Something magical happens when a girl touches a basketball for the first time. Power is in her palms. She can do anything, be anything. When she is on the court, she doesn’t have to shrink. She can call a play as loud as she wants. And she can count on the court. The court never changes. It is the same when she arrives on a Monday, a Friday. To love basketball, as a young girl, is to love something in a way that only other young-girl hoopers can understand. It’s different from family love. Different from friend love. Different from relationship love. It’s a deep-down love that resists explanation. Gianna “Gigi” Bryant had that deep-down love.
Austin Reaves took his customary seat in the back row of the Lakers’ meeting room while the team reviewed film from the previous night’s game against Oklahoma City. Lakers coach Frank Vogel paused the tape on a clip of Reaves defending Thunder guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, who had the ball on the right wing. “Should we double? What do y’all think?” Vogel asked the group. Essentially, Vogel was asking if Reaves would need help—or if he would be able to handle the assignment by himself. LeBron James was the first to speak up, according to Reaves, asserting that he could take SGA by himself. A chorus of agreement poured in, with multiple players saying: “No, he can guard him.” Then Trevor Ariza chimed in: “This motherfucker can guard him,” Reaves remembers Ariza saying. “We don’t need to [double].”
Andre Drummond was trying to adapt. Trying to be what others wanted him to be. Trying to be what others thought he should be. So every day a few summers back, when he was still playing for the Pistons, Drummond dedicated an entire offseason to just shooting from far out. The 6-foot-10, 279-pound big man abandoned post workouts for the 3-point line and would endlessly catch and shoot, catch and shoot. From farther and farther away. It must have been a strange sight. The NBA’s reigning rebounding champ was out of his element. But around the league, centers were beginning to shoot 3s more regularly, so he felt like he needed to become a center who shot 3s more regularly. Traditional big men like him who played with their backs to the basket were a dying breed. So he tried something drastic. Sure, Drummond had always implemented offensive drills within his workouts, but just offensive drills? And nothing but 3-pointers? It was jarring. It was uncomfortable. It was opposite of his focus—of everything that had made him a lottery pick, a two-time All-Star, and a walking double-double. He was known for his tenacity on the boards, making 20 rebounds a night look … easy. Routine. His size, presence, and hustle allowed him to morph into one of the NBA’s all-time best rebounders. And that made him him.
But scoring on the perimeter? That wasn’t him. “This is crazy,” he thought to himself.
Brandon Ingram could hardly breathe. He’d try and try, inhaling deeply as he walked along the beach near his home in Los Angeles, but each attempt fell short. Stuck, somehow; a full breath just out of reach. He’d return home and continue to practice breathing by pacing up and down his four flights of stairs. But he’d still end up gulping for air, frustrated and confused. And more than a little scared. Not being able to do something so fundamental, so simple, was jarring. How am I ever going to get back to being the player I was? he’d think. It was March. He had just had surgery for deep venous thrombosis, also known as a blood clot, in his right arm, prematurely ending his third season for the Lakers. The two-hour procedure included removing part of his rib, which in turn, affected his lungs. His breathing. Doctors had him use a machine that prompted him to suck in air, and a corresponding tube would shoot up and down, telling him how much pressure he could produce. “First week, I’m coming up short. Real short,” Ingram says. “I kept building up, building up.” It took about a month to capture his normal cadence.
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.
Reporters box each other out, jockeying for position, their arms outstretched with recorders, their bodies shoulder to shoulder. One woman complains that a man, over six feet tall, is blocking her view. He turns around, angrily, and refuses to budge. Members of the antsy crowd need the best view of Ball, the one who throws bullet passes 94 feet; the one who weaves through traffic with be-quick-but-don’t-hurry speed; the one who has been anointed savior of the NBA‘s most storied franchise. It’s Lakers media day, in late September, but it could have been called “Lonzo Day.” He’s here. The 19-year-old is wearing his black ZO2 Prime Remix sneakers below a grape-colored sleeve over his knee and calf. “My swag pad,” he says, smiling with all of his teeth, calm in a way only he can be: reserved, yet warm; cold-blooded competitive, yet composed.