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.
But not much else felt the same. He felt empty, not dribbling a basketball every day. He spent the next five months rehabbing. At first, he took painkillers every three, four hours. His appetite soured. "I'm in the worst mood I've ever been in," Ingram says. "I was just trying to get back to being me." He'd watch highlights of himself playing to remind himself that the player on the screen was still him, that just months earlier he had finally broken through to play the best basketball of his career. After the All-Star break, Ingram looked dominant attacking the basket, confident pulling up from three. Since being drafted No. 2 in 2016, Ingram had been on a hunt to feel that comfortable on the floor.
The blood clot was shocking, devastating. For everyone close to him too. "I was afraid of the unknown," says Joann, his mother. "Brandon was more upset about the fact that he couldn't play." She remembers Brandon breaking down crying, telling her he'd miss the rest of the season. Doctors assured him that it was not life-threatening, that he'd make a full recovery.
But he was in pain after waking up from surgery. And then he couldn't sleep. Usually he is out the second his head snuggles up to a pillow, just like his father, Donald. The whole first night, though, the IV was accidentally turned off, Joann says. It was finally turned on, but he still ached. His back was stiff. He couldn't move, couldn't apply pressure on his right arm. He had to be helped out of bed, which irritated him.
He didn't like to think that he couldn't handle himself. That the blueprint he had designed for his life at 21 now looked different, uncertain.
And it was just the beginning of what would be a spring and summer of change. A few months later, Ingram would be traded to the Pelicans as part of the package that brought superstar center Anthony Davis to Los Angeles. Ingram was forced to grow up in many ways. He had a lot of time to think. Especially about time. How fleeting it is, how wonderful it is. How little he has of it, how much he thought he had of it. "I thought I was invincible," Ingram says. His body, so lanky, so long, at 6'7" with a 7'3" wingspan, was one of the things that allured coaches and scouts, from his childhood in Kinston, North Carolina, to his one-and-done college season at Duke. His body had upside. His body had advantages. His body had years and years ahead. "I thought I was the most healthiest person in the world. Young bones. Never gon' get hurt. Could do anything, eat anything.
"That surgery was a call for me, a call for me to finding myself."
That summer, he'd stare at himself in the mirror and think: Who are you? What do you really want to do? Who do you really want to be?
New Orleans is humming with confidence. Everyone seems to have their chests puffed out a little bit farther on this Sunday morning in November. The LSU football team had pulled off the unthinkable the night before, beating Alabama, snapping an eight-game losing streak against the Crimson Tide.
A man, nearly naked, covered mostly by gold glitter, is skipping around the French Quarter at 8 a.m. He is not alone. People in Saints tees, jerseys and caps are celebrating and drinking, anticipating the game against the Falcons in a few hours. But past the city, past the bars, the powdered-sugar beignets, the chants of Who Dat?, is a place a bit removed: Landry's Seafood Restaurant.
The restaurant overlooks Lake Pontchartrain and a bright, blue sky. It's windy. Quiet, except for the faint purr of sailboats whizzing by. And Ingram is just as unassuming, walking in and asking to sit at the bar with everyone else rather than the private room the manager had arranged. Wearing a green-camouflage do-rag, he hopes to blend in, though his towering frame of course makes that impossible.
Sometimes he pretends to be someone else. He likes to joke back and forth when he's asked if he's Brandon Ingram. "Nah," he'll say. "My favorite one is: 'Nah, I play soccer.'" That he thinks he can still get away with this, even as he's emerging as one of the NBA's brightest young stars in his first season with New Orleans, has every bit to do with his Kinston upbringing. His parents taught him to be humble, deferential.
His fried calamari arrives, but he doesn't touch it for the next 20 minutes because he's politely, intently answering questions. Later, after he's finished his meal, a woman in a turquoise-and-pink headscarf interrupts. She tells him she works in the kitchen and that her fellow chef is going to lose his mind because Ingram's here. "Can you please give me your autograph to give to him?" She hands him a folded, lined piece of paper. "Yes, ma'am," he says, signing. She walks away, squealing, as if he handed her a blank check.
Ingram glances at the two TV screens in front of him. The Saints are trailing 20-9. "The fans here will rejoice at anything, even a loss," he says. "They've been here no matter what. When we come out of the tunnel and lose, they say, ‘We'll get 'em next time!' That's very unique. True, loving fans. It reminds me of home." The change of scenery, change of pace, from fast L.A. to leisurely N.O., has benefited him. People here are friendly. Total strangers ask, Do you need anything? They say hi just to say hi. They pull up a chair if you are sitting alone. "Southern hospitality, that's where I come from," he says. "You can just feel it in the air. Coming here, it just feels good."
