Amen Thompson and his twin brother, Ausar, sat side by side amid a swirl of tourists at Carmine’s restaurant in Times Square on Monday around 8 p.m. They had flown into New York that morning for the N.B.A. draft at Barclays Center, and now they were trying to decide what dishes to share with their family. Their father, Troy, who is also their agent, ordered sautéed chicken, spaghetti with shrimp and a Caesar salad with anchovies on the side.
Ausar tried an anchovy for the first time as he thought about the week ahead.
“It’ll be a bittersweet moment when we’re drafted,” he said. “It’s something we’ve prepared our whole lives for, but it means we’ll be apart for the first time in our lives.
“We keep acting like everything is normal, and we’re going to stay together like this forever, but it’s going to be over”— he picked his phone up from the white tablecloth and looked at an app — “in two days and 23 hours and 18 minutes.”
The twins’ preparation for the N.B.A. began more than a decade before the Houston Rockets chose Amen and the Detroit Pistons picked Ausar in the first round of the draft on Thursday night. They grew up in Oakland, Calif., with Troy; their mother, Maya; and their older brother, Troy Jr., who played college basketball for Prairie View A&M. When the twins were 9 years old, they created a vision board to motivate them on their journey. It had handwritten goals, such as “become the greatest N.B.A. player of all time” and “become a multibillionaire” and “become 6 feet 9 inch.” It also included a child’s idea of concrete steps to reach the N.B.A., like “run two miles dribbling left-handed” and “eat vitamins every day, healthy foods and milk.”
Before dinner on Monday, they’d seen their vision board on a billboard in Times Square.
Amen jokes now that the only goal he regrets writing is the height. He and his brother measured in at 6 feet 5.75 inches at the N.B.A. draft combine in Chicago last month. “I should have said that I wanted to be 7 feet tall,” he said. “Then I’d really be 6-9 right now.”
Their preparation ramped up in 2021, when they were among the first players to sign with Overtime Elite, a semiprofessional basketball league based in Atlanta. And it became a daily obsession beginning last June when Ausar and Amen attended an N.B.A. draft party for their friend Josh Minott, who was selected by the Charlotte Hornets in the second round. On his way home, Ausar decided he wanted to know exactly how many days, hours, minutes and seconds there were until he would become an N.B.A. player, too.
He also wanted to know the exact amount of time he had left to be with his brother.
That’s when he went searching for a countdown timer for his iPhone. He downloaded one and agreed to pay the $9.99 annual subscription fee. He scrolled through the photos on his phone and picked a shot of him and Amen celebrating on the OTE basketball court to use as a backdrop for the timer. Then he punched in the date and time of the next draft: June 22, 2023, at 8 p.m. There were 364 days to go.
When Ausar first turned on the countdown to the draft, time had seemed to saunter. The brothers were 19 then, and when the OTE season began on Oct. 20, there were still 245 days to go.
Over the past year, Ausar checked the app as often as once a day but at least once a week. When he needed a little extra motivation to rise for an early alarm clock, he’d open the app. He would nudge his brother and hold his phone open when they had second thoughts about staying late again after another practice.
They were part of OTE’s second draft class, but they were the league’s first players projected to be drafted in the first 14 picks, a segment known as the “lottery” and a signifier of top talent. And so the twins’ draft status was not just a matter of personal pride, but also a K.P.I. for OTE’s half-billion-dollar business.
When the OTE season concluded — the twins’ team, City Reapers, won the league title on May 6 — there were just 47 days to go. When they arrived in New York on Monday, they knew it could be their last chance to be together for a while. “The longest we’ve ever been apart is two days,” Ausar said. “I went to Florida last year, and he stayed in Atlanta. He called me like 30 times!”
On Tuesday, they went to the Empire State Building for a photo shoot with the other draft hopefuls who had been invited to sit in the green room on the floor of Barclays Center. They’re both scared of heights and had to be assured that the railing was taller than them. Even then, they were apprehensive about climbing the ladder to an observation deck that isn’t open to the public. Then they went to a court to shoot a segment with the “Today” show, went to two brand photo shoots and finished the day working out with the popular N.B.A. trainer Chris Brickley.
On Wednesday, they did a series of interviews arranged by the N.B.A. and then attended a meeting with the N.B.A. players’ union before making their way to Brooklyn for an OTE draft party. In an arts warehouse that had been converted into a content studio with a fenced-in basketball court, the Thompsons ran through five interviews in 90 minutes. They eagerly answered a question about what they were working on in their games (“shooting,” they both said) and tolerated another about whether they had twin telepathy (“no” was their curt response). After Ausar hit a deep 3-pointer over the fence, they returned to their hotel to try on their suits. There were 21 hours to go.
On Thursday, draft day, they woke up at 9 a.m. to get touch-ups from a barber in their hotel rooms and then invited four camera crews — including one from their designer and one from The New York Times — to watch them get ready. They joked about a last-minute switch of their matching double-breasted suits by the designer Waraire Boswell. They also teased the idea of trading places with each other when they were selected, to see if anyone noticed. But in the end, Amen wore the cream suit, and Ausar stuck with navy blue.
About 30 minutes after the countdown timer expired, Amen was sitting at a long table with his family at Barclays Center when he received a phone call from the Rockets to let him know they would select him with the fourth pick. Ausar sprang up out of his seat to celebrate.
“My heart was beating so fast,” Ausar said. “I was more worried about where he would be drafted than about where I would be. And I think I was happier for him than I was for myself.”
As Amen made his way to the stage to shake the hand of N.B.A. Commissioner Adam Silver, Ausar’s phone wasn’t ringing. Troy hadn’t heard anything either. Ausar was about to open Twitter on his phone to see if any of the N.B.A. insiders had tipped the next pick when he noticed that none of the TV cameras had moved from his table. When he saw Silver return to the podium, he sensed that he was about to be picked by the Pistons at No. 5.
When he heard his name called, he stood and paused, almost instinctively looking for his brother, but Amen was already gone. He hugged his mother instead. Nearby, Amen was being connected to a microphone for an interview and punched his fist in the air when he heard his brother’s name. They didn’t find each other again until a few minutes later, but they only had enough time for a high-five before they were pulled in opposite directions for interviews.
After leaving Barclays, they went to another OTE party. “If I ever have a son who goes in the draft, I’m going to tell him to put up a sign at every party that says, ‘Please, no pictures,’” Ausar said and laughed. “I feel like all we did was walk in, take pictures for an hour and a half and then leave.”
Finally, at 2 a.m., they collapsed into Ausar’s room and had a moment to celebrate with each other. The moment that they’d been counting down to since that draft party a year and a day before had come, and it had gone better than they initially imagined. “We didn’t just go top 10,” Amen said later. “We went top five.”
The next morning, on their way to appear live on “Today,” they got an additional bit of good news from their father: The Rockets were going to let Amen first fly to Detroit to stay with Ausar until Sunday, and the Pistons were allowing Ausar to fly to Houston to return the favor for Amen. The countdown timer had expired 13 hours ago, and time had seemed to slow down again. For at least a few days longer, the Thompson twins would still be together.