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Is That Steph Curry … or a Work of Art?

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Within the flat red frame of a photograph, a girl smiles upward. With the camera, we gaze down upon the whirl of her body. Near her face, a basketball sinks through the online; below her feet, a white line divides the image, just like the fold of a pocket mirror. On the opposite side of the road, the matte red of a basketball court gives option to textured brush strokes, punctuated by lines and grids in black and white. These abstracted shapes reflect, with a difference, the lady’s radiant skill. This image is titled “A’ja Wilson and Team USA Extend Win Streak to 51 | Kandinsky.” You’ll find it at my favorite place on the web: the Instagram account @b_a_l_l_h_a_u_s.

@b_a_l_l_h_a_u_s posts partner a photograph of an N.B.A. or W.N.B.A. player with an accompanying detail, sometimes modified, from an artwork, normally an oil painting. Should you (me) feel a nervous frisson across the name’s reference to a famous German design school, don’t worry: @b_a_l_l_h_a_u_s never flattens the players into high culture’s dupes, and never flattens their sport into some noble but vague idea of “art.” As a substitute, @b_a_l_l_h_a_u_s’s comparisons recognize skilled basketball as a synthesis of labor and creativity, craft and art, practice and personality. I like its vision of the sport.

The breadth of those images makes clear that the majority sports media praises a narrow range of characteristics.

Using comparisons to elucidate objects of interest — whether artistic, athletic or each — isn’t a latest strategy. But @b_a_l_l_h_a_u_s’s posts have a stunning uncanniness, rewiring the expectations I bring to the players they depict. Their physical and emotional insights surpass what a “SportsCenter” highlight reel can show. Look: LeBron James swaggering, warped and cerebral like a Lucian Freud self-​portrait; Giannis Antetokounmpo grieving, his loose joints weighted like Jennifer Packer’s seated figure in “Mario II”; Sophie Cunningham triumphant, hair flaring, fierce and radiant like Delacroix’s “Liberty Leading the People” and Botticelli’s “The Birth of Venus.” The breadth of those images makes clear that the majority sports media praises a narrow range of characteristics. Consider the side-eye forged at Philadelphia’s James Harden, whose stubborn eccentricity is illegible to most analysts. @b_a_l_l_h_a_u_s’s images show something different. They dive into the players’ sensibilities and appear to grasp that being weird, effete or ambivalent is likely to be part of those athletes’ power. In a single @b_a_l_l_h_a_u_s post, Harden stares cryptically out of the frame, eyes stuffed with secrets, next to Paul Gauguin’s “The Sorcerer of Hiva Oa.”

I spotted the force of @b_a_l_l_h_a_u_s throughout the N.B.A. playoffs, which culminated in a collision between the Golden State Warriors’ Stephen Curry, the sweetest three-point shooter the game has ever known, and the Boston Celtics’ Jayson Tatum, an emerging young star. The way to understand these players as people and artists? Somewhat than asking where Tatum would slot in the pantheon of N.B.A. greats, @b_a_l_l_h_a_u_s posted images like “Celtics up 3-0 | Edgar Degas.” Surrounded by Nets players, Tatum stretches into the air, his arm extending toward the basket in a chic port de bras. His uniform finds its mirror within the tulle skirt of a ballerina, shimmering as she sweeps into an arabesque. Gracefully balanced, the dancer’s leg lifts away from the lean of her head; Tatum’s muscled shoulder echoes the fragile arch of the ballerina’s toe shoes.

Seeing this iconic image of (white) femininity used to enrich Tatum’s strength felt like a revelation. The critic John Berger famously observed that in art and life, “men act and girls appear.” But @b_a_l_l_h_a_u_s’s figures, across gender and genre, define their meaning through what their movement can do. @b_a_l_l_h_a_u_s went on to interpret Curry’s play via a series of juxtapositions to dancers: Sometimes he’s lithe and smooth, like Loïs Mailou Jones’s painting “La Baker”; sometimes monumental in strength, like Picasso’s women on the beach. On this context, envisioning Tatum with Degas’s ballerina seems neither a joke nor a too-easy equivalence. As a substitute, it highlights the precision of his technique. What might the remaining of our sports media accomplish if it were equally willing to reconsider gender as a final mark of an athlete’s value or ability? What stories might it tell about these athletes, or their world, if its attention was focused through @b_a_l_l_h_a_u_s’s wider lens?

Sports are played to win; that’s a part of their pleasure. It could appear odd to chafe against sports media’s rankings, which arguably only track the competitive structure of the sport itself. But basketball, like art, is value greater than a final rating or a price tag. No easy calculus can determine what a given player might mean to the sport or to fans. I like how @b_a_l_l_h_a_u_s recognizes the players’ cosmopolitanism and humor alongside their ferocity and sweat, and the way all this persists even in defeat. @b_a_l_l_h_a_u_s’s way of seeing appeals to me because its comparisons resist each easy equivalence and compelled hierarchy. It enriches images on each side of the frame, making art and athlete seem wilder, more compelling. Criticism, whether of sport or art, doesn’t often manage to capture this thrill. At its best, @b_a_l_l_h_a_u_s can feel just like the best type of basketball game, one with each teams playing at their most elegant and powerful. One team wins, nevertheless it’s seeing everyone’s talents that makes the victory a murals.

Sarah Mesle is a professor, author and editor based in Los Angeles. She is on the college on the University of Southern California and the editor of the Los Angeles Review of Books online magazine Avidly.

sportinbits@gmail.com
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