If you’ve been in or around NBA Twitter since December 2020 then you’ve probably had the experience of being watched. There you are, minding your own business, having a hard time remembering what highlight you just zoned out watching when two beady little eyes stop you mid-scroll. You pause, instantly caught, and scroll slowly down to reveal an oblong, pixelated body awash in crayon-bright primary colors, or maybe an ice cube tray wearing a Hawks jersey, a cantaloupe with a headband on, or a sentient slice of cherry pie with legs, but whatever you land on you can be sure is smiling guilelessly back at the mirror expression now playing across your own face. You aren’t seismically changed, but you’re happier than you were a second ago.
“I love making everyone smile on the drawings,” NBA Paint (well, the person behind NBA Paint, who asked to remain anonymous) says over Zoom. “Like, they all have this blank eye little smile expression. There’s probably like, 10 drawings I’ve done where the faces are either frowns, or straight-line face.”
NBA Paint created their Twitter account in early December, posting drawings sprung from inside jokes initially conceived in their fantasy basketball group to a handful of followers mostly from their fantasy basketball group. But the plucky, unabashedly cheerful drawings soon drew engagement from fan accounts, including the occasionally mercurial Aron Baynes Fan Club with its nearly 70k followers, and “it started to pick up a ton of speed.”
“It kind of hurled it into this space where all of a sudden I went from having, like, 10 followers that were close friends of mine, to a couple of hundred,” NBA Paint says. “When I began to notice like, alright, maybe I shouldn’t do them all on my phone. It was getting a little exhausting, hunching over.”
There are now nearing 50k engaged followers awaiting each day’s drawing, illustrations that range from cute to knowingly hammy phonetic twists on players names, interpretations of that day’s (or hour’s) big story, and most recently, reimagined game highlights.
“If you look back at the first drawings I’ve ever done in NBA Paint, I was actually using Microsoft Paint browser on Safari on my phone. So I was drawing them all just with my finger on the phone. You can see I’m not really connecting all the lines and they’re coming out really choppy, but that was kind of my initial intention.”
It’s the pared down, deceptively simple style that lends an immediate sense of connection to each drawing that NBA Paint does. Part of that is appreciation of the medium itself.
“I feel like everyone past the age of 25 has dabbled in Microsoft Paint at some point when they’ve run out of wifi or internet, or [were] on dial-up and they got kicked off the internet and they either had the option of messing around in Microsoft Paint, or playing that pinball game,” NBA Paint laughs. “So I feel like they get that sense of nostalgia from both of those aspects.”
Aside from technical recognition, there’s an in-on-the-joke literalism that comes across in every illustration. If you’re an active patron of the NBA’s unique theatre of drama and intrigue you’ll recognize its ongoing storylines and if you’re not, you’ll probably still get the obvious breakdowns of player names to phonetically assigned animal, plant or mineral. And regardless of which category you fall into, there’s the underlying current of how an instantaneous, irreverent platform like Twitter has created a short-hand, hive-mind sense of humor. You kind of just need to glance at the chubby, smiling little stick person to get it.
“I’ve been on Twitter a long time and am pretty obsessed with it, and feel like a lot of my humor and things I like have been developed from, overall, how Twitter feels about things,” NBA Paint says of how the drawings’ mode of delivery has shaped their ideation, and later their evolution. “Definitely for the first couple of videos, or the first video ever, I was like, ‘Wait, I can — cause I was just dragging around something — I can just record my screen and make Zion doing a dunk, and record that.’ And it would look pretty funny cause it’s so obviously bad, but it’s so bad that it’s pretty good.”
The ideas for the drawings themselves largely come from the brain of their creator, others come from a steady stream of requests (“I always feel a little bad about that, people actually think that I’m out there not giving them credit, I try to give credit where credit’s due”), but once an “idea is settled, it probably takes 15 to 20 minutes max on my standard ones,” NBA Paint says. “The videos take a little longer. But again, the videos aren’t necessarily more complex. It’s just, I’m drawing an extra guy or two. And then I drag them around and edit the video.”
The NBA Paint universe has grown so large that it’s become self referential. There is the tender spin on the “Are Ya Winning, Son?” meme, with a diminutive Doc Rivers walking in, play in hand, on a sunnily determined Seth Curry has been reshared every Sixers playoff game, a cameo on the StatMuse account, and a drawing of Devin Booker as a book that was recently rejigged upon commentary by CJ McCollum and that Booker then posted in a slideshow that also included photos his girlfriend, Kendall Jenner, on Instagram.
“When I created the account, I never would have thought that a player would one, even like something, but two, retweet it or post it on their own social media, and share it with literally their entire following,” NBA Paint says a little dreamily.
