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Q. What do athletes and wall radiators have in common?

A. The art of Howard Kanovitz.

That little conundrum takes a bit of explaining. Howie Kanovitz, 40, whose cutout paintings of seven college basketball players appear in this issue, is a practitioner of the "new realism" school of modern art. Kanovitz aims at creating, in his words, "works that are so real, they transcend reality." His subjects are rarely identifiable beyond their simplest function: celebrants at a bar mitzvah, businessmen in conference, doors, windows, staircases and—yes—a wall radiator so precisely rendered that you come away from it sweating.

"The beauty of this approach is its multiplicity," says Kanovitz. "It gets you into everything. At first you might think that furniture and, well, basketball forwards just couldn't be handled by the same artistic methods. Furniture is immobile, forwards are all over the court. Yet they are both commonplace in this culture, and that's the link."

A bubbly, broad-shouldered longhair from Fall River, Mass., Kanovitz is hardly a dedicated sports fan—he currently takes his exercise only during the summer, playing tennis with a Cape Cod set that includes Playwright William Gibson and Actor Tony Perkins. Yet he found the rhymes, fluidity and grace of basketball highly exciting.

Late last winter we sent Kanovitz to seven college campuses to shoot preliminary photographs of his subjects in action. Then, back in his studio on New York's Lower East Side, Kanovitz arranged and rearranged the stances of each player, hoping to isolate the individual style and tone of the man in question. Pistol Pete Maravich, for example, comes on in a semicrouch, his mouth drawn down in a calculated parody of a Greek tragic mask. "That's the way I felt about Pete," says Kanovitz. "He's a tragedy—for the opposition."

Once his drawings were complete, Kanovitz laminated canvas "skins" onto lumber or special plywood boards, cut out the raw figures and meticulously painted them in acrylic. At a glance, the figures appear to be fully photographic. Even at close inspection—which they will receive in a show that opens this week at Manhattan's Waddell Gallery—the painstaking brushwork is barely evident.

Though Kanovitz has no further sporting works in mind, he carries a wry regard for the athletic world with him as a result of his assignment. "The basketball scene was a groove," he says. "I mean, here I was, the man from SPORTS ILLUSTRATED. At Indiana I was the only 'journalist' allowed into the dressing room after the game. And at Kentucky I took one look at Adolph Rupp and decided this was not the place to explain my theory of art. It was click, click, click and 'Thanks, Coach.'

Clicking, too, we trust, will be the 20 top teams assessed in our annual scouting reports by our college basketball staff: Joe Jares, Curry Kirkpatrick, William Reed, Peter Carry, Sandy Treadwell and Dick Russell.