In the Paint: How Art Has Become the Latest Craze with the NBA and Its Stars

Jared Zwerling@JaredZwerlingNBA Senior WriterJanuary 23, 2015

Billi Kid

Last month, when Carmelo Anthony welcomed a select group of writers inside his renovated Terminal 23 gym in New York City for the release of his Jordan Melo M11 sneaker, he made a unique introduction: "I want to show you around like I'm an art curator."

Anthony, a big art collector of street artists and works depicting Muhammad Ali, led everyone through the space—complete with Melo-inspired murals and floor-to-ceiling imagery depicting New York City.

It was quite a departure from typical athlete appearances to see Anthony as an art-museum-like tour guide. And it represents an emerging trend spanning the NBA.

For years, street and graffiti art—along with the art of tattoos and hip-hop—have mingled with the inner-city playground courts where many NBA players first honed their skills. But over the last five years or so, Anthony and other star players have become actively involved in the art world in different ways.

From players gravitating to artsy and high-end fashion, the creativity of social media and an increasing willingness to be more openly expressive—think the "I Can't Breathe" shirts—collecting and even collaborating with artists, like Kevin Durant working with Washington, D.C.-based artist Delano Brown on an artistic pool table, have become a big part of the NBA's lifestyle.

Carmelo Anthony as art curator inside his customized Jordan Brand Terminal 23 gym, with the artistic backdrop of New York City all around him.
Carmelo Anthony as art curator inside his customized Jordan Brand Terminal 23 gym, with the artistic backdrop of New York City all around him.Bleacher Report

"As we look at popular culture and how it impacts sports, I think it's more intertwined—the art scene, fashion," said longtime art aficionado Grant Hill, whose African-American collection traveled to museums across the country in the early to mid-2000s.

"You didn't see athletes going to fashion shows back in the '90s. It was sort of two separate worlds. I think this younger generation is bold, they take risks—not just in dress, but in art. I think street art is that; it's in your face, it's not really trying to conform or fit in, but really trying to stick out. So it sort of embodies the world that we're in right now."

The movement has taken shape in four distinct areas that Bleacher Report explored through the standout players and artists involved.

1. Player-created art and events

It was early August last year in Miami, and Dwyane Wade arrived at Brisky Gallery wearing a red Heat warmup suit. He was given a pair of goggles, but they weren't to protect his eyes from any errant elbows. The caution? Flying paint.

For two hours, Wade, a fashion trendsetter, used a basketball as a brush, dribbling different paint-covered balls on pieces of an actual NBA hardwood—the 2011 All-Star court. The project was a collaboration between curator Bill Fickett, artist Billi Kid and Salvatore LaRocca, the NBA's president of global operations and merchandising. "In The Paint" debuted in early December at Miami's Art Basel, arguably the world's premier international art show for modern and contemporary works.

"When they presented it to me, I loved it right away," said Wade, who first became involved with Art Basel in 2010 when his foundation hosted a youth drawing event. "I said, 'My boys can be involved in this and we can make a mess?' It was crazy how it all came together with paint and a basketball and a floor. You make art by how your body moves or by how hard you pound the ball, how the paint splashes. It was great to see."

Kid, who's well-known for taking iconic objects, such as stop signs, and using them as canvases, believes there's a special connection between art and the NBA that other leagues can't replicate.

"Now that I'm seeing the players and have been to a few games, I really see the art in it and the craft," he said. "It's almost like watching a performance ballet on the court."

The project with Wade, who was paid more than a typical star's per-game paycheck for his involvement, was inspired by a vision that Fickett had years ago. In the early 1980s, Fickett, a former electrician turned apparel entrepreneur, was the first person to secure a licensing agreement with the National Basketball Players Association to depict players on shirts, after one featuring a caricature of Larry Bird with the body of the Massachusetts state bird.

As Fickett went on to help build Salem Sportswear into a $100-million-plus company, he had the idea of one day selling player-generated art on shirts.   

After having done "In The Paint," Kid and Fickett are working on a plan to develop art and apparel with players in different NBA cities and then sell the merchandise at half-retail, half-gallery stores customized for each player. The shops would also include art on actual NBA backboards, which Kid, Fickett and LaRocca have been curating at Art Basel for several years.

Bill Fickett and Billi Kid with one of Dwyane Wade's pieces as part of "In The Paint."
Bill Fickett and Billi Kid with one of Dwyane Wade's pieces as part of "In The Paint."Bleacher Report

"These players are brands and they're all about fashion and creativity," Fickett said. "They're involved with creating their own products, especially sneakers. It's natural to have them participate."

