OPINION: Revitalizing outdoor basketball courts gives communities an advantage

Credit: Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com

Credit: Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com

As soon as you enter Maddox Park from Donald Lee Hollowell Parkway you see the orange, yellow and gold hues of a freshly painted basketball court. Located in the Bankhead neighborhood, the park is one of the oldest in metro Atlanta and the court was recently transformed into an homage to former Atlanta Dream player Angel McCoughtry, who is rendered in abstract alongside two gold medals that symbolize her Olympic wins.

It’s hard to imagine that the high relief sculpture depicting three Confederate generals served as inspiration for this mural of a decorated Black female athlete, but Aurelius Cooper Jr. tells me that two years ago, it was the negative emotions he felt about Stone Mountain — frustration that people who levied war against the government and the freedom of Black and brown people would be commemorated — that led him to create the nonprofit Art in the Paint and embark on a journey to reclaim basketball courts across the metro area by filling them with art steeped in positivity.

Credit: Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com

Credit: Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com

“I wanted to turn negative art into positive art and build safe spaces in my neighborhood,” said Cooper, an Atlanta-native who played professional basketball overseas and has frequented most of the courts in and around the city. “We do as much as we can to reclaim it as a community space rather than just being seen as a basketball court.”

Cooper is not naïve enough to believe that painting courts alone is transformative. It’s the programming that comes with it — voter registration and education, equitable court time, food security, concerts — that brings communities together, he said.

Stereotypes about basketball and the people who play the sport, especially on outdoor courts, have made some cities treat the game like it is a crime, Cooper said. In some neighborhoods, residents have deemed outdoor basketball courts a public safety hazard that needs to be permanently or temporarily closed.

In Chicago, long considered the mecca of basketball, the Chicago Park District decommissioned 16 basketball courts and 42 backboards between 2010 and 2020. The majority of the courts were located in neighborhoods that are rapidly shifting from majority Black to majority white, based on a study from the Institute for Housing Studies at DePaul University.

Although local politicians often cite public safety as the reason for deactivating the courts, a 2011 study in Security Journal found that parks with basketball courts are associated with lower rates of violent crime and property crime but higher rates of disorder crime like graffiti, drinking and excessive noise.

In metro Atlanta, residents of Jonesboro have battled for a decade about whether to permanently remove the basketball court from Lee Street Park in response to resident complaints about everything from the sound of bouncing balls to gun shootings.

Cooper believes in the power of art and sports to bring people together.

While the Atlanta Hawks Foundation has built or refurbished basketball courts in more than 20 parks across the metro area, the branded courts are more about marketing than art.

Through Art in the Paint, Cooper has transformed about a dozen courts in metro Atlanta, often in partnership with organizations that have a similar mission.

Cooper has worked with Project Backboard, a nonprofit founded in 2014 by Daniel Peterson who began painting lines on outdoor courts in Memphis before connecting with an artist who designed large-scale murals for the courts.

Project Backboard has painted two additional courts in Atlanta, Parkway Wabash Park with artist George F. Baker III and the James T. Anderson Boys & Girls Club in Marietta by Jamaal Barber.

In 2021, Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD) launched its Paint Our Parks (POP) effort as part of SCAD Serve, which blends classroom learning with community engagement. POP completed its first park last year at Arthur Langford Jr. Park. In September, SCAD alum Alex Waggoner partnered with Cooper to complete a mural at Adair Park.

“The resurfacing of the courts and refurbishing of the goals has been really cool,” said Waggoner, who didn’t know much about basketball before working with POP. “I try to incorporate the aspects of play and the lines of the court into my design.”

For the Adair Park project, Waggoner’s theme of unity, togetherness and community was centered around a sun, hinting at a connection to the Muscogee (Creek) who once occupied the land.

Credit: SCAD

Credit: SCAD

Each project begins with patching cracks, resurfacing the asphalt and, in the case of Adair Park, erecting new backboards so the space can once again be used to play basketball. After gridding the design into 10-by-10-foot squares, Waggoner uses chalk to sketch the drawing. Community volunteers help apply durable paint that is mixed in advance with a special sand to help it adhere to the surface.

Only after the court is finished does the long-term community engagement begin, Cooper said, but engaging local politicians and agencies as partners for programming can be a struggle.

He would like to see more support for three-on-three leagues, which would give everyone an opportunity to play, not just high-level players. He also wants to create more equitable programming for the females who want to play on outdoor courts but find themselves outnumbered by males.

He hopes more people see the importance of basketball as a community-building sport and invest in mural art, either through muscle or money, as a way to give back and help rebuild communities.

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