Donald can sense it too: "Brandon's in a comfort zone right now."
Especially on the floor. Ingram is blossoming, inching closer to answering that question in front of the mirror; closer to becoming the player, the person, he wants to become. His three-point shot is falling at a blistering rate of 45.9 percent. He's attacking with authority, scoring 26.1 per night. He's orchestrating passes, defending hard. There might not be another player his age, at his size, with his skill set, who has the feel for the game that he does. "He's been phenomenal," Pelicans coach Alvin Gentry says. "There's a physicality to his game, even with the body that he has, that tells me he's getting a little stronger and having a little more confidence in the banging part of the game."
The style has its cost. Ingram did miss four games earlier this month with a sore knee. But Ingram has showed no larger concerns, averaging 26.5 points, 6.8 rebounds and 5.0 assists in four games since returning.
"He's going to be a heck of a player for a lot of years," Gentry says.
Ingram feels happy. Truly happy for the first time in a while, knowing what he has endured, from the surgery to the trade. Describing a recent Pelicans practice, his voice is bubbling with the excitement of a 14-year-old who just finished his first varsity practice: "Everyone was going hard! Fouling hard as s--t! People were fighting through screens, playing the right way! One guy was encouraging the next: Knock that s--t down! I was just having fun."
Kyle Kuzma, Ingram's former Lakers teammate, senses it too: "I kind of knew this would happen. He may have felt constrained here, not necessarily comfortable in his role here," Kuzma says. "But going to a team like New Orleans is allowing him to be their go-to guy, their No. 1 option."
"B.I. is all about basketball. It's his passion. He works hard," Kuzma says. "He's always going to be prepared for every opportunity because of all the work he puts in. As long as he does that, he's got the keys to New Orleans."
Every time Ingram touches a basketball nowadays, he is conscious of one day not being able to. So, as well as he's playing, he is still motivated: "This is just a glimpse of what I can do," he says. "I am always in process." Even after scoring a career-high 40 against Brooklyn on Nov. 4, he chastised himself for missing two layups near the end. He is extremely critical of himself, rewinding his mistakes in his head at freeway speeds.
Ingram is introspective. Quick to listen, slow to talk. He looks people in the eye. Thinks about the world around him and his place within it. He is a 22-year-old with a 35-year-old soul. And like any 20-something, some days he feels uncertain. Some days he wants to be left alone. But every day, he practices gratitude. After his morning workout and after his evening workout: "I have a little session with myself." He tells himself he is thankful for his family, his friends. Thankful for that round ball that pays his bills, pays the bills of those he loves. Thankful to be alive. Thankful, even, for the way last season ended, for coming to New Orleans: "It was a blessing in disguise."
His mind circles back to time. How determined he is to maximize it, how some of his friends from back home have run out of it. He thinks about how he could have graduated from Duke just this year. How just four years ago, he was dribbling in the dim at Kinston High, even skipping senior prom to shoot more. "He was at peace in the gym," says Perry Tyndall, his high school coach. Most of all, Ingram thinks about the growing pains from this year: "What I'm learning about myself is, no matter what the challenge is, I can overcome it." But it's been difficult. "This process comes with sacrificial things," Ingram says. "Things that I gotta get rid of. Things that I've just gotta get out of my way to be who I want to be."
When asked what those things are, he pauses, choosing his next words carefully. It takes time to gain Ingram's trust. "I feel like I'm giving my secrets away," he says, smiling, then spilling: "I feel like I gotta get out of myself sometimes. I think I'm in my own world sometimes. I don't like to let other people come into my own world. Especially with my teammates, my coaches, I should be doing that. The important people that need to know how I'm feeling. I can do a better job of telling them exactly how I feel."
Ingram aches to be great, but he also aches to be great for this team. He wants to bring the injury-ridden Pelicans (6-11) into playoff contention. He wants to be a leader. He wants guys to be able to count on him, come to him. And for him to embrace that role, he will have to disarm. Step out of his cocoon.
"It's me being human, letting everybody know that I'm human, just like everybody else," Ingram says. "Of course we make a little bit more money, but everybody goes through something. Through something in life. Basketball is just kind of our cover-up. It's our lifelong dream. It's something we love to do. It allows us to provide for our family a little bit differently.
