The Boys of Summer

Ready or not, summer—and its unique style of play—is just about here, and we’re ready. SLAM Presents Streetball (with a dope cover story by Lang, who will break it out on the site shortly) is on sale next week, and most big Tourneys will be kicking off in June. Then there’s the AND1 Mixtape Tour, which has been remixed, so to speak, but is still going strong. Matt Caputo checks in with the Mixtapers during their visit this week to NYC.

For the hoops-obsessed, basketball season never ends—it only changes. Over the last eight summers, the AND1 mixtape tour has bridged the gap between the NBA playoffs and season tip-off with science-defying dunks and jaw-dropping dribbling. Because of the tour’s coverage on ESPN and past endorsements with Mountain Dew, AND1’s roster of national asphalt stars are arguably the most recognizable basketball players outside of the NBA. This summer, AND1, the company, and AND1, the team, promise more of the usual tricks, as well as trying some new ones.

“Man, I’m so excited about the tour playing outside agan,” says Kenny Brunner, or “Bad Santa,” after the AND1 team’s second practice of the year in the gym at Manhattan’s Baruch College. “I love the outside atmosphere like in Venice Beach and it’s a different environment for the fans. You know, I dive on the floor, so it’s going to be a chance to so who has the heart to take a charge and to dive outside.”

After several years of playing indoors, AND1 is bringing the tour back out into the open air. The nationwide, 10-city tour kicks off June 16 in Brooklyn’s Coney Island and will run through August 25. “We’re looking for a new look for the show,” says Grayson “The Professor” Boucher, who came to the AND1 tour as a 19-year-old college sophomore to-be. The now 22-year-old “Professor,” is the tour’s first and only white player and arguably the most popular. “Playing in those big NBA arenas, it’s hard to tell what city you’re in. Playing outside will give off a different atmosphere.”

While the 2007 tour will be considerably shorter in the U.S. this year, AND1 has doubled up on dates outside of the states. As part of the 10-episode reality T.V. show, the AND1 team will play the weekly schedule and after the broadcast fans will be able to vote online to choose for what player will continue. One baller from each local market will be selected to make up the team that meets the AND1 squad in the finale game. Each local player, based on their performance, will be vying for a contract with AND1 and a spot on the tour next year.

“I love playing outside, it’s where I play when I’m home” says Jamal “Springs” Nelson, a rookie to the tour blessed with Lebron-like leaping ability. “It’s a little easier to pull the moves indoors, but everyone here is used to playing outside.”

Like most of the players who have worn the AND1 uniform past and present, Brunner and Nelson are both renegades. A sub-six foot guard, Brunner was among the most elite prep players in the country when he came out of Compton’s Dominguez High School a decade ago. In his one year of college ball in the Big East, with Georgetown, Brunner would have been ranked seventh in the country in assists if he had played in enough games to qualify. He also led the Hoyas in scoring and steals. After jumping to a juco, Brunner joined Jerry Tarkanian and Fresno State, but legal troubles derailed what some scouts thought was potentially NBA-bound career. Brunner never even played a minute at Fresno State, at one point spending time in a Los Angeles jail on charges of assault with a deadly weapon and attempted murder. Brunner was also involved, along with Fresno State player Avondre Jones, in a bizarre incident in which a Fresno student was robbed of money and a camera with a samurai sword.

Brunner cleaned up his act, sort of. He managed to squeeze out one more season of college ball, at Southern Idaho Community College. At one point during that season, he reportedly organized a team boycott. When he wasn’t allowed to enroll at the University of Georgia, Brunner spent a hot second at a D-2 school before jumping into the pro game with the now non-existent San Diego Wildefire of the ABA in 2001. Since then he’s also played in the D-League, Italy, France, Germany and was also a part of the Denver Nuggets camp in ’04. AND1 has allowed Brunner to re-invent himself.

“It’s a great situation here for me, having gone through all that I did in my life, to be able to learn from the mistakes I’ve made in the past and be a leader on this team is a blessing,” says Brunner. Even at 28-years-old and repackaged as the fan-friendly “Bad Santa,” he still possesses the same impressive passing skills and exceptional ball handling ability. “You’re never down and you’re never out as long as you continue to pray to God something good is going to happen. I think there is an outside chance I will be in the NBA. I think it’s my destiny, but I understand that I have to earn that.”

However, refreshing AND1 may have been for Brunner’s career, many other players are only in the early stages of what they hope to be long careers. Having helped launch the career of New York City playground legend and now legitimate NBA starting point guard in Rafer “Skip to My Lou” Alston, the current crop of AND1 players feel confident they are planted firmly on a stepping stone to the next level of basketball and beyond.

“I’m still a youngin’, but I’ve been here for five years and streetball has opened up a lot of opportunities for me,” adds Boucher, who has a small role in the upcoming basketball comedy, Semi-Pro, staring Will Ferrell and has a lead role in a smaller film about basketball that shoots when the tour ends. “I can run a team, and I’m going to still play regular basketball, but I’m going to definitely play next winter somewhere, I’m not sure what minor league, yet, but somewhere.”

Besides Boucher, other players are excited about reaping the beyond-basketball benefits of being apart of the AND1 movement. While guys like Corey “Homicide” Williams, Daryl “Magic” Dorsey and Jimmy “Snap” Hunter have all build solid pro careers off appearances along the AND1 tour, other players who have yet to achieve their pro-hoops dreams are planning for a more entrepreneurial future.

“If basketball ended next week, I would come out with my own brand, instantly,” says Atlanta native, Philip “Hot Sauce” Champion, who returns to the AND1 tour after a two-year absence. Champion appeared in two video games, a television commerical and in the film Crossover in ’06 since his tour debut in ’01. “The ‘Hot Sauce,’ brand would sell like hot cakes.”

Other players, however, are still hoping to earn a chance to play in the NBA. While the odds might seem stacked against the AND1 guys, they do not, however, suffer from any lack of confidence.

“I could go overseas right now and get a job,” says Springs, who has never had a real job in his life and has been making money off his dunking ability since he was 16. But like everybody else who picks up the ball, my dream is to go to the league.”

In full scope, the AND1 movement seems to be less about marketing than it is about the game. While basketball purists might mock AND1 for encouraging poor fundamentals and loose team concepts, they deserve credit for legitimizing streetball and it’s players, who were once associated with the tragic honor of having never “made it.” As NBA fans accuse the league of taking themselves too seriously, AND1’s brand of basketball breathes new life into a sport that some still consider America’s “third game.”

“We’re excited about the show and the tour. The arenas are cool and selling out the Garden is great, but you can never really capture something like that in it’s essence, like to where it belongs,” says Troy Jackson, the 6-10, 370-pound monster of a man known as “Escalade.” The brother of former NBA star, Mark Jackson, he is AND1’s emotional leader and a year-round part of the AND1 team. “So for streetball to go back to the streets is a natural progression.”