Above the Rim Re-Launches
Brand development company purchases former Reebok-owned line.
This past January, an offer was presented to Collective Licensing International—a brand development and licensing company located in Denver—that couldn’t be refused. The opportunity to purchase the rights to Above the Rim, a hoops apparel brand owned by Reebok that flourished in the 90s and the early-mid 00s.
“We all looked at [the opportunity] and we said, ‘OK, we all love basketball, and we love working on brands that are youth-focused,’” says Eric Dreyer, VP of Brand Management at Collective. “This one happens to be a basketball brand, and it was just too good to pass up. The other advantage we have is that enough of us [at Collective] are old enough to remember when the brand came on the scene—and wore the brand and loved it back then.”
The “back then” Dreyer refers to is around 20 years ago, when Above the Rim first hit the market. Launched in 1989 by Bob Capener—previously an All-American guard at BYU—the company was sold to Reebok in ‘92, where Capener then took a job as Global Director of Basketball Operations. ATR’s style had a slight edge to it—labeled the original “player’s brand,” its baggy shorts and loose tops were said to make jump shots and aggressive on-the-court play easier, but also represented the fashion transition that took place in the League during the mid-late 90s. (Those style changes have also been widely symbolized by Allen Iverson, who rocked ATR kicks years later at an NBA All Star game.)
A series of signature moments define the brand during the ensuing two decades. Duke’s men’s team wore ATR tees during a press conference after downing Michigan’s Fab Five and winning the 1992 NCAA championship. After taking home the 1991 Slam Dunk Contest with Reebok Pumps on his feet, Dee Brown signed on and got with the ATR movement. In the early 00s, NBAers such as Jason Richardson, Steve Francis, Kenyon Martin and Baron Davis all joined the team. A few seasons later, a signature line of ATR Pumps—commemorating the notorious early-90s kicks worn by Brown—were sported by Iverson and Yao Ming at the ’05 All Star Game, and by Francis, Davis and Jerome Williams shortly thereafter. In Fall of ’08, the ATR Talkin’ Krazy performance shoe was released, which featured a dry-erase upper area where players could write messages on their sneaks. Then Collective Licensing was presented with an opportunity to purchase the rights (“To be honest with you, I don’t know exactly what Reebok was doing with it [at the time],” Dreyer says), and by early 2010, the restart was officially underway.
Fast-forward 10 months. The lower level (which is actually more like the lower-lower-lower level) of the Hudson Hotel, located in Midtown Manhattan, is done up in a strange, celebratory manner. All the standard makings of a nightclub are present—flashing lights, artificial fog machines, a DJ blasting fresh tunes, a variety of cocktails flowing at the bar—but, seemingly out of nowhere, a basketball hoop sits in a cage right smack in the center of the dancefloor. A group of sweat-covered males are sitting on makeshift bleachers alongside the mini-court, while a handful of others are hoisting up shots as if they’re warming up before a pick-up game.
The occasion is the official Above the Rim re-launch event. ATR’s newest signature shoe, the Elevate MW5—which will lead the company’s spring collection—is presented in different colorways within glass cases throughout the floor. Some renowned hoopers have shown up for support and scatter the area, including streetball legends High Octane and I’ll Be Right Back, former Knick Anthony Mason, former WNBAer Kym Hampton and former college and pro baller Bo Kimble. Placards cover the walls, marketing a variety of the brand’s new features—mostly, though, its history and its new mission. During a conversation with Dreyer a few days later, it’s apparent the goal is to fuse the two: to pay homage to Above the Rim’s past while pushing its name forward.
Regarding tradition: “There’s part [of Collective Licensing] that understood what that brand was doing at the time (during its rise in the 90s), and what it meant to the market,” he says. “It was kind of the first “player’s brand,” and we think there’s some value and some equity in that and around that idea.”
But the understanding is still that the industry is moving forward, not backward. “We respect and want to retain what was great about it, but we’ve got to make it relevant to today’s game. So it’s not a heritage brand, it’s not a throwback brand. There were some pieces that were pretty good, that we’re gonna continue to include in the brand, but we’re clearly about making it relevant to today’s player.”
The Elevate MW5 was named after and will be worn by the “new” company’s first signee, Minnesota Timberwolves swingman Martell Webster. The kicks (pictured right) will be available in four distinct colorways this Spring, and were designed to optimize flexibility and movement by utilizing the V33 Technology in the outsole. V-Grasp Technology will enhance mid-foot support and a lightweight midsole creates advanced cushioning.
To the Collective crew, linking with Webster was a logical move.
“When we were introduced to Martell, we knew what type of player he is—in that he’s an exciting, explosive player,” Dreyer says. “Then we learned about him, and how hard he worked to get where he was and the challenges that were put in front of him at an early age and how he’d overcome those, and he just seemed like a great fit.”
ATR’s second sponsor is Will Bynum, who will also be supporting the brand’s product on and off the court. It was his journey that made the former Yellow Jacket so appealing as a potential endorsee.
“If you look at what Will’s gone through,” Dreyer explains, “starting out at Georgia Tech, and then going into the D-League, [where he was] Rookie of the Year, then spending a few years overseas—he just kept on it and kept focused and was determined and working hard to make it. And now he’s one of the most explosive young players in the League.”
“I love what Above the Rim stands for,” the Pistons guard says in a recent press release. “From its core it represents what I am all about. I’m excited to be working with a brand that is committed and determined to helping young players rise above life’s challenges.”
His last statement is especially noteworthy, because it reiterates a point the brand intends to drive home: that the work done off the court is just as important as what’s completed on it. In support of this ideal, a grant program called the A.T.R. (“Assisting the Rise”) Project has been launched in conjunction with Above the Rim’s re-launch. The plan is to identify a few community leaders who will act as “ambassadors”—the inaugural group includes Charles “Chuck” Torres of Los Angeles, Tavio Hobson of Seattle, and Bernard Bowen of the Bronx—assisting young players raise their performance while in the game or in the classroom.
“We were able to reach out and find some pretty amazing guys who are working with young players to become not only better players, but better people and better leaders—by taking the passion that they have for basketball and applying it to other things, like education and community service,” Dreyer says.
And there it is. A once-popular brand is now in the hands of new owners who have one goal, both for the brand itself and for those who rep it, on or off the hardwood: Elevate. Where to? Take a guess.
Check out ATR’s new promo video below.