As Black leaders made strides on every other possible front, the exceptional figures who paved the way in athletics long before political power could be attained reached more milestones still. In almost every major sport, Black athletes made an indelible mark on the world stage at the Beijing Olympics. The national leagues for soccer, football, basketball, baseball, track and field, and tennis were all home to the greatest performances we have seen in the new millennium as the individual feats and team hallmarks astonished fans everywhere. In light of that, NewsOne would like to highlight the ten athletes who made 2008 a cornerstone of their storied careers.
Cullen Jones – After a near drowning incident during his childhood, the 24-year-old Olympic swimmer made it his point to become a strong swimmer. As a native of the Bronx section of New York City, Jones had to tread an unlikely road to realize his dream. He attended St. Benedict’s Prep in New Jersey, where his coach Lou Pettrizello helped propel his rise through the amateur ranks. At North Carolina State, Jones then set and broke several 50M freestyle swim records before making the Olympic team in 2008. Cullen Jones was instrumental in securing the 4X100M freestyle medal for the U.S. Men’s Olympic team, despite being the accepted underdog to a boasting French squad.
Serena Williams – Serena Williams waited in the backseat for the first stretch of her legendary career as sister Venus Williams made her name a fearsome bell rung in the ears of her tennis opponents worldwide. But, competitive fire runs in the family and, while Venus tended to struggle with injury in her twenties, Serena began to rack up Grand Slam titles and defeat the same opponents who had intimidated her in the past. This year was another peak for Serena as she captured the U.S. Open Single’s title for women by defeating Jelena Jankovic, capping a year where she contended in most of the Grand Slam tournaments. It was her 9th title.
LeBron James – NBA superstar LeBron James is the league’s best individual performer and, perhaps, one of the best teammates there is. He is a relentless scorer, a capable defender, a superb passer, and helps to raise the level of play whenever he takes the court. After a season of statistical highs in every category, James entered the playoffs with an improved Cleveland Cavaliers team ready to make another run at the Finals (where they were swept in 2007). Despite being derailed by the Boston Celtics in seven games, he scored a spectacular 45 points in the Game 7 loss, dueling with Celtics Finals MVP Paul Pierce (41 points) throughout. James was crestfallen after the loss, but managed to channel his energy into Olympic basketball, where he assisted the U.S. Dream Team Redux in winning the gold medal.
Kobe Bryant – Where James had failed, Bryant succeeded. Kobe Bryant brought his Los Angeles Lakers team to the NBA Finals after a season of unexpected dominance in the NBA’s Western Conference. And, after years of being the media’s whipping boy, Bryant finally earned their respect through Most Valuable Player voting. After finishing in the top five for several years with the Lakers but never taking home the award, it was a moment of redemption for the troubled All-Star. The Lakers also reached the NBA Finals for the first time since Shaquille O’Neal’s controversial departure in 2005, but they lost in six games. Bryant also used the Celtics lesson to drive himself to Olympic gold in Beijing, making clutch shots against motivated opponents.
Candace Parker – Candace Parker had a heap of other-worldly expectations to greet her as she became a professional player drafted by the Los Angeles Sparks. She met them all. Her college career at the University of Tennessee was a template for winning as she racked up individual awards like Player of the Year, and two national championships in 2007 and 2008. She continued her winning ways with the Sparks by earning Rookie of the Year, All First Team WNBA and Most Valuable Player. She is one of four players to have done that in any sport.
Usain Bolt – Entering the Olympics as a Jamaican wunderkind, Bolt had only been a name on the international Track and Field stage for two years prior. As a professional, he broke Jamaican Donald Quarrie’s former record in the 200M sprint. Picked as a heavy favorite during the Olympic sprint trials in 2007, Bolt matched his namesake once he set foot on the track in Beijing. He won the 100M, 200M and 100M relay gold, and was the first to win the trio since Carl Lewis had done it in 1984. Bolt returned to his home country of Jamaica as a national hero because he had vaulted the island nation to global prominence. Bolt wowed the entire world by slowing up to celebrate during the 100M sprint and still easily breaking the world record by hundredths of a second.
Adrian Peterson – The NFL running back for the Minnesota Vikings made his first impression as a player for the University of Oklahoma Sooners. Peterson earned Associated Press First Team All-American honors as the school’s second leading rusher of all time. Drafted in 2007, Peterson awed his fans with incredible speed and power, a rare combination for an NFL runner. Not one to rest on his laurels however, Peterson won NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year honors before then becoming the Pro-Bowl Most Valuable Player just weeks later. Peterson’s career holds promise, and he stands as the NFL’s leading rusher with two weeks of play remaining.
Kevin Garnett – The man known simply as “KG” has been the subject of intense scrutiny since he entered the NBA as a professional at a fresh 18 years of age. Although his effort and competitiveness never came into question, he often took the blame when his lowly Minnesota Timberwolves did not perform to the level of his $100M+ contract. Announcers, pundits, coaches and managers openly questioned if he was worth the money designated by his gargantuan pay. After many tumultuous years with the Timberwolves — and one MVP award in 2004 — Garnett finally expressed his disenchantment with the organization, and admitted he would be receptive to a trade. And so it was done. The Boston Celtics acquired Garnett for a slew of young players, and he began a new quest for the championship he so longed for in the Land of 1,000 Lakes. With Paul Pierce as the Celtics backbone, and Ray Allen acquired in a trade, the Big Three met and surpassed the expectations of such a highly touted group of players. Garnett and the Celtics won the NBA championship, which made his Defensive Player of the Year Award almost pale in comparison. An emotional KG cried tears of joy and exaltation during the final game celebration.
Veronica Campbell-Brown – The Jamaican sprinter had long been in the hunt for Olympic gold before she arrived at the 2008 Beijing Games. She won the 200M individual sprint in the Athens Games of 2004, and teamed with the other Jamaicans for the 4X100M title. Despite not running a qualifying time to make the Jamaican sprint team in 2008, Campbell-Brown won gold with them in a coup by the Jamaicans. She also took home the 200M gold, clocking the 7th fastest time in history.