For Project Backboard, there’s a simple way to turn a dilapidated court into a vibrant community hub: Just color outside the lines.
Playing basketball on Kinloch Park’s court means dribbling down a literal abstract masterpiece. Once covered in weeds, the court is now a flash of sprawling reds and blues and yellows anchoring six ornate backboards. Here, squinting under the sun in mesh shorts, a teenage boy might learn how to make a layup in a lilac-hued corner.
This 20,000-square-foot court, in a small, historically black neighborhood outside St. Louis, is the product of dozens of volunteers, a leader, and an artist who all asked the city not to restore it with any old paint job. Call it “disruption;” it’s now an undeniable spectacle. Last year, Kinloch Park was even ranked among the world’s 10 best-designed basketball courts, alongside others in New York City, Paris, and Munich.
The transformation of mural-style courts across America has its roots in Memphis, where Daniel Peterson noticed the majority of courts had fallen into disrepair. It was then, in 2014, that Peterson founded Project Backboard, a nonprofit that has renovated public basketball courts in cities from Los Angeles to St. Louis. More renovations in Memphis, Maryland, and New Rochelle, New York, are underway, and Peterson has consulted on projects in Oregon, Virginia, and Belgium, and talked to several other urban parks departments.
In Memphis, where one in four residents lives beneath the poverty line, Peterson found in 2014 that around two-thirds of basketball courts across the city didn’t even have basic lines: foul, three-point, or out-of-bounds. Backboards were tagged with Coke logos or vinyl stickers. The courts just didn’t work. Today, mostly teen boys and young men play on more than 20 renovated courts, whose 30 public works of art include whimsical silhouettes on Lewis-Davis Park, bright profiles and symbols in Chickasaw Park, and geographic shapes in Pierotti Park.
“My first time interacting with adult strangers was on basketball courts,” Peterson said. “It can be your first introduction to what it means to be a person, in a sense. You learn how to interact with your community in a way you can’t really learn in a school-type setting.”
Project Backboard, according to people involved, cuts through bureaucracy and makes public art happen quickly. For any city project, there’s lots of paperwork. And meetings. Budget requests. Permit applications. And the issue of who will foot the bill.
Like any good coach, Peterson, who grew up in New York and worked on the Memphis Grizzlies’ community relations team, can communicate effectively. Project Backboard does much of the legwork, coordinating with everyone from artists to public officials and community members. The amount of red tape varies by city; some have been concerned about maintenance or potential negative reactions from the community. (Peterson said he hasn’t heard any yet).
“It’s always easier for [cities] to say ‘no,’ and just stick to the standard script rather than try something different,” Peterson said. But he’s not buying it. “Cities will start recognizing that making basketball courts special in this way will make the public space more vibrant, especially in cities that aren’t like New York, that don’t have the same type of street culture.”
In 2015, a Memphis local news story headlined “Local Man Leading Effort to Clean Up Basketball Courts for Kids” showed Peterson, a sandy-blond in Chuck Taylors, doing the unsexy work of climbing a stepladder and spraying Goof Off to remove graffiti.
“Even just adding the lines, not doing anything else to the court, I always talk to kids at these different parks, and they always talk about how it’s a whole brand new court,” he tells the interviewer. “Really, it’s a hundred bucks of paint and a little bit of time.”
Fixing up courts for usability quickly ballooned into a full artistic experience, partly because of one phone call. While painting lines at a dysfunctional court, Peterson noticed some ornamental sculptures, so he contacted artist Anthony Lee and visited him at his studio.
“[Lee] starts coming up with a design for an entire court surface. I bit my tongue, and we went for it,” said Peterson. “That was a real start for painting the surface of the courts.”
The aesthetics aren’t just for show. A park project can thrive on regular use and maintenance by users, Peterson says. The court can “serve as a beacon,” attracting more people and inspiring them to keep it clean and throw out their trash.
At face value, the concept seems fairly easy. From idea to completion, the mural-style court can take a few months.
But resistance always comes when trying something new. Plenty of cities have rejected this idea, and Peterson says he understands why they might want to prioritize functionality over aesthetics. But as artful design catches on, he’s hoping cities will stop making it so hard to reimagine these courts in the future. It’s the same durable paint, he says, just applied more thoughtfully.
