PROVO — The camera rows behind the baseline of a basketball court offer a vantage point of the game unlike anything caught from the nosebleed seats or even on television. It’s there where you can truly absorb the athleticism of the sport and appreciate how the way men and women fight for a loose ball, a ball much smaller than their gargantuan frames, flows elegantly like poetry.
That’s the view Justin Kunz, associate professor of illustration at BYU, had for two March Madness games held at Vivint Arena earlier this year. He had a front-row seat as then-Gonzaga and current Memphis Grizzlies forward Brandon Clarke outmuscled Baylor, and when Auburn continued its run to what became its first-ever Final Four appearance. The photos he took that day also led him to the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame.
No, he didn’t get inducted into the hall. But those games largely influenced his design, which was selected to be the obverse side of commemorative coins for the hall's 60th anniversary.
Kunz’s design was unveiled during induction ceremonies at the Hall of Fame in Springfield, Massachusetts, on Sept. 6. It features three basketball players: two men — one standing and another in a wheelchair — and a woman, all equally reaching for a basketball. The background is a basketball net from the top looking downward as if the coin is a hoop itself.
The design will be featured on the three different U.S. coins: The $5 gold, $1 silver, and a half-dollar clad. Congress authorized to strike and issue upward of 50,000 of the gold coins, 400,000 of the silver coins, and 750,000 of the clad coins. Retail prices for the coins weren't immediately released, but surcharges of each coin ($35, $10 and $5, respectively) will go toward the Hall of Fame to increase operations and educational programming, according to the U.S. Mint.
How the coin design came together
If you’re familiar with the coin world, then you might already know who Kunz is. He’s an artist with the U.S. Mint’s Artistic Infusion Program and designed several other coins from U.S. Mint’s 225th-anniversary coin to the Shawnee National Forest quarter.
Earlier this year, Congress authorized a U.S. Mint production of a commemorative coin for the basketball Hall of Fame and a competition was held for its design. Kunz was one of a little more than a dozen finalists who submitted designs for the coin before it was selected. It was a quick process that began in June and ended shortly before the design was unveiled.
All of the finalists were tasked with coming up with a coin that encapsulates the energy and physicality of basketball, as well as the international and diverse reach of the game.
Kunz referred back to a few of the photos he took at Vivint Arena as he tried to sketch ideas. He had snapshots from his experience viewing the intensity of the game up-close, which those in charge of selecting a design wanted.
The final design came from a composite of photos and ideas. But one image, in particular, caught his imagination more than anything. It was a cluster of players reaching for a basketball that was just off the tips of their fingers. There was something about that image that went beyond the game itself. It was a group of athletes extending their physical limits in a split-second that could have very well factored in the outcome of the game.
“They were doing everything they possibly could to reach it, and I captured that moment, and it just felt like a work of art. It felt almost like a Baroque painting,” Kunz told KSL.com. “I thought that was so inspiring because it really had the energy and really had that sense of struggle, and they’re reaching for achievement.”
Of course, there were other inspirations too. He had been to Utah Jazz games and his son’s games, and even watched a documentary about a wheelchair basketball team on Netflix called “The Rebound.” Through the movie, he found a common physicality in the game despite perceived limitations due to disabilities.
He also wanted to include the many successful women in the game to highlight the game’s diversity and reach beyond gender.
“I don’t want to necessarily put too much of a spotlight on any one (player); it’s about the sport and all the players who play it,” Kunz said. “I used it as an anecdote. You can see those moments happen in almost any high-level basketball game. … It’s more about the game and the dynamic of it — how the game brings this positive competition that brings out everyone’s best efforts to bring together communities and equalizes people, in a way.”
But that one photo of the outstretched hands was the catalyst for the final design. Not only did it highlight the spirit of the game, but it also led to a more artistic approach to the final product. Through it, Kunz pieced together the shapes, geometry and the artistry hidden within the game. If you look at the coin design, the three players are lined up in a triangle. There’s the circle of the wheelchair and the basketball, as well as the pattern of a nylon net.
“I find it appealing if you can compose a design with really simple shapes,” Kunz said.
The art of different designs
With the basketball design, Kunz’s portfolio continues to include diverse coin subject matter. He’s completed historical, contemporary work showcasing people and places, and he said learning about each subject is something he enjoys about the process.
He likes documentaries and audiobooks, and learning to empathize with subjects he’s trying to represent through his artwork. Much like his basketball coin design came from an experience he had, the designs come to him through appreciation.
“It’s kind of getting a better acquaintance with the subject so that my emotions are resonating with that,” he said. “In that process, I feel like it influences the designs because I need to be able to see the design and see if it feels right. And I can only know if it feels right if I have a better understanding of what it’s about.”