"But when you go back home, you still gotta pay bills. You still got mom and dad cussing us out. Still got friends and family that want stuff from us. Still dealing with friendships that we lost, still dealing with death. Still dealing with everything that every other human is going through. It's just, we get to play basketball. We get to cover it up playing basketball."
Ingram remembers playing basketball in middle school, high school, only concerned with playing with his friends. Cracking jokes. Not being last in sprints. And of course, proving people wrong who called him sleepy, slow, soft, just because he was quiet. Just because he didn't feel compelled to roar after a score. "I never thought about basketball as a business," he says.
Not until last season with the Lakers. His name was constantly swirling around trade conversations. He made a point not to log on to Twitter. Not to watch SportsCenter. But he couldn't escape the rumors. "Some of the things that were said on one side made him feel like they were saying one thing but doing another," Donald says. "He was playing with a chip on his shoulder." All of the "Baby Lakers" were. "The morale, the players, were just down," Donald says.
Losing was difficult. The rebuilding Lakers were struggling, especially with Lonzo Ball out with injury. Ingram was trying to figure himself out in an offense that was trying to figure itself out. "I lost joy sometimes. I only lost my joy because I felt like I could do more on the basketball court. I felt like I could help a little bit more," Ingram says. "I felt like I could have been a little more involved in the offense. I could have been used a little bit better." But he didn't complain. He told himself to play hard, be a good teammate. Don't let negativity swarm him. Still, it was a challenge. Joann sensed it: "He wasn't happy there anymore."
Ingram says he loved playing for the Lakers. He doesn't have anything negative to say about the organization. He is grateful that L.A. helped him achieve his dream of playing in the NBA. Grateful to have played alongside LeBron James. Grateful to have been coached by assistant Brian Keefe, now with the Thunder. Keefe, whom he calls his "coach-dad," put him through grueling defensive circuits and "wouldn't take no s--t." Keefe would check in on him every day, even making sure he had his afternoon snack.
But at times, Ingram struggled. His confidence ebbed, especially earlier in his career. His rookie year, he was trying to adjust to the physicality of the game and was disappointed in his performance. The gulf between who he was and who he wanted to be widened. I know how to play basketball, so why am I having bad practices? he'd think. He spent most nights in the gym, then he'd isolate sometimes, keep to himself. "I went through a little mental depression. Going home to my apartment like, F--k, man. This isn't me. I was trying to find myself," he says. "I had moments where I really felt like, Damn, am I ever going to get out of this hole?"
He sunk to the kind of low that jolts you into somehow pulling yourself back up: "People around me, they can give me talks, they can tell me what to do, but if I don't have the right mentality, then nothing good is going to happen for me because I'm not going to be confident." He did pull himself up, morphing into a key contributor by his final season with the Lakers.
As the trade rumors increased, Donald told his son to keep playing his game, take advantage of all the eyes on him. Not to step out of his element, but let the world know what he can do. Silence any doubts. Be patient and wait for his time to come. Ingram became even more determined, and it showed in his play after the All-Star break. "He just made up his mind: I'm gonna put it all out there," Joann says. "I'm going to play the game like I know how to play and leave it all out on the floor."
But there were things outside basketball still pulling at him. He was still grieving the death of his great aunt, Leatha Smith, his biggest fan, who kept every newspaper clipping of him, who cooked for him. He lost others too. "Friends getting incarcerated, friends dying," Ingram says. He grows quiet. Back into the cocoon. "It's nothing I want to put out in the world, because I don't want people to feel sorry for me. But I am human. I have struggles like everyone else."
When the blood clot ended his season, Ingram was in disbelief. He had been playing so well. "He kind of even said that was just him getting his feet wet," says Andrew Lopez, his close friend and barber. Passing time while recovering from surgery last summer was also a new experience. He didn't want to go outside because he didn't feel like he deserved to have fun, because he wasn't working the way he usually was.
Then he'd watch highlights of Kevin Durant and Kawhi Leonard. And of himself. He'd point to his figure on the screen and think: I can do this. I can still do this. But those thoughts competed with other thoughts: How am I going to do that? How am I going to be that confident again? What if I can't? "I had times where I didn't feel like my arm was going to get stronger," Ingram says. "It was just extremely weak. I didn't know if I was going to get back to a full recovery."
