Falling out of love with streetball

by Marcel Mutoni

One of the most prized possessions of my teen years was a well-worn copy of the And 1 Mixtape, Volume 1. I still remember the day my buddies and I rushed to Foot Action (the sports apparel outfit) to buy an And 1 product–the company was running a promotion where all you had to do was buy a product of theirs and the tape was yours–just to get our hands on the grainy footage of then-16 year old Rafer “Skip to my Lou” Alston. Each of us grabbed an armband (hey, no one said we were rich) off the shelf and practically tripped over each other on the mad dash to the counter to claim the tape, and I guess to pay for the armband.

We then ran to the nearest house we could find that had a VCR and excitedly popped in the tape and positioned our jaws directly on the floor for the next 18 minutes or so. This was one of the most captivating things any of us had ever seen. Skip and his playground friends were playing a game we were not aware even existed until that day. We practically broke my buddy Patrick’s VCR while constantly rewinding the tape to oooh and aaahhh over the crossovers, the dunks, but most of all, the tricks. I had never imagined that someone could bring the ball upcourt and casually bounce it off the defender’s noggin, regain possession and continue on his merry way to the hoop as if it was the most ordinary thing in the world. This was revolutionary stuff.

After watching that tape, I started caring about Skip the same way that I cared about my NBA heroes. Maybe even more. At least those NBA cats had guaranteed money and were known the world over. Skip was just a kid in the hood (he looked like a lot of kids that I saw around my own neighborhood), but he was special. The ball was magnetized by his hands; he threw passes that I had only seen guys like Nate “Tiny” Archibald and “Pistol” Pete Maravich attempt on ESPN Classic. The difference was that he did it to a booming Hip Hop soundtrack, wore a baggy white T shirt, and went out of his way to embarrass defenders.

Of course when you discover something new, the first thing you do is try to tell everyone about it. My buddy Pat and I went on a crusade to bring Skip’s name (and game) into the collective consciousness of our high school and anyone else who was willing to listen, and soon enough everyone was trying to break full-court presses while skipping with the ball–much to the chagrin of the coaches. We decided one day after having viewed the tape once more that this very magazine wasn’t too far off when they photographed Alston in his Fresno State uni, dribbling around MSG and showed him love on a cover screaming : “Best point guard in the world (that you’ve never heard of)”.

The first volume of the And 1 Mixtape series was a runaway success, so the tiny shoe company founded in 1993 with modest aspirations–which had been given the original tape (the tape that launched streetball as we know it today) with the grainy footage by an unidentified individual after a tournament at Rucker Park as a show of gratitude to the company for having provided shirts to the players and the trophy for the winners–had no choice but to rush out a Volume 2 the following year.

As the franchise grew, so did everything associated with streetball : the dunks became crazier (I seriously began wondering who was the real Half/Man Half/Amazing = Vince Carter or the guy on the playground?), the tricks more outrageous, the soundtrack even doper, and the hoopla became almost uncontrollable. Volume 2 wasn’t given away. You had to buy it now. And 1 had found their lottery ticket.

Volume 3 (arguably the best of all the mixtapes) was the last one that I bothered to get. The charm had quickly worn off. At least for me. Once you’d seen one (or a hundred) through-the-legs tricks, you’d seen them all. Sure, the tapes became sleeker and better packaged; the locations changed and we learned about what kind of streetball was being played from coast to coast; and great streetballers continued to emerge–guys like Hot Sauce, Bone Collector, Spyda and AO continue to push the creative envelope–but none had the revolutionary appeal of Skip (who was now in the NBA).

After a while, I started noticing the flaws (the shameless bending of the rules; the constant DJ Clue-like yelling by sideline announcers first at Rucker and then seemingly everywhere else; the fans obnoxiously charging the court after a simple crossover) more than the positives of the street game. The whole thing became like wrestling to me = fake and contrived.

The Mixtape franchise has grown by leaps and bounds: Volume 9 was recently released, you can’t turn on the television without seeing a streetball program, video games tailored to the street game are all over the place, and streetballers (not to mention the corporations who sponsor them) are reaping the rewards. However, despite all of the success that streetball has enjoyed, it’s hard to argue that the game of basketball has benefited.

Streetball is undoubtedly entertaining, but it leaves the viewer with an empty feeling. There’s a lack of substance. Ron Naclerio (Skip’s old high school coach) may have put it best during an interview with Sports Illustrated: “This stuff is dessert. You just hope they [kids] won’t eat too much of it.” From time to time, whenever boredom overtakes me, I’ll pop in the Volume 1 tape and go back to a time where the possibility for greatness seemed to at least exist.