A new book brings together the works of 250 artists, among them Richard Avedon, Salvador Dalí, Keith Haring and Andy Warhol, to offer an inclusive view of the sport from the modern lens.

A new book brings together the works of 250 artists, among them Richard Avedon, Salvador Dalí, Keith Haring and Andy Warhol, to offer an inclusive view of the sport from the modern lens.

“Basketball is a universal language, much like art is. There are other sports that are likely more popular, but none are as influential as basketball from a cultural standpoint,” says artist and filmmaker John Dennis. “It transcends barriers in music, fashion, art, and pop culture, and also draws attention to pressing issues in the social and political arena.”

Growing up in the suburbs of New York City, Dennis saw an artificial division drawn between athlete and artist, one that failed to reflect the common ground they shared: a dedicated commitment to practice across all disciplines. Whether shooting in the gym, painting in the studio, or printing in the darkroom, athletes and artists must show up every day to transform their talents, skills, and passion into a successful career and lasting legacy.

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar by Andy Warhol, 1978

As an avid basketball player, Dennis sought new ways to connect with the game and explore the intersections between sport and art. He teamed up with artist Carlos Rolón and Project Backboard founder Dan Peterson to create the new book Common Practice: Basketball & Contemporary Art (Skira). Featuring the work of 250 artists including Richard Avedon, Salvador Dalí, Keith Haring, Barkley Hendricks, JR, KAWS, Alex Prager, Lorna Simpson, Andy Warhol and Ai Weiwei, the book presents an inclusive look at the iconography of basketball through a modern lens.

The accessibility of the sport – from the minimal equipment required to play the game to the broad scope of spaces that can be adapted into courts – makes it an inherently inclusive sport. Likewise, it appeals to artists from diverse backgrounds, working in a broad range of styles and mediums.

“I believe fundamentally that we are all artists, and at some point, someone or something, some experience, takes that out of us,” artist Titus Kaphar tells Dennis in a conversation for the book. “I think that artists are those of us who are able to fight back that breaking down, who are able to keep that creativity all the way through, up to our adulthood.”

Lew Alcindor, basketball player, by Richard Avedon, New York, 1963

That spirit underlies the kinship that artists and athletes share, an energy that leaps off the pages of Common Practice and underscores the appeal of the sport across all disciplines. We were all really surprised to how many artists throughout history have used basketball in some shape or form throughout their practice,” says Dennis. 

But they also discovered gaps among female, genderqueer, non-binary photographers of colour in their search. To remedy this, in the summer they will announce a grant to seed and support artists working in this area “to untether some of the stereotypes that have surrounded traditional sports in the past,” Dennis says. 

At a time when so many aspects of our lives have been upended, Dennis is dedicated to using art to respond to the challenges of the world. “We must remain disruptive until our basic needs are accounted for. That is truly what I believe to be our ‘common practice’ as a people.”

Photo by Alex Webb, Mexico, 1985

The Basketball Game by Ron Tarver, 1993

Brooklyn Basketball by Helen Levitt, 1982

Mural by JR, Tehachapi in Southern California, 2019

Firemen put out blaze while youths play basketball by Paul Hosefros for The New York Times, 1975

Common Practice: Basketball & Contemporary Art is available to pre-order here

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