Added LaRocca: "Our goal with this program is to expose our brand to the art community, and we have been very pleased with the response. The beauty of the entree is that it seems to be limitless. We're kind of creating the history as we go."

Wade's teammate Chris Bosh has also taken advantage of Art Basel through the years, out of passion and compensation. In December, to celebrate the recent launch of his tie line, Mr. Nice Tie, Bosh hosted an Art Basel exhibit with artist Jerome Soimaud called "I Am A Man," a nod to relationships between father and son.

"[My business team and I] always try to combine a bunch of different things, and I love art and I love Art Basel," said Bosh, who drew as a kid and collects art for his house. "I think art started with fashion—players breaking the box with that. Guys are, like, 'There's more than just basketball now, and now we can really reach to these other avenues.'"

Chris Bosh and artist  Jerome Soimaud at the "I Am A Man" gallery.
Chris Bosh and artist Jerome Soimaud at the "I Am A Man" gallery.April Belle Photos

2. Customized player art

The name of the Los Angeles-based multimedia design studio 0ne0f0ne (spelled with zeros), which specializes in creating exclusive 3-D pieces, accurately characterizes what kind of art players want.

"They don't want to have what the other one has," said Jared Brunk, one of 0ne0f0ne's main team members. "Who can have the bigger and better, who is connected to the next coolest artist? For them, it's like a creative board game and how strategically you can be more unique than the next guy."

The company's first 3-D project was a three-month collaboration with Blake Griffin, which is now on a wall in his L.A. pad. Purchased at $25,000, the 3-D design features architectural materials blended together to tell a story. Griffin's piece, which was crafted primarily with walnut and copper to represent his hair color, portrays the L.A. coast and skyline, the city's major highways and intersections downtown, a perspective of the Staples Center, his rookie-year shot chart with many pegs for all of his dunks and a depiction of his home state of Oklahoma.

Blake Griffin's 0ne0f0ne 3-D piece (on the left) inside his Los Angeles home.
Blake Griffin's 0ne0f0ne 3-D piece (on the left) inside his Los Angeles home.Jared Brunk

Currently Brunk is designing a table for his longtime friend and first client DeAndre Jordan, which will be a logo of Batman—Jordan's favorite superhero because "he's kick-ass"—wrapping around his hometown city of Houston. Brunk and Jordan also teamed up last fall on a lifestyle brand called Datum, which offers artistic renderings of hardware tools to represent one's personality.

"I just feel like as the culture changes more, the more art is going to be involved," Jordan said. "Art is also poetry, graffiti, rapping—whatever it may be. So any different form of art is in our lives every day. There are all types of things you can create, and once you see it as a finished product, you take pride in it."

Brunk, who has also done laser cutting on leather items for Wade, Jordan, Chris Paul and other Clippers, said that art speaks to the modern-day player.

Jared Brunk's laser-cut creation of DeAndre Jordan's Batman-inspired pouch.
Jared Brunk's laser-cut creation of DeAndre Jordan's Batman-inspired pouch.Jared Brunk

"Cool [in the NBA] has now become how sophisticated are you, how smart are you, how much do you know about different fields and different works of life?" Brunk said. "Art to [players] is like the coolest thing in the world because it's so fresh, so different, so new."

L.A.-based artist Michael Farhat of Art Mobb is also at the forefront of player-customized art, having created personalized pieces for more than 20 players, including Paul, Anthony, Derrick Rose and other stars. A former storyboarder for Family Guy and The Simpsons, Farhat spends up to seven hours using stencils and spray paint to create a $20,000 piece on Plexiglass, which he likens to a backboard.

Years ago, Farhat used to wait hours after NBA games to hopefully meet his favorite players. Then in 2009, he got connected to Lamar Odom, through a friend of the Kardashians, and the former Laker became his first client. For each piece, Farhat does extensive research on the player's background, incorporating milestones and highlights in his life and career. And he said more players are hands-on during the execution.

"I actually feel like Kat Von D and all those tattoo shows kind of help art being more accepted, because a lot of people looked down on people with tattoos prior," said Farhat, who also creates merchandise for players to benefit their charities. "It's almost accepted to be fully sleeved [with tattoos] and all that. So there's a shift happening with the art industry, and I feel like there's a movement. There's more art on Instagram, of LeBron and top All-Stars."

Michael Farhat delivering Stephen Curry his art piece, with dripping blue water representing how "he's wet," a baller's term for nothing but net.
Michael Farhat delivering Stephen Curry his art piece, with dripping blue water representing how "he's wet," a baller's term for nothing but net.Courtesy of Michael Farhat

3. Performance art

David Garibaldi is one of the hottest halftime entertainers in the NBA, a speed artist who takes center court and paints a finished product in only 10 minutes. Typically it's a familiar face to the fans, like Kevin Durant or James Harden, or in the case of the Finals last season, the Heat and Spurs logos alongside the Larry O'Brien Trophy.

