There is no prescribed order for looking at these portraits of ESPY winners. No uniformity of theme to frame the athletes’ prodigious talents. No particular silhouette that conveys the significance of their achievements.
You might scroll through the images for long minutes before you find the entry point. It’s a truth about sports we hold to be self-evident — not all men and women are created equal.
Premier athletic accomplishment exists as a kind of off-ramp from normal human experience, and we are moved by the simple fact of it. Scrolling through this collection of photos, some from more than a decade ago, of some of the athletes honored, we try to establish a connection with people who do a thing that puts distance between themselves and the rest of the world. We are looking for something that gives us a way in.
A 2001 close-up of Shaquille O’Neal, fingers splayed, covering/not covering his face, invites us near. It plays with the idea that the Basketball Hall of Famer might have tried to hide something of himself if life had ever tempted him with the option. Instead, physiology became destiny, and one of the NBA’s most dominant players ever exercised his outsize personality, ambition and smarts to carry that 7-foot frame off the court and into the rest of his life.
Mia Hamm, of the 1999 U.S. Women’s World Cup team, plays soccer on a field of young girls in Washington, D.C., or turns her face to the sun, and reminds us of that singular American moment decades ago when she and her teammates nationalized young women’s athletic joy.
At times, it feels impossible to separate the athletes from the racial context in which they occur. A portrait of Venus Williams — serene, simple, lovely — feels like the best photo you’ve ever seen of her, which requires some sleight of mind because it’s not a shot of her dominating on the tennis court while helping redefine the sport. But it does show Venus Ebony Starr Williams, breaker of serves, first of her name, outside the context of what are often racist, tiresome feels about her face and body, and that alone feels beautiful.
Mostly, the images represent athletes in the existential act of asserting themselves over, but not limited to, the sports they’ve reimagined and changed. In 2006, a young LeBron James standing in a cavernous hallway with his legs hip-width apart doesn’t telegraph who he will become so much as clarify what he brought with him into the room. It’s a certainty about the space he took up in the world long before he reached beyond basketball to build schools, produce documentaries and marshal the culture.
In many of the photos, especially the older ones, we have the subjects at a disadvantage. We begin with the end in mind. We already know their stories, so now we look for the proof of their narratives.
Who else sees Shuri, “Wakanda Forever,” in a photo of a laughing Sheryl Swoopes, the first player signed by the WNBA and a three-time MVP? Swoopes, a three-time Olympic gold medalist, worked different magic in different arenas a generation before the teen tech genius in Black Panther. But she helped create and hold open the lane for black girls who wanted to be something that had never been before. These shots of Swoopes demand that you see her for who she is, even as she changed. It was all still pioneering work.
We can’t always see who they are, or were, in these photos that fix some of the world’s greatest sports figures at specific instances in time. We bring to this watch party the beliefs we already had. But we keep looking anyway, keep trying to take whatever they have to give. It is our way of trying to connect with those people fated to represent something that lies beyond the ordinary human grasp. We scour the images again and again, those of us on the outside, looking for clues.
At a certain point in the late 1990s and early 2000s, it seemed like every suburban girl in America was interested in soccer, and that was most certainly due to the influence of Mia Hamm and her teammates on the U.S. national team.
She was called the most marketable female athlete of her generation, appearing on Wheaties boxes and in commercials opposite Michael Jordan. Even two years into retirement, as Hamm was when this photograph was taken, she remained an avatar for focused, joyful, ambitious girlhood. She wasn’t just good at one part of soccer, she was great at all of it: dribbling, striking, creating opportunities for her teammates to score and rallying them at low points. Hamm carved a path to exceptionalism in a team sport and, in doing so, was named U.S. Soccer Female Athlete of the Year for five straight seasons.
England had the Spice Girls. America had Hamm, Abby Wambach and Brandi Chastain. It must have been difficult to finally walk away from all of that at age 32, and it’s evident here. Hamm is crouched to tie her shoelace and appears, like many athletes shortly after they retire, as if she could jump back into her sport for just one more Women’s World Cup, just one more Olympic run.
It takes the viewer a minute to realize the only thing missing is shin guards. Like the All-American good girl she came to exemplify, Hamm, of course, is prepared. She’s making sure her laces don’t get caught in her cleats. A jaunty ponytail secures her hair. Perhaps this is a scrimmage or a clinic. No matter. The habits that build a champion are hard to shake.
The eyes are the table of contents to the soul’s story. For LeBron James, that story has been shaped for nearly 20 years by many voices, from fans to critics to the media and sponsors. But it’s been lived, every second of every day, by only one man.
Given the great American success story that followed, we sometimes overlook the young LeBron. But we all witnessed the debates over whether a teenage demigod dubbed “The Chosen One” a year before his senior prom was truly the heir apparent to Michael Jordan. We heard the barbershop banter about whether the Akron Hammer would dominate a league of grown men. Everyone had an opinion about King James. The last person it seemed to faze, though, was the one with the most to lose.
