Terrence Ross, the 27-year-old hyper-athletic Orlando Magic wing who is having a breakout season seven years into his NBA career, can pinpoint the exact moment in his life when he became fully aware of his superpowers.
It was between his freshman and sophomore year at the University of Washington. Growing up in Portland, Ross always knew he wanted to play basketball for as long as he could. The main goal, though, was just getting to college on a basketball scholarship. He never really thought about playing in the NBA. He was not considered an elite prospect in high school -- never a McDonald's All-American, wasn't invited to the Jordan Brand games. He figured he'd play four years in college, then play overseas; maybe an overseas stint could afford him some looks in the NBA. If not, well, he'd be able to make good money playing his favorite sport in a cool foreign country. There are worse things.
In the summer of 2011, Ross went to Kevin Durant's Nike camp for top collegiate players. It was the first big camp Ross ever went to. He just went out and had fun, had a thrill playing against Durant himself, and it turned out that Ross was one of the top performers at the camp.
"When I got back to school, I was walking from study hall to the gym to get some shots up, and one of the assistant coaches came up to me and said, 'Yeah, man, I got a lot of calls from GMs this morning,'" Ross recalled. "I was like, 'GMs?' I was shocked that he said that. I had friends who were always trying to make it to the league, and they knew they were going. So this moment, it was like, 'OK, this is my turn to make that happen for myself.'"
After his workout that summer day, Ross got on his computer and went to the NBA mock draft websites. He was stunned. Some of them had him going in the top 10. He called his mother and told her he thought this far-fetched basketball dream was actually becoming real.
A year later, Ross was selected by the Toronto Raptors with the eighth pick. He signed a contract for millions of dollars that he never dreamt of being able to make. He won the Slam Dunk Contest his second year in the NBA, and later became the first NBA player to score 50 points in a game during a season in which he averaged fewer than 10 points per game. Now he's in Orlando, blooming into the player with all that promise as he uncovers the full extent of his powers.
Taking off the mask
If his life were a comic book, this seemingly innocuous moment back in college would be the central focus of Terrence Ross' origin story: A young man's superpowers are revealed to him in one life-changing moment. Ross is obsessed with comic books. He has more than 300 comic books and a bunch of action figures, some of which are his and some of which are his four-year-old son's. He doesn't collect rare comic books -- you don't do that when you have a 4-year-old boy and an 8-month-old daughter running around the house -- but he might start once his kids get older. He has an arcade machine that's loaded up with thousands of old-school video games. He watches every new Marvel and DC Comics movie, usually going to the theater alone – "I gotta lock into the movie" – a few days after the theatrical release to let the crowds thin out, ideally on a day off on a road trip.
He's more attracted to the characters who have a dark side, and more depth to their backstories. That's why Captain America, one of his son's favorites, is Ross's least favorite superhero: "He's just too self-righteous, too noble. I understand you're the perfect human and have the best morals, but you almost get the sense he thinks he's better than everybody. There's no depth, no dark side." His favorite comic book character is Deadpool -- "His comics are a little bit more for adults than for kids" -- while his second favorite is the supervillain Thanos. "His back story is crazy," Ross told me. "You've seen him in the movies -- the dude that does the snap? He's hellbent on destroying everything and killing everybody, the big purple guy that goes from universe to universe, destroying stuff."
Ross loves dissecting the backstories of the heroes and the villains. He finds it fascinating that a character's past can determine his future. So when I asked him which superhero would be most analogous to his basketball career, he was both intrigued and utterly, completely stumped. Too difficult of a question, he said. Some guys on the Magic were easy. Rookie big man Mohamed Bamba is an easy one: With those shot-swatting arms that give Bamba the longest wingspan in the NBA, he's Mister Fantastic, the leader of the Fantastic Four who can stretch his body into any shape he wants. So is bald Magic head coach Steve Clifford: He's Professor X, the leader of the X-Men.
