May 18, 2024

Beauty Arts

The Arts Authority

Inside the world of NBA Paint: ‘There’s something inherently beautiful about bad art’

Inside the world of NBA Paint: ‘There’s something inherently beautiful about bad art’

After a game is over, most NBA players are jetting out the door. Once the march for the exit starts, they’re walking and talking as they say their goodbyes.

One night in January, a curious Luke Kornet catches his Celtics teammate Derrick White as he’s heading out. Kornet wants a closer look at White’s hoodie, which has a tiny stick figure standing in front of an RV.

Upon closer inspection, the figure is wearing a green sweater with White’s No. 9. It bears a resemblance to White, as much as a stick figure can. The afro, the white headband, the beard — yep, that’s Derrick White.

But what’s the RV doing there?

“Derrick ‘Walter’ White. Get it?!” White says of the pun turning him into the meth kingpin from “Breaking Bad.”

Kornet loves it. In a room full of Amiri and Versace, the hoodie — which retails for $55 — is what gets him excited.

“With Derrick’s personality, it seems particularly appropriate,” Kornet tells The Athletic. “If there’s anyone who would be a secret crime lord on this team, it’s that guy.”

As White makes his way out of the door, he yells one last thing.

“I love NBA Paint!”

NBA players are viewed as serious athletes projecting the peak of human achievement. But what if they were cute, goofy stick figures making punny jokes?

There’s a world where that exists. Welcome to the NBA Paint universe.

The man behind the NBA Paint account on Twitter and Instagram is known simply as Mr. Paint, requesting anonymity to preserve the artistic integrity of his creations. He’s drawing real people in an unrealistic way, so he wants his audience to think solely of them and not the man behind the keyboard.

He sees the characters he draws as a reflection of how he enjoys the game he loves, so he wants to preserve that experience for others who see his Microsoft Paint creations and feel a sense of nostalgia.

“I grew up a ’90s kid, obsessed with Microsoft Paint, RollerCoaster Tycoon, all that s—,” Mr. Paint says. “I’ve just always had this affiliation and attraction to methods of drawing or doodling that inherently look really terrible. That specific generation grew up with the typing classes, and any time I was around those computer labs, I would always doodle at any opportunity.”

As he began a marketing career at a large tech company, he started making stick figures for fun with his friends. Though he had plenty of graphic design talent, there was something funny about the rudimentary drawings.

“I just design them in Microsoft Paint because I’m so used to drawing in that tool and just love the s—tiness that comes with it,” he says. “There’s something inherently beautiful about bad art and stuff that’s not perfect.”

He started sending them around to friends, and the reception was so positive he needed to find a place to keep them all. He was already on NBA Twitter, so why not share it with other fans to join in on the fun?

“I had just been f—ing around in a group chat of moments that would happen in-game and then decided to create a Twitter account to log it all,” says Mr. Paint. “It just blew up from there.”

It started with an assist from another parody account, as Mr. Paint posted his first drawing of a shredded Aron Baynes and tagged the unofficial Aron Baynes fan account. They retweeted it to their followers, and NBA Paint was off and running.

Fan bases would get excited when someone on their team made an appearance, and it didn’t take long for the players themselves to take notice. Suns guard Damion Lee, who proclaims himself a ’90s baby, says it takes him back to a simpler time.

“I feel like stick people is a real community. It’s a real lifestyle,” Lee says. “I feel like one thing you should never lose sight of is your childhood or what makes you, you.”

Lee became a diehard fan, commenting on posts and sending Mr. Paint his ideas. Then, one day, there was Damion “Bruce” Lee holding some nunchucks.

“I was turned up,” Lee says. “I love it. I just love what people do in their craft, whatever their profession.

“NBA Paint’s been my jam. I don’t know where I first saw it, but just thinking of ideas, I even comment on some of the pictures and say little (pitches). Like, even the one they just did with Shai Gorgeous-Alexander — crying at that one.”

One of the most popular has been Shake Milton, a milkshake in a Sixers jersey with a smile on its face. Sometimes, the best puns are the ones that don’t need to be rewritten.

“He tweeted the photo out of the little Shake, and I liked it and hit him up to see if I could get it on a hoodie or something. He was cool with it, so it was dope,” Milton says.

Because his previous Paint appearances are from his Warriors days, Lee is pitching a Phoenix-themed “Damion ValLee” that depicts him shooting a sun into a cactus hoop with Camelback Mountain in the background. He says he’s not Picasso or Basquiat, so the simplicity of NBA Paint’s work makes the art feel accessible to him.

“It feels funny calling it my work,” Mr. Paint says, “when it’s stick figures wearing leotards.”

The goal of NBA Paint is to capture the league’s biggest moments with a penchant for the surreal. The acrobatics, skills, drama and sheer luck make the game entertaining. At its core, NBA Paint reflects that with punny art of players making their big splash.

