As a kid, my favorite NBA player was a young, tattooed guard who wasn’t from the nicest part of town. After a college career that had more than a few bumps in the road, he went on to have a solid professional career in which he was simultaneously hounded and heralded for his style of play. That player was none other than “White Chocolate” himself, Jason Williams.
There’s always been some hesitation when it comes to rooting for the rival Sacramento Kings as a Lakers fan. But even at a young age there was no way I could avoid being mesmerized by the intricate dribbling and the behind-the-back (and off-the-elbow) passes Williams was known for. No one in the league matched his showmanship, but there were others who could not only match it, but often surpassed it. The best of those gentlemen represented AND1 Basketball.
Here’s an abbreviated history of the organization: AND1 began as a shoe company in 1993. In 1998, a low-quality tape filled with highlights from street basketball games is sent to the company. This tape prominently featured a young Rafer Alston, better known in the basketball community as “Skip To My Lou,” performing incredible crossovers and passes.
In 1999, AND1 launched its first ad campaign which featured NBA role players like Rex Chapman, Raef LaFrentz, and Darrell Armstrong (in hindsight, it is all too obvious that this wasn’t going to work). Since the ads didn’t take off the way it had hoped, the company started sending copies of the tape along with its gear to major basketball camps. It caught on, and, with the help of Foot Locker, kids all over the country started to learn all about the streetball culture.
The AND1 phenomenon was kind of a right-place-right-time scenario. In 1998 there was an NBA lockout, and thus a shortage of basketball for all to see. Plus, let’s be honest, the league had gotten a little repetitive. The stars of the league were starting to show some age. And everybody, fans and players included, knew that as long as he wanted to play, there would be no stopping Michael Jordan. As he was coming towards the end of his career, people starting looking for the next big thing, and while Kobe was slowly building a good case, he wasn’t ready to be what Jordan had been to the league just yet.
In addition, the AND1 style of play was just different. Professional basketball was physical to say the least, filled with elbows and strangled coaches. AND1 managed to keep that tough element simply because its players had come straight from the hood, never having the rough edges sanded off in the league or high-profile college programs. It also added this element of entertainment the NBA didn’t and couldn’t have. To see these players dribble was to witness ballhandling mastery. NBA point guards at the time had a simple assignment: to facilitate the offense. AND1 guards had a totally different agenda; their goal was to put on a show.
Everything about AND1 just seemed bigger than the game of basketball. It started with the moves, each with its own quirky title ( the “Fred Flintstone,” for example). That carried over to the players’ names. In order to be a proven streetball player, one had to earn a nickname based on his court prowess.
Thus Rafer Alson became “Skip To My Lou” because of his uncanny way of dribbling that resembled skipping, or how Robert Martin became “50” due to his rumored 50-inch vertical leap. The list goes on: “Helicopter,” “The Air Up There,” “Shane The Dribbling Machine,” “Hot Sauce,” etc. These names were more than nicknames — they were monikers for modern-day superheroes, each with his particular weapon of choice. They performed feats we all tried to emulate (the under-the-shirt-around-the-back move was a personal favorite) but could never master. It made basketball fun again, especially during the stale days of the NBA.
Another things that made AND1 so great was that it inspired so many different ventures. There were magazines, a clothing line and even a classic Chappelle’s Show skit based on it. In my opinion, each one of these deserves its own article, but in the interest of time, these primers will have to suffice:
The Nike commercial – As AND1 gained popularity, other sneaker companies noticed. Nike was among them. In 2000, it created a commercial that put a heavy beat behind the freestyle moves for which fans had developed a fascination. The commercial had a lot of heavy hitters in it, from the aforementioned Williams to other up-and-coming NBA stars like Vince Carter (who actually doesn’t do much dribbling in the commercial) and Baron Davis. Nike also showcased notable streetballers like Ed “Booger” Smith (who was once on the cover of Sports Illustrated) and Malloy “The Future” Smith to show that it actually knew what it was talking about. It was this commercial that brought the AND1 style to mainstream America and opened the door for more ventures to follow.
The TV show – “Street Ball” was a reality TV show about the AND1 Mixtape Tour that aired on ESPN. In all honesty, I have no clue what the actual time slot for the show was, but there always seemed to be a marathon on Saturday afternoons. Each week the AND1 team would go to a new town and hold an exhibition and an actual game. The exhibition was for locals who wanted to show they were talented enough to play with the AND1 guys. The actual game featured a select group of those locals and if one proved himself worthy, they would be invited to go on tour with the team at the expense of another guy who was already traveling with the team. It wasn’t the most compelling reality show, but it did the job as far as providing the right amount of entertainment and pseudo-drama.
NBA Street Vol. 2 – Also known as the greatest basketball videogame of all-time. There were other games that took the AND1 model (the original NBA Street, Street Hoops, AND1 Streetball, etc.) but none matched the fun and ingenuity of Vol. 2. With outrageous moves, its own streetball legends (shoutout to Osmosis), a roster filled with NBA stars, rappers, and three different versions of Michael Jordan, there was no better way to play basketball. Plus, the title screen had “T.R.O.Y.” by Pete Rock and C.L. Smooth playing in the background. It doesn’t get better than that, folks.
AND1 basketball was a phenomenon for all basketball fans. And while there were the gripes from some who complained about the carrying of the ball or the lack of defense, none can say that it wasn’t entertaining. Fifteen years later, we can still see how players like Kyrie Irving and John Wall have styles of play inspired by streetball culture. Even Grayson “The Professor” Boucher is still spreading the AND1 gospel as a fully costumed Spiderman in a series of YouTube videos.
While AND1 isn’t as visible as it once was, the legend and legacy still remains for us who were there to experience it.
Jonathan Smith is a recent graduate of Elon University, where he co-taught a course on hip-hop history as an undergraduate. He lives in Elon, NC and works at Duke University.