Special Video Series Agents of Change

How to slam dunk a whole basketball court in wild style

A basketball court is more than two hoops and a net. For millions of kids across America, it represents competition, friendships and self-discovery.

Dan Peterson has lived a life with basketball at the center. He grew up in New York playing hoops on outdoor courts, then went on to play high school and college ball.

After moving to Memphis and working with the community responsibility department of the city’s NBA franchise, the Grizzlies, he noticed that many of the public basketball courts had no game lines or markers, which made it difficult to stage a pick-up game or work on your skills.

So as a gift to Memphis he took it upon himself to paint the game lines on abandoned courts in the area. At one park, he noticed a vibrantly colored sculpture by an artist named Anthony Lee near the court. Peterson contacted Lee and asked for advice on what colors to paint the game lines and the key. A lightbulb went off in the artist’s head and the idea of designing a full surface piece of art was born.

The enthusiasm of the community in response to Lee’s basketball artistic court inspired Peterson to create Project Backboard, which is bringing the concept to other communities across the country.

Peterson works primarily with his brother, Sam, and they are funded by corporate sponsorships and private donations. For each project, they consider it crucial to work with local artists who understand how to create an expression of the community that people will connect with.

Carlos Rolón, an artist native to Puerto Rico who worked on the tropical Toa Baja court says, “When you started seeing the community come together, that was the power. That is the power of art. Art can truly change things.” 

“To be honest with you,” Peterson admits, “it surprises me every time I walk into these spaces. It’s a very physical experience to walk into a 50 by 100 foot work of art. When we’re done, there’s a real sense of energy that comes off the surface.”

Peterson hopes that his work will inspire more people to look at their communities with a sense of ownership. “Creating a space you want to be a part of is not always up to some unknown third party. It’s not necessarily always up to the parks department or the mayor. As individual community members–and even more so as collective community members–we have the power to make a difference in the places we use.”

After a few dozen court installations and even an exciting Superbowl ad feature, the Petersons are expanding with a free basketball net program that allows members of any community to request a free net from the Project Backboard website to hang on the naked hoops so often found in public parks. They’ve also just completed an inspiring book called “Basketball & Contemporary Art” (available for pre-order here).

It’s an exciting, visually stunning art anthology book that collects art made over the last century by artists who have used basketball to make a powerful social statement or to express an important aspect of the human experience.

Peterson has donated copies to school, community and prison libraries. He hopes the book can help people “to dive into this world of art related to basketball in a way that helps them think more creatively and critically about their community and about the things they can do to make the space they want.”

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