“As it’s grown, I've realized funding has never been the issue for this stuff. Foundations, organizations, people are interested in supporting the work. There’s a recognition that public spaces—public outdoors spaces, especially—they meet more than one community’s need,” Peterson said.
Of all American sports, basketball has a particular flair, from the style of jerseys and sneakers to courts. Peterson remembered how local artists had tried courting LeBron James to the New York Knicks with a 50-foot painting. A 2014 ESPN piece speculated that streetball is dying, attributing the decline to increasingly strict league rules and injury risks. But for a lot of kids and families, streetball is a first, free, and accessible entry point to the game.
Despite the sport’s popularity, outdoor play has its own opponents.
Fear-driven efforts to shut down outdoor courts seem to disproportionately affect people of color. A so-called “kill-the-hoops movement” has spread across small towns and cities, including Chicago, Cleveland, and Los Angeles, as a maneuver against guns, noise, fights, and drugs. In 2016, a neighborhood group in Brooklyn proposed replacing basketball courts with tennis courts to curb crime, and was accused of racist motivations.
“Obviously, I don’t subscribe to the belief that inviting more people into an area is going to have a negative impact on your community,” Peterson said. “We think the more people you bring into the community, into public spaces, the more positive impact it’ll have in the community.”
The culture of outdoor courts—a beloved alternative to, say, a YMCA—is rooted in their low-frill, spontaneous appeal. People of all generations and backgrounds might play a laidback game there.
That said, walking by anything that’s dilapidated can be depressing. That’s especially true for a simple basketball court—a spot designed not to take your money, but to play a game. In a post-2008 economic climate, as America politically struggles to fund and maintain even its biggest public transit systems, parks departments have said they’re still playing catchup.
But investing in aesthetics can carry value. The project in Kinloch Park, for one, has been a hit. Peterson says funding from the Enterprise Foundation might not have come for a “plain Jane court.”
“You can’t not see it,” said Tom Ott, assistant director of St. Louis County Department of Parks and Recreation. “It was one of the easier projects I’ve worked on.” Typical procedures, such as drafting a project’s scope and soliciting bids for contract workers, can be a slog. “This cut through all of that. They gave us their proposal. They told us what they were willing to invest in it, and hired a local company that’s reputable. We checked on the work as it was progressing.”
Ott added: “Project Backboard could probably go to every major city in this country and do something like this.”
Project Backboard has a Warholian quality. While commissioning artists to complete commercial projects is common, these designs are about community and local pride. And then there’s Instagram, where art and basketball can build a loyal following.
“Typically, there are committees and approval processes and redesigns, but with Daniel, there wasn’t any of that,” said artist William LaChance, who painted Kinloch Park’s court. “He put a lot of faith in my design… and it seems to be how he goes about his business. Putting a lot of faith into people, and it just works.”
Project Backboard can best expand by equipping people to replicate its work, Peterson says. When someone contacts him, his response is: “Awesome. Find a location that’s meaningful to you, and let’s figure out a plan.’”
That was the case with Venice Ball, an L.A. basketball league. The league’s founder Nick Ansom, an athlete who was born in California and grew up in France, found Project Backboard on Instagram and contacted Peterson about a Venice Beach court’s renovation. Ansom recently spent a couple weeks in Belize, where waterfront courts were amazingly picturesque. After describing his vision to Peterson, he quickly got an available grant and set to work on an indigo-and-aqua court, shaped like waves and lined with palm trees.
Ansom wants to keep traveling and transforming courts in California and South America, particularly Mexico.
“I see basketball as an art form, especially outdoors without structure of having a coach or assistant telling you what to do,” Ansom said. “It’s having freedom and an instinct and doing what you can with the ball, innovating and creating new moves. They go hand in hand.”
The dedication at Kinloch Park, attended by a few hundred people, didn’t involve a formal ribbon cutting. There was music and food and balls swooshing through all six hoops. Without restraint, players’ sneakers scuffed up LaChance’s weeks-long, sweat-induced mural project. “It’s part of the charm,” Peterson, who also played, assured him. “It’s a living document.”