THE ART OF TRANSFORMATION
Dan Peterson grew up playing basketball, and early on he recognized the unique ability of sports to bring people together regardless of background, skin color, or economic circumstance. He played in college and along the way fell in love with the game and the role it played in his life.
This passion for the sport led to a coaching job in Memphis, Tennessee and while there in 2015, he felt the pull of local courts. Playing pickup and shooting around became a key component of his social life. He connected and bonded with people over a shared love and respect for the game.
Peterson also began to realize the role these courts played. In neighborhoods that lacked good parks, or didn’t have enough work, or where schools were neglected, the basketball court helped keep the community together by providing a place for kids to play, to compete, and maybe most importantly, to stay off the streets.
But the more he played and visited, the more he noticed something wrong. These critical pieces of community glue were falling into disrepair. Many of the courts were almost unrecognizable, having been affected badly by shrinking budgets and misplaced priorities. Courts were cracking, and many lacked the most vital component: lines. No three-point lines or free throw lines, no court lines period. That bothered him.
He realized that instead of providing a physical space that draws people together, neglected courts have the opposite effect. They drive people away. They send a message of decay and hopelessness, which has a toxic effect on communities, particularly in ones that need it the most.
So one day he bought some paint and rollers and set out doing something about it. "It was something I felt it needed," Peterson said. "And something I felt like I could do."
And as so often happens when one person has the courage and the passion to act, people noticed. People appreciated it. People wanted to help. A thought occurred to Dan: this is a big problem in cities all across the country, and we are not coming together the way we should as a community, and sports allow us to do that. I should do something about that.
Then another thought occurred to him. Why not make these courts beautiful? A source of pride. A way to represent the heart and soul of the place. What if we partnered with artists and made these courts something special?
That was the germ of the idea that became the non-profit he founded: Project Backboard. The idea was simple - identify courts that needed to be repaired, raise money from people that cared, and repair them. Return something nice to the neighborhood. Something that provided an alternative, and gave kids the chance to get what he had gotten from basketball growing up.
Projects followed in places like Charlotte, NC; Oakland, CA; St Louis, MO; Cincinnati, OH; New Rochelle, NY; and Toa Baja, Puerto Rico. In each case a local artist has used the expanse of the court as a mural to express hope and place and community. This year celebrates its fifth anniversary, and Project Backboard is looking ahead to its next court transformation with sponsors like Xbox and Enterprise to help make it happen. Little by little they are making a dent in a problem we all need to tackle.
At a time when too often we are consumed by what divides us, Dan Peterson and Project Backboard help remind us of what binds us together. Simple things like art and sport allow us to recreate the bonds we are too often willing to break. The country needs people like Dan Peterson right now. Visit projectbackboard.org to learn more.