In the flat red frame of a photo, a woman smiles upwards. With the camera we look down on the swirl of her body. Near her face a basketball falls through the net; under 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 brushstrokes, punctuated by lines and grids in black and white. These abstracted forms reflect, with a difference, the radiant skill of the woman. This image is titled “A’ja Wilson and Team USA Expand Win Streak to 51 | Kandinsky.” You can find it in 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 partners a photo of an NBA or WNBA player with an accompanying detail, sometimes modified, of a piece of art, usually an oil painting. If you (I) are nervous about the name reference to a famous German design school, don’t worry: @b_a_l_l_h_a_u_s never flattens the players into the dupes of high culture, and never flattens their sport into a noble but vague idea of “art”. † Instead, @b_a_l_l_h_a_u_s’ equations recognize professional basketball as a synthesis of labor and creativity, craft and art, practice and personality. I like his take on the game.
The breadth of these images makes it clear that most sports media touts a limited number of features.
Using equations to explain objects of interest — be they artistic, athletic, or both — is not a new strategy. But @b_a_l_l_h_a_u_s’s posts have a wonderful creepiness to them, which rewires the expectations I have in the players they portray. Their physical and emotional insights exceed what a “SportsCenter” highlight reel can show. Look: LeBron James boastful, twisted and cerebral as a self-portrait of Lucian Freud; Giannis Antetokounmpo laments, his loose joints weighed down like the seated figure of Jennifer Packer in “Mario II”; Sophie Cunningham triumphant, fanning her hair, fierce and radiant like Delacroix’ “Liberty Leading the People” and Botticelli’s “The Birth of Venus”. The breadth of these images makes it clear that most sports media touts a limited number of features. Think of the sideways glance at James Harden in Philadelphia, whose stubborn eccentricity is illegible to most analysts. @b_a_l_l_h_a_u_s’s images show something different. They delve into the players’ sensitivities and seem to understand that weird, weak or ambivalent can be part of these athletes’ strengths. In a @b_a_l_l_h_a_u_s message, Harden cryptically stares out of the frame, eyes full of secrets, alongside Paul Gauguin’s “The Sorcerer of Hiva Oa.”
I realized the power of @b_a_l_l_h_a_u_s during the NBA playoffs, which culminated in a clash between Stephen Curry of the Golden State Warriors, the sweetest three-point shooter the sport has ever known, and Jayson Tatum of the Boston Celtics, an up and coming young star . How to understand these players as people and artists? Rather than ask where Tatum would fit into 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 into the air, his arm extends to the basket in an elegant port de bras, his uniform finds its mirror in a ballerina’s tulle skirt, glittering as she sweeps in an arabesque. balanced, the dancer’s leg rises from the tilt of her head; Tatum’s muscular shoulder mirrors the delicate arch of the ballerina’s toe shoes.
It felt like a revelation to see this iconic image of (white) femininity used to complement Tatum’s strength. The critic John Berger noted that in art and life, “men act and women appear”. But the figures of @b_a_l_l_h_a_u_s, regardless of gender and genre, define their meaning by what their movement can do. @b_a_l_l_h_a_u_s went on to interpret Curry’s play through a series of juxtapositions for dancers: at times he is lithe and supple, like the painting “La Baker” by Loïs Mailou Jones; sometimes monumental in power, like Picasso’s wives on the beach. In this context, imagining Tatum with Degas’ ballerina seems neither a joke nor an all-too-easy equivalence. Instead, it emphasizes the precision of its technique. What could the rest of our sports media accomplish if they were as willing to rethink gender as a final digit of an athlete’s worth or ability? What stories could it tell about these athletes, or their world, if attention were focused through the wider lens of @b_a_l_l_h_a_u_s?
Sports are played to win; that’s part of their fun. It may seem strange to rub shoulders with sports media rankings, which arguably only follow the competitive structure of the game itself. But basketball, like art, is worth more than a final score or a price tag. No simple calculation can determine what a particular player can do for the game or for the fans. I love how @b_a_l_l_h_a_u_s recognizes the cosmopolitanism and humor of the players alongside their cruelty and sweat, and how it all perseveres even in defeat. @b_a_l_l_h_a_u_s’ view appeals to me because his equations resist both simple equivalence and forced hierarchy. It enriches the images on both sides of the frame, making art and athlete appear wilder and more immersive. Criticism, be it sports or art, doesn’t often manage to capture this tension. At its best, @b_a_l_l_h_a_u_s can feel like the best kind of basketball game, one where both teams play at their most elegant and strong point. One team wins, but seeing everyone’s talents makes the win a work of art.
Sarah Mesle is a professor, writer, and editor based in Los Angeles. She is on the faculty of the University of Southern California and editor of the online magazine Avidly, the Los Angeles Review of Books.