by September 06, 2012


Originally published in KICKS 15

by Adam Figman / @afigman

“That’s grassroots, baby! Grassroots!”

The words come from Rob Purvy, Brand President of AND 1. They’re spoken moments after The Star Spangled Banner is sung, moments before the Philadelphia Mans Basketball League’s AND 1 Season Three All-Star Game begins. And, yeah, he’s right: This event, this day, this moment is, truly, grassroots.

We’re in the Palestra, the University of Pennsylvania’s historic arena in the heart of Philadelphia, where once upon a time UPenn, Temple, St. Joe’s, Villanova and La Salle battled yearly for coveted Big Five bragging rights. At the moment, it’s early evening during one of those mid-summer Fridays with a temperature that cracks triple-digits and a humidity you could swim through. But despite the sweaty, shirt-stuck-to-your-back conditions, nobody seems in the least bit upset to be here.

On tap is a three-point contest, dunk contest and exhibition game, all put together to celebrate the best players from one of the best new recreational leagues in the United States. Seriously: As far as rec leagues go, the PMBL is no joke. Before each season, there’s a three-week tryout, during which team “owners” scout the participants, and then a draft, where those owners make trades and maneuver the way NBA GMs do each June. (Think rec-league, real-life fantasy basketball.) Stats are kept and uploaded onto the league’s website, along with photos and thousand-word recaps of weekly PMBL happenings.

Most impressive, though, is what takes place on the court. The first couple of rounds of each pre-season draft are filled with pro-level talent, including guys who’ve played (or are currently playing) abroad, along with former DI and II hoopers who now hold down day jobs and tear up unsuspecting opponents in Philly gyms during nights and weekends. The most noteworthy participant during the current season is 29-year-old Matt Walsh, a 6-6 forward who starred at Germantown Academy and the University of Florida, and later saw minutes during a pair of regular season games for the Miami Heat before heading overseas.

Today at the Palestra, with the AND 1 sponsors in the building, everyone—clad, as you’d expect, in AND 1 kicks and AND 1-designed jerseys and shorts—is showing out. The three-point contest is won by UPenn alum Aron Cohen, who seals it with a clutch corner trey; the dunk contest is dominated by Lateef Parks, a former Philadelphia Public player and PMBL newcomer who throws down a 360, off-the-bounce slam that brings the 200-or-so-person audience to its feet. The actual game is a tight one, broken open when the squad featuring league commissioner Jake Kind pulls away with a few minutes remaining.

Everything about the event—from the dozens of Big Five alum in the house to the historic location to the decidedly down-to-earth feel of the entire event and those involved—screams Philly, which is why the attachment of the sneaker company sponsor feels like such a perfect fit. Almost 20 years ago, on the very campus the Palestra sits on, three graduate students formed a company called AND 1, a brand that over the ensuing decade grew to represent the mindset of true ballers across the world. AND 1 flourished in the late ’90s and into the early ’00s, when its streetball style popped into mainstream culture and circulated the globe, and later, a TV show chronicling a national tour that boasted entertainers who defied gravity and could handle the rock unlike anyone in the sport’s history.  Legends were made in the process, ensuring that names like Skip To My Lou and Hot Sauce would ring out on playgrounds across the planet forevermore.

In the years after the Mixtape Tour ended, the brand suffered a drop-off in popularity, only to begin a bounce back in the late aughts: first, in ’09, the company re-released the AND 1 Tai Chi, the sneaker Vince Carter wore while obliterating the competition during the ’00 Dunk Contest, and then AND 1 sponsored a few NBAers and continued serving true hoopheads through grassroots initiatives.

Though fans in the States would have to be tuned in to YouTube to know, the Mixtape Tour was rebooted in ’10, ran officially by a group named AND 1 Live that’s taken the show all over the planet. “We go to countries that people wouldn’t believe we were in,” says AND 1 Live CEO Linda Hill, who’s brought the tour through Asia, Europe, Africa and South America. “It has been very successful. It’s not only about basketball. We make sure we leave a mark about education. A lot of these countries are deteriorating; unfortunately, they don’t have a great educational system. So we try to inspire them.”

