Looking at the NBA Through the Brilliance of Artist Daniela Lopez

Gabe Zaldivar

Changing your life is an exhausting enterprise.

It can leave you broken and sobbing the night before you have to mail off a life-size portrait of an NBA legend that will be unveiled before thousands.

But if you push through those strenuous moments, life can be beautiful.

An anxious moment happened to painter Daniela “Yella” Lopez in 2016 when she stared at the portrait of Houston Rockets star Yao Ming that she had been working on. She had just made the biggest promise of her career, to have a piece ready that would be displayed in front of some of the biggest names in franchise history. It would have to be done in less than a week.

“I don't remember much of those two days,” Lopez said of those pivotal few days that now remain a blur, “I just know I didn't sleep. I had way more coffee than any human should ever consume. I didn't eat because I was just so nervous. I couldn't think about anything.”

Several years later and Lopez is the regional painter at Louis Vuitton Las Vegas. She continues to create some of the more captivating basketball pieces and is in the throes of putting together an impressive collection of art that is equal parts portrait and street art, inspired by the legendary artist Jean-Michel Basquiat and her favorite sport.

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Photo Credit: Daniela Lopez

It all started with a Crayon and a dream, nurtured by supportive parents and a teacher who set her on a path toward success.

Rockets Come Calling

It seems beyond odd that you would find a family of Houston Rockets super fans deep in the heart of Utah Jazz country, but that is where Lopez found a love of basketball.

Hakeem Olajuwon, Sam Cassell, Kenny Smith, Clyde Drexler and so many other names ripped from the 90s pepper the tapestry of nostalgia that shaped her fandom. But it was one person that really got it started.

“My older brother was the biggest influence for me; taught me everything I knew about basketball,” she said. “He was a lifelong Rockets fan. I don't know why; we lived in Utah.”

Sometimes, you can’t explain what captures the fancy of the heart. All that she can say is that the Rockets have long been a rallying point for her family, something that unites them regardless of distance.

“We'd all go off, do our own thing. We all had our careers going in our jobs. But the games every year brought us back together.”

It stands to reason, then, that when your phone is blowing up and the person on the end of the call is Rockets CEO Tad Brown, you don’t exactly think through your promises thoroughly.

Brown had started to follow Lopez’s work as so many had. What started as a Notorious B.I.G. portrait she posted to her social media quickly transformed into requests from all over for her to do more celebrities and, soon enough, athletes.

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Photo Credit: Daniela Lopez

Brown was looking to bring a little something extra to an upcoming ceremony to send off Ming in style. The former Rockets center was getting his jersey retired and, well, wouldn’t it be nice to also have a portrait of the eight-time All-Star to also unveil.

Brown put out a call with less than a week to go, Lopez picked up and was on the other side of the line gobsmacked.

At that point in her career, a typical painting of this size would have taken her three weeks to complete. “I basically had Monday night and Tuesday night; I had to ship Wednesday morning,” she recalled.

Saying yes to Brown’s request was a huge opportunity. But self-doubt has a way of creeping into the window late at night and filling the room with negativity.

“There was a point, I think late Tuesday night, where I really thought I messed up for committing to this project,” Lopez said. “It's not going to be my best work. People are going to laugh at this. I failed the rockets. I failed myself. I cried. I sobbed.”

She finished. She accomplished. She wowed.

The portrait is indicative of Lopez’s other work, a dedication to the personality of the subject. Like magic, she is able to somehow borrow just a bit of what makes her subjects unique and special and endow the canvas with that personality.

And it started at a young age.

Faces

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Photo Credit: Daniela Lopez

“It's something I always did from the time I could pick up a Crayon,” Lopez said.

Her third-grade teacher spotted her propensity for art and encouraged it, entering her student in contests. It was a little nudge that embedded something in her subconscious.

“It was always something that I never really felt like could be a career. But I would always turn to it whenever I needed that outlet, whether it was like frustration, stress or a break-up. It was always going back to the painting.”

Lopez was drawn to more than just painting, she was a makeup artist for a number of years. People’s faces were something she was innately drawn to, a fascination without much explanation.

“When I'm sitting across from the table from someone and they're talking to me, I'm always listening, but I'm also just memorizing your face in, like, the way your eyes light up and the way the shadows dance on your cheekbones,” Lopez explained.

If she could, she would paint her subject’s thoughts. And going through her gallery, you sense that she very nearly has.

She is drawn to the challenge of getting you into the mind of some of the best athletes who have ever played the game, “making someone feel like they know exactly what Michael was thinking about at the moment that I painted him.”

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Photo Credit: Daniela Lopez

There are many ways you can approach basketball as an artist. It would be so easy to take a step back and visualize the sport as it plays out, from the rafters. But Lopez gets close. She moves in with her lens and painstakingly captures every bead of perspiration, every hour of work that superstar put in on the court.

The face can tell you a lot about a person. A lifetime is there in this snapshot captured with acrylic.

Living the Dream

Lopez speaks to me over Zoom, a mode of interview most of us have adopted as normal. But there is undeniable energy about Yella that comes across immediately. This is the same person, after all, who would come home after work and dive into her painting.

It takes a special kind of passion to kick exhaustion to the curb as you pour your heart into your work, especially when others are questioning the merit of the exercise.

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Photo Credit: Daniela Lopez

“I grew up with people telling me all the ways things weren't going to work when it came to being creative, whether it was even just a few years ago when I was still at my job and painting at night. People would ask, why are you doing all this? You're always tired.”

Tired can be dealt with. Sleep will come eventually. But there is a window on living your dream, and Lopez is just getting started.

She would love to showcase her basketball works when the All-Star game comes to Salt Lake City in 2023, a recent announcement that now seems all the more serendipitous as the artist discovered by her favorite team will soon see the All-Star game come to her hometown.

She is delving into her Basquiatball collection, bringing another layer of creativity and energy to her portfolio.

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Photo Credit: Daniela Lopez

And she does all of this after she comes home from painting all day for Louis Vuitton. And there is a good reason for that.

Her parents have remained supportive of all of her work, but the moment she steps out the door she feels the inherent questions, a culture that imposes expectations.

“I think just a lot of cultural expectations that as a woman, you're this age, you should be married, you should have a family, you should do this. You should do that,” Lopez said.

“I don't want it to be like that for the younger generation. I don't want them to think that these are the only measures of success. You have options. You can do this if you love to paint. As long as I can just prove that there are avenues out there that you can make money that I can prove those people wrong, that I can make a career and make a living off of art.”

Lopez is still very much that little girl with a Crayon. She never lost the wonder or magic so many of us let slip through our fingers. And it happens so suddenly.

“Don't give up,” she said. “Don’t let people doubt you. Don't let people plant those seeds in your mind. I certainly never saw or envisioned I'd be here, but I knew that it was going to take me somewhere because I wasn't going to prove people right.” 

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