All basketball players understand the significance of a first court experience. For Michaela Onyenwere, the reigning Rookie of the Year in the WNBA, her journey begin on mostly indoor courts while growing up in Colorado, but also featured one outdoor court in particular that was special to her before she moved on to Pauley Pavilion at UCLA and now Barclays Center, home of the New York Liberty.
Utah Park in Aurora was the home of that outdoor court where Onyenwere says she went with her brothers to “kind of rough it up with them.” Now, she is part of a program giving the next generation of kids the opportunity to learn the game of basketball on quality surfaces. On Wednesday, it was announced that, with the help of Onyenwere, renovations were complete at McCaffrey Playground’s court in Manhattan.
Mobil 1 initiated the program, called Tune Up, which has been renovating courts across the country with the help of former and current NBA players such as Channing Frye (renovated court in Cleveland) and Karl-Anthony Towns (renovated court in Minneapolis). Mobil 1 teamed up with nonprofit partner Project Backboard for this and also incorporated a video game element to the program. As the renovations are happening, there is also an NBA2K tournament going on that allows gamers to improve (“tune up”) their skills.
“We are proud to use our WNBA and NBA partnerships for good this season by working with Project Backboard to identify and revitalize basketball courts that make an impact on their local communities” said Bryce Huschka, North America consumer marketing manager for ExxonMobil. “McCaffrey Playground provides an outdoor space for girls and boys of all ages to do something that they love, in the same way we believe Mobil 1 helps those who love driving have their best experience.”
The court at McCaffrey Playground, which is a 13-minute walk from Madison Square Garden and a six-minute walk from Times Square, was fixed up and painted with a new design drawn by New York artist Andrea Bergart, who was influenced by her experience with Downtown Girls Basketball, a New York women’s and non-binary basketball team.
“As a New Yorker and basketball enthusiast being involved in this project with Mobil 1 and Project Backboard is particularly exciting for me,” Bergart said. “The artwork I developed for this basketball court explores ideas relating to fluidity and kaleidoscopic reflections; forms flowing into other forms and branching off and returning to the whole. Ultimately, I want to create imagery that offers the viewer a poignant experience that also acknowledges the strict geometry of a court.”
“I think Andrea did a great job creatively just making a court that is like ‘Ok what is this,’” Onyenwere said. “People want to be intuitive about what it is and in turn people will figure out ‘Oh ok, it’s about the tune up the community program that was presented by Mobil 1. I think (the heart of New York City) is such a great place to put it. I think it will serve people really well and people will be excited to play on the court.”
Interview: Michaela Onyenwere on renovating NYC court
When asked about the support of the gamer community for this project, Onyenwere said, “they’re having just as much fun with the game was are. That’s so so cool. And we can get many many eyes on the game (through video games). As many eyes as we can get is just super important, especially for the WNBA. ... The WNBA needs marketing. We are really growing the league, starting to get a lot more eyes, a lot more people want to invest in the league. And so to be able to have people like (gamer/player) Aerial Powers who are connecting with different types of people to bring them into the WNBA and bring them into our world brings nothing but positive things.”
All in all, becoming a part of the Tune Up program was a “no-brainer” for Onyenwere.
“New York has kind of turned into my home,” she said. “As a professional athlete I have a platform and one of those things I want to convey is that I want to give back to the community. So when Mobil 1 came to me and my agent, I was like ‘Of course. Of course I would want to do this, be a part of something bigger than myself.’ And New York is known for outdoor courts — it’s something that’s been a part of the culture for a very long time. ... I'm very grateful to be a part of this partnership.”