With the Bank of America Corporate Center to his left, and the Duke Energy Center to his right, LeBron James stands alone, in front of the Charlotte city skyline. On his chest is a vintage Hornets jersey; on his head is a golden crown, studded with teal diamonds. The words next to him read “The King City.”
This work is the imagination of Ryan Simpson, a Charlotte-based freelance illustrator. Last week, ESPN published his artwork, along with that of 29 others, as a part of its Courting the King project. The goal? For a local artist in every NBA city to design a billboard his or her team could use to lure in James, the NBA superstar who will enter free agency for the third time in his career this summer.
“We’ve done a couple of LeBron projects, where it’s like, ‘Where’s LeBron going to go?’ ” said Tiffany Middleton, the ESPN designer who headed the project. “But we wanted to go from a different angle and say, ‘OK, LeBron may not hypothetically go to Charlotte, but what does the city of Charlotte have to offer LeBron? What’s its history? What can Charlotte provide that no other city can?’ ”
It started a month ago, when Middleton and the ESPN NBA team pitched the idea, got approval and went to work. Middleton was responsible for finding an artist located in each NBA city who was also a fan of his or her hometown team. Each artist would also be paid for his or her work.
When it came to selecting an artist from Charlotte, Simpson was a perfect fit. Middleton had been following the 32-year-old illustrator on Twitter for close to a year, admiring his work from afar.
“She just reached out to me by email and asked if I wanted to be a part of it …” Simpson said. “She knew that I was from Charlotte and a big Hornets fan. So, I accepted, and I was super thrilled to be involved with it.”
Simpson has freelanced for Bleacher Report, The Ringer, NASCAR and the NBA Players Association — but never ESPN. There was a little hesitation in accepting this offer, since he was already working on another project and would face a quick one-month turnaround. But after a second email from Middleton and some deadline adjustments, he jumped in.
Simpson does all of his artwork through a tablet and stylus, which digitally transfer his drawings to a computer screen. For his “King in the Queen City” piece, he drew everything by hand, including the buildings.
“That’s actually the first time I’ve done skyscrapers,” he said, laughing. “Very tedious to do all the windows.”
Once the illustrations started to roll in, Middleton began to piece everything together, with the help of co-workers Adam Reisinger and Matt Wong. The project was a fun one above all else, and that showed in the illustrations. The Indiana Pacers’ billboard features Lance Stephenson saying, “Don’t Blow This Chance, LeBron!” The Toronto Raptors' billboard puts James next to Kyle Lowry, DeMar DeRozan and the rapper Drake, along with the tagline “Run Through The Six With Your Foes.”
Simpson’s personal favorites were the billboards for the Oklahoma City Thunder, Cleveland Cavaliers and Los Angeles Lakers. But there weren’t any he disliked, either.
“There’s a little set of NBA artists who are all kind of aware of each other on Twitter and Instagram,” he said. “It was fun seeing a lot of those guys who I’m already friends with online. … I didn’t see any that weren’t just totally amazing in the whole set, which is pretty impressive."
Simpson, a 2009 Appalachian State graduate, did issue one quick clarification when it came to his piece, though. The billboard’s tagline that deemed James the “King of the Queen City” was just for fun. In real life, Simpson gives that honor to Kemba Walker, the team’s all-time leading scorer.
“He’s been the man in Charlotte — basically our only real superstar that’s stuck around throughout our whole history,” Simpson said. “Kemba’s stayed true to us. He’s the man here. He’s the real king of Charlotte right now, as far as I’m concerned.”