Keely Jackson hadn’t finished her portrait of Milwaukee Bucks forward and NBA Finals MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo, but she didn’t need to for him to know it was a masterpiece.
“You made me look so handsome,” he told her Friday before autographing the painting at the NBA’s annual Vegas Summer League at UNLV.
Jackson, 23, is completing her third year as an intern on the Vegas Summer League staff. But her duties were a little different this time around. Instead of manning the elevator or roaming the concourse as she had done before, she was commissioned to do a live painting of Antetokounmpo in the concourse at the behest of Vegas Summer League co-founder Albert Hall, who sought to showcase her unique set of talents.
Scores of spectators would stop to watch her bring Antetokounmpo to life, and on Saturday, she finished one of the most important pieces of her burgeoning career.
“I feel like I’m still kind of riding my high,” Jackson said. “I want it to go to a good home. Whoever gets it, I want it to be in good hands.”
Art and basketball
Jackson was raised in the Atlanta area, where her father, Eric, works as an executive for Turner Sports and helps produce the network’s NBA programming. She likes basketball, but loves art and was practically drawing before she could pick up a pencil.
She didn’t begin painting, though, until her freshman year at Louisiana State, where she graduated in the spring. Her college professors encouraged her to try it, and she spent four years in the bayou honing and falling in love with her craft.
“I had to learn to paint to be successful in class,” said Jackson, a fine arts major who specializes in realistic portraits. “Now all I do is paint. I don’t even draw anymore.”
Still, Jackson as an undergraduate was unsure what career she wanted to pursue. She interned at the Summer League in part to learn what it would be like to work in sports. She would sell programs and relay statistics to league personnel.
It was the kind of busy work that helped ensure a smooth operation.
Unbeknownst to Jackson, Hall had learned about her art through his connections and sought this year to make better use of her services. She arrived in Las Vegas expecting to assume her usual responsibilities, but Hall asked her to paint Antetokounmpo instead.
“Summer League is more than just basketball. There are talents that everybody has,” Hall said. “Everybody is huge fans (of Jackson). Once they saw (her portfolio), they were like, ‘Oh, my gosh, we have this unbelievable artist in our midst.”
Jackson said she spent about 45 hours last week painting Antetokounmpo at various spots on the concourse. She used acrylic paint supplied by the Vegas Summer League staff, and her family brought additional supplies.
Hall had known Antetokounmpo since 2014, when the two-time NBA MVP was playing in Las Vegas as a budding prospect oozing with potential. Antetokounmpo happened to be at the Vegas Summer League on Friday, and Hall surprised Jackson by facilitating a meeting between the two near the Thomas & Mack Center tunnel.
— NBA (@NBA) August 13, 2021
“He’s so pure. He’s so kind. It was a special moment,” said Jackson, who previously had completed one live painting. “I wasn’t expecting that to happen that day. I just thought I was going to come and paint, like always. … So crazy.”
The portrait of Antetokounmpo is the latest addition to Jackson’s comprehensive portfolio. Subjects range from recording artists Dr. Dre, Snoop Dogg and Rihanna, to fictional characters Jackson Avery and the Joker. Other pieces honor Black women and call attention to injustices in Black communities.
Jackson said she has sold more than 50 of her paintings, including one to Shaquille O’Neal of the late recording artist Nipsey Hussle. She also dabbles in abstract art and hopes to eventually commission pieces for athletes, celebrities and art collectors.
A la Antetokounmpo
“She’s doing it in a way that’s fun for her,” Eric Jackson said. “It’s not even like work. Who doesn’t enjoy getting to work in a space where it doesn’t seem like work for you?”