L to R: AND1 Streetballers “Hot Sauce,” “50,” and “The Professor” at the Great Western Forum in 2004 (Photo by Steve Grayson/WireImage)
SNEAKERS & FASHION

How Sportswear Sold Streetball

Glorifying the game of basketball in its outdoor form has long been a marketing mission for big brands like Nike, AND1, Adidas, Converse, and Reebok.

Basketball was born on the blacktop. Sure, Dr. James Naismith conceived of the game in Springfield with peach baskets and indoor play, but it was with chain nets and asphalt that the game truly found its identity.

In the 1960s and 70s, communal camaraderie and low cost of entry enabled people from all walks of life to congregate on concrete courts across the country. The free-flowing nature of the outdoor game allowed hoopers to let their play speak in ways that transcended backgrounds and created a culture in itself.

And while every park has its rivalries, rules, and royalty, no place had prestige quite like the outdoor courts in New York City.

Drawing attendance from all boroughs, Harlem’s Rucker Park became prominent for hosting thousands of fans as if the biggest stars in the world were performing — because they were. The likes of Wilt Chamberlain and Julius Erving played ball at Rucker Park with local legends like Pee-Wee Kirkland, as spectators climbed fences and peered over project rooftops for a free ticket.

Soon, sportswear runners began tapping the same concrete that their product was worn on and fans were flocking to. The connection between the pro game and the park game was closer than ever, and brands were itching for the chance to take all the territory in between.

The man occupying the space between the ballers and the brands was Sonny Vaccaro, founder of the Dapper Dan Classic in Pittsburgh and an eventual Nike executive. While Vaccaro ascended to national fame for helping Phil Knight’s brand sign Michael Jordan, he paid his dues in the park.

In fact, some historians even cite Vaccaro as putting Nike on the map when it came to playground hoops.

“People were no longer unsure on Nike, especially when former Nike street promo guy Sonny Vaccaro was hitting off some of New York’s top high school players with personalized freebies,” as Bobbito Garcia recalls in his seminal book, Where’d You Get Those.

Yes, before Vaccaro brought MJ to Beaverton, he brought the Nike Blazer basketball shoe to New York as the ’70s transitioned into the ’80s. Product placement in the parks was especially important in this era as point god prodigies like Pearl Washington, Mark Jackson, and Rod Strickland honed their handles by competing at any outdoor outing with some talent.

“I see how Nike got the edge it did in the shoe wars,” author Rick Telander recalled in the afterword of his classic book, Heaven is a Playground. “Rodney Parker (legendary Brooklyn basketball scout/street agent) was good pals with Sonny Vaccarro, and Sonny would give Rodney Nike shoes, shorts, and shirts, and Rodney would then give these treasures to park kids. Scenes like this must have occurred throughout America’s inner cities. Players became affiliated with Nike without even being aware of it.”

As the ’80s turned into the ’90s, many sportswear companies shied away from the lights of the NBA to take it back to the true essence of the park. Reebok rolled out ads depicting one-on-one games played outdoors while Nike photographed Jordan — the reigning MVP, Defensive Player of the Year, and scoring champ — dunking in a graffiti-decorated park when introducing his Air Jordan 4 sneaker.

Shortly after, Jordan returned to a similar setting for his famous Playground home video while the execs that cut his checks searched for their next star at the concrete courts of Five Star Basketball Camp. By the 1990s, the outdoor game was the subject of cinema as White Men Can’t Jump and Above the Rim broke through at the box office and sold soundtracks.

Brands jumped at the asphalt migration, releasing park-specific pairs like the Nike Air Raid, Reebok Blacktop, and Adidas Streetball. Nike even tapped the aforementioned Bobbito — a New York City streetball fixture and influential DJ — to be part of its City Attack basketball campaign.

While Nike, Adidas, and Reebok all had skin in the streetball scene in the 1990s, they’d all be upset by an underdog as the decade came to a close and the new millennium dawned.

Created as a grad school project by a group of students at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business, a crew of Ivy League scholars birthed the brand known as AND1 — a nod to the trash talk that occurs when completing a basket through a foul.

That trash talk became subject matter for a string of successful t-shirts, a sneaker endorsement deal with Stephon Marbury, and a run of VHS tapes that cut up streetball highlights that were often sold where folks cut hair.

And the barbershop rise of the AND1 Mixtape series was a moment no one could’ve predicted.

As grassroots as it gets, the buzz around the outdoor highlight reels hit the market right as Jordan left Chicago. Soon, the mixtapes were parlayed into a popular series of DVDs that were sold at Foot Locker. Eventually, they grew into an entire tour that was subject to ESPN coverage and a Mountain Dew deal.

An onslaught of AND1 success made the bigger brands switch their whole style up as the 2000s started. Nike rolled out their Battlegrounds campaign that hosted “king of the court” tournaments at parks around the world. Matching merchandise celebrated the outdoor game while the infamous Freestyle commercial riffed off the same audacious dribbling seen in AND1 videos. Adidas reacted with products like the ADAN and Mad Handle, while Reebok leaned further into Allen Iverson’s appeal and even sponsored the Entertainer’s Basketball Classic at Rucker Park.

11-year NBA veteran Rafer Alston, a.k.a. “Skip 2 My Lou” (Image via SLAM)

As the aughts ended, the tough but shiny exterior of the streetball game began to fade. While playground legends like Rafer “Skip 2 My Lou” Alston solidified their reps with shoe deals and NBA contracts, the growing influence of the AAU circuit began pulling the top talent off the asphalt and into the gyms with big brands behind it.

On the other side of the globe, the game was growing outdoors in China due to a combination of appetite for basketball and lack of space elsewhere. Courts in Beijing became covered with hoopers who needed longer-lasting soles; because of this, Nike released signature diffusion lines from LeBron James and Kobe Bryant with XDR outsoles that enjoyed success in Asia that the North American market couldn’t match.

For the years that followed, streetball has still seen its moments. Famously, Kevin Durant exploded in a game at Rucker Park for a 66-point performance while the NBA was stuck in its 2011 lockout. Under Armour has held its Elite 24 high school showcase outdoors, while brands like Nike and Adidas have brought on designers such as Jerry Lorenzo and Jeremy Scott to revive Air Raid and Streetball styles in retro form.

This renewed spirit may have been best embodied by Kerby-Jean Raymond’s CrateMaster campaign for Reebok. But day-to-day, the link between the outdoor game and cinema may ultimately live through the YouTube ballers calling out competition at the park and creating their own highlight reels in a fashion that’s equal parts DIY and AND1.

After all, shoe deal or no shoe deal, streetball has never been played by those who did it for corporate money or sponsors.

But if and when the pro game ever begins to lose its pulse, don’t be surprised if those same companies come back for that one-of-a-kind jolt you can only find at the park.