The Court and the Canvas Are Increasingly Intertwined

The Court and The Canvas
October 14, 2019

Caris LeVert arrived at a mostly empty West Side art gallery for a private showing late last October. William Villalongo, an artist, walked around with him that evening, describing his dozen or so works hanging on the walls. LeVert, a second-year Nets guard, is a neophyte in the art world. His father, Darryl, had been a graphic designer and drawn family portraits, but LeVert was in unfamiliar territory.

Still, Villalongo and LeVert found common ground through the tour. “There’s not too much difference between artists and athletes,” Villalongo said. “It’s based on skill.”

There is also the creativity that both groups possess. Much the way a game cannot be replicated, each painting is one of a kind.

“The only difference is you guys,” Villalongo said of athletes, “make a lot more money.”

For LeVert, the evening was part of an immersion. He had recently begun learning more about art but was not yet intrepid enough to buy anything. For now, art is a burgeoning hobby. In time, though, it could lead him to become a collector.

N.B.A. players have grown more interested in art in recent years and created a new market of consumers and enthusiasts. Former Knick Amar’e Stoudemire has amassed a notable art collection and served as a league tastemaker. Grant Hill’s African-American art collection has been exhibited at museums. Former Suns guard Elliot Perry is known league-wide for his impressive trove.

“Guys have different ways of collecting and different reasons for collecting,” Ronnie Price, a 12-year N.B.A. veteran, said. “I don’t think that it’s as big of a secret as it used to be. I think guys are into learning more about their world. Because basketball players have an extremely creative mind and I think most basketball players you see with tattoos, they appreciate art. They have art all over their body.”

So what was once a small niche of N.B.A. collectors has flourished into something larger. Numbers are difficult to come by, but Price estimated that two players on each team he’s played for — he’s been with Sacramento, Utah, Phoenix, Portland, Orlando and the Los Angeles Lakers — have had collections. And in the middle, serving as a liaison to the art world, is the longtime New Yorker Gardy St. Fleur.

Born in Port-au-Prince, St. Fleur grew up with art as a central part of his life. His father collected Haitian masters and commissioned work for local artists. His family moved to Brooklyn when he was a child, and St. Fleur spent his adolescence and early adulthood learning from artists. He befriended Ionel Talpazan, the New York City artist famous for painting extraterrestrial life, worked as a studio manager for Villalongo and, he said, regularly grabbed coffee with Emmanuel Benador, an art dealer.

Caris LeVert studying artwork by William Villalongo.

Born in Port-au-Prince, St. Fleur grew up with art as a central part of his life. His father collected Haitian masters and commissioned work for local artists. His family moved to Brooklyn when he was a child, and St. Fleur spent his adolescence and early adulthood learning from artists. He befriended Ionel Talpazan, the New York City artist famous for painting extraterrestrial life, worked as a studio manager for Villalongo and, he said, regularly grabbed coffee with Emmanuel Benador, an art dealer.

And he became just as interested in the artists as in their work.

“Why do they do the things that they do?” he said. “Fascinated with the way they think. As I get more information from them, I gravitate closer and closer to them. That helps me understand a little more.”

After a job out of college working in e-commerce, St. Fleur decided to follow his passion. Villalongo introduced him to Peggy Cooper Cafritz, who had a prestigious African-American art collection, and she gave him an assignment: Help her find new artists who were finishing graduate school.

Not long afterward, he decided to push into the art business full time. And from there came his involvement in the N.B.A. ecosystem, a relationship built in part from the days when St. Fleur would hang around the Rucker Park and West Fourth Street basketball courts in Manhattan, meeting people who eventually became player agents. Getting to know Deron Williams, the former Nets guard, became fruitful, too. Williams was looking to build an art collection, not just acquire a few pieces.

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