As for Ross? Well, think about it: He was just a normal kid growing up in Portland. He loved basketball, but he was never told he'd amount to anything special. He wasn't like his Magic teammate Aaron Gordon, who has known he would become an NBA player since he was dunking as a middle-schooler. Then, all the sudden, in one moment as a teenager, Ross became aware of his superpowers, and from there he lifted off, the superhero who didn't blossom until late.
"You could say Spider-Man," Ross laughed. "He was a kid who was always doing the right things, always a good, smart dude. Who would have thought he'd get bit by a radioactive spider and turn out into one of the best superheroes of all time?"
Ross isn't one of the best NBA players of all time, but he's having his best season at a perfect time: The season before he becomes an unrestricted free agent for the first time. He has taken on his newly appointed role as sixth man with vigor as a player that Clifford can count on for microwave scoring off the bench.
Ross is averaging a career-high 13.7 points on a career-high 11.8 shots per game entering Wednesday's game against the Detroit Pistons (7 p.m. ET -- watch on fuboTV with the NBA League Pass extension here). He's hitting 3s at a near-40-percent clip, ranking 20th in the NBA in 3-point percentage among players averaging five or more attempts per game. Ross only played in 24 games last season because of injuries, and by the time he was fully healthy, the season was over. So he didn't take any time off in the offseason. He stayed in Orlando, didn't take a break, and kept working all summer. When Clifford was hired, Ross saw him the next day at the Magic practice facility. They hit it off immediately. Ross struck Clifford as a selfless, team-oriented player. The sixth man role fit well.
"His play has been good because of his offseason," Clifford told me recently. "He had a terrific August and a terrific September. I noticed he started really amping things up in July. He came into camp in a good place. When you work really hard at something and you're talented, you play well.
"It's not very hard to find ways to get him shots," Clifford continued. "His elevation. He has explosiveness. And he does not need much room to get a good shot off. Off staggers or pin-downs or whatever it is, you can't let him get loose. Because if he makes his first couple, it's over."
Growing into his passions
Ross was not a comic-book nut when he was a kid. It was around the time he was drafted when he first watched "Iron Man." Cool movie, he thought. Then he realized this was part of the much larger Marvel Cinematic Universe. He was astounded at how all these superheroes and supervillains were connected. He dove in and studied the backstories of these comic-book characters. "From there it just spiraled out of control," Ross said.
One of the joys of having a 4-year-old son is that the two share a love of comic books and superhero movies. His son, Tristan, loves Spider-Man, Thanos and the Hulk. He was worried about letting his son watch the recent "Avengers: Infinity War." He worried all the fighting would be too much for him, and he worried that his son couldn't sit still for two hours. Tristan ended up loving it.
The movie Ross is most excited about now is "Glass," the new M. Night Shyamalan superhero thriller. Ross loves how Shyamalan can make a superhero film that seems so realistic instead of like a cartoon, and how you can't really tell at the beginning that the characters have superpowers. But Ross hadn't seen it yet. He needed to properly prepare first, by re-watching Shyamalan's "Unbreakable," the original film in the trilogy that "Glass" completed. Ross is into other things as well – he's currently reading "Scar Tissue," the autobiography of Red Hot Chili Peppers frontman Anthony Kiedis, and he's an avid fan of 1990s grunge bands like Pearl Jam and Nirvana – but outside of basketball, it's in the comic-book world where Ross's heart lives.
Whenever the Magic are in Los Angeles for a road trip, Ross likes to visit Marvel Studios in nearby Burbank. His agency has helped set him up with tours of the studio and of where the films are being edited. What he loves most is how comic books are sitting around everywhere; Ross will sit in the studios and chill for hours, reading comics. He's never been to the San Diego Comic-Con, the enormous annual convention for the comic industry, but he's planning to go this summer.
Someday, after he retires from the NBA, Ross hopes to get into that industry. His main post-basketball goal is to work for Marvel. The moviemaking side, the comic side, the business side: Anything involved with comics would be a thrill. He's even considered invented a superhero who is a basketball player.
"That'd be a dream come true," Ross said. "That'd be like making the NBA twice."