Before the turn of the millennium, something happened that would alter the basketball landscape for the entire decade to come. It would change the way fans think about the sport, the manner in which we consume it, and it would spawn whole cottage industries of hoops that few of us could have imagined or predicted. It was the arrival of the And1 Mixtape Volume 1.
Think back for a moment to the first time you saw it. Or just watch the YouTube video below (more on that later). Remember how it felt? It was a rare glimpse into a world many fans had never seen before. This was raw playground basketball in its purest form. Part snuff film, part documentary, part music video, it was also the long-overdue union of hip hop and basketball. It was our introduction to a boyish Rafer Alston aka “Skip to My Lou” and to the now-deceased Tyrone “Alimoe” Evans aka “The Black Widow.”
For 18 glorious minutes, it was a whirlwind tour of New York City playgrounds and the unforgettable characters who inhabited them, set to a blistering soundtrack featuring Common, the GZA, Mos Def, and other hip hop heavyweights.
It ushered in a cultural phenomenon that would persist throughout the better part of the coming decade and influence a whole new generation of basketball players, and it all started essentially as a viral marketing campaign on the part of the And1 shoe and apparel company. Building on the concept and popularity of early ’90s skateboard thrasher videos that featured grainy homemade footage set to rock and heavy metal music, And1 and took “the Skip tape,” as it was known then, edited it, added a hip hop soundtrack, made a limited run of 10,000 copies, and then made a deal with FootAction to distribute the tape as a gift-with-purchase item at stores around the country. DJ Set Free spoke about the inception of the tape in Complex’s fantastic oral history of the And1 Mixtape Tour:
“There was all this old playground footage of Rafer [Alston] at the Rucker. Back then I was DJing, and I would play the tapes and turn the sound down and start DJing. That’s when it clicked, and I was like, ‘It would be incredible if we could package it and it would be the first ever video mixtape.”
In the mid-to-late ‘90s, it was still considered something of a faux pas when Allen Iverson would do playground moves in the NBA, but by the early 2000s, it had become the norm thanks to an influx of other streetball provocateurs like Jason Williams, Steve Francis, et al. Today, Chris Paul, Jamal Crawford, Tyreke Evans, Brandon Jennings, and Kyrie Irving all owe a tremendous debt to the streetball craze. Every time someone breaks out the Shamgod or throws an alley-oop off the backboard, it’s a callback to And1 in its heyday.
And that’s because at one point in time, believe it or not, And1 and the NBA were in real competition for the attention of basketball fans around the world. And1 had successfully marketed itself as featuring “the best ballers not in the NBA,” and as a testament to the genius of their marketing campaign, helped create the perception that NBA players had to earn their street cred (as if being in the NBA wasn’t credibility enough) by going to Rucker Park in Harlem and playing against streetball legends. And sure enough, scores of NBA stars did precisely that. Kobe Bryant, Allen Iverson, Steve Francis, Vince Carter, and countless others all participated in either And1 or Rucker Park events at one point or another.
What’s more telling is how many NBA players chose not to participate in streetball events, as it was a very real possibility that some unknown hotshot might try to make a name for himself at their expense, which is exactly what happened when Jamaal Tinsley went against Larry Williams aka “Bone Collector.” Iverson also famously refused to guard Bone Collector during another Rucker Park game.