Streetballers combine basketball, music to create phenomenon
UPPER DARBY, Pa. -- They are streetballers who have obtained cult status with the younger generation. They play basketball with flair. All highlights, all the time. Picture a revved-up version of the Harlem Globetrotters -- a combination of acrobatics and attitude, minus fundamentals.
If you're older than 30, you probably don't like it. And if you're over 50, you probably hate it. AO (his streetball nickname, real name Aaron Owens) knows that. The 6-foot-3-inch, 28-year-old point guard of the AND1 Mix Tape Tour comes slam-dunking into the FleetCenter tomorrow night. AO's a flashy dribbler.
On the court and at the mouth.
"It's just older people. You just don't like change," said AO, sitting in the AND1 retail store. "Change is a problem. Like there can't be no change. It always has to be the same. This ain't 1950, Bob Cousy running around with one hand. Bob Cousy would get killed in the NBA today. How could you even say that? How can you compare that. Allen Iverson would bust Bob Cousy. This is not 1948 with the wife and kids, the dog and the white-picket fence. It's a totally different era generation. Get over it."
Cousy's coach took the comment in stride, like ashes on a cigar to be flicked away.
"I'm not going to get into a [verbal joust] with some kid in the street; that's all he wants," said Red Auerbach. "What is his credibility? Cousy came off the playground. He could've played like that in a heartbeat. It's like a show, like the Globetrotters.
"Basically, in all fairness, some of these kids do have talent. Rafer Alston [the legendary New York City streetball player now with the Toronto Raptors] is a good player. But can a coach teach them to use their God-given talent? How to play defense and the passing game? We never found anybody off the playground good enough to play in the NBA. [Streetballers] have to have a lot of coaching to keep them under control. Who is going to teach them when they are already so ingrained already? They want to make a spectacular pass, but they don't care if anybody is catching it or not."
But streetball, with its marriage of basketball and hip-hop music, is now a phenomenon. The tours have drawn more than a half-million fans worldwide.
This tour pits the world's best playground players against each other. It includes players from the streetball series on ESPN2, which follows them on the road. They go by nicknames they've earned during battle in the concrete canyons of the inner cities.
Pharmacist, Baby Shack, Spinmaster, 50, Professor, Helicopter, Main Event, Half-Man, Half-Amazing, High Octane. If you like slam dunks, this is your game.
The history of streetball is long and rich. It started in New York City in 1946, when Holcombe Rucker started a basketball game for kids in the neighborhood near the Polo Grounds. "The Rucker" was born and it hosted some legendary games. NBA players made cameo appearances -- Wilt Chamberlain played and befriended a young Lew Alcindor. Dr. J (Julius Erving) made a house call, as did Dave Cowens, Tiny Archibald, and the Hawk (Connie Hawkins).
But some amazing streetball players never made it out of the ghetto. So only those thousands who jammed the sidelines at the Rucker saw superstars you've never heard of, like Joe Hammond.
In 1971, Joe Hammond -- known in the 'hood as "the Destroyer" -- torched American Basketball Association stars Dr. J and Charlie Scott for 50 points. The Lakers offered Hammond a $50,000 contract. He told them he could make more money selling drugs.
In Chris Palmer's book, "Streetball: All the Ballers, Moves, Slams, & Shine," Hammond is quoted as saying, "Selling drugs was guaranteed money. The Lakers wouldn't even offer me a guaranteed contract."
The Destroyer wound up being destroyed, serving 11 years in prison for drug charges.
But today, opportunity knocks for the top playground players, thanks to a trash-talking, pickup-game ballplayer who played a long shot.
In 1993-94, Seth Berger, a University of Pennsylvania graduate student, and his friends sold T-shirts from the trunk of his 1988 Honda Civic up and down the East Coast. The T-shirts had attitude:
"I'm sorry, I thought she could play."
"Your game is as ugly as your girl."
"I'm the bus driver and I take everybody to school."
Berger maxed out his student loans and his Visa card and in 1994 started AND1, a small shoe and apparel company in Paoli, Pa. Estimated AND1-brand revenues for 2004 were $175 million. Their products are sold in 130 countries and endorsed by NBA players Stephon Marbury (Knicks), Ben Wallace (Pistons), and Jason Williams (Grizzlies).
But they could never have done it without "Skip To My Lou."
It was at the Rucker Tournament in the early to mid-1990s that grainy footage of a streetball player nicknamed "Skip To My Lou" was recorded with a handheld video camera. Rafer Alston literally skipped and whipped the ball around his body as opponents reached in vain. Then he made the perfect pass. It was Pistol Pete Maravich at machine gun speed.
The tape made its way to the offices of Slam Magazine. It put Alston on the cover of its December 1997 issue under the title, "The Best Point Guard [you never heard of]."
"We played [the tape] all the time in the office," said Berger. Some NBA players waiting to do AND1 sneaker endorsements watched it instead of "SportsCenter."
"We knew we had the beginning of something," said Berger. They added more footage, hip-hop music, and signed Alston to the first-ever sneaker endorsement for a player not in the NBA. The Mix Tape Volume 1 was released in June 1999, and 50,000 copies were given away at playgrounds.
They sold the DVD to a national footwear chain. If you bought something, you got a copy. They distributed 200,000 copies in three weeks.
Berger said AND1's core customer is a high school varsity basketball player. "They go as high as a guy in his 20s," he said.
Julius Leary, a 22-year-old streetball player in Dorchester, has already bought tickets for the game at the FleetCenter tomorrow night.
"It's like the new Globetrotters, that's all it is," he said. "The Celtics are more serious. AND1 is more excitement, more highlights. People travel, they carry, and they don't call it. It's crossovers and dunks instead of screens and pick-and- rolls. They play good music. It's just something new."
Bob Scannell, president and CEO of the Daniel J. Marr Boys and Girls Club, is not an AND1 fan. "It's trash," he said. "It's thuggery. It teaches kids to not need teammates."
Said New Bedford High School coach Ed Rodrigues, "It's a team game, not a one-on-one thing. Then you get the other four guys standing around, not cutting. It's not realistic."
To coaches who say these players have lost sight of fundamentals, AO pleads innocent.
"This ain't no how-to tape," he said. "We're just out there having fun. It's like Charles Barkley with the role model thing. It starts at home. Us teaching 'em to be selfish? Kobe Bryant is teaching 'em to be selfish, shooting 100 times a game.
"I'm not worrying that you think I [screwed] up basketball or not. I'm just having fun."