Many kids grew up watching superheroes: superhuman figures who possess special abilities to overcome the odds. Whether it was Superman speeding faster than a locomotive or Spider- Man leaping from a skyscraper, many of us dreamed of having the power to save the day. Superheroes give us hope, the hope that we can do the impossible or be great.
But up until recently, for many black children there was something missing in the superheroes we saw onscreen. They almost never looked like us. Superman, Batman, Spider- Man, heck even Aquaman, were all white. While we still donned their costumes for Halloween, in the back of our collective minds, we all knew that they were not us and we were not them. I could never look like Clark Kent or Peter Parker. My tightly coiled hair certainly never flowed in the wind like Thor’s. Those superheroes were not our superheroes.
Where the movie screen failed us, sports filled the gaps. Black athletes like Michael Jordan and Ken Griffey Jr. soared above the rim and scaled tall walls to catch fly balls. They were giants, literally, with seemingly superhuman talents to dunk, dribble and hit a ball unbelievable distances. And if we were lucky enough, we’d get a chance to don their costumes too, mimicking their signature moves, flipping our hats to the back and yelling their names while trying to become them.
By the time I became a sports fanatic, Jordan was fading and a new superhero was emerging: Kobe Bryant. He even looked a little like M.J. — tall and lean, fearless when driving to the basket against the giant monsters in the paint. He even had the same signature tongue wag early on.
But Kobe was different. He was relentless. He seemed to never get tired, and you could watch a game for five minutes and see that no one on the court wanted to win a game as much as he did. Every play mattered, and it was inspiring.
Most superheroes possess special traits that we as mere mortals could never acquire. But Kobe’s special traits were primarily between his ears. He thought the game, he studied it and he was willing to outwork anyone to achieve victory. He had the “mamba mentality.” You could literally see it. His eyebrows curled, his face scowled; it was like the Hulk turning green. When the Mamba showed up, all bets were off. I’d never seen a superhero like this one, a superhero whose greatest trait was his will to win.
Like most superheroes, Kobe was flawed. His transgressions in Colorado, where he was accused of sexually assaulting a woman in 2003, were well-documented. It could have marked the end of his story.
Instead, it became the turning point. He switched jerseys and got back into the gym, determined to outwork everyone else. When critics claimed he couldn’t win without his superhero partner Shaq, he proved them wrong, changing his game and style and winning multiple championships on his own.
Eventually, Kobe got older and, like many players, lost some of his skill and a new wave of superheroes (LeBron James, Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant) readied to take his place. But flashes of his supernatural gifts remained. In his last game ever, the old superhero donned his cape one last time, scoring 60 points.
Sports often fill gaps for us that we don’t even realize we have. They help us heal, they bring us incredible joy and sometimes inconsolable losses. While I’ve always preferred sports to movies, it’s because the characters in sports are real. They control the storylines. They inspire us and make us imagine what it would be like to be a real-life superhero. They give us hope.
I never met Kobe, but watching him was inspiring. Watching him with his daughters, watching him resurrect his relationship with his wife and watching him find peace and success after basketball when so many other athletes fail. As long as sports exist, little black boys and girls who don’t get to see themselves fly on the movie screen can see themselves soar on television in sports arenas. And that matters.
Like so many fans, I’m heartbroken that one of our black superheroes met his end. But I am grateful to have had the experience of watching Kobe put on his purple and gold cape and let us know that we all are capable of being super if we work hard enough for it.