How the NBA on TNT’s viral Charles Barkley bus graphic came to life

It’s understandable if you’ve never heard of Aaron H. Dana. But if you are an NBA fan — and particularly a viewer of TNT’s “Inside the NBA” studio show — you have likely seen Dana’s work.

Like many NBA watchers, I was struck by the hilarious graphic that popped up this month on social media featuring Charles Barkley driving a bus filled with the NBA’s biggest stars.

It’s the small details of the graphic that make the piece, including:

There’s so much good stuff — and I wanted to know how an illustration such as this comes together. The answer led me to Dana.

Dana graduated from the Pratt Institute in 2004 and has been a full-time illustrator for about a decade. It’s a grind to get clients in his business, but he has developed into somewhat of a sports specialist. Dana said Turner Sports (now Warner Bros. Discovery Sports) has been a longtime client. On Oct. 11, he heard from Adrian Cortez, a producer at Bleacher Report whom Dana has worked with for years, and Eric Yeboah, a senior social producer at B/R who has also been a client contact. The B/R producers had a rush assignment due Oct. 16.

“They contacted me and said we are thinking about a return-to-the-season image with all these little storylines happening within the context of a school bus — with Chuck driving the bus,” Dana said. “Most illustration clients ask you to come up with multiple ideas, sketches, concepts. But they have a pretty good idea of ​​what they’re looking for. They already had a big document with tons of brainstormed ideas, so it was my job to figure out how to breathe life into this, organize it in a way that makes sense, and give the image appropriate elbow room and airspace without overcrowding it. Think of it as they give me the ingredients and then I have to figure out how to balance the ingredients to make something that somebody wants to eat.”

The B/R producers fleshed out the content of many of the individual scenes. For instance, Cortez and Yeboah suggested Steph Curry should be in the front of the bus (for obvious reasons) and directly in front of Durant. (Dana had the creative freedom to place other players on different parts of the bus.)

The biggest issue for this piece was time. Dana had six days to turn the assignment around but, realistically, she would have to complete it in four given some other commitments. He estimated he put 60 hours of work into the illustration over an intense four-day stretch.

“A lot of the fun of an image like this is that you can spend some time with it,” Dana said. “You can enjoy what’s happening immediately when it hits you but then explore to the corners, zoom in to see different areas of the piece, and get a chuckle out of some of the different references that are happening.”

Dana said he draws his images in Photoshop on a Wacom Cintiq tablet, which is like a giant iPad. Working on a tablet saves a lot of time as opposed to working on paper. (You can undo a missed stroke as opposed to waiting for something to dry for another pass with ink.)

“I started off by getting the structure of the bus drawn out and getting the perspective right,” Dana said. “Then I did rough sketches of the approximate placement of the different personalities throughout the scene. I sent over a draft with notes saying here’s what I am thinking. They then offer notes with things like let’s move this guy forward or backward because it supports the narrative that we’re trying to construct better. Essentially, it’s puzzle pieces that can be rearranged on the board.”

Dana said he’s thinking about things such as how do you have Joel Embiid and Nikola Jokić in the foreground but still have enough room to see the rows behind them? Everything is geared toward having enough depth of the scene so the viewer can see different things. The final art mode involves rendering, shading, coloring and thickening or thinning up line points.

A massive basketball fan, Dana said he’s familiar with themes such as Durant’s social media affinity and Jayson Tatum and son, Deuce, holding court at press conferences. That helps with the process.

“If Adrian and Eric say Russ should be outside of the bus and LeBron and AD are yukking it up inside, I know what the facial expressions should look like,” Dana said. “I understand the people, personalities and team dynamics. I think I can put the right twist on it, but credit to them because they come to me with a lot and make my job easy. I’ve been a lifelong sports fan, and my dad was a season-ticket holder for the Red Sox and Celtics when I was a kid. The (Boston) Garden was very much a huge part of my life. I would say 75 percent of my work as an illustrator is related to sports, and of that 75 percent, I’d say 80 percent of it is basketball. The sport has been very good to me.”

Dana did the illustrations for the New York Times best-selling book “Sprawlball: A Visual Tour of The New Era of the NBA,” a collaboration between Kirk Goldsberry and Dana. You can see his other work here.

I was curious if Dana has ever heard from any of the players or NBA personalities he has illustrated over the years.

“I suppose this would be one of the times not having your name on the graphic is to your advantage,” Dana said. “Every once in awhile, I’ll look at the comments section on social media, and the algorithm obviously sorts well-known people higher. So, I noticed that (Pelicans guard) CJ McCollum liked it and made a comment.”

Dana said he did hear through word of mouth that TNT’s Shaquille O’Neal really liked one piece he drew.