It can be timely, like when he drew a photo of a guy in a suit running out of Barclays Center shortly after the Nets fired their coach in November and titled it “Steve Dash.” Or a Polaroid camera with arms and legs printing out a photo of Nets guard Cam Thomas after he scored 40 points for the third straight game and called it “Camera Thomas.”

If it’s popular in the NBA Twittersphere, Mr. Paint is on it.

“I feel like NBA Twitter specifically has two sides of it, one being f—ing hilarious, and then one where it’s all VORP (value over replacement player) score and who’s more efficient,” Mr. Paint says. “So, it’s nice to try to keep the content pretty — I guess nice is the word — so that people aren’t arguing in the comments and keeping it sterile. Although, as I say that right now, I just posted ‘Bye-rie Irving,’ which is definitely a little poke at the bear. But I feel like there’s specific moments where it’s almost upsetting not to do it.”

Bye-rie Irving” commemorated Kyrie Irving’s trade request from the Nets ahead of deadline day, showing Irving jumping out of frame with a big smile, a wave and a foot gleefully kicking up in the air. Though the mood around the Irving situation was grim for Nets fans, little cartoon Irving had a grin.

When Irving was dealt to the Mavericks, the artist took the same Microsoft Paint file and flipped the figure, gave it a Mavs jersey and titled it “Hi-rie Irving.”

“What’s nice about this is, there’s always consistently going to be new things happening in the NBA,” Mr. Paint says. “Whether it’s trades going down or new players, there’s so much new content coming up that it’s easy to create content that feels new. It’s technically news a lot of the time, just conveyed in a manner that’s stick figures.”

He can get conceptually surreal, like when he put crunch-time connoisseur Damian Lillard on the wrist of a large watch person — that makes sense in the NBA Paint universe — and called it “Time Dame.”

What got White first hooked on the page was nothing — literally.

“One time, he put up just a plain white one that said ‘Derrick White,’ and that was the first one I was on. I was like, ‘Yo, that’s amazing,’” White says of the blank canvas post. “I’d been seeing it here and there, and I’d been sending them to our trainer Paul. I’d been sending him stuff all the time and was like, ‘This is great.’ Then, I got put on there and I was like, ‘I made it!’”

For good measure, Mr. Paint left a facetious comment on the White post that said, “Been working on this one for months.” Often, his captions will have a brief pun to tell the story of the character, but he uses the comments to bring himself into the art, as well.

“I feel like I always tell really terrible jokes, and I think that somehow translates over well to this medium where you have pretty terrible puns combined with a really mediocre drawing style,” Mr. Paint says. “For some reason, it’s the perfect combination of awfulness to make people smile.”

“It’s genius! So simple, but just makes sense,” White says. “They’re so creative, and I love it.”

White and his wife wear his hoodie around the house all the time, and he’s got a “White Christmas” NBA Paint sweater for the holidays. He’s even secured some Derrick “Walter” White onesies for his baby Hendrix.

“Same ones I have, but I don’t think they make onesies in my size,” he says.

Kornet has yet to see himself immortalized as a stick figure, but he’s got a few ideas. His best pitch is to vegetize his signature Kornet Kontest, a smiling corn cob splitting its husk open to contest a shot from 15 feet away.

“I also imagine my gangly limbs would make for a good little character,” Kornet says. “It might be the most appropriate, spot-on drawing to date.”

That’s what makes it fun: Everybody who is a fan has hilarious ideas on how to make their own version. One of the most rewarding parts of this experience for Mr. Paint is when he takes a pitch from a player or fan, brings it to life and shares it with the source.

“I love that you don’t have to be an amazing artist,” says Mr. Paint. “There’s something just fun that people can love your s—, even if it sucks.”

As NBA Paint picked up steam in early 2022, Mr. Paint knew he had to make a decision. The workload was becoming too intense to juggle with his day job. After he’d secured a deal with the NCAA to “Paintify” March Madness, it made him realize it was time to go all in.

“When I got the March Madness partnership and I couldn’t take on watching March Madness and sit in on (work) meetings, I felt guilty about doing that and decided to make the jump,” he says. “I haven’t looked back since.”

Living in Brooklyn is not cheap for Mr. Paint, but business has been booming thanks to brand partnerships and merchandise sales. When one of his posts does well, it’ll make its way to his online store, where fans can buy a shirt or hoodie.

He felt confident this was the right path, especially after deals with Hulu, YouTube TV and various teams throughout the NBA. His faith was rewarded again in May last year, when he received a message from Matt Schaffer and Ryan Haddox from the PepsiCo marketing team, which owns Frito-Lay.

They were brainstorming ways to transform their Ruffles deal with Jayson Tatum, who was leading the Celtics to an NBA Finals run and was cementing his place as one of the NBA’s biggest stars. Tatum already had his own chips — Flamin’ Hot BBQ — with his face on the bag, but when Mr. Paint dropped a 15-second documentary on the making of “Jayson Potatum” as the playoffs began, the marketing team loved it so much they knew they had their next big idea.

