In the 1960s, John McPhee set out to assess what made Bill Bradley an exceptional basketball player, first on Princeton’s team, which is the focus of McPhee’s A Sense of Where You Are, and then on the New York Knicks with a prestigious stint as an Olympian and as a Rhodes Scholar in between. Bradley’s excellence at the sport went beyond the obvious factors like height and jumping ability — he was tall, but not the tallest player on his college team, and his “ability to get high off the floor” was “among the worst of the Olympic candidates” — and yet he became the highest per-game scorer in Princeton’s history, and he was later inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame.
You’ll have to read McPhee’s book to get the full explanation, but Bradley’s excellence boiled down to hard work, skill, and a “remarkable natural gift.” Essentially, he had eyes on the back of his head.
With these talents, Bill Bradley was an outstanding athlete, who excelled academically and went on to serve the public as a member of the U.S. Senate, representing New Jersey from 1979 to 1997. He was also a candidate in the Presidential primaries in 2000.
Most of us will never lead such a high profile life, but that doesn’t mean ordinary folks aren’t extraordinary in many ways. Many people I meet have at least one skill or talent that sets them apart from everyone else, whether it’s their kindness or their ability to listen, to navigate social systems, or to use their knowledge to improve other people’s lives. Those who use their skills to help others are superheroes without the capes and, obviously, without all of the powers we traditionally ascribe to fictional heroes.
Of fictional heroes, it’s interesting that my daughters’ favorite is Batman,* who doesn’t possess a superpower. In the words of my husband, who knows more about the superhero scene than I do: “That’s what makes him unique. He’s cunning and resilient,” and I would add a caveat about his wealth, which enables him to have all the gadgets and gear that endear him to children. Whatever his attributes or resources, he uses them to fight crime, a public good, even if his vigilante methods leave something to be desired in terms of Due Process.
It’s tough for children to understand that justice means more than simply catching the “bad guy,” and I’m not going to ruin their imaginary games with a detailed account of constitutional principles, or of how even the most skilled detectives and prosecutors can be mistaken about a person’s guilt. I’ll let their hero worship continue unchecked, except to teach them that, whatever a person’s skills happen to be, what really matters in the end is what she does with it.
*The real reason for their love of Batman is that they idolize their Aunty Na, who happens to be a Batman aficionado.