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The Other Basketball
Alexander Wolff
June 13, 2005
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June 13, 2005

The Other Basketball


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Soon it will be upon us, that apocalyptic day when some And1 Mix Tape Tour ballplayer pulls a yo-yo, stiff-leg, boomerang, Flintstone Shuffle combo move so profoundly off the hook that basketball civilization itself collapses in a heap of broken ankles, its definition of fundamentally sound smashed to pieces. Whereupon the archaeologists will move in. They'll sift through the rubble, searching for clues to how a company that began by selling T-shirts out of the trunk of a car could become the leading basketball-exclusive footwear and apparel brand in the world and remake the game in the process. As they adjust their pith helmets and lift their shovels, the diggers will want to keep an eye out for two artifacts. Today one hangs framed in the office of cofounder Jay Coen Gilbert at And1's headquarters in Paoli, Pa., a leafy suburb of Philadelphia. It's the company's Rosetta stone: the two napkins on which Gilbert and partners Seth Berger and Tom Austin, outside a convenience store in Center City Philly, scribbled the first insults to grace the line of trash-talk T's that brought And1 into the consciousness of young basketball players in the early '90s. The shirts bristled with attitude: I'M THE BUS DRIVER. I TAKE EVERYONE TO SCHOOL; IS IT HOT IN HERE, OR IS IT JUST ME?; and PASS. SAVE YOURSELF THE EMBARRASSMENT. Those napkins are so essential to the spirit of the brand that, Gilbert says, "if this building were on fire and I could save only one thing, they're what I'd go after."

But it's another item that largely explains why And1 now ranks second only to Nike in the number of NBA players who endorse its products: a VHS cassette of grainy video, shot with a handheld camera, that became the basis for The And1 Mix Tape, Volume One. Although And1's copy of that seminal 1994 cassette has been lost, Volume One and its six successors have done their work, enshrining the tight handle as the most coveted of basketball skills. Volume Eight will drop on July 26, and the And1 Mix Tapes Tour, now in its sixth season, opens this week in Oakland with the first of 30 stops. All the while the Mix Tape aesthetic bubbles up from the playground, turning the no-look into ya-gotta-see-this and leaving the hidebound basketball establishment to look on in horror.

As the Mix Tape Tour adds stops each summer, and wintertime and international circuits turn And1's marketainment franchise into a year-round global enterprise, the 15 tour players have become the equivalent of major league professionals. They pull down salaries and per diems, and some even do marketing work with tour partners. They play in NBA-quality arenas and bunk in hotels whose lobbies are clogged with adoring fans of both sexes. They're up-close-and-personalized on ESPN2's Streetball reality series, which begins its fourth season on June 22, and are rendered in the forthcoming video game And1 Streetball. They have, it goes without saying, shoe deals. So much for living on the margins and playing on the asphalt for love alone. Their status was writ large last summer on the back of the tour's $115,000 motor coach: STREETBALL IS OUR JOB.

At the same time, streetball has become And1's meal ticket. The company now counts 165 employees and $180 million in annual revenue, and sells its products in 125 countries. Last month American Sporting Goods, the Irvine, Calif.--based company that owns such brands as Avia, Ryka, Nevados, Yukon, Turntec, NSS and Apex, added And1 to its portfolio. The fact that Nike developed its 2001 Freestyle commercials and its own Streetball property, the Battleground Tour (which began in 2002), may be the best measure of And1's impact.

"We're not trying to be a big behemoth," Berger says. "We're trying to be a basketball brand." Young ballplayers got the distinction almost immediately after And1's launch, in 1993. Many tattooed onto themselves the company's raceless, faceless icon, known in-house as the Player, who holds out a basketball as if to say, "Show me what you got." (Only a hoophead understands the company's name: "If you don't know what it means," And1 says on its website, "we don't want you wearing our shoes.") Where other shoe companies try to woo consumers by paying millions to elite endorsers and hoping the aspiring masses will follow, And1 traffics in simple street cred. If you're a guy in your teens or 20s and you play ball, And1 is determined to reach you. Approaching their 40s, the founders make sure to hire young staffers and listen intently to their recommendations. And1's new headquarters includes an indoor court that fills up over the lunch hour, after which, employee Taylor Duffy says, "guys go back to their cubes talking smack."