“A few years ago, I was blessed to do some work for the 30th anniversary of ‘Inside the NBA,’” ​​he said. “There was an illustration I did that served as a backdrop for a media event they were doing. I heard that Shaq said, ‘I’m taking this home’ about a portrait I did of he and the ‘Inside’ guys. That was great to hear, and touching. But rarely do I ever hear what the specific players represented think about it. Maybe it’s better that way (laughs)


On Monday, Andrew Marchand of the New York Post reported that Ian Eagle will succeed Jim Nantz as the lead play-by-play voice for CBS and Warner Bros. Discovery Sports’ coverage of the NCAA men’s basketball tournament.

It’s the right move. Last April, I wrote a column on how the 2023 Final Four represented a massively important Final Four to Nantz. The setting is Houston, and Nantz is one of the most prominent alums of the University of Houston (he majored in radio and television broadcasting and graduated in 1981), where he played on the golf team and roomed with Fred Couples. The school’s basketball coach, Guy Lewis, let Nantz be the public address announcer for the program. Nantz’s first job out of college was at the CBS affiliate in Houston. It is a meaningful place for the broadcaster and I suggested the perfect setting for Nantz to complete his run as the voice of the Final Four before CBS / WBDS shifted the role to either Eagle or Kevin Harlan. Look for a seamless transition.

go deep

GO DEEPER

Ian Eagle and Kevin Harlan are ready to take the lead on the March Madness broadcast


Episode 250 of the Sports Media Podcast features Jemele Hill, a contributing writer for The Atlantic, the host of “Jemele Hill is Unbothered” on Spotify, and the author of “Uphill: A Memoir,” which publishes Tuesday.

The podcast can be heard here when it publishes later Tuesday.

In this podcast, Hill discusses why she wanted to write a book about her life, especially one so personal and raw; a childhood where addiction was all around her; the pain and catharsis of writing so intimately about her mother; how being around addiction impacted her choices as an adult; every reasons for having an abortion and why she wanted readers to know about it; her default to pouring all of her energy into her career; being the only Black female sports columnist out of 305 daily newspapers in the country; joining ESPN in November 2006; the incorrect reporting of her initial ESPN salary and how that impacted people’s reaction to her; the voicemail Chris Berman left for her which prompted meetings with management; navigating ESPN politically; every tweets about Donald Trump; being suspended for two weeks without pay after tweeting about boycotting the NFL’s advertisers; having the President of the United States commenting about her and ESPN’s lack of response; when she knew it was over at ESPN; how much she was paid to do SportsCenter; how she approached her exit from ESPN; buying her mother a Mercedes for her 60th birthday; briefly being considered for Skip Bayless’ permanent debate partner, which ultimately went to Stephen A. Smith; how ESPN can be like “Game of Thrones;” where her focus lies today and more. You can subscribe to this podcast on Apple Podcasts, Google Play, Stitcher, and more.


Calling your first NFL game is always a big deal. Pac-12 play-by-play announcer Troy Clardy will make his NFL play-by-play debut on Oct. 30 for the radio call of Niners-Rams on Compass Media Networks, alongside analyst Brian Baldinger.


A mix of some sports and non-sports pieces of note:

• Washington Post writer John Woodrow Cox worked five months on this piece on 10-year-old Caitlyne Gonzales who survived Uvalde’s school shooting and then became a voice for her slain friends.

• How the war in Ukraine is impacting Russian players in the NHL and beyond. By Emily Kaplan of ESPN.

• The Trump Tapes. By Bob Woodward of The Washington Post.

• The secret identity of the NFL’s last barefoot kicker. By Sam Borden of ESPN.

• Who’s behind those vile, right-wing political TV ads during the baseball playoffs? By Will Bunch of The Philadelphia Inquirer.

• Quite amusing, this.

• How UCLA star Laiatu Latu became 2022’s best transfer portal comeback story. By Bruce Feldman of The Athletic.

• New book contains Chappaquiddick revelation from Ted Kennedy confidant. By Mike Damiano of The Boston Globe.

• Don Duff’s discovery in October 1962 helped push the world to the brink of nuclear war. Sixty years later, with the specter of nuclear conflict back in the headlines, the effects linger. By Ethan Bauer for Deseret News.

• What Would a Nation of Sports Gamblers Look Like? By Jay Caspian Kang of The New Yorker.

• Via Ashley Kirk, Paul Torpey and Michael Goodier of The Guardian: Liz Truss’s brief, tumultuous tenure as prime minister – in six stark charts.

• The Return of the Lipstick King. By Viola Zhou and Meaghan Tobin of Rest of World.

• Meet the teen queen of professional pickleball. By Rick Maese of The Washington Post.

(Top image of Aaron Dana’s NBA on TNT graphic: Courtesy of Aaron Dana)

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