And1: Well-Fed Street Cred
From the Magazine - October 2005
The game starts with the name.
"If you don't know what [our name] means," proclaims hoops-lifestyle/shoe company And1 (And-one), "we don't want you wearing our shoes."
You can forgive TV execs or soccer moms for not knowing what the hell an "And1" is. Chances are, they never played basketball, never drove the lane, never scored through a foul, never saw the ref then make that 'it's-good' plunge motion and shout those sweet words, "…and one!"
Growing from a tiny clothing operation whose first business plan was scrawled on the back of a napkin, the Philly-based And1 has become a legitimate basketball phenomenon, outfitting dozens of athletes, producing bestselling DVDs, and sponsoring sellout roadshow tours. They've got many of the best athletes in the game wearing their shoes, and their own players are legit celebrities in their own right. And now that they've become a part of the multinational American Sporting Goods, they're set to take their game to the streets of the whole world.
All of which begs the question…how can you go global and still stay street?
The Early Years
Grad school and streetball are about as far apart as the Spurs and the Hawks … but And1 bridges the gap. Initial And1 partners Seth Berger, Jay Coen Gilbert and Tom Austin conceived And1 in 1993 as a grad school project, thinking the kind of mouthy slogans that offend basketball purists and get kids suspended from school: "PASS. SAVE YOURSELF THE EMBARRASSMENT" and "IS IT HOT IN HERE, OR IS IT JUST ME?" The company later flaunted traditional middle-America values by glamorizing such antiheroes as Latrell Sprewell, whose infamous "I am the American Dream" commercial treaded-some would say stomped on-the line between provocative and offensive.
And1 then built its rep on the playgrounds, fertile ground for spawning legends. After all, every damn asphalt court in the country has its mythic heroes, the one or two guys who once schooled Jordan in high school or got an August tryout with the Bulls, the guys who could've been somebody except for that nagging injury. It's not enough to have a good jump shot or crossover move; on the playground, you're your own agent, publicist, biographer, cheering section, and arena announcer.
"We are exclusively focused on the basketball player, specifically the performance basketball player," says And1 PR manager Taylor Duffy. "We're the only company geared at just that market."
Clothes can only take you so far, however. At some point, you've gotta do something in them, or you're nothing but a mannequin. Sometime in 1998, the And1 guys got a look at a grainy videotape of a kid named Rafer Alston - now a Toronto Raptor, then a streetballer with the handle "Skip to My Lou" - doing things with a basketball that neither Naismith nor Newton could have imagined. The tape was an underground legend around the And1 offices until somebody thought it might be a good idea to turn this kind of stuff loose on the public.
And then things jumped to a whole new level.
Throw an And1 Mixtape in your DVD player, then sit back-you're in for an astonishing show that's the mutant hybrid of the NBA, the Globetrotters, White Men Can't Jump, and Def Jam records. Part hoops diary, part lifestyle documentary, it tracks everyone from streetballers to pros as they ball, hang in their neighborhoods, and mouth off, all wrapped tight with hip-hop beats performed by artists almost as unknown as the players themselves. But it's the gameplay that's the draw, putting the And1 tapes at the top of most sports-DVD bestseller lists, month after month.
And while the dunk remains the exclamation point at the end of every play, the crossover dribble - the ankle-breaking, jock-busting, punk-smoking move that leaves opponents asking, "what the hell just happened?" - has become the supreme test of a player's abilities. Behind-the-back bounce passes leading to dunks, half-court alley-oops, hypnotic between-the-legs dribbling with a cobra-like head sway, they're all here, done by guys who aren't much closer to playing in the League than you are. It's impressive as all hell. It requires athleticism beyond anything most people could hope to achieve.
And it's hit a nerve with the teen-and-twenties ballplaying public. Part of it is commerce, marketing black attitude to a white, suburban audience head-bobbing to 50 Cent while Mom cooks dinner downstairs. Part of it is heritage, stemming straight from the black community's tradition of snaps and cutting heads.
Ah, but is it basketball? That's the real question here, isn't it? A guy pinballing a ball off the head of a defender and then curling the rock to his chest like a running back might be-hell, is-cool to watch, but it's not far removed from the goofball pseudosports of trampoline basketball and pro wrestling.
And1 has heard the criticism before - that the performances are rigged, that they're fostering a showoff attitude that's put U.S.A. hoops behind more fundamental-driven countries - and gives it little weight.
"And1 is first and foremost about performance basketball," Duffy says. "Sure, the Mixtapes and the tour are the most visible part of the brand. But every player who's on the tour implores the kids to learn the fundamentals. The tricks flow off the fundamentals. All the players played some level of pro ball or college ball, and they think they're being wrongly pegged as just being showmen."
Take a scene from the most recent Mixtape, Vol. 8. One of the And1 newcomers, dubbed Pharmacist, goes toe-to-toe with the And1 regular Hot Sauce. They're poking and prodding at each other, but in the end, it's Pharm who drains the bucket.
"He do all the little fancy moves that the kids like to see," Pharmacist says of Hot Sauce, "but when it's time to get to the regular game, all the kids be lookin' and sayin', 'Where's Sauce at?' He on the sidelines still working on his moves."
The lesson is clear-pulling a shirt over your defender's head is smooth, but you'd better finish by hitting the basket.
On The Road
The And1 Mixtape Tour is now a legitimate national phenomenon; this past summer, the tour hit 30 cities across the country, playing to six-deep crowds at every stop. Right now, they're across the pond, breaking European ankles. Perhaps to address the criticism that And1 is more showboat than game, And1 brings on local playground heroes to challenge the touring pros.
It's one of the sweetest elements of the tour. Each stop, about 150 players are invited to the "open run," where they get to show their stuff to And1 talent scouts for a chance to "come inside" and challenge the And1 traveling team.
The best of that crew - eight to 10 guys per stop - gets invited "on the bus," traveling around the country with the And1 crew. And at the end of the tour, in true reality style, the best playground baller gets his own new handle and And1 endorsement deal. It's a genius system-you show up in your sneakers and bring your best game. If you fail, you can't blame anybody or anything but yourself.
Regardless, the mixtapes, and the accompanying tours, have sent And1 into the stratosphere. As of this summer, the company had 165 employees producing $180 million in annual revenue; its products are sold in 130 countries and territories; and 63 NBA players, including Memphis's Jason Williams, Sacto's Bobby Jackson, and of course Alston, sport And1 gear. Dozens of websites devoted to the phenomenon now spout trash-talking all over the cyber-court.
Coming in February is the first And1 streetball video game, featuring And1 stars, NBA players, and you, battling in open runs for a chance to get in the gym and, eventually, get on the bus.
All of which made And1 too attractive for American Sporting Goods, which owns brands such as Avia, to resist. It was certainly a lucrative choice for the company's founders, and it puts And1 on strong financial footing for the foreseeable future. Problem is it's tough to position yourself as authentic when you've got a multinational corporation backing you. And once street cred vanishes (see Snoop Dogg golfing with Lee Iacocca in those Chrysler commercials), it ain't coming back. And1 plans to dance with the date that brought it.
"We don't make any product that's not focused on performance basketball," Duffy says. "That's been our brand all along, and that's what we're sticking with."
So no And1 candy, phone cards, or hair-care products.
Still, And1 is determined to protect its turf. It's changed the face of basketball, and it wants to make sure things don't change back. In the latest in-your-face magazine ad campaign, And1 player Aaron (AO) Owens takes the fight straight to the critics: "You think I'm messing up the game. I don't give a damn. This ain't no mom and dad white picket fence basketball. 1950 is over."
Like it or not. -CSR