Even though the account has now done official collaborations with the Portland Trail Blazers and NBA All-Star, and has fans in Jarrett Allen, CJ McCollum and Enes Kanter among others, NBA Paint says every time a player finds, likes, or shares their work, “I still get blown away.”
For the most part, NBA Twitter and the NBA share a balanced symbiotic relationship, but there are times when the cycle begins to feel especially claustrophobic, if not outright draining. An echo chamber of takes, a cursed infinity loop forever missing the larger point, every single media outlet screaming the same pull quote in unison — if only there were an innocuous wedge to shove into the feed and disrupt the cycle. Oh, wait.
“Recently, I’ve been focusing on timely moments where I’ll hop on Twitter that day and see in the morning, accounts like SportsCenter or ESPN talking about, like it’s been two years since Kawhi Leonard hit the shot. And your whole feed is just filled up with the same exact footage of Leonard hitting the shot, and it builds up and builds up ‘cause all these other sports accounts are like, ‘Oh, we got to tweet this out,'” NBA Paint says of the déjà vu timeline. “I want to mix it up a little bit so that all of a sudden, it’s the same six shots, but now on the seventh one you’re hit with this really poorly done rendition of Leonard hitting the shot and it’s a little exaggerated.”
Two years ago Kawhi hit "the shot". pic.twitter.com/oVTLvBz2KZ
— playoff paint (@nba_paint) May 12, 2021
Like anything the account does, poking fun at sports media’s race for takes and perpetual feedback loop comes across as a friendly nudge than anything more critical, and they use the same approach with fans. NBA Paint — the account — doesn’t align itself with any particular team or player (the person behind the account does, but like their identity that allegiance stays confidential), in keeping neutral they provide a kind of easy, noncombatant online reprieve.
“It’s nice to, especially in a time where your Twitter feed can be so aggressive, have something out that’s like zero controversy behind it,” NBA Paint says of their safe space designation. “People will comment that a lot. Like this is so refreshing on Twitter, which I totally get because I guess I feel the same way when I make it.”
“It doesn’t feel like work, and people ask me all the time, are you tired? I basically post once a day, or do one drawing a day, since December, and that was five months ago,” NBA Paint says. “I get the same sense of enjoyment and like it’s kind of therapeutical slash relaxing to do it while I’m watching a game, and just like go into the zone and draw something out. It’s just like my whole life I’ve been doodling and it’s kinda just like doodling. I can turn my brain off and create this drawing and put it out into space.”
In terms of what’s next, the main goal of NBA Paint is to stay as “accessible as possible” while sticking true to their image. They have a web shop they “slowed down on” because their love for vintage t-shirts made it too difficult to find the right quality of shirt to use, initially going through 12 different mock-ups before landing on what’s currently in use, and a tentative dip into NFTs felt prohibitive given that only “0.05% of my audience can afford something like that”.
They admit that a dream collaboration would be with Nike or “it could be Crocs,” where a tiny, specific brand of shoe would be drawn carefully onto the sticked foot of each drawing they do over a period of time, or how fun it would be to collaborate with any of the sports media outlets they diligently follow and engage with writers of, to create digital art for stories, not necessarily specific to the NBA.
“I don’t want people to think that I’m just in this for the money, cause I’m not. I’m in it cause I love the sport and I have a great time drawing,” NBA Paint says. “My number one goal is just continue pushing growth, get this out to as many people as possible, because I think from hearing stories of people sharing it with their friends or their girlfriends or boyfriends or their family, and I would get like DMs of dad sharing it with their kids, and they’re like, ‘Yeah, we send each other’s drawings every day.’ It’s hilarious. [It] just like makes my day reading stuff like that.”
Asked about what made them love basketball and NBA Paint says it was the phenomena of Linsanity, and seeing a player who was then largely unknown “completely electrify the world”, that really turned them into a “diehard fan”.
“All of a sudden he can get hot and go off and have this huge movement that not only affects fans of his team, but inspires people all the way across the world,” NBA Paint recalls. “I was like, alright, basketball is pretty cool.”
That feeling evolved into an affinity for underdog stories, like the Fred VanVleets or Duncan Robinsons, players that come to encapsulate more than just the game played on court, but triumphant stories, human stories, overall.
Though not at the same scale, it isn’t difficult to draw parallels between those long shot, darkhorse stories that inspire and the small, smiling, and unflagging stick person that’s become the quick and central characteristic of NBA Paint. We all want to believe we’ll never find a mountain too high, and NBA Paint’s drawings, inanimate objects with facial expressions or not, make it feel like when staring up at something potentially insurmountable, the bravest face is always going to be a smiling one.