“Pressure been following me my whole life,” an 18-year-old James said after the 2003 NBA draft lottery, three years before this photograph was made.
Since his first professional game in Sacramento later that year, organized chaos has followed James like his own shadow. Which makes looking at this LeBron surreal. It’s a cue that youth, even for someone like James, is fleeting, even as we carry our emotional connection to it for the rest of our lives. No one knew the serious young man in this picture would evolve into the leader, activist, business tycoon and philanthropic force seen now. Some believed in the hype. Others didn’t. Even fewer believed he’d actually surpass the unrealistic expectations. Nothing about LeBron’s story has ever been normal.
Shaquille O’Neal’s hand could devour the average person’s head. He’d do it with a smile and his baritone laugh, of course. But there’s a deeper lesson in this 2001 photograph in which O’Neal obscures half of his own face. One that proves truer and truer as the years pass and his exploits in the NBA devolve into hand-me-down stories. Shaq’s still a pop culture dynamo and an MVP candidate for every room he steps into. But it’s getting harder and harder to see what once was. And to recognize that there was a time when maybe we, and even Shaq himself, treated the moment like a luxury rather than the gift it truly was.
Basketball may never see the second coming of Black Superman. He was a 7-foot tour de force who will likely remain the lone athlete to win an Olympic gold medal, MVP and NBA Finals MVP and release a platinum rap album. Good luck capturing that lightning in a bottle twice. In terms of the most dominant basketball player, Shaq is in the top two. Except he’s not No. 2. Like Shaq’s face here, we may see glimpses of his game again in others. There will be new athletes who blend Hollywood, the league and hip-hop. But never quite like The Diesel.
History may repeat itself. Halley’s Comet may come around every 75 years. But don’t expect to see anyone like Shaquille O’Neal again.
This is the body of the greatest swimmer of all time. It is not armored with muscle. It is not awesome. It looks naked, and a bit vulnerable. It looks quite human.
Michael Phelps delivered inhuman performances at four Olympics, collecting more medals than any athlete in any sport: 23 gold, three silver and two bronze. His eight golds in 2008 are the greatest haul in any single games. Three years after his retirement, he still holds three individual and three relay world records.
What’s not obvious in this photograph is the unique body construction that was the engine of Phelps’ dominance: long arms with double-jointed elbows, long torso attached to shorter legs, huge feet made flipper-like by flexible ankles. Most of that is hidden here. So we must look at Phelps, the human being.
Phelps grew up with a burning hole in his heart, left by his father after his parents’ divorce. Winning in the water filled the hole, and so did alcohol, but they always drained away to expose Phelps’ trauma. At age 19, two months after winning six gold medals at the 2004 Athens Olympics, Phelps was arrested for driving under the influence. In 2009, after his eight-gold triumph in Beijing, he was photographed smoking marijuana and suspended from competition.
A second DUI arrest in 2014 pushed Phelps into intensive therapy, where he reclaimed control of his life and rebuilt a relationship with his father. That propelled him into his final Olympics, the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Games, where he sealed his legacy with his final five gold medals.
This is the human fragility of Michael Phelps. It makes him look even more awesome.
Time is loyal only to its own clock. For Albert Pujols, now 39, his best playing days are in the rearview mirror. But in this 2006 portrait, the slugger once known as “The Machine” is eyeing the future and what it could possibly hold. Pujols would capture his first of two World Series titles with the St. Louis Cardinals that year. Even then, the Dominican superstar was fielding All Time comparisons.
Yet, then as now, the same question hangs in the air. What’s next? Before the start of the 2019 season, Pujols had said he intends to complete his contract, which ends in 2021. In this photo, Pujols bothers not with the camera but rather what the camera can’t see. The same holds true now. Cooperstown? Absolutely — he’s a first-ballot Hall of Famer, currently sixth all-time in career homers and fifth in RBIs. More time to focus on his diverse charitable efforts? “That’s part of the responsibility God has given me,” he said during his Anaheim Angels introduction in 2011. “Not just to perform on the field, but to give back off the field.”
Whatever’s next for Pujols is truly his pitch to make. But while he’s still manning first base for the Angels, let’s not lose sight of what’s right in front of us. He’s one of the greatest baseball players ever. We should never take a gift like that for granted.
She knew. Sheryl Swoopes knew who she was and what she could do.
We did not. When the WNBA launched in 1997, many of us who respected and valued women’s basketball didn’t know how good these women really were. We certainly didn’t know that Sheryl Denise Swoopes, born in 1971 in the West Texas town of Brownfield, was one of the greatest basketball players to ever step on a court.