With 10 teams on his resume since 2009—he does about six halftime shows per season and will be performing once again at this year's All-Star weekend—Garibaldi is still blown away by the opportunities.

"Think about the risk," said Garibaldi, who's from Sacramento. "We're going to let this guy go on the court, he's going to be throwing paint and we're doing this in between players going on and off the court. The amount of risk that [the NBA and teams] are taking and trust that they have in me is pretty big. I think that's rare. They're open to a different type of entertainment that is art."

Daniel Casados, the Spurs' manager of game operations and special events, said teams meet in the summer to share in-arena entertainment ideas. He's even received recent inquires from the Hornets and Mavericks about Garibaldi.

"I think the interesting thing happening with a lot of teams is that for years they've used the same type of halftime shows," Casados said. "So every team is always trying to find something that's different. With him, it's something that doesn't stay the same every year."

While Garibaldi does some work with the NFL, he said his link is stronger to the NBA because of its global marketability and the players' creative culture. He even compares what he does to a player.

"[The fans] are watching me, like, score points," he said, "and at some point there's this meeting place where the audience gets behind me and they're like, 'Yes, I knew he would do it!' And they all cheer. I feel like there's that connection with sports in general. People like rooting for the underdog, their team coming from behind. And the process of how I paint is a lot like that—that state of emotion that I think fans go through."

Garibaldi also paints portraits for players, and calls Paul, Anthony, Tony Parker, DeMarcus Cousins and Tyson Chandler "supporters." Looking ahead, Garibaldi would love to collaborate with players on designing their sneakers.

"I'm always inspired by athletes and what it takes for them to get on and off the court," he said. "That's really the center of my inspiration."

David Garibaldi after one of his halftime shows with Chris Paul.
David Garibaldi after one of his halftime shows with Chris Paul.Courtesy of David Garibaldi

4. Art investment

The days of players investing in restaurants and record labels are of the "last generation," according to one representative who works with several All-Stars.

Nowadays? Technology, mobile apps and other creative forms that have a lower financial entry point with still a high reward—including art.

One of Grant Hill's pieces by artist Elizabeth Catlett called "Dancing."
One of Grant Hill's pieces by artist Elizabeth Catlett called "Dancing."Courtesy of Grant Hill

"Art started as a passion, but it was one of my better investments over the years," said Hill, who preferred not to comment on the value of his collection. "Now it's about transitioning into contemporary art. Part of the challenge is, who's going to be the next hot thing, and trying to identify that before they become the next hot thing. Ultimately you'd like to buy good pieces that will continue to increase in value over the years. There are certain ways, if you buy the right pieces and you know how to work it, it can be one of your better investments."

One of those ways is hiring personal art advisor to the pros, Gardy St. Fleur, who has consulted with Alonzo Mourning, and now works closely with Deron Williams, soon Paul George and others in different sports. When Williams purchased a penthouse in New York City in 2013, he wanted to cover the wall space with art. But he didn't want to spend $50,000 to $100,000 per piece. That's when he got connected to St. Fleur, who lives in Brooklyn.

"I can go out and spend $100,000 to get a well-known artist, but I'm looking for more of the up-and-coming guys," Williams said. "You look for these guys that are selling for $700 to $5,000 to $10,000, but in a year it might be $50,000 or $60,000, and then just continue to go up."

Gardy St. Fleur with Deron Williams in his NYC apartment next to a piece by artist Nathaniel M. Quinn called "Batman."
Gardy St. Fleur with Deron Williams in his NYC apartment next to a piece by artist Nathaniel M. Quinn called "Batman."Courtesy of Gardy St. Fleur

Anthony has a similar viewpoint: "At first, I was into the Basquiats and the Rembrandts and the Picassos, but now it's about their understudies, like Banksy, Mr. Brainwash, Shepard Fairey and Hebru Brantley. Those are the artists that I like to support."

St. Fleur, who runs a per-project service, helps each player understand how artists work, how to look at art and how a piece might be priced through a private sale or auction house. In addition to sending players information on mid-career painters and emerging ones from the world's best fine art universities—from Yale to the Royal College of Art in London—St. Fleur also occasionally takes them to studios to meet up-and-comers.

"Players are getting more curious now," he said. "And it's a great time. The global art market generates about $65 billion in revenue—the highest it's ever been."

Jared Zwerling covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram.

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