Streetball goes uptown
NorCal’s flashiest ballers take on Team And1
They called him “Shorty.” The kid couldn’t have been older than 10 or taller than a yardstick. Supremely confident, he bounced himself like a Superball through the lane, while defenders twice his age and nearly triple his size offered little resistance as he flicked the ball through their arms, spinning it deftly into the hoop.
“That’s my pick, right there!” hollered “The Escalade” from the mic as he and his partner “AO” kept a live running commentary going during this open casting call for the Sacramento area’s best streetballers.
The stage was a makeshift blacktop court in the mid-afternoon parking lot of Arco Arena, where the And1 basketball shoe and apparel company was just starting its fifth national And1 Mix Tape Tour. By the end of the afternoon’s continuous four-on-four full-court scrimmages (or “open run"), the 100 local, aspiring highlight-film stars were whittled to a lucky four who would team up with a variety of West Coast streetball legends, such as the Eric “the Spinmaster” Holmes and Anthony “Clark Kent” Lumpkin. Together, they would do battle against Troy “the Escalade” Jackson, Aaron “AO” Owens and the rest of the official And1-sponsored team inside Arco Arena that evening.
This wasn’t a tournament, though. This wasn’t even a team sport, and no one was keeping score. The ticket to the big stage in Sacramento, as well as every city on the 30-stop cross-country tour, is a furious tomahawk jam over two defenders, a no-look pass through a crowded lane for an assist or, best of all, the much revered “ankle breaker,” where you cross over your dribble from one side to the other so quickly and unpredictably that your defender actually crumples to the ground trying to recover. That’s a lock.
Who gets “in the building” is decided by the And1 players themselves, and Shorty made it in as team mascot, much to the delight of the hyper crowd that had one and only one criterion for the players: Entertain me.
Shorty was all entertainment. Every step and move was executed with maximum flashiness. He didn’t just dribble. With no room to spare, he repeatedly scooped the ball through his tiny legs and around his back, just like he’d practiced over and over, trying to mimic the moves of the streetball legends featured in the And1 Mix Tape streetball highlight videos that sparked this movement.
As with skateboarding or snowboarding or any of the Xtreme sports, the tricks and moves of streetball look impossibly fun, and the Shortys are watching, pausing their videos to pick up on how “Hot Sauce” barely lifts his chin to get his defender to shift and freeze, setting him up for the triumphant crossover—one move in one game that will be talked about for years. Bragging rights aren’t all that’s on the line, though. After years of bastard status in the long shadow of organized basketball, streetball is beginning to stand on its own. Now, if you’re good enough, you can even make a living at it.
“They’re well compensated,” was as much as Taylor Duffy from And1 Public Relations would let out, but around the court the word was the players get anywhere from $40,000 to $60,000 to be sponsored on the tour.
Produced by the RCA Group (X-Games) and sponsored by Mountain Dew Code Red, the tour is veritable orgy of corporate sponsorship. One stroll around the outdoor court’s perimeter reveals a midway of money, with Nestlé, Dell Computers, Nintendo, Footlocker and even the Army in what Vital Marketing Group (the “multicultural and youth marketing agency” the Army hired) rep Chris Crawford called a “culturally relevant environment.”
ESPN, which has followed the tour around for the past couple of summers for its popular Streetball documentary series, has renewed for two more seasons and is as responsible for the sport’s popularity as the And1 Mix Tapes.
Last season offered a new feature: “the search for the next playground legend,” wherein And1 offered an endorsement contract to whichever player from the various open runs was left standing at the end of the tour. Adding some reality-series drama to the mostly just visually compelling series has only increased the show’s appeal.
A real rags-to-riches plot emerged as Grayson Boucher, a.k.a. the Professor, a skinny, white 18-year-old from Salem, Ore., with a year of Chemeketa Community College ball under his belt, made it inside the building at the beginning of the tour and stayed inside for the duration. Often matched up against And1’s Hot Sauce (28-year-old Philip Champion)—widely-known as the most impressive ball handler in all of streetball—the Professor held his own, clinching his spot on the squad with a last-second three-pointer in Madison Square Garden to seal the win over his future team.
With his plans of bagging groceries over the summer interrupted indefinitely, Boucher has successfully given playground players the hope, however slim, of parlaying their skill into a career.
Sporting a freshly shaved scalp, the shy kid from the sticks has polished his look a bit, but as we talked about his new life before the Sac game, Boucher still seemed to be adjusting to his new, higher profile.
“Things basically flipped upside down,” he quietly explained about getting the And1 contract. “Everywhere I go, I get notoriety, [people wanting] my autograph. … I bought a car, got a job, moved out of my parents’ house.”
On the Kings’ home court, Boucher was no longer the upstart; he was the Professor, taking everyone to school. He hypnotizes defenders by stopping and swinging the ball back and forth between his legs, barely an inch off the ground, until they have no idea where the ball is going to come out. With him and Hot Sauce and “Syk Wit It” (Pasadena native Robin Kennedy), the And1 team always had an impossible-to-handle point guard on the court (as did the “home” team, with the Baron Davis-like Spinmaster putting up over 40 points). In fact, except for Hot Sauce, the Professor is already the most popular player on a team filled with a streetball hall-of-fame’s worth of talent.
In what can be an overwhelmingly ego-charged atmosphere, the Professor’s youth seems to be serving him well. He’s learning from the best, and he sees his teammates as more than just fellow competitors.
“I still keep the same friends at home [in Oregon], but this [And1 team] is like a family away from home.”
The morning of the game at Arco, the Sacramento Bee had a story on Sac area baller Roberto Yong (a.k.a. “The Young One” or “Exile"). Yong made the cut in Sac last year, but his chance was cut short by an ankle injury along the way. Yong again made it inside the building.
“When I got back on my feet, I was preparing for today,” said the young father and husband immediately after the game.
Also making it from the blacktop to the touring squad was Justin Bellegarde ("J-Rock"). A smart and impressive 6’ 8” former University of Washington forward, Bellegarde added eight points and nine rebounds to his team’s 103-95 victory over the And1 team (the first loss in And1’s young season).
The duo will have about a week to get their affairs in order before joining the tour. Yong has to say goodbye to his young wife and child, while Bellegarde has the much less painful task of leaving his lawn maintenance gig behind.
It’s then on to at least two games of further tests before the And1 team starts making the cuts that lead to one player getting a contract. To last the duration, they’ll have to play impressively against an avalanche of players with hard-earned nicknames—"Main Event,” “Alimoe” (or “Black Widow"), “Helicopter,” “Go Get It” and “50"—and prove that their own aliases deserve to be spoken in the same rarified breath.
Much as the flashy, Dr. J-led American Basketball Association injected a high-flying dose of fun to the NBA in the ‘70s, streetball is making its presence felt today. Twenty percent of NBA players currently have endorsement deals with the street-focused And1 (including streetball icon Rafer “Skip to My Lou” Alston and All-Stars Ben Wallace and Stephon Marbury), and the company’s revenues have gone from $1 million in 1993 to $175 million in 2003.
While detractors might be heaping the burden of the decline of fundamentals in organized ball on the shoulders of streetball, it’s hard to deny the appeal of a through-the-legs-over-the-shoulder-no-look pass leading to an alley-oop dunk on the fast break. That kind of creative magic will always have an audience.
Face it. If you could do it, you’d be on the court right now.