Purvy, aware of the influence the tour once had on the game’s culture, hopes to help reinvigorate it in the States. “Without [the Mixtape Tour], there would be no AND 1,” he says. “The Mixtape Tour, I think from looking at it with a macro view, is on par with what people think of when they think of the NBA. So that’s something that I have been very delicate, very strategic and very passionate about bringing back.”

The brand’s expansion will push forward on a variety of levels. This summer, AND 1 is sponsoring the Los Angeles Summer Pro League, which should help grow the brand in Cali, where the company is headquartered. And AND 1 is still making its mark on the City of Brotherly Love in multiple ways—it’ll soon be sponsoring Simon Gratz, the Philly high school once attended by Rasheed Wallace and streetballer Aaron Owens (aka AO), and it’ll do the same at Prep Charter, the alma mater of NBA twins Marcus and Markieff Morris.

It’d only be right, then, to get the Morris brothers laced in the brand’s gear as well. This upcoming season, the two will be wearing—in respective Suns and Rockets colorways—a variety of different AND 1 models: the Orbit ($85), Guardian ($110), Entourage ($100) and Backlash Low ($70). All four kicks hit stores on February 1, 2013.

Given their roots, bringing the two to AND 1 was an easy call. “The first thing that got me about the Morris twins is when I saw the Draft and I saw two guys—who if you don’t know them well, you can’t tell them apart—getting drafted right next to each other in the Lottery,” says Purvy, a Philadelphia native himself. “Back-to-back championships when they were at Prep Charter, state championships—that’s never happened before. Tying that into the brand message we are telling, I think it would be an injustice if they were not with us.”

“It was something that we wanted to be a part of,” says Markieff, who spoke to KICKS just before heading out to Las Vegas for summer league back in July. “[The company’s Philadelphia roots] definitely had a big part in the decision. It started in the city, so we might as well keep it in the city.”

The twins flashed promise during their rookie years—Markieff put up 7.4 points and 4.4 rebounds per as a role player for the Suns, while Marcus, stuck on the outside of the Rockets’ frontcourt rotation, spent some time in the D-League, where he scored 20.7 points a game during 11 total tilts.

Naturally, the NBA’s a solid place for a basketball brand to build its rep. But here’s another, less expected spot: the island of Jamaica, where AND 1 sponsored a camp run by the PMBL folks this summer. Held as KICKS went to press, the camp bussed 160 kids to a site where they received AND 1 tees, jerseys, shorts, sneaker and water bottles, and then will learn a sport with a growing, if not fully established, presence in the Caribbean. The camp is the brainchild of Jake Kind, who’s truthful about how the idea originated: “Honestly, I was looking for a thing to do while my fiancée was away with her family that week,” he says. But Kind learned about a Jamaican man named Jason Henzell, who had recently opened a sprawling sporting facility on the island. With the resources at hand—along with the AND 1 gear, Kind brought down 15-20 coaches he’s met through the PMBL—he pitched a basketball camp for the very week he was free, and the idea was accepted.

“What it really turned into is providing kids a new opportunity in a place where the only distractions they’ve had in terms of sport are cricket, running, tennis and soccer,” Kind says. “Those are good sports, but they’re nothing compared to basketball, in my opinion. We’re trying to show them the ropes in terms of what ‘great’ looks like in basketball.”

Back in Philly, the PMBL All-Star Game ends, and players file out with the friends and fam who showed up to support them. Many of the guys make plans to hang with each other the next day—Kind’s dad, who was also one of the dunk contest’s judges earlier in the night, is throwing a barbecue, and all are invited—while Purvy stands nearby, telling a writer about AND 1’s plans for the summer and beyond.

The company will be sponsoring leagues, players and camps at all skill levels throughout the country and world during the next few months, but there’s still something to be said for showing a sincere interest in the average gym rat, the players—like those who hoop in the PMBL, amongst countless other rec leagues throughout the States—who spend every minute they can hitting a gym or playground with hopes of getting even a little better.

Grassroots, indeed.

photos 1-8 courtesy of Aimerito Photography; 9, Dan Gold; 10, AND1