In the flat red frame of a photograph, a woman smiles upwards. With the camera, we contemplate the whirlwind of her body. Near his face, a basketball sinks into the net; under his feet, a white line divides the image, like the fold of a pocket mirror. Across the line, the matte red of a basketball court gives way to textured brushstrokes, punctuated with black and white lines and grids. These abstract forms reflect, with a difference, the radiant skill of the woman. This image is titled “A’ja Wilson & Team USA extend winning streak to 51 | Kandinski.” You can find it at my favorite place on the internet: the @b_a_l_l_h_a_u_s Instagram account.
@b_a_l_l_h_a_u_s partners with a photograph of an NBA or WNBA player with an accompanying detail, sometimes edited, of a work of art, usually an oil painting. If you (me) get a nervous shiver around the name’s reference to a famous German design school, don’t worry: @b_a_l_l_h_a_u_s never flattens players into high culture dupes, and never flattens their sport into a noble but vague idea of ”art”. .” Instead, @b_a_l_l_h_a_u_s comparisons recognize professional basketball as a synthesis of hard work and creativity, craftsmanship and artistry, practice and personality. I love his vision of the game.
The sheer scale of these images makes it clear that most sports media are touting a narrow range of features.
Using similes to explain objects of interest – whether artistic, sporting, or both – is not a new strategy. But @b_a_l_l_h_a_u_s posts have a gorgeous weirdness to them, rewiring the expectations I bring to the players they describe. Their physical and emotional knowledge is beyond what a “SportsCenter” highlight reel can show. Watch: LeBron James swaggering, warped and cerebral like a Lucian Freud self-portrait; Giannis Antetokounmpo in mourning, his loose joints weighed down like Jennifer Packer’s seated figure in “Mario II”; Sophie Cunningham triumphant, her hair flamboyant, fierce and radiant like “Liberty Leading the People” by Delacroix and “The Birth of Venus” by Botticelli. The sheer scale of these images makes it clear that most sports media are touting a narrow range of features. Think of the cast of Philadelphia’s James Harden, whose dogged eccentricity is unreadable to most analysts. Images from @b_a_l_l_h_a_u_s show something different. They delve into the sensibilities of the players and seem to understand that being weird, self-effacing or ambivalent can be part of the power of these athletes. In a post by @b_a_l_l_h_a_u_s, Harden stares enigmatically out of frame, eyes full of secrets, next to Paul Gauguin’s “The Wizard of Hiva Oa.”
I realized the strength of @b_a_l_l_h_a_u_s during the NBA playoffs, which resulted in a collision between Stephen Curry of the Golden State Warriors, the sweetest three-point shooter the sport has ever seen, and Jayson Tatum of the Boston Celtics, an emerging young star. How to apprehend these actors as people and artists? Rather than asking where Tatum would fit in the pantheon of NBA greats, @b_a_l_l_h_a_u_s posted images like “Celtics up 3-0 | Edgar Degas. Surrounded by Nets players, Tatum stretches in the air, his arm reaching for the basket in an elegant port de bras. Her uniform finds its mirror in the tulle skirt of a ballerina which sparkles in an arabesque. Gracefully balanced, the dancer’s leg moves away from the tilt of her head; Tatum’s muscular shoulder echoes the delicate arch of the ballerina’s pointy-toe shoes.
Seeing that iconic image of (white) femininity used to complement Tatum’s strength was a revelation. Critic John Berger remarked that in art and life “men act and women appear”. But the figures of @b_a_l_l_h_a_u_s, across gender and genre, define their meaning through what their movement can do. @b_a_l_l_h_a_u_s then performed Curry’s piece through a series of dancer juxtapositions: Sometimes it’s supple and smooth, like Lois Mailou Jones’ painting “La Baker”; sometimes of monumental force, like Picasso’s women on the beach. In this context, imagining Tatum with Degas’s ballerina seems neither a joke nor too easy an equivalence. Instead, he highlights the precision of his technique. What could the rest of our sports media accomplish if they were equally willing to reconsider gender as a final mark in an athlete’s worth or ability? What stories could he tell about these athletes, or their world, if his attention was focused through the larger lens of @b_a_l_l_h_a_u_s?
Sports are played to win; it is part of their pleasure. It might seem odd to get irritated with sports media rankings, which arguably only track the competitive structure of the game itself. But basketball, like art, is worth more than a final score or a prize. No simple math can determine what any given player might mean to the game or to the fans. I love how @b_a_l_l_h_a_u_s acknowledges the players’ cosmopolitanism and humor as well as their ferocity and sweat, and how it all persists even in defeat. I like the look of @b_a_l_l_h_a_u_s because his comparisons resist both simple equivalence and forced hierarchy. It enriches the images on both sides of the frame, making the art and the athlete wilder, more compelling. Criticism, whether sporting or artistic, often fails to capture this thrill. At its best, @b_a_l_l_h_a_u_s can feel like the greatest kind of game in basketball, one with both teams playing at their sleekest and strongest. A team wins, but it’s seeing everyone’s talents that makes victory a work of art.
Sarah Mesle is a Los Angeles-based teacher, writer, and editor. She is a faculty member at the University of Southern California and editor of the Los Angeles Review of Books Avidly online magazine.