The U.S. team becomes sisters, more than any team of men ever became brothers, because their star will have it no other way. They yank her onto elevators when the autograph stalkers become too much. They pretend to be her to throw the hounds off her scent. They help her disappear.
They're there for her when darkness falls. A doctor walks into the waiting room at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Md., in 1996 and tells Mia, her mother and her brother Garrett that there's only one chance left for him, a Hail Mary bone-marrow transplant. She reels out of that room, punishing herself for every day she chased a ball across the world and forgot about her family. Two months after the transplant in 1997, his immune system fails, his left arm goes numb, and a fungal infection attacks his brain. She feels the full power of her parents' hearts, gratitude that they opened up to a boy born in Bangkok 28 years before, as the family encircles his bed. She looks at her siblings, red eye to red eye, and realizes that all the old explosions are meaningless now, and that she will never again go months without calling them.
She takes a long, hard look at stardom, too. It has never seemed more foolish. She's never wanted more to vanish. Then she looks again. Her choice in the matter is fading, just like her brother. She'll never embrace celebrity, but now she's got to grip its hand. Because she's found her higher calling, her purpose, here on this bed: to reach even deeper on the field, and off it too, to play like Bill Hamm's daughter so she can give like Stephanie Hamm's. To use fame to channel hundreds of thousands of dollars into the Mia Hamm Foundation, to provide athletic opportunities for girls and funds to people desperate for bone-marrow transplants. To write letters to inspire sick children, to visit them and take them to arcades.
She watches her brother's breath hitch, his eyes open for an instant. "Ohhh, Garrett," she calls. And then he's gone: the boy who first brought her in from the sideline, and now won't let her go back.
Now place the ball on a white dot 12 yards from the goal. Fix the eyes of 90,185 people on it, the most ever to watch a women's competition, and lock the gaze of 40 million more on it on television. Turn up the heat: 105� on the field, players dizzy from dehydration. Turn it up higher: World Cup final, 0-0, U.S. and China deadlocked after 90 minutes of regulation and two 15-minute overtimes. And higher: birth of a women's professional league possibly riding on the five penalty kicks each team will take from the white dot on the floor of the Rose Bowl to break the tie.
Call Mia Hamm's name. Put her on the spot. She can't possibly disappear, not in front of 40,090,185 people—can she?
Holy smoke! She's trying to. She's telling assistant coach Lauren Gregg that she doesn't want to take one of the five penalty kicks. "Why isn't Mac taking one?" she asks, referring to teammate Shannon MacMillan. " Mac should be taking one."
"Mia, you're taking one," says Gregg.
"Why?" asks Mia.
Why? Her agent's fielding, and refusing, 15 requests a day for interviews and appearances and photo shoots of the best female player in the world as the girls of summer become the sizzle story of 1999. She's in a Gatorade commercial going one-on-one with Michael Jordan in a variety of sports as Anything You Can Do, I Can Do Better jingles in the background. It's crunch time. It's when superstars demand the ball. They have no conscience. They're sharks.