At Art Basel in Miami Beach, Basketball Arrives as Cultural Cornerstone

MIAMI -- Walking through this pristine space is like a stroll through basketball’s Memory Lane. There are jerseys from NBA legends like Hakeem Olajuwon, Charles Barkley and George Gervin; classic kicks from the vaunted sneaker lines that Michael Jordan and LeBron James have built with Nike; and a highlight reel filled with dunks authored by MJ, Julius Erving, Blake Griffin and Jason Richardson. There's even the Larry O’Brien Trophy, the same golden effigy of a ball and hoop awarded to the NBA champions each year.

No, this isn’t the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, Massachusetts. Instead, it’s the first floor of the Nautilus by Arlo Hotel on South Beach, which hosted a four-day, basketball-centric art exhibit called Momentum during this year’s annual Art Basel show in Miami. The installation, curated by Franchise Magazine and creative events firm AMP, explores the relationship between basketball culture and art through video, fine art, mixed media, artifacts and photography—all on view for the array of hoopers, celebrities and influencers who migrate to the Magic City each December for Art Basel.

From historical pieces and league-affiliated trinkets to a mini sneaker museum and a pop-up filled with apparel from Franchise, the display is just the latest exhibit of the game’s ever-expanding profile as a part of the broader culture. And with the NBA sending representatives to Art Basel for the first time since the event’s arrival in Miami in 2002, that growth comes with an official stamp of approval. 

“I love basketball just as much as art or fashion. It inspires me every day,” fashion designer Don C tells the audience during a panel discussion held in conjunction with the first day of Momentum. “Any creative or inspiration that I draw from is usually through the lens of basketball.”

Don C 1

Before he got into streetwear and sports apparel, Don C was Kanye West's manager. (@jadnice)

For Justin Montag, the Editor in Chief of Franchise Magazine, the idea for Momentum stemmed from a tour of the league’s headquarters in New York City.

“Seeing all their archives and history, combining that with contemporary art along with some video installations, kind of just organically came together,” he tells CloseUp360.

That vast array of source material opened up Justin’s eyes to a world of possibilities, and inspired a variety of creative activations—including the screen-filled room showing slow-motion replays of memorable dunks from wall to wall.

“There are just so many players with incredible style,” he says. “We came up with a long wish list and said (to the league) show us what you got; we’ll take it all. Then we worked with our editing team to narrow it down.”

The end result is a piece—and, really, an exhibition—that’s as accessible for people of all ages and artistic palettes as it is educational and visually captivating.

“For a lot of kids out there, the idea of going to a museum becomes this thing that they say, ‘Nah, that’s not for me. That’s only for a certain kind of people,’” Franklin Sirmans, the director of the Pérez Art Museum Miami, says during the panel discussion. “We’re trying to break down those barriers. Simply interacting with art and different ideas, it opens our minds in different ways. 

“We’re not trying to make people become artists or collectors. We’re trying to make people think in ways that are outside the box and I believe that art allows us to do that.”

Franklin Simons

Franklin Sirmans is the director of the Pérez Art Museum Miami of Miami-Dade County. (@jadnice)

The convergence between basketball and art doesn’t start with careful brushstrokes or breathtaking gallery displays. For many fans of the game—including Franklin—it often begins with something much more elemental to the young hoopshead’s experience.

“The first curatorial moment for me was in the bedroom, when you are finally trying to establish yourself as an individual,” he says. “The posters that I had at that time were Walt Frazier, Bob McAdoo, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and the placement of them within my room was a form of curating at a place where you do it subconsciously.”

Some of those amateur wall decorators grow up to be NBA players, sometimes even All-Stars. But those impressive on-court credentials don’t always translate to good taste in art, much less an understanding of the intricacies and complexities of the market that underpins the business.

For players seeking a stronger understanding of—and, eventually, a real foothold in—the art world, there’s Gardy St. Fleur. The Haitian-born, Brooklyn-bred art consultant serves as an art advisor to a long list of NBA veterans, including Kyrie Irving, Amar’e Stoudemire, Deron Williams, Justise Winslow, Caris LeVert and Courtney Lee.

