Never break. DeMar DeRozan’s father used to say those two words, again and again, as his son was growing up in Compton, California. Many times, DeMar came close. Close to unraveling, close to shutting down. He couldn’t trust many people around him. As soon as he got attached to someone, they would disappear. Uncles, friends, classmates. He would come to school, see an empty desk that remained unfilled for days, and nothing more needed to be said. Gunshots, gangs, and funerals haunted his neighborhood. He almost became numb to the violence, the possibility of death. Every time he left his house, he knew he might not return. He understood, as his mother, Diane, puts it, “You’re here today, and maybe gone tomorrow. You have to make the best of it.”
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.
It was pitch black outside, but Jabari Smith Jr. didn’t need to see. He just needed to feel. His feet knew where to jump, his arms knew when to pump. It was 5:30 in the morning, an hour before Jabari, then in eighth grade, was supposed to wake up to get ready for school. But something tugged at him to hop out of bed and jump rope outside his home. To push himself harder. His mother, Taneskia Purnell, didn’t realize what was happening at first; she kept hearing a loud, persistent noise. It was cold when she went outside and found him, wiry body bouncing up and down, rope whipping in the wind. She wished he would let himself sleep just a little bit longer. But he was too determined. Too awake. “I’m OK, Mama. Don’t worry,” he told her. “I’m OK.”
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].”
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.
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.
Keegan Murray calls for the ball. A sweat stain lines the back of his gray shirt. He’s been shooting jumper after jumper in a gym about 10 minutes away from downtown Chicago. Midrange off the dribble. Five spots of 3s. Jab left and pull up. He often won’t move to the next spot until he executes each drill perfectly. Until each release feels just right. It’s drizzling outside on this late-April morning. The sky is a deep gray-blue. A park sits across the street. This unassuming gym, which has a sign near its entrance that reads “To whom much is given, much will be required,” is where he’s been training for this week’s NBA combine in Chicago. Murray is one of the most intriguing participants in attendance. He leapfrogged from a barely recruited prep to a superstar sophomore at Iowa, to a projected lottery NBA pick in next month’s draft. Some mock drafts even have him projected to be a top-five pick.
Few could have predicted the 6-foot-8, 215-pound swingman would be here. He grew up surrounded by miles and miles of cornfields in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. He’s a late bloomer whose thin stature—he was about 6-foot and 145 pounds as a high-school freshman—largely caused him to fly under the radar. Now, after a late growth spurt and a breakout sophomore season at Iowa, he might just be the steal of the draft.
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.