Look into Swoopes’ eyes and you can see the experience of being slighted, plus the peace of being unbothered by the injustice. There is the calmness of knowing that she may miss a shot, but her scoring ability can never be stopped. Her gnarled knuckles testify to collecting thousands of steals, deflections, loose balls and rebounds. The discoloration on her right foot speaks to the thousands of court miles needed to secure this knowledge of self.
Such confidence comes from scoring 47 points in the 1993 NCAA championship game, setting a record that still stands for most points scored by any woman or man on college basketball’s biggest stage. It comes from suiting up for the Houston Comets six weeks after giving birth, then leading the team to the first of four straight WNBA championships. From having a son with her high school sweetheart, coming out as gay, enduring a breakup with her partner, then marrying another man. From winning three Olympic gold medals. From being the first woman to have her own Nike shoe.
Sheryl Swoopes knew. Now we do too.
Seeing Mike Trout look away from the camera neatly encapsulates the conundrum surrounding the Los Angeles Angels center fielder. Is it unfair or is it a precious gift that one of the most dominant athletes on the planet, and the recipient of the richest contract in American team sports history, is also one of its most unrecognizable? How should we understand the bizarre path to immortality the game’s best player trots?
Since his first full campaign in 2012, Trout has been named Rookie of the Year, finished in the top four of MVP voting every season and won the award twice, made the All-Star team seven times and earned All-Star Game MVP honors twice. There’s talk that he’s already the best baseball player ever. But the scrunched eyebrows on Trout’s face mirror the concern of fans emotionally invested in a career that has barely registered in much of the country. Baseball’s waning status in American culture is a complicating factor, of course. But so is the fact that the Angels have had only one postseason appearance during Trout’s tenure. Will team success ever align with individual sovereignty?
Only 27, with presumably hundreds of games to play and millions of dollars to be paid before he is immortalized in Cooperstown, there is still time for Trout and the Angels to break out. In the meantime, we see this stoic expression on an all-time dominating presence who is frustratingly unknown.
There’s a line in George C. Wolfe’s 1986 play The Colored Museum that states, “God created black people and black people created style.” Serena Williams was 24 when she sat for this portrait, and still in the early stages of articulating her personal style. But harbingers of what was to come — multiple covers of glossies such as Vogue, Vanity Fair and Harper’s Bazaar — peek through.
The frame is nearly overtaken by hair and lip gloss, and Williams gazes out hopefully, as if eyeing the future. But there’s also evidence of the conflict that has remained with Williams since she and her older sister Venus grabbed the tennis world as teens and shook it. Williams has long felt pressure to assert her femininity, especially as her skill, her physique and her boiling competitiveness made her a frequent target of sexist attacks. Accused of being mannish, Williams appears here as soft, romantic and sporting the sort of hair that every black girl who’s ever made a trip to the beauty supply store recognizes as “Wet ’N’ Wavy.”
Later, the “Wet ’N’ Wavy” locks would give way to billowing natural curls and more assertive declarations about gender and race-based inequities. Still, the raw ingredients were already present. Williams appeared as herself in the Memphis Bleek music video for “Do My…” in 2000, which not only took female athletic ability seriously but also treated it as something cool and desirable. “Throw a hand in the air if it’s the year of the woman,” Bleek instructs.
In this moment six years later, there’s a quietude about Williams. Her mouth is closed. She’s not wielding a racket or dripping with sweat, or selling a watch, or shoes, or athletic wear. Instead, Williams has continued forging ahead, making every year the year of the woman rather than settling for just one.
Venus Williams has never been known as especially talkative, so it makes sense that here she appears placid, almost sphinxlike, with a calm, understated regality. Her younger sister, Serena, issues fashion declarations that make her queenliness literal, but Venus, the first Williams sister to experience worldwide fame for her racket-based talents, is more reserved.
One of the most fascinating things about Venus and Serena Williams has been how they coexist on and off the court — they once shared a Palm Beach house together, and both are fierce, focused competitors. Their matches are fraught with an uncomfortable tension, so much so that the best thing about them tends to be their conclusions. Venus appears outwardly better at coping with loss, especially when it comes at the hands of her younger sister. She has learned to exhibit the gracious nobility of an older sibling, all the while knowing who is coming behind her.
In 2006, the year this photograph was taken, Williams wrote a letter to the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club lobbying for the organization to award equal prize money to male and female Wimbledon competitors. The language was firm, its message unmistakable: “I feel so strongly that Wimbledon’s stance devalues the principle of meritocracy and diminishes the years of hard work that women on the tour have put into becoming professional tennis players,” she wrote. In 2007, Wimbledon announced a policy of gender parity in its prize money. A year after that, Venus beat Serena on Centre Court to take England’s Grand Slam title.
How fitting, then, to see her seated upon a throne of damask upholstery, secure, pleased and smiling into the distance, as if she knows what is to come.