Giannis Antetokounmpo and his family didn’t have much time. They had until sundown to get out of their apartment. They had fallen short on the rent. Again. They were being evicted. Again. The landlord, in Sepolia, Athens, where Giannis and his family lived, had been barging into their apartment, telling them they had maybe a day, maybe two, to leave. But this time, the family wasn’t so lucky. Veronica, Giannis’s mother, told him and his brothers to pack their things. Thanasis, the oldest of the four; Giannis; Kostas; and Alex, the youngest, didn’t ask any questions. They didn’t want to add to the burden. So they nodded, kept quiet, gathered their clothes. But after packing all their belongings, Giannis and his brothers looked at each other, staring at their massive fridge in the kitchen, each thinking, What are we going to do with this? Charles, their father, looked around, trying to find something to leverage the fridge with.
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.
LaMelo Ball tries to catch his breath, placing his hands on his hips as if holding on to them is all that is preventing him from falling down. His hamstrings burn. His knees creak. His white ankle socks have turned a dirty shade of gray from his beach sprints this October afternoon. As he stares out at the Pacific Ocean, his feet sink into sand so dense it might as well be tar. The glittering, blue-green waves have no beginning, no end. Some might find it idyllic, relaxing, here on the beach in the sleepy, saltwater-scented beach town of Wollongong, Australia. Not LaMelo. He doesn’t like to think about what’s out there. It’s not just that he’s far from home, from all he knows. LaMelo is afraid of the ocean. Or more so, of everything in it. Tiger sharks, great white sharks, bull sharks. He is sure that if he dips his feet in, lets the water swirl around his toes, he’ll be swallowed up. This is the other side of the Pacific, but it’s the same ocean.And there’s something else familiar, something else after him. He can sense it, see it out of the corner of his eye. He realizes he’s being watched.
Evan Mobley’s family had a fish tank, filled mostly with oscar and African cichlids variations. One afternoon, his father Eric returned home and went to feed them. As he was facing the tank and preparing the fish flakes, a loud noise startled him. “WHOOP!”
He craned his neck and saw a pair of long legs whiz behind him. Eric realized those legs belonged to his youngest son. Evan, then a sixth grader and already taller than 6 feet, had performed a backflip over the marble floor in their house, shaking the ground upon landing on his feet. It could have been his head. Evan was thrilled. Eric was terrified.“Did you just do a backflip?!” Eric said. “Yeah, Dad!” Evan squealed. “Please don’t ever do that again,” Eric said, trying to maintain composure. “That is not safe.” Eric knew then: His son was different.
Every day on the bus ride to elementary school, 8-year-old Jae’Sean Tate would clasp his hands, tuck his head down, and pray to God: Please don’t let me get in trouble today. Please let me be good today.
After arriving, he’d calmly walk into his classroom, find a seat, and think to himself: I’m not going to get in trouble today. I’m going to be good today. And then, the anger would swell inside him, threatening to boil over. Teachers would wonder why he’d randomly start disrupting class, distracting fellow students, and throwing tantrums. He’d get in trouble so often he’d have to eat lunch with a school counselor. The principal’s office had a designated chair for him.
He didn’t want to get in trouble. He wanted to be good. He wanted to be seen for what he was: a loving, hard-working, studious boy. What he wanted most, however, was to not hurt anymore. To not break down. His classmates didn’t know about the sadness that lay underneath his hardened shell. Jae’Sean didn’t want to talk to anyone about where his pain came from.
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.
Giannis Antetokounmpo leans against a table at the Bucks practice facility in downtown Milwaukee and watches a boy dribble. The boy’s legs turn into scissors as he slices a basketball between them. A white band that says “God is here” dangles from the boy’s wrist, seeming to further lengthen his 7’2″ wingspan. He is 6’7″ and crafty. Energetic. Probably because he knows Giannis is watching. He yearns to impress Giannis, and Giannis in turn sees in him a younger version of himself. A slimmer version of himself. The boy starts toward the hoop from the three-point line and softly lays the ball in. Too softly. Giannis’ eyes narrow. His shoulders stiffen. There’s a sense of urgency. Always is when he watches 17-year-old Alex Antetokounmpo, his youngest brother, the one he nurtures, protects and mentors, almost like a father would. “I get more nervous going to watch Alex play in a high school game than playing in the Eastern Conference Finals,” Giannis says.
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.
The doors swing open. The boy with the floppy blond curls rushes into Prienai Arena. A group of Lithuanian teens, who arrived 60 minutes before tipoff, scurry over to get a closer look, but the boy ignores them. He’s locked in his own world as he spots two stone-faced security guards looking on from just outside the locker room. The boy, sporting a pair of black headphones and a Big Baller Brand sweatsuit, grins. It’s his time. Sixteen-year-old LaMelo Ball clutches an imaginary rock. Dipping his shoulders left, then right, he rushes toward the two security guards and crosses over both men. But a few seconds later, I watch fans abandon LaMelo for the man from whom he gets his smile. Here comes LaVar Ball.
Patrick Beverley had to stay awake. His mom was counting on him. He was eight years old, sitting in the passenger seat of her green Ford Tempo. She had pulled off the road, finding a vacant spot on a side street on the West Side of Chicago. The sky was dark. Blue-black. Lisa Beverley had just finished her overnight shift. Third job of the day. She and Patrick didn’t have much, so Lisa worked constantly: at a phone company, painting nails, babysitting. Every day, she’d keep from collapsing by telling herself: If I don’t make it, we don’t make it. I can’t fail my son. She turned off the engine, and Patrick climbed onto her lap. She hugged him tightly, his tiny body melting into the curves of hers. But he was worried. He could feel the tired on her. He didn’t want the tired anywhere near her. “OK, now you look at the clock,” she told him. “When the clock says this number, you wake Mommy up, OK? I just need some sleep so we can make it home. Help Mommy drive, OK?”
Patrick nodded, watching her eyelids slowly roll to a close. “OK, Mommy.” He began to stare at the clock, eyes open. Wide. Two white lights in a bleak, starless night.