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.
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.
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.
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 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.