Is this Steph Curry or a work of art?

In a flat red framed photograph, a woman smiles up. With the camera, we look down at the whirlpool of her body. A basketball falls through the net next to her face; under her feet, a white line divides the image like a fold in a pocket mirror. On the other side of the line, the matte red of a basketball court gives way to textured brush strokes accented with black and white lines and grids. These abstract forms reflect the radiant craftsmanship of the woman. This image is called A’jah Wilson and Team USA extend winning streak to 51 games | Kandinsky. You can find it at my favorite place on the web: Instagram account @b_a_l_l_h_a_u_s.

@b_a_l_l_h_a_u_s posts an affiliate photo of an NBA or WNBA player with an accompanying detail, sometimes altered, from a work of art, usually an oil painting. If you (I) feel jitters about the reference in the title to the famous German school of design, don’t worry: @b_a_l_l_h_a_u_s never turns players into high culture fools and never turns their sport into some noble but vague idea” art “. Instead, @b_a_l_l_h_a_u_s in comparison recognizes professional basketball as a synthesis of work and creativity, craft and art, practice and personality. I like his vision of the game.

The breadth of these images clearly shows that a narrow range of performance is lauded by most sports media.

Using comparisons to explain objects of interest—whether artistic, athletic, or both—is not a new strategy. But @b_a_l_l_h_a_u_s’ posts have a great uncanny quality to them, redefining the expectations I have for the players they portray. Their physical and emotional understanding is beyond what the SportsCenter Highlights video can show. Watch: LeBron James, swaggering, perverted and sensible, like a self-portrait of Lucian Freud; Giannis Antetokounmpo mourns, his loose joints were heavy like the seated figure of Jennifer Packer in Mario II; Sophie Cunningham triumphs, her hair flutters fierce and radiant, like Delacroix’s Liberty Leading the People and Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus. The breadth of these images clearly shows that a narrow range of performance is lauded by most sports media. Think of the sideways glance at Philadelphia’s James Harden, whose stubborn eccentricity is undecipherable to most analysts. @b_a_l_l_h_a_u_s images show something different. They immerse themselves in the feelings of the players and seem to understand that being weird, pampered or ambivalent can be part of the strength of these athletes. In one post @b_a_l_l_h_a_u_s, Harden looks mysterious behind the scenes, eyes full of secrets, next to the “Sorcerer of Hiva Oa” by Paul Gauguin.

I realized the power of @b_a_l_l_h_a_u_s during nba playoffs, culminating in a clash between the Golden State Warriors’ Stephen Curry, the most charming shooter the sport has ever known, and Boston Celtics’ Jason Tatum, a rising young star. How to understand these players as people and artists? Instead of asking where Tatum would fit into the pantheon of NBA greats, @b_a_l_l_h_a_u_s posted images like Celtics – 3:0 | Edgar Degas. Surrounded by the Nets, Tatum stretches into the air, holding out his hand to the basket in an elegant port de bra. His uniform is reflected in the ballerina’s tulle skirt, shimmering as she forms arabesques. The dancer’s delicately balanced leg rises to the side of the tilt of the head; Tatum’s muscular shoulder echoes the graceful curve of ballerina-toed shoes.

Seeing this iconic image of (white) femininity used to complement Tatum’s power was a revelation to me. Critic John Berger observed that in art and in life “men act and women appear”. But @b_a_l_l_h_a_u_s figures, regardless of gender or genre, define their meaning through what their movements can do. @b_a_l_l_h_a_u_s continued to interpret Curry’s performance with a series of juxtapositions with dancers: sometimes he is supple and smooth, like Painting by Lois Mailou Jones “Baker”; sometimes monumental in strength, like the women of Picasso on the beach. In this context, Tatum’s performance with a Degas ballerina seems neither a joke nor an overly easy equivalence. Instead, he emphasizes the precision of his technique. What could the rest of our sports media achieve if they were equally willing to redefine gender as the ultimate measure of an athlete’s worth or ability? What stories could he tell about these athletes or their world if his attention were focused through the wider lens of @b_a_l_l_h_a_u_s?

Sports are played to win; that’s part of their fun. It may seem strange to be annoyed by sports media ratings, which perhaps only track the competitive structure of the game itself. But basketball, like art, is worth more than the final score or price tag. No simple calculation can determine what a given player might mean to the game or to the fans. I love how @b_a_l_l_h_a_u_s recognizes the cosmopolitanism and humor of the players along with their ferocity and sweat, and how it all holds up even in defeat. I like @b_a_l_l_h_a_u_s’s way of seeing because its comparisons resist both simple equivalence and forced hierarchy. It enriches the images on both sides of the frame, making the art and the athlete more wild and compelling. Criticism, whether it be sports or artistic, does not often manage to capture this awe. At its best, @b_a_l_l_h_a_u_s might seem like the greatest basketball game ever, with both teams playing with the utmost elegance and power. One team wins, but the ability to see the talents of each makes the victory a work of art.

Sarah Mesle is a professor, writer, and editor based in Los Angeles. She teaches at the University of Southern California and is the editor of the Los Angeles Review of Books Avidly online magazine.