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Fictional Black Athletes And The Importance Of Representation In Film

Jesus Shuttlesworth, played by former NBA star Ray Allen. From the movie, "He Got Game." Directed by Spike Lee.
Jesus Shuttlesworth, played by former NBA star Ray Allen. From the movie, "He Got Game." Directed by Spike Lee.

Sports movies are a staple of adolescence. They teach us about love. They teach us about loss.

But most importantly, they teach us to trust the voice in our head. The one that tells us to keep going. To never give up. To believe in oneself.

In honor of Black History Month, Only A Game asked friends of the show to tell us about their favorite fictional Black athlete. Why did this character's story resonate with their own? What did this character teach them about life?

Jarrod Sport, audio producer from San Francisco, CA

"My favorite fictional Black athlete is Wesley Snipes' character, Sidney Deane, from 'White Men Can't Jump' (1992). I was a very little kid when I first saw the movie. I didn't really understand what was going on. But Sidney Deane is the character that most stood out to me because of his charisma and how he commanded the screen. He was opposite Woody Harrelson, and you would typically think that the white character would be the main protagonist who's driving the story.  But it was really Wesley Snipes' character who was the strong lead — and certainly the most charismatic character.

"The scene where he shot [and then said]: 'It's pretty. It's so pretty.' He owned that court when he was on it. And he took command and he knew who he was. He didn't allow other people to come on to his territory and take control. And ultimately, they won at the end. So I think it's a great lesson for life — that you need to be confident in what you're doing and take command of your life."

Gloria Nevarez, Commissioner of the NCAA West Coast Conference

"My favorite fictional Black athlete is Rod Tidwell from 'Jerry Maguire' (1996). I was in law school trying to figure out how to get into the business of sport with a law degree. And although this story is about the agent ... the character of Rod Tidwell really resonated with me, as he faces a lot of fear and uncertainty about what his life is like if he doesn't get his contract renewed.

"And although he coined the phrase, 'Show me the money!' it really resonated with me in that it ultimately is about the athlete and providing for their family. And it really has struck a chord with how I approach working in college athletics — putting the athlete's health and well-being first."

Marquis Neal, Technical Director at Only A Game

"My favorite fictional black athlete has to be Jesus Shuttlesworth from the movie 'He Got Game' (1998). Amazing. I've watched it a million times. And every time I watch it the same thing clicks out to me. The reason why it affected me is because I grew up without a father. And watching Jesus Shuttlesworth, who was played by Ray Allen, go through the ups and downs emotionally, as it pertains to his father — specifically, because his father was in jail.

"I didn't grow up with my father, but my mom was in jail. So it's kind of a weird situation. It's pretty much the same story — just switch out the dad for the mom. And my mom always wanted me to go after my dreams and try to help me. When I was younger, I was like, 'I'm not listening to her. You've been in jail.' But as I got older, I started to realize that, you know, she's definitely just trying to help me accomplish what she wasn't able to — or apply her knowledge that she got in life to me. One thing that the movie taught me about life that's still relevant today is don't make decisions that aren't yours. You want to make a decision based on what you want and not based on what outside influences are going on."

Kenneth ShropshireCEO of the Global Sport Institute at Arizona State University

"Without a doubt, my favorite fictional Black athlete — from the movie 'Cooley High' (1975) —  is Cochise. It's the first movie, in my opinion, in a long line of movies where there's a Black athlete who's about to make it — and, spoiler alert, gets killed off some way in the end. For those a little bit young, think 'Boyz n the Hood.' Same story has been told over and over again. But this one was really the lead in this. And for me, too, it was impactful. I saw it with a bunch of guys I had gone to high school with, and we spent the whole time afterwards talking about who was who in the movie. And me and another guy, a basketball player, were the guys who had gone off and gotten scholarships and gone off to college. So we got labeled with the Cochise title. Although I played football, not basketball.

"But just, really, a touching film. And the added quality of it was the movie had the Motown music of that era. The movie, to me, was important as I look back on it — probably, more so than anything else, because it does display how fleeting that level of success could be. It dramatically displayed the highs of getting a scholarship — and then death. And we've seen that sort of scenario, the idea of, 'This is going to be this kid's way out. This is going to be his or her great moment.' And then something goes bad."

Niko EmackAssistant Producer at Only A Game

"My favorite fictional black athlete is Ricky from 'Boyz N The Hood' (1991).  I watched it for the first time as a high school student. At the time, I was being recruited by colleges and using sports as a way to better myself. So I really resonated with his character. What I think is so unique about Ricky's story is the fact that he did everything right. Here's a kid with horrible circumstances. He's growing up in the 'hood. His brother's a criminal. He's being raised by a single mother. And yet, he doesn't get negatively affected by any of it. He continues to pursue his education and his football career. He’s even raising a kid of his own despite his own father walking out on him. Football is his ticket out.

"But it's all for nothing. It's all too late. At the end of the film, he dies at the hands of gang violence. Over nothing. I think what makes Ricky's story so powerful is that Ricky is a personification of what it means to be Black in America. You can do everything right. You can go to school, you can get a good job, you can take care of your family — but you can never escape your Blackness. And, in a lot of ways, it's a death sentence. I mean that both literally and metaphorically. Whether it's gang violence or police brutality — or a less dramatic example, like getting passed over for a job because of prejudice or racism. Being Black in America can be the end of you. And I think that's what Ricky's character so tragically personifies."

Niko Emack Twitter Assistant Producer, Only A Game
Niko Emack was an assistant producer for NPR’s "Only A Game."

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