A kid with a cape, throwing a football to his father

Superhero Worship

I shared a love of sports with my dad, but when I became a parent, my son had something else in mind.

I was in my late 30s the first time I set foot in a comic book store. This was three or four years ago, the store a no-frills, basement-level space on a side street in the Pennsylvania college town where I live. Descending the short flight of steps, I was uncomfortable, a “normal” guy dragged against my will into what I presumed would be a room full of socially stunted weirdos. I did not want to be there. I was doing this for my son.

I owned exactly one comic book as a kid, and all I remember is the advertisement on the back cover. The ad itself was a comic strip, a single-page panel extolling the virtues of Spalding basketballs. The premise: Happening upon a pickup game at a local playground, NBA stars Rick Barry and Julius Erving demonstrate to a gang of awe-struck kids how, with the right brand of ball, they can play just like the pros. I can still see the panels, Barry and Dr. J drawn in late ’70s finery, shooting and dunking in long pants and butterfly collars.

I remember that page because I was a sports kid. To be clear, I lacked the physical talent and singular focus to qualify as an actual jock, and I always had other interests. Still, I loved sports: loved thinking about them, loved watching them, loved playing just about any of them. And once my athletic deficiencies caught up with me, around my freshman year of high school, I gravitated toward writing about the teams I was no longer good enough to make.

If there is a gene for this sort of thing, I failed to pass it on. My son is 12, a smart, funny, talented kid, and he’s into all sorts of interesting things. He’s a movie buff (the Star Wars saga or anything of the relentless action variety), a TV obsessive (this year brought full immersion in The Simpsons), and as avid a video gamer as his parents will allow. He is also a voracious reader. My wife gets most of the credit for that, having read to him constantly from the time he was in the womb. He grew into and out of Sandra Boynton and C.S. Lewis, onto J.R.R Tolkien and J.K. Rowling, and now he tears through series filled with secret agents and YA-friendly dystopias. His relentlessly creative little sister, 3 years younger, has followed in his book-loving footsteps.

Neither of them gives much thought to sports.

Like many American boys, sports were how my father and I bonded. One of my earliest, happiest childhood memories is of watching the “Miracle on Ice” in the 1980 Winter Olympics. I remember celebrating with my dad, rolling on the floor in an ecstatic embrace as the Americans upset the Soviets. I was 6 years old, and I didn’t understand what the big deal was—I couldn’t grasp the geopolitical implications of anything involving a bunch of guys on skates—but the emotion of the moment was palpable. And I got to share it with my dad.

When my son was born, I assumed our relationship would follow suit. My wife and I were living in Manhattan, where I worked at a monthly basketball magazine. My son’s early wardrobe was filled with NBA-logo bibs, socks, and onesies. There were infant-sized football jerseys from my alma mater. His first Halloween costume was a full kit from my favorite English soccer team.

Eventually we left the city for small-town Pennsylvania, and when he turned 5 a few years later, I signed him up to play in the local youth soccer league, and myself to coach. I quickly learned that there is nothing more simultaneously frustrating and fun than the cat-herding absurdity of coaching 5 year olds in anything. My son ran and stumbled, laughed and cried, and occasionally managed to toe the ball in the right direction. His first goal came a few minutes after he’d taken a kicked ball in the face. We celebrated like he’d won the World Cup, by which I mean we went out for ice cream.

But after just a few seasons he (and we) realized he didn’t actually enjoy it all that much. We talked him into joining the local swim team, and he showed potential, but didn’t love it enough to justify those long practices. He tried the summer track program and intramural volleyball. He didn’t hate them, but nothing stuck.

All of which, I should clarify, is fine. I spent a few years early in my career covering high school sports for local newspapers, and I saw the failings of enough parents—the stage managers, the scholarship chasers, the hypercompetitive ragers—to promise myself I’d never push my own kids too hard from the sidelines. My wife and I encouraged, maybe gently bribed once or twice, but we never pushed.

I cared less that my kid was great at sports than that he learned to enjoy them—not least so we could enjoy them together. As a father, this felt important. I’d try to get him outside for a catch or offer to teach him how to shoot or dribble, but he was rarely in the mood. I took him to watch football and baseball and especially basketball games, once or twice introducing him to NBA players I knew. For some of his friends, such moments would’ve been unforgettable highlights of their childhoods. My son just thought it was cool that they were tall.

I was never disappointed in my son, but I can’t deny being disappointed that we didn’t share this thing that had been so important to my dad and me. Still, there was no forcing it. In my kid’s mind, the dramatic reality of sports couldn’t compare to the fantastic drama, on page and on screen, of superheroes, stormtroopers, and spies. I held little hope that he’d ever come around.

Somehow, without planning to, I came around instead.

I was only trying to be a Good Dad on that spring Saturday a few years back when I took my son downtown for the annual Free Comic Book Day. I quickly learned it was the worst possible introduction for a reluctant first-timer. The place was packed. Some customers wore costumes. I just wanted it to be over.

Yet we’ve been back each year since. Once a year isn’t so bad, I thought. But then somewhere along the way, my son figured out that you can subscribe to comic books. He learned about a new Star Wars title he just had to have. And oh by the way, a helpful clerk wondered, did he know there were actually four or five? A new installment of Han Solo or Poe Dameron is now an almost weekly occurrence, and since the store is just down the block from my office, it only makes sense that I pick it up on my way home.

So now I’m a regular.

And here’s the thing: The people at the comic book store are actually pretty cool. We know each other’s names (conveniently, seemingly every guy who works there answers to John), and we’ve developed a rapport. They know when I pop in on a Wednesday evening I’m there to pick up for my son, not to obsess over the Black Panther reboot or debate all the ways Batman v. Superman failed on the big screen. They also know they might see my son and me on the occasional Sunday afternoon, when we’ve got some time to kill and allowance to spend. While he peruses the latest arrivals, I make my way to the graphic novels, where the nonfiction, historical stuff is more my speed. I no longer mind descending those steps—as long as we’re going in together.

And then last spring he started asking me to toss the football. I taught him the difference between an out route and a post. He’ll never go out for the school team, which his mother is just fine with. But he’s got a decent arm and good hands, and if I manage not to be too critical of his route running, we have fun.

I no longer work at that basketball magazine, but I still keep close tabs on the game, rooting for guys I covered before they made it to the league. I’m a homer for LeBron James, and when my son saw my nervous anticipation leading up to Game 7 of last year’s NBA Finals, he asked to stay up with me. It was a late tip off, but the school year had just ended, and even my wife and our daughter were game. How could I say no?

A few hours later, as the final seconds ticked away on a historic comeback for LeBron and the Cavaliers, my son and I jumped up from the couch. We yelled, and high-fived, and embraced.

Ryan Jones is the former editor-in-chief of Slam, the monthly basketball magazine. He wrote the first published biography of LeBron James. You can reach him at jonesypsu@gmail.com.

Illustration by Alex Fine

Originally Published December 2016