Interview: Legendary Artist Charly Palmer Unveils Iconic ‘NBA 2K22’ Cover Art

“It’s major!” — The Atlanta-based painter and long-time basketball obsessive tells Complex why creating the ‘2K22’ cover art was a “dream project” for him...

Image via NBA 2K22

Today, 2K Games announce the next iteration of their basketball behemoth—NBA 2K22—will be released on September 10, 2021. Alongside this, they’ll also be dropping an extra special version of the Legends Edition—a 75th Anniversary Edition—and to mark this momentous occasion, they have drafted in the skills of legendary painter Charly Palmer to bring his own unique flavour to the cover art.

In 1996, Palmer created the poster art for The Olympics in Atlanta, where he has resided for over thirty years. Last year, at the height of the Black Lives Matter protests following the police killing of George Floyd, Palmer was selected by TIME magazine to design its July 2020 cover, as part of the America Must Change issue. His work has long dealt with themes surrounding social justice and civil rights and this commission from NBA 2K represents basketball’s overall commitment to these causes. Palmer’s work features a heavy use of flowers, a Black figure or a silhouette, with nods to the stars and stripes. Iconic pieces such as ‘Black Flowers’ and his TIME cover wrestle with the violent history and relationship Black Americans have with the state.

While his 2K22 cover ventures away from his usual themes, Palmer recognises how significant the role of the player-activist is: “When you think about Tommie Smith and John Carlos when they took their stance at The Olympics in 1968, they lost their careers because of it. Now, people respect the voice of the athlete because they’re not just entertainers, they’re human beings with opinions and voices and that’s shifting.” Last year saw a lot of players take to the streets and their communities to tackle racial injustice as well as encouraging fans to vote in the 2020 Presidential Election. All of this was reflected in 2K20 and 2K21 during the loading screens, with video clips pointing to the efforts players had made.

NBA 2K has proven itself to be more than just entertainment, and commissioning Palmer to design this year’s cover speaks to the worldview and unifying message that the game is all about. The beauty of NBA 2K lies in its ability to make you shout and curse at your TV, knowing full well that you’re playing either an AI or a kid halfway across the world who’s spent years honing his skills on the game. Nowadays, it’s often the platform where reputations of the league’s emerging stars are nurtured due to rivalries among gamers. New rivalries are being forged this season, too, with it being the first Finals without LeBron James, Steph Curry or Kawhi Leonard since 2010, and part of the excitement of NBA 2K22 is seeing how contenders are ranked against each other—will the Phoenix Suns and Milwaukee Bucks now become the teams to beat?

NBA 2K and the wider world of basketball has always been culturally innovative, completely changing the way both fans and players interact with each other and the game. Last year’s NBA 2K tournament, featuring players during the NBA pause, was reflective of just how much the stars themselves value the game. Palmer’s commission not only represents a celebration of the NBA’s 75th anniversary, it also shines a light on NBA 2K22’s lasting influence and its role as a conduit between fan and league.

We caught up with Charly Palmer over Zoom to discuss his latest masterpiece.


COMPLEX: What does it mean to you for the NBA 2K22 team to have reached out to you for this commission?

Charly Palmer: I don’t want to get spiritual on you, but this was a dream project. I’ve been out here doing this for over thirty years and for NBA 2K22 to reach out to me says something about the way I’ve paid my dues. It’s major!

What’s your relationship been like with the game and basketball itself over the years?

I was born in Milwaukee and lived in Atlanta, Georgia, for thirty years. I went to the [NBA 2021] playoff games and I struggled because I’m supposed to be cheering for the [Atlanta] Hawks and I was the guy in the corner saying, “Yes!” anytime the [Milwaukee] Bucks scored. That was one of my favourite moments as I love the game, and it’s been my favourite thing to illustrate, but being able to paint some of these legends and have debates about some of the all-time greats was really exciting.

What was your thinking when it came to designing the cover art? What feelings were you trying to convey?

Coming from a place where I’ve studied the game for so long, I wanted to maintain a certain amount of energy. I wanted it to be authentic and look like the players, of course, but add my flavour to it. What was great about working with NBA 2K22 is that they came to me, for me. A lot of the time when artists get commissions, people want you to do their vision of who you are. It was really great to do what I do. It was more about NBA 2K22 saying that these were the guys that were going to be on it. Coming from Milwaukee and hearing that Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was going to be one of the players on the cover was a great feeling, especially as they drafted him as a rookie when he was known as Lew Alcindor. With Kevin Durant, I’ve always said that with his length, his skillset makes no sense as far as how good he is. Dirk [Nowitzski] brought in a whole new style which is now accepted as part of the NBA. Those are things that are really exciting to me because I’m an alien to the game. I’ve tried to play NBA 2K22 but given up many times [laughs]. But painting what I love was the greatest pleasure.


Given the past 18 months and the efforts players have made in the realm of social justice, has this impacted how you perceive and depict the cover art?

With the cover, I couldn’t get too political. But with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, he’s been very active from the beginning and has always taken a strong and direct stance. I read the autobiography of Malcolm X when I was 14 years old because it was Abdul-Jabbar’s favourite book, which then became mine also. Now with Black Lives Matter and watching Atlanta play in jerseys with ‘MLK’ on, those things are powerful to me. The athletes are realising that it’s not all about ‘shut up and dribble’; they have a voice and people are listening to them, so it’s great to see these young guys take up that mantle. 

Carmelo Anthony recently won the Kareem Abdul-Jabbar Social Justice Award, but in your view, how has the role of the player-activist changed since the advent of Black Lives Matter?

When you think about Tommie Smith and John Carlos [African-American athletes who famously gave the Black Power salute] when they took their stance at the Olympics in 1968, they lost their careers because of it. Now, people respect the voice of the athlete because they’re not just entertainers—they’re human beings with opinions and voices. During the pandemic, it was interesting to see the Black Lives Matter banners all over the stadiums; it’s making a clear statement that these guys have value beyond basketball. 

NBA 2K has become an entry point into basketball and the NBA for a lot of younger audiences worldwide. How do you think this has influenced the game’s overall cultural impact?

With gaming, it’s a whole new world for me, but now I realise how insane this world is. I asked my younger relatives if they’ve ever heard of Ronnie 2K [Digital Marketing Director and public face of 2K] because I’m working directly with him, and they got really excited. When he reached out, I’d never heard of him but I found out he was a legend in the industry. He’s been down to Atlanta a couple times and when we’re walking around, you’ll hear somebody yell “Ronnie 2K!” He’s a celebrity. This game is one of those games that’s loved and respected and, as an artist, I’m suddenly legitimate with young people. I’m starting to understand just how much of an impact this game has. I’ve always been fascinated by the graphics, but to see players get involved with it, they care about it too. This is really huge! I’ve heard that some NBA players truly play NBA 2K22 seriously, so there’s a huge amount of respect for it among them.


View this video on YouTube


Latest in Pop Culture