if we don’t win? We have to win. What if my shot’s off? How are they going to guard me? 2 a.m. … She’ll replay mistakes she can’t let go of, losses she’s still ticked off about.
Some say she’s in “Liz Mode” when she’s drop-stepping and spinning and terrorizing defenses. But Liz Mode was in full effect on the bench, back in July, as she watched her team’s lead over the Phoenix Mercury balloon to nearly 30. She noticed one of her nails was chipped. She couldn’t bear it. She whipped out her nail file and went to work. Legs neatly crossed, she looked absolutely unbothered. But the truth is, Cambage is very, very bothered.
Robinson was the living, breathing, “Break Glass in Case of Emergency” lever teams would pull to inject energy when in a jam. But Robinson’s overflowing personality also irritated NBA coaches. Some found him disruptive and immature, especially during his early years in the league. He was the exclamation point and the run-on sentence; the behind-the-back dime when a simple chest pass would have sufficed.
Jalen Green can’t go to Fashion Fair Mall here in Fresno, California, without fans spotting him. “Is that Jalen Green?!” they scream. He smiles and nods shyly as they rush to his side, looking like ants next to his gangly 6’6″-and-still-growing frame. “Can we get a picture, Jalen?!” Kids at his school, San Joaquin Memorial, take pictures of him even when he’s not looking, thinking he doesn’t see them. But he does. He’s keenly aware of the eyes that are always on him, the arms that are always reaching for him.
Helmets, arms and shoulders hinder his vision, but Aaron Donald bulldozes his way through double-team after double-team. It’s the first half of a Week 4 game against the Minnesota Vikings. Donald has yet to sack anyone in this game, or this season. He isn’t worried, though. By the fourth quarter, the All-Pro defensive tackle of the Los Angeles Rams has had enough. He eyes QB Kirk Cousins and prepares to strike. NFL quarterbacks fear getting sacked by Donald in the same way ordinary people fear getting older: They know it will happen, and they know they can’t do much about it.
Dust sticks to her sneakers. Empty Gatorade bottles and trash line a slippery sideline. The tattered net has one too many loops popping out. At least she has a court, she tells herself. At least there is a broom at the front desk, here in this local gym in Chico, California, to sweep the dust. She’s used to making do, making rundown courts feel like home. Layshia Clarendon, a guard for the Connecticut Sun, moved to the area last offseason to live with her now-wife’s family. The two couldn’t afford their own house yet. Not with Clarendon’s WNBA salary.
“PHEEEESSAA!!!!!!” She’d hear the word bellow out of coach Geno Auriemma at a practice, and she’d know she was about to get called out. Again. Another mistake. And the worst part? She knew he was right. She was playing too deferential. Too timid. Napheesa Collier had a long way to go. But that didn’t mean it didn’t kill the now-senior UConn forward to hear it from the team’s legendary coach.
On this October day in South Bend, every pass must be crisp, every cut full speed. Notre Dame’s players sprint up and down, whipping passes faster, faster, faster in this full-court practice drill. Then one player screws up; she tosses an overhead pass that is deflected. Players drop to the floor to hold a 30-second core plank for punishment. Even Muffet McGraw, the 62-year-old Hall of Fame coach, is planking. Teeth clenched, McGraw doesn’t allow her navy sweatpants and light blue polo to graze the floor even for a second. Arike Ogunbowale looks irritated. About-to-take-over-the-game irritated. Arike Mode is thrilling and terrifying, depending on which team you play for.
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.
“Here, what we believe in is: You either get better or you get worse. You never stay the same.” Sean McVay, the 31-year-old coach of the Los Angeles Rams, the youngest head coach in modern NFL history, is standing outside the offices of the team’s training complex in Thousand Oaks, California. He speaks with the conviction of a man who cannot, will not, stomach complacency. And he isn’t just talking about his players; he’s talking about himself.