Dozens of young girl hoopers logged on to their computers, hoping to virtually meet their idol. Usually they’d be lining a tunnel in Seattle, watching Breanna Stewart as she runs onto the court. No matter. The girls were just excited to see her on their screens. Watch her. Maybe even talk to her. The girls were wearing muscle tanks, shorts. They looked ready to compete. They looked like her. Stewart started setting up video calls with young girls’ teams across the country last spring, during the height of quarantine, hoping to inspire the next generation of players while gyms were still closed. She wanted to tell them how to challenge themselves (she has to make 100 3s before she leaves the gym, 10 in a row at each spot). And she wanted to tell them about the voice in her head. The one that pushes her, the one that chases perfection. I have to be the best. I have to be the best.
Sabrina Ionescu woke in a panic. She didn’t know if she was still dreaming or awake. Whoa, she thought to herself. What’s going on? It took her a few seconds on this recent night to calm down, to gather herself. To realize she had been dreaming. But she couldn’t let the dream go. Lying under her covers in bed, she replayed it in her head. Every detail, every sound, haunted her. Especially that laugh. She kept hearing Gigi Bryant’s laugh in the dream. That sweet, high-pitched laugh that could jolt joy into the grumpiest of souls.
Natasha Cloud was on the phone with her mother, Sharon, when she saw that she was being pulled over. She told her what was happening, and Sharon instinctively asked to stay on the line. Cloud agreed. Whatever could happen, whatever would happen, she needed her mom to hear it. Be there for it. Call for help if necessary. Just in case, Cloud thought to herself. Now she saw the police officer getting out of his car. The cop, who was white, approached Cloud’s Audi S4 walking sideways, slowly. Crouching low, clutching his gun. He looked angry. He looked like he was about to do something.
Some say she’s in “Liz Mode” when she’s drop-stepping and spinning and terrorizing defenses. But Liz Mode was in full effect on the bench, back in July, as she watched her team’s lead over the Phoenix Mercury balloon to nearly 30. She noticed one of her nails was chipped. She couldn’t bear it. She whipped out her nail file and went to work. Legs neatly crossed, she looked absolutely unbothered. But the truth is, Cambage is very, very bothered.
Dust sticks to her sneakers. Empty Gatorade bottles and trash line a slippery sideline. The tattered net has one too many loops popping out. At least she has a court, she tells herself. At least there is a broom at the front desk, here in this local gym in Chico, California, to sweep the dust. She’s used to making do, making rundown courts feel like home. Layshia Clarendon, a guard for the Connecticut Sun, moved to the area last offseason to live with her now-wife’s family. The two couldn’t afford their own house yet. Not with Clarendon’s WNBA salary.
“PHEEEESSAA!!!!!!” She’d hear the word bellow out of coach Geno Auriemma at a practice, and she’d know she was about to get called out. Again. Another mistake. And the worst part? She knew he was right. She was playing too deferential. Too timid. Napheesa Collier had a long way to go. But that didn’t mean it didn’t kill the now-senior UConn forward to hear it from the team’s legendary coach.
Up, down, up, down. It’s a rhythm all basketball players know and try to control. But the older you get, the more you realize how little control you have. You can do everything right and lose. You can do everything wrong and win. You train your body beyond its limits, but it fails you. “Why can’t I be healthy? Why can’t I catch a break?” Parker has questioned. She has felt disappointed about not yet capturing the six rings she set out to win to match Michael Jordan. But the black-and-white lens in which a young Parker once viewed success has grayed. She’s learned to live with outcomes, not as she wants them to be but exactly as they are, in all their glory and agony.