Mix Tape Tour Glory Days

The other night, while flipping thru the channel guide, I stumbled upon the And 1 Mix Tape Tour. I thought, “Word? That’s still going on? And ESPN still televises it?” Gone were dudes like Hot Sauce and Main Event, kats named Silk and The Bad One were running the show, now. And they had swapped the pro sports arenas for smaller, more intimate venues. Mainstream street ball had gone underground again.

The high water mark, in terms of media exposure and public conscious, probably came in June of 2005 when Sports Illustrated put the fellas on its cover with the headline, “The Other Game: How a Tiny Shoe Company (AND1) Happened to Start a Basketball Revolution.” Veteran scribe Alexander Wolff wrote a gazillion-word story on the tour’s rise to unexpected heights of popularity, relevancy and influence. It was a huge moment, since SI is to sports, what Rolling Stone is to music. For an oft-beat spectacle like the Mix Tape Tour, landing articles or special issues in SLAM is about credibility, the cover of SI is more about arrival, much like it’d be for, say, Jay Electronica to find his way to a Rolling Stone cover. AND1 was always a cult favorite for the hood and hoops junkies, but there was a three-year period where the Tour inspired absolute mania…I‘m talking Beatlesque mania. SI begrudgingly acknowledged the movement, but, truthfully, the sheen was already wearing off by 2005.

About a year before the SI cover, the Tour rolled thru D.C., so I set out to write a story for the Washington Post. I had three objectives for the piece: indicating how hugely popular the Tour and its marquee players had become; touching on the purist-backlash that piously and wrongly blamed AND1’s version of street ball for the degrading skills of American basketball overall and determining whether the players — pulled off the blacktops, without a union — were getting played. For space — and probably relevancy — reasons, we chopped the story into a 10-inch tease that ran with our Page 2 package. It didn’t matter, even without a big piece in the local rag, the Tour still shut down 7th street in front of MCI Arena during the day and filled the arena stands on game-night. I remember thinking, “Wow, we’re witnessing a quasi-revolution. But how long is it gonna last?”

The previous day I met Sauce, AO, Alimoe, Main Event, Half Man Half Amazin and Escalade for lunch. We all talked for a couple hours. I remember asking, “Exactly how much bigger can you get and can you maintain this momentum?” After all, the tour was built on the foundation of what were basically circus-moves. The Tour’s brand of ball is not exactly how ball is played on cities’ toughest blacktops. There are hard fouls, bank shots, pick-n-rolls and post moves in actual street ball. Oh, no doubt, there are no-look-alleys, Whodini-handles and a general stretching of the original Dr. Naismith roundball-tenets, too — but kats are, for the most part, getting down with some bare-knuckle hooping. There was a High School Musical/Hanah Montananess to the Tour — theatrics that an adult would tire of, after a while. It was, in all honesty, a Kid’s Game. The NBA, on the other hand, was/is a professional league full of nuance, with a focus on competition tantamount to its goal to entertain. During our conversation that afternoon, the guys were confident that the Tour could have the staying power of the big league. Although that seemed farfetched, it was an arguable notion at the time.

Sauce with all his wiggling and moxie was a sight to behold and it had turned him into an Elvis, of sorts. I once argued, earnestly, that if Sauce and T-Mac got off a bus in the hood, the kids would all run to Sauce for an autograph. I was dead serious. The circus-show was such a novelty, that the tour bus was mobbed like it was transporting a boy-band to a strip-mall appearance. These dudes walked some streets with crowds reminiscent of Ali running with a fleet of Zairians in tow. But kids have short attention spans and adults are exacting patrons. AND1 was, as SI asserted, “The Other Basketball.” Sik Wit It and High Octane weren’t gonna run a pick-n-roll better than Chauncey and Sheed, their games weren’t as competitive as Dallas vs. San Antonio, they offered no singular talent like Kobe or even Ray Allen, for that matter.

It was inevitable, really. There was going to be a moment on the horizon when it would become clear that AND1’s street ball would devolve from a movement to merely a diversion. That moment came when the original street ballers — many of the guys I talked to in ‘04 — broke off to create the more financially independent/empowering Ball4Real in 2007. Street ball can’t afford two tours, not if it wants to see pro-like longevity for the tours and athletes. As of right now, it seems that Ball4Real is in neutral. There are no ‘08 dates and their website is non-functional (duhhh). AND1 is still hanging on. The names and venues have changed, scaled down to match the lessened appeal of the product on the court. Helicopter, The Professor, Go Get It — these dudes can still ball, but gone are the days where their slick moves thrill us. The Tour, in reaction, has moved back to a more grassroots level, which works in its own way.

I remember sitting in my boys’ apartment back in 2000, watching that first, grainy AND1 video, the one with Skip To My Lou pulling off moves that floored me. Seriously — the moves were so fresh and spontaneous and graceful (in a grimy way) that I convulsed off the couch onto the floor. The sky was the limit. Within three years, I would be at national AAU tournaments, watching kids practice tucking the ball in their shirts and spinning it around their torsos or carrying it for three-steps, doing that Matrixy thing that Sauce popularized. Street ball was pervasive. But, then, earlier this year, I saw Skip — using his gubment name — leading the Houston Rockets to a 22-game win streak, playing with only traces of what made him a cult-legend. Meanwhile, his compadres were nowhere to be found. Allimoe once told me that if I don’t see him with AND1, just watch TV, ‘cause he’d pop up somewhere. Unfortunately, he’s been a ghost for the past couple years. There’s no going back to those early days of the new millennium for Skip, Allimoe, AND1, the Tour and the whole movement. No longer a phenomenon, the Tour is back to its niche status. There’s nothing wrong with that. In fact, that’s where the Tour belongs.

Vincent Thomas is a columnist and features contributor for SLAM. He can be reached at vincethomas79@gmail.com.