His lungs were on fire.
He had run from baseline to baseline, on a track splashed with black and red and the printed words of his mantra: Overly Determine to Dominate. At either end of the court, he had caught a pass and taken a shot. He needed this to cut through the web.
When a coach handed it to him, Scoot Henderson imagined it was the end of a playoff game and that he had just stolen the basketball. He could barely breathe, so he could barely jump to shoot. The ball bounced off the rim.
He replayed the scenario and this time he made the shot. He slumped onto the first row of aluminum racks lining the track at his family’s gym north of Atlanta.
Henderson had resisted the teenage urge to hit the snooze button on his 7:30 alarm that morning just so he could feel this way. He was exhausted and tense, focused on building “grown man strength” for his looming transition to the NBA
At 19, Henderson had already been a professional basketball player for two years on this day in mid-May. He graduated from high school in 2021, a year early, to begin an apprenticeship with Ignite, a professional team for elite prospects in the NBA’s developmental G League. Now he was done with that and getting ready to go to Chicago for the NBA draft combine and the lottery with his family.
The lottery, which awarded the first four picks to San Antonio, Charlotte, Portland and Houston, offered a glimpse of his future. Henderson, a 6-foot-2 guard, has long been projected as the No. 2 pick in Thursday’s draft, behind 7-4 French star Victor Wembanyama. Henderson thinks he should be No. 1. His training showed hints of why.
Minutes after his shooting practice, he was lying on a purple yoga mat, shirtless in beige athletic shorts and black Puma sneakers. He placed one leg against the aluminum stands, lifted the other leg at a right angle, and lifted his core.
“This one will wake you up with a cramp in the middle of the night while you’re sleeping,” Brandon Payne, a trainer who has worked with Stephen Curry for years, said of the drill. Another coach shadowing Payne kept time on an iPad.
“Forty seconds,” the timer said. Henderson took a deep breath.
“Thirty seconds.” Henderson clenched his fists.
Get stronger, Henderson thought. The game, which he had learned over the past two years, was more physical, more urgent when it involved men trying to feed their families instead of high schoolers for fun.
“Fifteen seconds.” Henderson frowned.
After two more repetitions, the trainer shadowing Payne collected Henderson’s sweat-soaked mat and said, “Turned that thing into a towel.”
A path to the NBA
Henderson slid into the driver’s seat of his black Chevrolet Tahoe and closed the door beside him. He was on his way to the barber after his grueling workout at Next Play 360, the gym his parents, Chris and Crystal, own in Marietta, Ga. He was used to the physical and mental pressure of lifting weights and perfecting his jump shot. Driving his Tahoe was another matter.
He had passed his driving test the year before, but now cutting across two lanes to turn left onto Canton Road gave him pause. Henderson edged the SUV into the intersection, thought twice and turned around. He waited until traffic cleared in both directions and then hit the gas.
He is one of seven children, aged 17 to 31, and Chris and Crystal always tell them not to be timid. Be the bold person who makes mistakes, they said, not the one who sat at home with regrets. That’s what Scoot thought when he graduated high school at 17 and skipped college for the G League.
Never before have so many arteries been open for basketball prodigies — college, G League, Overtime Elite, overseas teams — to travel into the NBA A photo near the front doors of the Hendersons’ gym commemorates Scoot’s choice: Playing in an Ignite game last season, his arms a little slimmer. He had passed it on his way to the hairdresser, today’s more chiseled arms tucked under the long sleeves of a fresh black shirt with the word “trailblazer” on the front next to a skeleton riding a motorcycle.
Skipping college wasn’t the easy choice (though it certainly helped that the Ignite reportedly paid him $1 million for his two seasons). But it will pay off big if, as expected, his name is one of the first few NBA commissioner Adam Silver visits the draft Thursday and he signs a deal worth tens of millions of dollars. But it also increases the pressure.
While Scoot was working out, a recent No. 2 draft pick, Memphis Grizzlies guard Ja Morant, struck up a conversation in the gym. The day before, the Grizzlies had suspended Morant indefinitely after he displayed a gun during an Instagram Live video for the second time in just over two months. Morant had apologized and been suspended for the first incident. Scoot and his friend questioned why Morant would ever need a gun.
“It looks bad,” Scoot said of the latest incident, “after you said you’ve changed.”
The Henderson family
Around noon, Scoot pulled into a shopping center in downtown Marietta. He eased into a parking lot and then went to a barbershop sandwiched between a deli and a martial arts studio. The inside of the shop smelled of leather and lavender, and a fan circulated the humid air. “SportsCenter” played highlights in the background.
Henderson had wanted to get his hair braided, but time before his flight was tight.
“Are you or do you know someone interested in buying or selling a home?” read a sign above the chair of Ervin Williams Jr., also a realtor, as he used clippers to sharpen the edges of Henderson’s hair and shape his hairline.
Henderson scrolled through his iPhone.
“Who did you get in the final?” Williams asked.
“Denver versus Philly,” Henderson said. “Sorry, I meant Boston.”
Williams finished nearly half an hour later, though for the most part it looked as if he had never started. No matter: Henderson felt the fresh confidence, ready to be on TV the next day.
