how Dan Peterson is using COLOR for GOOD

In 2014, Dan Peterson founded Project Backboard whose mission is using public basketball courts as a canvas for creative expression to strengthen communities and inspire multi-generational play. His mission feels like a natural progression of his life. Dan played a lot of basketball growing up and went on to play for Iona College as a freshman and later became an assistant high school coach in Alabama. In his first year of coaching, Dan led his team to the state championship, the first in the school's history. While in Memphis as an employee of the Memphis Grizzlies, Dan started to notice many neglected basketball courts around the city and began making small improvements. To Dan, basketball is much bigger than sport. It represents joy and community. Project Backboard continues to grow and has renovated over two dozen basketball courts from Memphis to Puerto Rico. 

PHOTO CREDIT: Chris Costello

PHOTO CREDIT: Chris Costello

Laura Guido-Clark: What does pick-up basketball represent to you?

Dan Peterson: It is a fertile learning environment. As a young person, pick-up basketball is where you engage in communities without teachers and coaches. That means you have to figure out who you are, and how to work with people you don’t know, to achieve a common goal. I also love that pick-up basketball is outdoors and being outdoors is something that I love.

There is a great independent documentary, Doin’ It in The Park about the subculture of pick-up basketball in NYC which suggests that it is not possible to be a basketball player without having played pick-up basketball. For me, it is the highest expression of the game and for some, the first place to be with adult strangers and have to manage the situation. I feel the sport teaches very valuable lessons.

As a teacher, I saw that young men love to play basketball, and they play throughout their school years and beyond. However, for young women, it is more of a team sport, and they stop playing outdoors at a certain age. I feel they miss out because there is so much to learn through the outdoor experience. The outdoor experience can sometimes be testosterone-heavy. I am trying to explore how color can reengineer the space to make it feel more inviting.

LG-C: Do you notice more gender equality in the basketball courts you are creating?

DP: I do at the unveiling. I do see more families and women. I also know some academic work is being done on the impact of color in creating more inclusive public spaces, and I feel like I have seen enough anecdotal evidence to support the conclusion that colorful basketball courts are more inviting places for young women to play.

LG-C: What was the turning point in your painting lines?

DP: I began by simply painting game lines on public courts in Memphis. I noticed that neighborhood basketball courts were missing a vital component: no three-point lines, no free throw lines. So, you couldn’t improve your game. Then I came to a court where Anthony Lee did colorful sculptures next to the court. I asked him if he could help me pick colors for the lines, and he ended up coming up with a scheme to push it further. From there we kept going. Every time we renovated, we would add a local artist. The William LaChance project took us to the next level… it got a lot of press, and the non-profit really started to gain momentum.

ARTIST: Anthony Lee - Pierotti Park, Memphis, TN

ARTIST: Anthony Lee - Pierotti Park, Memphis, TN

LG-C: Can you talk about your latest Project?

DP: I just came back from Puerto Rico where we worked with Carlos Rolon, an artist who lives in Chicago. Following the hurricanes, we wanted to play a small role by re-doing basketball courts. NBA 2K foundation supported us. We created something new and vibrant. We are also planning to go back next spring. Our goal is to try to do a basketball court there a year.

ARTIST: Carlos Rolón - Toa Baja, Puerto Rico  PHOTO CREDIT: Juan Cruz

ARTIST: Carlos Rolón - Toa Baja, Puerto Rico


 LG-C: Where are you going next?

DP: Don’t have one yet. We just did one in Akron. I have slowed down a bit, looking to go back to Mexico and Los Angeles. We are also working on a budget for Tokyo for the Olympics. I launched a project, ART WORK BASKETBALL, which offers free basketball nets to any citizen willing to hang them. Our goal is to hang 1,000 nets in public parks in summer 2019, and I am hoping to eventually turn it into a paid street team opportunity for young people in different cities. As a teacher, I was constantly thinking of challenges for students. I wanted to engage the students. Now, I want to give them the value and benefit by asking how we can engage citizens in public spaces and in turn engage them in active citizenship.

LG-C: Can you share some of the experiences of the effect of your projects on the community?

DP:  In St. Louis, a local barber was running tournaments in the park. After we renovated the courts, they created an entire weekend of family reunions to come back and hang out. You could see the courts galvanizing people of the community cross-generationally.   There is a video about its effect. It was so rewarding bringing people back to the space. It was really powerful to see that happen. It is always fun for me to see how the community takes the energy and reengages in their way, and how they utilize the space in a way that fits their needs.

ARTIST: William LaChance - Kinloch Park, Kinloch, MO -  PHOTO CREDIT: Paul Nordman

ARTIST: William LaChance - Kinloch Park, Kinloch, MO -

PHOTO CREDIT: Paul Nordman

LG-C: Can you tell me what color does for your projects?

DP: I don’t come from an art background. I see art as a real utility that changes the way people engage with space. I feel they feel safer. When walking into our space, I believe people feel a physical vibration of the color. You feel the color in your body.
When I began, I added color but nothing on the level that I do now. The artist engagements increased my appreciation for the artists and their work. I respect their daily employment of color and shape, and how they make decisions. When I really practiced hard at basketball, I knew I had the upper hand. The same is true for artists when they commit to their practice. They create a powerful impact

ARTIST: Jim Drain - Fargnoli Park, Providence, RI  PHOTO CREDIT: Mike Cohea

ARTIST: Jim Drain - Fargnoli Park, Providence, RI


LG-C: Can you share the reaction of artists to the space?

DP: One thing I can say is that every experience I have had with an artist has been terrific. I have had so much fun in our collaborations. I want to also emphasize that we are renovating the courts first. It is important that even if you aren’t interested in the art, we give the neighborhoods a better space to play basketball functionally.

If you love PROJECT BACKBOARD as much as we do…