“There were over a dozen extinction-level events before even the dinosaurs got theirs! When the Earth starts to settle, God throws a stone at it. And believe me, he’s winding up.”
– Ultron, Avengers: Age of Ultron
We have come to a moment in our history when people all over the world believe in a coming apocalypse. You know you feel it, too. Whether you measure in months or millennia, the end feels extremely nigh.
I don’t say this to change the color on your mood ring, only to align on a point of view in advance of Monday’s alliance between the NBA and the Marvel Universe. On ESPN, the Golden State Warriors and New Orleans Pelicans will meet in a game that could have ramifications for the play-in tournament later this month. Nuff said.
But click over to the multiverses of ESPN2 and ESPN+ and the stakes and storyline are different. The Earth is facing extinction again – this time from invading aliens – and the Avengers need help. So Black Panther, Black Widow, Captain America, Captain Marvel, Doctor Strange and Iron Man are turning to the Warriors and Pelicans to find some supersoldiers.
Why so silly? Because it’s not so silly. When the going gets existential and the Avengers need a bigger team, who should they choose to stand by their side? Athletes. Yes. Athletes. These are exactly the type of people one would want to hand a billion dollars of Stark tech and hope for the best against angry aliens. After all, this isn’t some childhood game speculating whether the Undertaker could take out Mothra. This is serious.
The case for athletes as avenging wingmen starts in the body. Athletes have an excess of fast-twitch muscles, hand-eye coordination and cardiovascular strength. Superhelpful. Very necessary. Also obvious.
Now let’s move to the mind. Professional athletes find themselves apart from other people because of the nature and privilege of their prodigal talent. Some are divas because of it. Some aren’t. But they all understand overwhelming odds and miraculous comebacks because they’ve seen them.
They’ve seen both the fruits and frustrations of failure. (Don’t think that’s a superpower? Give a deck of Uno cards to your closest friends and get back to me when the losing begins.) They can resist the urge to put that Wild Draw 4 Card in a spot unsuited to its nature and the best ones will reflexively give the bombs to the teammate who can do the most damage. Behind with 2:56 to go isn’t losing to them, it just means no one has won yet. And even if they should lose the battle, they know the war can still be won. Victory may not be assured, but neither is failure.
Basketball players, specifically, know how to work as a team and excel at witty banter. Slo-mo isn’t going to faze them: They’ve seen seconds split in all kinds of ways and have correspondingly developed a respect for luck and chance and try to leave nothing to either. All while bearing the weight of other people’s hopes and joys on their shoulders and shrugging it off when it gets too heavy to allow them to play.
Did I mention how many of them are Black? That matters because to be Black in this country requires every single one of those skills, including luck and faith, while also carrying the hopes and hatred of a world unable to see you for who you are. (Too much? Colin Kaepernick got a job in football yet?)
But here’s another thing about time-ending events and why you’re going to want Avengers teaming up with athletes when the big light show in the sky starts. Time is always ending. It’s when you feel it start again that things get really interesting.
The word apocalypse comes from a Greek word for a revelation, in the sense of knowledge gained that is a game changer, a paradigm shift. What happened before the revelation no longer has any of the same meaning after the revelation. Some apocalypses might be subtle, such as the Pacific trash vortex, or shocking, such as the sun exploding. Some stuff feels like an apocalypse but time still churns on – any random Tuesday when you’re 12, or the Chicago Cubs winning the World Series.
And some are so clear, so clarionlike, so final that it feels as if you’ve just been told you’re a ghost, have been for quite some time and are scaring people. (Spoiler alert!) It is a pause between before and after. And who in the last 12 months besides basketball players have so consistently guided us from before to after? Whether it is because of COVID-19 or systemic racism, basketball players have shown themselves willing and able to stop the music to help others face it.
Still not getting it? Tell it to Jesse Owens or Jackie Robinson. It’s not my fault that the world needed to see a man win gold medals in front of a genocidal maniac or slide into spikes to prove Black people deserved the trappings reserved for other humans. I’m just trying to explain how we got here. Watch out for the aliens.