Bringing Streetball Back
Demetrius Spencer and the Ball Up Summer Tour are rejuvenating the game.
by Daniel Friedman and Ryan Wallerson
It may look like a who’s who of the AND 1 Mixtape Tour, but the circuit that inspired the classic reality show on ESPN has been dead for years. That era is gone, banished to live on through grainy YouTube videos for the rest of time. This is the new age of streetball, though you may recognize some familiar faces.
“It’s on its way back,” says Ryan “Special FX” Williams, a high-flying dunker who toured the world with AND 1 and many of the guys from the Ball Up team during its heyday.
“Everything gets recycled. You see now everyone’s wearing tight clothes again,” explains Williams. “Streetball—it’s on its way back. Demetrius [Spencer] is doing a great job of making it more of a professional sport, like it should be.”
The Ball Up tournament began in 2010 as a single event. In partnership with DUB, a celebrity All-Star team played against the original incarnation of the Ball Up All Stars. The game, jovial by nature, attracted a large amount of media attention. It was played during the offseason, and was a great success not only on the court, but also in terms of getting the Ball Up brand out to the world.
The following summer, Fox Sports Network collaborated with Ball Up as a broadcast sponsor, covering 10 events that Spencer organized for his All Stars. Each game was played against a streetball team assembled by former or current NBA players.
“We had celebrity coaches that ranged, on the ex-player side, from Dr. J, Rick Fox and Dennis Rodman. Then on the current player front, we had guys like Matt Barnes, Baron Davis and so on. Those NBA figures were given the power to put together their own teams, and they served as the Ball Up All Stars competition during that second season,” explains Spencer.
That pioneer season was extremely successful for the Ball Up brand. Every game played was sold out, and all of a sudden, a streetball season had become the hotspot of live events in the Los Angeles area. It was in that moment that the media world really began to take notice. Three games into the season, Toyota came in as a sponsor because they saw how well the events were going, and how high the ratings on Fox Sports climbed.
“We actually had the highest rated show on the Fox Sports Network that summer, and that was when we realized that we really had something special,” continues Spencer.
The expansion didn’t stop there. Ball Up took its show on the road all over the world after the conclusion of that second year, playing multiple game in several countries across Asia.
In 2012, during the third season of Ball Up, the organized events then took on its current tournament style. The tour made stops in several different US cities, worked out the best streetballers repping those respective cities and assembled a team to challenge the Ball Up team. Two MVPs were taken from each city and run through a rigorous combine, from which one winner emerged with a contract to join the team.
“Once that system brought us G-Smith, we knew that we’d gotten it right. Moving forward, this is what the Ball Up tour is going to be,” proclaims Spencer.
With Spencer’s format, and a solid roster of notable All-Stars, the future looks bright for Ball Up. An elder statesmen of the tour, Special FX has seen the game of streetball come a long way. FX started out playing back in the early ’90s at the famed Rucker Park, an iconic court that needs no introduction.
“I haven’t been there in about two years,” says Williams. “But that’s where I stared out and that’s where I got my name at—actually with the SLAM Team.
“The atmosphere at Rucker is cool,” Williams continues. “I think that tournament died down for a minute though, but it’s on its way back up.”
According to FX and many of the players from Ball Up, streetball is returning to the prominence that turned monikers like the Professor and Hot Sauce into household names. See the impact the game’s been having throughout the world with films like Doin’ It In The Park, or our coverage of the leagues throughout the country such as the Chi League Pro-Am, EBC Rucker Park, Nike Pro-City and Nike’s Summer Is Serious ultimate pick-up game featuring NBA stars Kevin Durant and James Harden. With a name like Kevin Durant becoming associated with Rucker Park and now Nike’s hyped up pickup game, it’s obvious the game is becoming big business.
Aaron “AO” Owens estimates that he’s bopped the ball off his opponent’s dome with his signature move over a thousand times. Owens loves doing it because it’s just so easy, especially when they give him the opportunity, and that’s just about every time down the court. He loves the move because it’s great entertainment—and he’s well aware that this tour, and its approach to offering fans a unique experience through that theater, is the catalyst behind the reemergence of the streetball.
“The presentation is better,” explains Owens. “It’s more of a game inside the game now. When you come and you see the setup and the screen, it’s like you’re at a [New York] Knicks game, they’ve got games for the kids and things to do during timeouts. It’s a lot of stuff like that. It’s more TV-driven, and looks good for TV, so it’s dope.”
The entertainment Ball Up brings to the table is unmatched on the streetball circuit. So much so that the All-Stars have gone undefeated through the first five stops on the summer tour. Headlining the squad of familiar faces is Grayson Boucher, better known by his alias, the Professor.
“This is our second nationwide tour, and I can count the games we haven’t sold out on one hand. This tour has been going great so far. The buzz has built every year, every game. To be here in the middle of the 2013 tour with the [Ball Up] brand receiving so much love and attention is fantastic.” says the Professor.
The Professor is no fool; his basketball IQ and experience probably rival or exceed many NBA-level players, and so he knows exactly what it takes for so many high-quality ballers to be successful on the same team.
“We may not have all played together before, but we’ve all played on different tours and seen each others game. This is a team of stars. A lot of crazy handles, dunkers and scorers. I play the point and keep everyone involved. There’s no shortage of talent on the floor, and it takes a special baller to keep up, and come up with us,” says the Professor
Spencer agrees, and he’s made it Ball Up’s mission to find the talent necessary to fulfill his visionary aspirations.
“The current status of streetball depends on the ability to find the diamonds in the rough and give them the opportunity to prove themselves worthy of carrying on the tradition. That is exactly what we are attempting to do with these Ball Up tours,” Spencer continues.
“Think of it like this: Ultimate fighter serves as a pipeline funneling new talent into the UFC. Ball Up will come to be known as the same thing for streetball. With this tournament, we will find the players that will hopefully one day make up a true professional streetball league,” explains Spencer. “At that point, the state of streetball will be as strong as it’s ever been. We have a ways to go, but given our past and continued success, we have no reason to believe that we won’t get there.”
Remember G-Smith’s name. He was the first player taken out of a streetball open run (out of Dyckman Courts no less) and made into a professional streetball player by the Ball Up tournament. There will be another winner this year, another next year, and another the year after that. Those who come close but miss out on the contract will have made waves in the ever expanding streetball universe, and as teams are created and a league is forged, their game will not be forgotten.
Remember the Ball Up All Stars: the Professor, Air Up There, AO, Springs, Baby Shaq, Bone Collector and all the rest. This is team that began the movement. The future of streetball stands firmly on their shoulders. This is the mission of Demetrius Spencer. An idea that grew out of a single game played in Los Angeles almost four years ago. Their efforts wouldn’t have progressed to this point if there wasn’t significant demand for what they are trying to do. To this point, they’re doing it quite well.