In the flat red frame of a photograph, a woman smiles upward. With the camera, we gaze down upon the whirl of her body. Near her face, a basketball sinks through the net; below her feet, a white line divides the image, like the fold of a pocket mirror. On the other side of the line, the matte red of a basketball court gives way to textured brush strokes, punctuated by lines and grids in black and white. These abstracted shapes reflect, with a difference, the woman’s radiant skill. This image is titled “A’ja Wilson and Team USA Extend Win Streak to 51 | Kandinsky.” You can find it at my favorite place on the internet: 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, usually an oil painting. If you (me) feel a nervous frisson around 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.” Instead, @b_a_l_l_h_a_u_s’s comparisons recognize professional basketball as a synthesis of labor and creativity, craft and art, practice and personality. I love its vision of the game.
The breadth of these images makes clear that most sports media praises a narrow range of characteristics.
Using comparisons to explain objects of interest — whether artistic, athletic or both — isn’t a new strategy. But @b_a_l_l_h_a_u_s’s posts have a gorgeous 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 these images makes clear that most sports media praises a narrow range of characteristics. Think of the side-eye cast 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 seem to understand that being weird, effete or ambivalent might be part of these athletes’ power. In one @b_a_l_l_h_a_u_s post, Harden stares cryptically out of the frame, eyes full of secrets, next to Paul Gauguin’s “The Sorcerer of Hiva Oa.”
I realized the force of @b_a_l_l_h_a_u_s during the N.B.A. playoffs, which culminated in a collision between the Golden State Warriors’ Stephen Curry, the sweetest three-point shooter the sport has ever known, and the Boston Celtics’ Jayson Tatum, an emerging young star. How to understand these players as people and artists? Rather than asking where Tatum would fit 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 an elegant port de bras. His uniform finds its mirror in the tulle skirt of a ballerina, shimmering as she sweeps into an arabesque. Gracefully balanced, the dancer’s leg lifts away from the tilt of her head; Tatum’s muscled shoulder echoes the delicate arch of the ballerina’s toe shoes.
Seeing this iconic image of (white) femininity used to complement Tatum’s strength felt like a revelation. The critic John Berger famously observed that in art and life, “men act and women 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. In this context, envisioning Tatum with Degas’s ballerina seems neither a joke nor a too-easy equivalence. Instead, it highlights the precision of his technique. What might the rest of our sports media accomplish if it were equally willing to reconsider gender as a final mark of an athlete’s worth 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 part of their pleasure. It may seem odd to chafe against sports media’s 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 price tag. No simple calculus can determine what a given player might mean to the game or to fans. I love how @b_a_l_l_h_a_u_s recognizes the players’ cosmopolitanism and humor alongside their ferocity and sweat, and how 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 both simple equivalence and forced hierarchy. It enriches images on both sides 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 like the greatest kind of basketball game, one with both teams playing at their most elegant and strong. One team wins, but it’s seeing everyone’s talents that makes the victory a work of art.
Sarah Mesle is a professor, writer and editor based in Los Angeles. She is on the faculty at the University of Southern California and the editor of the Los Angeles Review of Books online magazine Avidly.