“They saw NBA Paint do a Jayson Tatum character, and they flagged it with the Ruffles team,” says Chris Bellinger, vice president of creative and digital at Frito-Lay. “Since we already had a deal with Jayson Tatum, we thought it was an awesome opportunity to take it to the next level and bring it to life.”

Designing a bag of chips was beyond the realm of possibility for Mr. Paint when he first started, so seeing Tatum holding a bag was as surreal as “Jayson Potatum” itself. Tatum appreciated the absurdity, too.

“I thought it was pretty funny. I’ve seen ‘Jayson Potatum’ the last couple years on Twitter,” Tatum tells The Athletic. “To see it come to life on a bag was cool and something to joke and laugh and play with.”

(Illustration: Eamonn Dalton / The Athletic; photo Jared Weiss / The Athletic)

None of this feels normal for Mr. Paint, saying it’s still strange to see how far his work has spread. He designed jerseys for the Cleveland Charge G League team, shirts for Manu Ginóbili’s Hall of Fame announcement, and even a collectible lunchbox with Slam.

“I was able to quit my job, but I don’t think I ever would have thought of those life goals,” Mr. Paint says. “I love doing this and haven’t tried to treat it like a job. I’m just trying to enjoy this thing while I still have it, and I feel like if I set a goal — and maybe this is depressing — it could lead to disappointment. (I’m) just trying to treat it like a living thing and just ride the wave I have.”

Jalen Brunson wearing the NBA Paint hoodie of his dog, Kona. (Jared Weiss / The Athletic)

As the Knicks are walking off the practice court into the back of the arena, everyone is wearing team gear except for Jalen Brunson.

He’s wearing a gray hoodie with a yellow cartoon dog on the front. He loves this sweatshirt enough to throw it on as soon as shootaround is over. When asked about his affinity for NBA Paint, he proudly shows off the hoodie.

“I like that the sweatshirt is basically NBA Paint of my dog, Kona,” Brunson says. “It’s a really cool thing that my mom and I saw and kinda jumped on that bandwagon.”

Mr. Paint had previously created “Jalen Brunson Burner” when Brunson’s mom reached out in the summer to get custom hoodies made for friends and family. He was then asked if he could make custom art of Kona.

“I was totally down,” Mr. Paint says. “It’s a very cute dog, and it’s fun to work on custom pieces. It’s crazy because he wears that s— all the time.”

For every player who gets the paint treatment, the excitement is in the joke. What are they going to be turned into? Something fun, silly, adorable or cool? In the end, it’s usually a mix of them all.

Milton’s favorite was “De’Anthony Melt-On,” a rare departure from Mr. Paint’s minimalist aesthetic where he placed Milton’s teammate in Salvador Dali’s famous surrealist painting “The Persistence of Memory” and draped stick-figure Melton among the clocks melting into the sands of time.

“Art is cool. I like going to galleries and collecting little pieces at home. Whatever stands out,” Milton says. “I’m a big fan of art, and for him to be able to do it with that style and make his own unique way, his own brand, that’s cool.”

Though he loves all his creations, Mr. Paint’s favorites include “D Book” — Devin Booker as a book with the letter D on it — RJ Barrett starring as “RJ Carrot” and the “Jayson Potatum” series. When Barrett hit a game-winner over Tatum a year ago, he recreated the scene of veggie-on-veggie dominance.

Mr. Paint even has a print of “Green Eggs and Ham Adebayo” hanging in his apartment, because he says he likes how terrible it is. He’s made so many over the years, but it’s the simplest ideas that bring him the most joy.

“Pretty much any time I draw an NBA player as food like a vegetable, that’s gonna be one of my favs,” Mr. Paint says. “I knocked a lot of those out when I first started the account, so it has a little more magic behind it.”

At the end of the day, that’s what NBA Paint is all about: trying to capture the child-like magic one pixel at a time.

And even though he has people and players wearing his gear, there are some who have taken it to the next level by getting tattoos of his art.

“I drew Kyle Lowry with a big butt, and someone got that tattooed on their leg,” Mr. Paint says. “Someone got D Book tattooed, and that will be on them until they die. It’s cool that someone likes something that I made enough to throw on their body and have it on them for the rest of their life.”

Every artist strives to move people and hopefully leave a legacy. It’s what NBA Paint hopes to do in a small way by being a part of the NBA experience, one stick figure at a time.

When White was named Eastern Player of the Week at the beginning of February, it was an achievement for a glue guy who rarely puts up big stats or receives accolades. There was another honor waiting for him on his phone that meant just as much — one that made a big moment in the NBA complete.

“I saw he dropped a new one, ‘Derrick Kite!’” White says. “Man, I just love NBA Paint.”

(Illustration: Eamonn Dalton / The Athletic; pictures courtesy of NBA Paint)