"I had doubts," he continues. "I've never been through something like this." But Ingram was so determined that, with one arm, two arms, no arms, he was somehow going to find a way to play. He developed a new mindset: I can be more than this. I have to work even harder. "He's the type of guy to always stay positive," says Darnell Dunn, another close friend.
Ingram channeled his energy into rehab, laboring on overhand motions. He leaned on his parents and his older brother, Bo. "I just told him, 'Stay ready,'" Bo says. "'Do what you can control. Keep the faith.'"
Then, one day, as the two were watching TV, Ingram learned via Twitter he had been traded to the Pelicans. He wasn't angry, wasn't sad. Wasn't disappointed, wasn't bitter. A calmness washed over him. He felt…ready. "He just told me, 'I'm gonna be fine. We're gonna be fine,'" Joann says.
He felt excited for a fresh start, too, especially once cleared to return to the court, though he only had about a month, month-and-a-half, before training camp and felt about 90 percent. But that was enough. He was just thrilled to play again. "His focus level was 10 times higher than it had been before," Lopez says.
Joann remembers sending a text message to Brandon in September, right before the preseason began: "How are you feeling? Ready to go back to work?" Brandon, sparse with his words even through text, just sent one word back: "Yessuh!"
Ingram feels a connection with his new coach, also a North Carolina native. Gentry likes to joke that Ingram is from the country, while Gentry is from the city. Gentry clowns him all the time about the fight Ingram was uncharacteristically involved in during the Lakers' home opener last year, against the Rockets, from which Ingram was ejected: "It was so out of character," Gentry says. "Everybody was like, Who is this guy throwing punches out there?! Because no one really saw him as that. That also shows the competitor that he has within him."
Gentry likes the way Ingram listens. He understands Ingram's desire to be great but is trying to get him to move on quicker from mistakes. "I want it to bother him, but not to the point where it affects the next play," Gentry says. He tells Ingram that he is going to grow, change. So will his body. Development does not have an expiration date.
Ingram is slowly beginning to step out of himself, open up to his new teammates a bit. When you really get to know him, he can be bubbly, funny. He has a subtle sense of humor, cracking jokes when least expected. Ingram likes that his teammates are also young, also pretty quiet. "We're starting to build trust," he says.
The Pelicans are very much a work in progress, especially with an injury to this year's first overall pick, Zion Williamson, who has yet to play a game because of a torn meniscus. Ingram is still not satisfied with himself: "I have a higher standard," he says, though he is also making a strong case for a maximum contract at season's end.
But he isn't focused on that right now. Today he's resting, stretching, having returned to New Orleans at 11:30 p.m. the night before from Charlotte, where the Pelicans beat the Hornets 115-110 after falling 122-104 to the Raptors the night before that. He is ever more conscious of his health.
"I'll try to never do load management, but it's understandable. Eighty-two games? Then it's 130 games if you make the playoffs? That's a wear and tear on your body," Ingram says. "Mentally, emotionally and physically for anybody. Whoever does the load management, they're doing it for the sake of their bodies. What they feel in their mind, it's great for them."
He smiles, remembering the Charlotte game. Remembering how happy he felt, seeing nearly 250 people from Kinston who drove the four hours, some taking off work, just to come to the game to see him. Just to tell him: God bless you. Just to hug him and remind him: You inspire me.
After dropping 25 points and grabbing nine boards, Ingram headed to Section 117, greeting each person. He saw hardworking people. People who know what it means to struggle. People who say good morning and truly hope you have a good morning. He saw his mom, who—no matter how many times he tells her to stop working, that he can buy her anything she needs—simply won't stop. (She reached 30 years at her company this month.) He saw his dad, who reminds him that he does not need to change even as life changes around him. He saw his siblings, his aunts and uncles, his cousins and friends. Even his dad's niece, who flew in from Providence, Rhode Island, just for that night.
Ingram felt full, as joy wrapped itself around him. He allowed himself to relish its embrace, to let the warmth seep down into his bones. No fear of what could go wrong. No fear of any injury, any loss.
He felt everything that motivates him to become the person he longs to be. And he breathed it in.
Mirin Fader is a staff writer for B/R Mag. She's written for the Orange County Register, espnW.com, SI.com and Slam. Her work has been honored by the Associated Press Sports Editors, the U.S. Basketball Writers Association, the Football Writers Association of America and the Los Angeles Press Club. One of her stories was named a notable selection in the 2019 Best American Sports Writing. Follow her on Twitter: @MirinFader.