Earlier this summer, in Las Vegas, the NBA rookie class gathered at the Palms Casino Resort for Rookie One Court, a welcome party for newly drafted NBA players. There, Boston Celtics superstar Jaylen Brown and creative director Set Free Richardson gifted three large prints by Spanish artist Rafa Macarrón to the top three draft picks.
The gift was the first stage of an initiative started by Brown and Richardson, who created the AND1 Mixtape film series, begun in the late ’90s, which documents a traveling basketball competition. The pair aims to teach professional basketball players about art, not only as something to be appreciated but also as something that will appreciate in value.
“The art world has never really been explained to a lot of professional athletes. They may have seen paintings or pictures their whole lives, but it was never taught that they could get involved with art from a financial standpoint,” Richardson told ARTnews.
Rookie One Court is organized by Think450, the for-profit wing of the NBA players’ union, the National Basketball Players Association (NBPA). Along with giving NBPA members control over their likeness and intellectual property rights, Think450, which is named after the total number of players in the NBA, has long been involved in teaching financial literacy to players and their fans.
“One of the things we’re trying to teach a lot of these players is the value of owning things that accumulate value,” Que Gaskins, Think450’s president, told ARTnews, “as opposed to a depreciating asset like a car.”
For Gaskins, teaching players to appreciate art is a step toward establishing financial savvy and literacy among players, many of whom fought hard to make out of impoverished neighborhoods.
“What we are trying to instill is knowledge, getting them comfortable with different things that we think they will have an interest in and showing them that there are ways to create opportunity, generational wealth,” Gaskins said.
The initiative makes perfect sense for Brown. As the vice president of the NBPA, Brown has been a fierce advocate for social justice and has become well-known for his support of Boston’s black community. Earlier this year, after he set a record for the most lucrative contract in NBA history, $304 million for five years with his Boston Celtics, Brown said he wanted to combat the wealth disparity in Boston and launch a project that would bring a “Black Wall Street” to the city, in part by promoting education in science and technology in underrepresented minority community high schools.
Meanwhile, Richardson appears to be an ideal partner for Brown. He has gained a strong reputation for his creative advertising agency The Compound, based in Red Hook, which he has run for over a decade. Richardson also once ran an art gallery out of The Compound’s former home in the Bronx, which will soon reopen in Red Hook. In the past, he has acted as an art advisor to NBA players who want an entrée into the art world, like Kevin Durant and Malcom Brogdon.
Richardson approaches his advisory role much the same way he does all his creative work, with the belief that combining creative influences from different areas will bring about something new and interesting. Collecting, he said, is part of a basketball player’s DNA as much as the originality of their game. Richardson pointed to sports trading cards and comics as collectibles often pursued by young athletes, which later beget collections of jerseys and trophies. And that’s not including the high prices fetched for sports memorabilia from the self-same NBA stars. Earlier this year, Sotheby’s held an auction dedicated to memorabilia, which featured a signed pair of sneakers once worn by Michael Jordan during his last championship season with the Chicago Bulls in 1997–98. They sold for $2.2 million, becoming the most expensive sneakers ever publicly auctioned.
“In our culture, we’re looking at sneakers as collectibles, and there’s a direct line from that to collecting art,” Gaskin said. Hip-hop is another strong influence on the rise in art collecting, he added. “I think Jay-Z obviously played a big role in having people understand the power of art, the uniqueness of it as a collectible and as an investment vehicle,” Gaskins said.
In 2018, Jay-Z and Beyonce featured over a dozen major art pieces in the Louvre for their “Apeshit” music video. That came five years after the rapper co-starred with performance artist Marina Abramovic in the music video for “Picasso Baby.” In 2021, Jay-Z and Beyonce, in an advertisement for Tiffany’s, posed in front of a rarely seen Basquiat work, Equals Pi (1982). The couple are known to have an extensive art collection in their 30,000-square-foot home in Malibu, California. Beyond that, Kanye West, Drake, and other major stars have prominently featured or worked with major contemporary artists in recent years. Earlier this month, Kendrick Lamar featured Henry Taylor paintings in performances at Lollapalooza and elsewhere, blown up to stadium size.
These influences have spurred a trend that has seen major athletes looking to the art world for inspiration, identity, and, of course, investment. Serena Williams has amassed a top-notch art collection in her Florida home that includes KAWS, Radcliffe Bailey, and Titus Kaphar, and her sister Venus Williams served as a model for a recent painting by art market darling Anna Weyant. Six-time NBA All Star Amar’e Stoudemire is a Basquiat aficionado, and ten-time NBA All Star Carmelo Anthony’s collection includes household names like Banksy and Shephard Fairey.
Through Richardson, Brown was motivated to explore the art world and has begun building a collection of his own. In fact, the limited edition Rafa Macarrón print gifted to the top rookies during the Rookie One party was acquired from Richardson’s mentor, the art dealer Lio Malca, who recently opened a new gallery at 60 White Street in Tribeca. And it’s through Richardson that Brown learned to think of art as, not only an investment but something personal, an extension of himself.
“As I grow and mature, so does my taste for art and culture,” Brown told ARTnews. “Passing that knowledge down to rookies gives them a chance to get involved when their influence is at its peak. The younger generation are the next influencers of this world so giving them art hopefully gives them the inspiration to learn more but to also develop their view on life.”