Chadwick Boseman, famous for his role as King T’Challa in Marvel’s “Black Panther,” died on Friday, Aug. 28 of colon cancer at age 43. While his character in the Marvel Universe catapulted him to stardom, Boseman’s parts playing strong figures in the world of sports were some of his most prominent roles. No matter what part he played, Boseman’s unique acting style and dedication to grounding his roles in real experiences helped create some of the last decade’s most transformative films. Through his acting and his sports-fanhood, Boseman became a recognizable figure in the world of sports, and his death sent shockwaves through the athletic community.
Before his time playing T’Challa, Boseman became known for his performances of characters with strong morals and convictions, many of them athletes. At the beginning of his career, Boseman appeared as Floyd Little, a Syracuse University running back, in “The Express: The Ernie Davis Story,” a film about the life of Ernie Daivs, the first Black man to win the Heisman Trophy. This role as an African American sports legend paved the way for what was to come from Boseman.
In 2013, in what would become his biggest pre-Marvel role, Boseman took to the baseball diamond, playing a young Jackie Robinson in “42.” The first movie of its kind, “42” tells the story of Robinson’s career, from the minor leagues to playing for the Dodgers, centering around his first major league season in 1947. Having not played baseball since he was a kid, Boseman practiced baseball three to four hours per day, four times per week for four months to prepare for the role. By the end of his training, he could swing a baseball bat, run the bases and slide into a base exactly like Robinson did during his career. In fact, because of all the work he put in, Boseman actually played in a lot of the baseball scenes, something not a lot of actors leading a movie would be able to do.
Beyond his exceptional diligence, Boseman’s method is remarkable for what his “Black Panther” co-star Lupita Nyong’o described in a New York Times interview as his talent at “put[ting] human experiences in historical contexts. He wanted to connect [his roles] to the world that we know.” By playing some of the most significant figures in the history of the struggle for equal rights in sports, and by repackaging these characters’ lives in a way relevant to continued struggles for equality across the world, Boseman managed to make sports movies with an importance far beyond entertainment.
His style paid off: audiences lauded Boseman’s performance as Robinson, citing his ability to play a complex character and bringing the realities of the struggles Robinson faced from opponents and teammates alike to life. Critics agreed; Boseman earned nominations for multiple awards, including the NAACP Image Awards and the Black Reel Awards. In a twist of fate, Boseman died on the same day that Major League Baseball celebrated Jackie Robinson Day, in honor of the man whose life Boseman expertly brought to the screen. On Sept. 3, a little less than a week after Boseman’s death, “42” was re-released in theaters in his honor.
But Boseman’s time playing unrepresented sports stars on screen wasn’t his only impact on the sports community. Known publicly as a huge fan of the University of North Carolina, he once said, “My loyalty is in college. UNC. No matter how good or how bad they are. No matter if they blow a lead or not. Tar Heels for life.” Boseman frequently interacted with athletes and was both a fan of professional sports and a frequent celebrity attendee of the National Basketball Association’s (NBA) Slam Dunk Contest. He contributed to a viral moment in the 2018 contest, when he was approached by contestant Victor Oladipo before one of his dunks. Boseman handed the Pacers player a Black Panther mask before doing the iconic “Wakanda Forever” gesture. While Oladipo completed his dunk on the second try, the moment before the dunk would become one of the most watched from that year’s event. Boseman even judged the competition this past year while battling cancer. In his honor, the NBA took a moment of silence before all games on Aug. 28 to acknowledge all of Boseman’s contributions to the world and the sport of basketball.
In response to Boseman’s death, San Francisco Giants outfielder Andrew McCutchen tweeted: “I met you at the premier of 42 in Pittsburgh in 2013. Even though you were in the spotlight and all eyes were on you, I remember you saying, ‘I’m that one that’s starstruck by all of these athletes here.’ That’s the man you were. Humble. You will be missed. RIP Chadwick Boseman.”
This sums up Boseman’s impact. Even while doing good for the world by bringing meaningful sports stories to the screen, Boseman remained humble, constantly striving to continue to make a difference. He will be missed dearly by the sports community.