In the early days Berger and Gilbert, who were childhood friends in New York City, enforced a rule that no one could come to a staff meeting without five potential T-shirt slogans. By the late '90s And1 had further positioned itself as basketball's enfant terrible by releasing a commercial in which the game's great untouchable, coach-choker Latrell Sprewell, declared (with The Star-Spangled Banner playing in the background), "I am the American dream." But with Mix Tape, Volume One, no one could accuse the company of cynicism or exploitation.

In the fall of 1994 someone associated with the Entertainers Basketball Classic, the summer showcase run out of Harlem's fabled Rucker Park, wanted to thank And1 for providing T-shirts and a trophy for its recent all-star game. The gentleman--whose name is lost to history--tracked down Berger and Gilbert in the lobby of a downtown Manhattan office building, where the two were to meet with a Foot Locker executive, and pressed a videocassette into their hands. "Thanks for the gear and the big-ass trophy," Gilbert remembers him saying. "You gotta check out the game. Skip and Alimoe really went at it," the man added, referring to a duel between streetballers Rafer Alston and Tyron Evans. Moments later he was gone--"a ghost," Gilbert says.

That night Berger and Gilbert watched the tape with a couple of buddies. "There were four of us jumping up and down, rolling over, spilling food and drinks, yelling 'Damn!' and 'No he didn't!' and 'Wait, wait, rewind that,'" Gilbert recalls. One kid caused most of the commotion. He wasn't much more than a jumble of arms and legs and barely-filled-out T-shirt and shorts, yet he seemed to control the ball by force field. This was Alston, then a 16-year-old from Queens already known to streetballers throughout the five boroughs as Skip to My Lou.

OVER THE YEARS RON Naclerio, Alston's coach at Benjamin Cardozo High, had made an avocation of reclaiming playground legends for the organized game, beginning with Lloyd (Swee' Pea) Daniels, who went on to play for six NBA teams. Naclerio was steeped in the mystique of Rucker, having played and then coached there. So he enlisted friends with handheld video cameras to document Skip's moves. "You know how having an iPod is the hot thing now?" Naclerio says. "It was the handheld then, and my people would bring them up to the parks because so many guys wanted to see Rafer but couldn't get in." A member of Naclerio's video brigade almost certainly shot the footage on the VHS cassette that had found its way to Berger and Gilbert. For five years "the Skip tape," as it came to be known around the And1 offices, sat on a shelf. It occasionally came out to impress a visitor or amuse employees, and it looped at the And1 booth during the 1998 SuperShow, the annual sporting goods industry expo in Atlanta, attracting throngs that stopped traffic. But for the most part, says director of marketing Errin Cecil-Smith, "We had the golden egg, and we were using it as a doorstop."

ULTIMATELY IT TOOK pedigreed ballplayers to help the company come to its senses. In July '98 And1 brought together a handful of its NBA endorsers for a three-day TV shoot for an ad campaign, setting up PlayStations and a VCR to keep them amused during downtime. As it turned out, the endorsers-- Rex Chapman, Larry Hughes and Raef LaFrentz, among others--wanted to do nothing but watch Alston show off his handle. When Skip himself arrived on Day Three, they greeted him as a rock star, even though as a lowly second-round draft choice of the Milwaukee Bucks he had yet to play an NBA game and And1 had only just signed him. At a lively off-site meeting in the spring of 1999, the company decided to redouble its efforts to identify with the grit and fearlessness of the playground, and vowed to put the Skip tape at the center of that campaign.

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