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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Onyeka Okongwu walks into USC’s locker room and finds his cubby in the far corner. He touches the band around his wrist, black with green letters—NNAMDI OKONGWU #21, WE WILL NEVER FORGET YOU—and kisses it. He takes a seat, clasps his hands, shuts his eyes and begins to pray. In these moments, Nnamdi, his older brother is there. With him. In his chair, in his locker. On the whiteboard, on the door. Inside his sneakers, inside his jersey. Onyeka can feel it. Feel him. Nnamdi died in 2014 after suffering a brain injury from a skateboarding accident. He was 17 years old, a promising basketball player himself. “I think about him every day,” says Onyeka, now 19. Some days he wants to talk about it. Some days he doesn’t.
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.