Basketball courts in Southeast Fort Wayne are turning into murals with a mission


Four letters. One painted on each of the four basketball courts in McMillen Park of Southeast Fort Wayne in bold, Black Pride colors. Red, black, and green.

To Andre Portee, the artist transforming these courts into works of public art, these letters are a sign to the neighborhoods around them. They’re a sign to Black children like himself who grew up in and around Southeast—or just East, as they called it.

They’re a sign that you have value and that color is beautiful. That art and beauty is for everyone in Fort Wayne and that you can have something permanent in your neighborhood—something that will stop you in your tracks and take your mind off your circumstances. AbsorbALL's Andre Portee

“Coming from a lower-income neighborhood, we always depended on areas like these basketball courts for an escape,” Portee says. “If you have problems in your household, you don’t want to be home. I’m trying to make this court bright and full of color for the Black people in this area because I feel like we don’t always get things that are cool and exciting in this part of town.”

Born and raised in Fort Wayne, Portee is the founder of AbsorbALL, a project that turns basketball courts into dynamic works of public art as a means of social justice, neighborhood beautification, park activation, placemaking, and more.

Since Portee launched AbsorbALL in 2019, he’s raised funds to renovate and paint a basketball court and backboards at the corner of Garfield Street and Edgewater Avenue in Fort Wayne. But he’s always wanted to do a project on the Southeast side of town, a formerly redlined district largely home to non-white and low-income residents. In the Greater McMillen Park Neighborhood, 53.3 percent of residents are Black, and the median annual household income is $23,700.

The courts at McMillen Park in progress.

While Portee didn’t technically grow up on the East side, he often hung out around the area with family and friends, and he remembers seeing the basketball courts at McMillen Park busy with residents playing pickup games. But over the years, he’s watched them fall into disrepair.

“These courts have been cracked and covered in rocks for years, so they’re not safe,” Portee says. “As a part of doing these murals, we’re fixing up the courts themselves, and I’m hoping we can recreate that early-2000s type of community here as well as something exciting for future generations.”

Thanks to a serendipitous collaboration with Turnstone Center for people with disabilities in Fort Wayne, Portee has been able to make his dream of renovating the McMillen Park courts a reality in 2020.

Portee, right, paints one of four basketball courts at McMillen Park.

When Input Fort Wayne reported on AbsorbALL’s first project in October 2019, Portee’s work caught the attention of Rena Shown, Chief Development Officer at Turnstone. For months, Turnstone had been working on a grant-funded project to renovate the four courts at McMillen Park for their wheelchair basketball program, and Shown thought Portee’s art would be a great addition to the project. Shown

“We wanted to create our first outdoor court space in a way that would capture people’s attention,” Shown says. “So when I read about AbsorbALL in Input, that’s really what activated the idea.”

To fund the project, Turnstone applied for the NBA All-Star 2021 Host Committee’s million-dollar legacy initiative funding youth-serving nonprofit organizations across Indiana as part of the NBA All-Star 2021 celebration.

The initiative was designed to provide grants up to $50,000 to support brick-and-mortar capital improvement projects focusing on health and wellness or education, and Turnstone was one of only 21 organizations awarded statewide.

Shown says Turnstone’s goal with renovating the courts at McMillen Park, of all places, is to help more people in Fort Wayne encounter their work who might not visit their facility. After all, many wheelchair-bound residents live in the McMillen Park area, and the McMillen Park’s Community Center is a Lifetime Academy Sports Center offering engagement opportunities like summer camps.

“This will allow people to experience a sport like wheelchair basketball while they are out and about in the neighborhood,” she explains.

Wheelchair basketball is an inclusive sport that can be played by people of all abilities.

Turnstone’s grant to renovate the courts also includes funds to purchase additional wheelchairs so able-bodied friends and family can play wheelchair basketball, too.

“It’s just a matter of getting people into chairs and helping them experience it,” Shown says. “We think these courts will provide a great opportunity to strengthen our partnerships with the local community and parks system.”

Along with renovating courts and increasing access to inclusive sports, Portee says that having a project in Southeast Fort Wayne that’s funded through the NBA All-Star 2021 celebration will be a game-changer for the Black community in the area.

“For a lot of kids who live here, their world doesn’t leave this neighborhood,” Portee says. “We hope this connection to the NBA will be inspiring and uplifting for them and build a sense of pride here.”

Turnstone is hoping to engage more youth in wheelchair basketball by having a presence at McMillen Park.

When Turnstone and Portee began collaborating on the project, Portee submitted multiple designs for the courts, and Turnstone let residents from the McMillen Park-area vote on which design they wanted.

“We didn't want that decision coming from outside the community,” Shown says.

Portee is glad residents chose his E-A-S-T design because it is the closest to his heart based on his connections to the Southeast side and his hope for a better future there.

Before painting, Portee and his team at AbsorbALL sketched the design on the court.

Growing up, he had a strong interest in the arts, but he also faced many challenges. His parents divorced early on, and his brother was murdered in 2010. Around that time, one of his cousins was also killed by a cop, and since then, he’s lost more than a dozen loved ones.

“I try to use those moments to learn what not to do and what not to be,” Portee says. “I’ve been through so many dark places, so I want to use those situations as fuel to do something creative, something artistic, and make things better for my friends, family, and community.”

Before launching AbsorbALL, Portee had never painted a mural.

As a kid, Portee dreamed of being an artist someday, but people often told him he’d never make it because he was Black. Since then, he’s made it his mission to prove them wrong.

Today, he’s a full-time photographer and graphic designer in Fort Wayne, and he’s launched AbsorbALL, in part, to help other Black residents in the city get involved and use the arts to express themselves. He hopes future projects will provide a creative outlet for the community after a historic summer of Black Lives Matter protests.

Portee is seeking helping from Black youth and adults in Fort Wayne to help him with AbsorbALL.

As for the McMillen Park project, Portee is racing to finish it by mid-October. When it’s complete, he hopes it helps people in the area realize the potential in themselves and their community—and make the most of it for generations to come.

“It’s hard to have a positive outlook on life when you don’t see anything pretty or different around you,” Portee says. “I hope these murals show kids that a Black man can make changes in his home, and anybody can if you try. You can do what you want to do, if you go for it.”

Attend the McMillen Park Court Reveal & Press Conference

Friday, Oct. 16

McMillen Park Basketball Courts

3901 Abbott St.

Press conference begins at 10 a.m.

From 4-6 p.m., Turnstone Center is hosting an adaptive field day at the park where community members are invited to play wheelchair basketball, as well as other adaptive sports offered by Turnstone.

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Read more articles by Kara Hackett.

Kara Hackett is a Fort Wayne native fascinated by what's next for northeast Indiana how it relates to other up-and-coming places around the world. After working briefly in New York City and Indianapolis, she moved back to her hometown where she has discovered interesting people, projects, and innovations shaping the future of this place—and has been writing about them ever since. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram @karahackett.