He stopped at home to finish packing and met his family back at the gym.
Scoot has surrounded himself with family members. Moochie, Scoot’s youngest sister, was in the gym practicing her shot; she will play at Georgia State University this fall. Crystal rushed between her house and the gym so many times that she seemed to be in both places at once. One sister is Scoot’s stylist. One is his assistant. Another helps him build his profile on social media. A brother lives and often trains with him.
Onyx, the assistant, and Diamond, the social media strategist, who was now wearing one of his brother’s suits, climbed into a waiting Mercedes Sprinter van with their parents. Scoot jumped in with a bag of chips and a sports drink.
Tall red maples and oaks ebbed as downtown Atlanta’s skyscrapers appeared and disappeared along Interstate 75.
Chris and Crystal are Long Islanders raised under the sirens of the rap group Public Enemy. Chris is the type of New Yorker whose steel-toed Timberland boots crunched snowy asphalt as he frolicked with his cousins. But he had been visiting relatives in Georgia, and the area’s affordability and weather drew him south. Crystal, who thought the trip from Long Island to Harlem too far, had to be persuaded to join him.
Now they are getting used to hopping on planes as easily as they once crammed into the family car.
Crystal asked Scoot if he had his ID.
Scoot patted his gray sweatpants as if he had forgotten.
“Stop playing,” Crystal said.
The Hendersons can only remember how they got their distinctive nicknames of Scoot, Bootchie and Moochie, and they rarely miss a chance to make fun of each other.
The siblings made fun of Chris for being out of shape. He said he had intended to start training harder but had messed up his shoulder.
“This is all your fault,” he declared, rubbing his right arm. “This is years and years of recovery.”
Unspoken as the van approached the airport was the importance of the trip—that Scoot was moving ever closer to his destination—that his life, and in turn theirs, would be changed, and a little bit of the unknown finally made known.
Instead, the van’s conversation revolved mostly around food.
No one understands why Scoot still won’t eat red sauces, an abstinence that began when he was a toddler and his older brother Jade had chased him around with a ketchup bottle.
Spaghetti? Makes his stomach curl.
Bolognese? Can’t stand the smell.
All dishes are inevitably compared to food in New York.
“Might have to go back to Long Island,” Scoot said of the family attending the draft in Brooklyn, eyeing an opportunity to visit his favorite pastrami spot. “Might have to make that trip again.”
‘Gives me confidence’
The Hendersons unloaded from the van at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport around
The buttery smell of pretzels lured Scoot to Aunt Anne’s — “They always get me,” he said — and then he found a seat outside Gate 21 for United Airlines. Aside from his black Louis Vuitton backpack, covered in a fluorescent teal pattern of the brand’s logo, Scoot looked just about any other teenager taking a trip with his family.
He asked Crystal if he could borrow her phone charger.
“Listen, son, it’s mine,” she said. “Do I need to put my Social Security on it?”
“It’s mine,” Scoot said. “You borrowed it from me a long time ago.”
“Don’t be like that,” she said, handing it to him.
Scoot popped his headphones over his head and listened to Georgia rappers Kash Kani and Lil Crank.
“They don’t rap about good things, but it just makes me pop a little bit, gives me confidence,” he said sheepishly.
After a short delay, the plane was ready for boarding a little after 18. Scoot found his first class seat, 3F, and put a mask over his face. He said a couple of teammates had caught the coronavirus on a flight during the season. He listened to music and fell asleep shortly after takeoff.
About two hours later, he was at O’Hare International Airport, a crowd of autograph seekers calling his name.
He waited for his luggage at Baggage Claim 14, startled that they knew who he was. Crystal glanced at a few of them from the side as they approached, but Scoot politely and hurriedly wrote her name with Sharpie pens on hats and basketballs.
A sky the color of candy candy greeted the family outside the airport.
“We all made it here safe and sound,” Chris said.
“That’s all that matters,” Crystal said.
The sky fell various shades of dark blue as the van climbed through traffic and marched towards the skyscrapers of Chicago. The discussion returned to food and, most urgently, what they wanted to eat that night.
The van turned off the highway and onto surface streets. An elevated train rumbled overhead.
They called a bistro with Asian cuisine called Tao. Scoot ordered lamb.
“Scoot, are you eating lamb chops now?” Diamond asked.
“It’s steak,” he said.
“It’s not steak,” she said. “It’s literally lame.”
Several signature seekers were waiting for Scoot when he arrived shortly after 9pm at the entrance to his hotel. Scoot offered to take selfies but found no people to take them and entered.
He checked in at the front desk and then took the elevator to his room on the 27th floor. He had asked for a high floor, and his windows revealed a stretch of Lake Michigan. Heights bother him somewhat, but not enough to bypass this view.
He would spend the next day doing interviews and talking to Silver, the commissioner, before the drawing at night. He had heard enough of the talk about Wembanyama, who everyone said was the de facto first choice. It was the same chirping that had filled television and social media when Scoot and Wembanyama met in two exhibition games in Nevada in October.
In the first game, Wembanyama scored 37 points for his French team, Metropolitan’s 92. Scoot dropped a team-high 28 points for Ignite and left with a win.
All the talk made Scoot rush back into the gym.