“I talk to players all the time that have never been to a gallery or museum in their life. I thought I could create a whole new conversation with them,” he tells CloseUp360. “I’m not trying to sell them art, but I can get them to learn and educate themselves by going to studios and meeting the artists.”

Gardy often follows up these meet-and-greets with recommendations for books, newsletter subscriptions and other outlets that help players immerse themselves in the art world as informed consumers. All the while, he reminds his clients that consumption doesn’t necessarily mean buying pieces.  

Gardy St Fleur 3

Gardy St. Fleur is a collector and art advisor to current and former NBA stars. (@jadnice)

Gardy calls this artistic education “The Process.” He tells his clients to take their time to truly learn. If and when the time comes to buy a piece, he encourages them to make sure it’s something they genuinely like at a comfortable price, as opposed to something they think will impress guests.

“You have players that will go to Jay-Z’s crib and will text me pictures, like, ‘Yo, Gardy, can you get me this?’ And I tell them the price and they say, ‘Oh, alright, I’m good,’” he jokes. “Money doesn’t make you a great art collector; it’s the education. So when guys call me up, I sometimes have to tell them they don’t need a Basquiat yet.”

In some cases, players would rather be Jean-Michel Basquiat than buy one of the late artist’s pieces. Golden State Warriors big man Willie Cauley-Stein, who has consulted with Gardy, is an avid painter in his downtime. Former NBA veteran Jeremy Evans famously leapt over a self portrait during the 2013 Slam Dunk Contest.

Gardy knows of others who partake in fine art away from the court, though he keeps their identities closely guarded.

“I can’t name who, but I know a top-level player right now that paints every night,” he says. “It’s a form of escapism for him and others. When they’re done with the media, done with the game, they take the time for themselves to paint. I’ve seen a lot more athletes start to do this.”

Still, the ranks of NBA players who are either aspiring collectors or artists themselves are decidedly small because, well, the pool of people who have competed in the world’s best basketball league is also small. But moving the proverbial needle at the intersection between basketball and art doesn’t require a killer crossover, a wet jumper or even a Rolodex that reaches into locker rooms from coast to coast.

Take Don C, for instance. The Chicago native, known as Don Crawley, rose to prominence as Kanye West’s manager and as an executive at G.O.O.D. Music, the popular rapper's record label. In 2011, he founded Just Don, his own streetwear and sports clothing brand. Four years later, he made major waves in the world of sports fashion when he partnered with Nike to bring a blue quilted design to the Jordan 2 signature sneaker.

Nowadays, Just Don designs and sells clothing, hats and other accessories featuring sports logos, including those of NBA teams. In the Association, Don—a self-proclaimed basketball historian—has found a willing partner and a source of inspiration for more than just his company’s products.

“I think the league is impressive at being a government, but still being super cool. I wish the NBA ran the United States,” he jokes. “I kind of model my organization after the NBA. They’ve thought out so many things to keep everything governed, but still keep it flexible. It’s team, but it’s also individuality.”

Inside Momentum at Art Basel in Miami Beach

(All photos by @jadnice)

Over the course of a nearly hour-long chat with Franklin and Gardy on the Momentum panel—which was captured by NBA TV cameras for a segment that will air on the league’s NBA Playmakers platform at a later date—Don and company share stories of curation, creativity and history, and laid out plans for continued educational growth in the artistic space.

The league, too, seems keen to continue its exploration of the art world. The NBA has already commissioned collaborations with noted basketball sculptor Victor Solomon, and figures to be back at Art Basel Miami Beach for years to come.

In the meantime, the Association will keep Momentum going with shows outside of South Florida.

“This is only the first version of it,” Justin says. “We really want to expand by bringing it to All-Star weekend in Chicago and maybe some international destinations.”

Because art and basketball are both global cultural phenomena, the convergence of the two—with the NBA’s help—should be, too.


Warren Shaw is a veteran NBA writer based in Miami. Follow him on Twitter.