This is Duke Tango from AND 1. . . . If your job is street balling, we're hiring!
-- ad on WKYS-FM
Two men stand on the gray asphalt, squinting, scanning, then pointing. "I got him." "I got him." "I got him." "I got him. . . . "
Pretty soon, on the basketball court beside the kiddie soccer leagues and the commuters roaring along New Hampshire Avenue, they've got a game of five-on-five.
"You too fat to get up," says Charles "Easy" Hairston, 23, guarding one particularly plump player who then sweeps past him for a dunk. Moments later, he stares down a cornrowed heckler on the sidelines. "Get at me, don't [expletive] at me," Hairston rhymes, beating his chest.
Hairston fakes left, darts right, bounds down the court, pirouettes in midair, dribbling the ball through his legs. Left, right, jump, dodge, stutter-step, run -- what seems like an eternity passes. Finally, he tosses the ball to his friend Byron "Buck" Sharper, also 23, who jams it down the chain-link net.
"Holla-at-me!" Hairston sings, and 10 pairs of sneakers pivot, then squeak down the court.
Hairston and Sharper would pick this life in a heartbeat. It definitely beats what pays the bills now: running a moving company. Tomorrow, there will be more of the same, when the two line up with hundreds of other wannabe playground legends hoping for a spot on the AND 1 Mix Tape Tour, the premier professional street ball league.
It's "a chance to shine," Hairston says. "Street credibility. The people I grew up with seeing me. Everything is about getting love from the streets."
And there's the love from the cameras, the TV viewers, the endorsement deal, the free clothes -- and the paycheck.
Up From the Street
"It's like Showtime Magic Johnson. I'm the remix."
-- from the DVD "Street Ball:
The AND 1 Mix Tape Tour Vol. 2."
They are the anti-Harlem Globetrotters. Antiheroes, with cheeky names like Hot Sauce, Half Man, Half Amazing, Syk Wit It and Prime Objective. "Anti" is the key prefix here, as in anti-grinning, anti-shucking, anti-jiving -- all minstrelsy ascribed to the old-school Globetrotter era. Some might also say they're anti-scoring. But that's street ball.
It's "organic," says Todd Boyd, author of "Young, Black, Rich and Famous: The Rise of the NBA, the Hip Hop Invasion and the Transformation of American Culture."
"It grows and blossoms based on its own rules," he says. Like hip-hop, "it's always been a culture of realness, amongst other things, a place for free expression."
For five years now, AND 1, a Paoli, Pa.-based basketball shoe and apparel company, has been bottling up all that realness and packaging it in a series of products. Streetball magazine debuted last year. About a million DVDs in the AND 1 Mix Tape series are circulating, half of them given away through a Foot Locker promotion and half of them sold for $20. AND 1's league, billed as the quest for street ball legends, has been touring for three summers.
This year's 30-city tour ends tomorrow at MCI Center, where organizers say they expect close to 10,000 fans to pay $20 to $75 for seats. At tomorrow's open run before the game, four D.C. ballers will be selected to play in the evening exhibition. Afterward, one player from the tour's previous 29 stops will be tapped to join the league. It's basketball's reality show.
Excerpts from the tour are also aired on ESPN.
Street ball, it seems, is entering the mainstream. And like any top street ball legend, that means it's ripe for a challenge. It's coming from everywhere: The copycat efforts. The street ballers who question its authenticity. Youth league coaches who bemoan its influence on young players.
And, of course, there is that challenge built into the competition, the one coming from dreamers such as Hairston and Sharper, trying desperately to get signed.
Playing a Different Game
According to AND 1 lore, it all started six years ago with a single grainy videotape of a young ballplayer from Queens named Rafer "Skip" Alston. Hours of footage showed him dismantling a series of opponents, destroying and humiliating them with his fancy moves. A coach passed the tape on to AND 1, a performance basketball apparel company formed in 1993 by Wharton business school grad Seth Berger and two of his friends and fellow basketball lovers.
From the beginning AND 1 -- a name derived from the game situation in which a player makes his shot and gets one free throw -- gained ground against mighty Nike through a marketing campaign that married street combat with commerce. The scrappy upstart won endorsements from several key NBA players. Most famous was a much-debated television ad in June 1999 in which New York Knick Latrell Sprewell, freshly traded from the Golden State Warriors after returning from a suspension for choking his coach, boasted: "People say I'm America's worst nightmare. I say I'm the American dream."
That same month, hundreds of thousands of copies of the first mix tape hit the streets, the start of a popular series that would lead to the tour and the formation of the AND 1 professional summer league. Today, 20 percent of NBA players endorse AND 1 gear, according to the company.
But some basketball fans would argue that the foundation for the street ball craze was laid much earlier, in 1927, when Abe Saperstein, the son of Polish immigrants, took over a black basketball team and built it into an international sensation.
In its first decades under Saperstein, the Harlem Globetrotters was one of many cross-country barnstorming teams popular in that era, several of which excluded black players. Saperstein presided over some of the best ballplayers in the world, a team that dominated pro teams across the nation.
When two white leagues merged to form the National Basketball Association in 1946, the new league, to recruit its first black player, immediately looked to the Globetrotters. By the 1960s, with racial barriers dissolving along with his near-monopoly on black talent, Saperstein had to find other ways to draw crowds. It was about this time that the focus shifted from winning games to putting on a show. Cartoons, television programs and feature films followed.
"A lot of that performance was very stereotypical, a lot of clowning and butt-dancing and buffoonery, and that was what made them so popular around the world," says author Boyd, who also is a professor at the University of Southern California's School of Cinema-Television. "The Globetrotters, to me, were basketball minstrels, very much part of a different America, an America when blacks still had to shuffle and grin and engage in this Stepin Fetchit type of behavior, coupled with incredible basketball."
In 1993, former Globetrotter-turned-businessman Mannie Jackson bought the team as it faced financial ruin. He quickly realized that the Globetrotters' comedy antics were not acceptable to current audiences. He also thought it a shame that the once-proud franchise had been reduced to that image. "I don't remember the Globetrotters being defined as clowns," Jackson told New York Times columnist William C. Rhoden. "I don't think the Lakers thought of the Globetrotters as clowns, or the world basketball champions of the time thought they were playing clowns."
Jackson immediately set about restoring the team's early reputation for competitive play by holding exhibitions against college teams and treading lightly on the tricks. The team has been rewarded with revenue that has climbed 19 percent in the past year, Jackson's company says.
In looking at the Globetrotters and AND 1, Boyd sees the AND 1 mix tapes as an authentic expression of the street, one that successfully blends the world of street ball and hip-hop and avoids the stereotypes and pitfalls of the old Globetrotters. "Naturally, it may be more exaggerated because people are filming it, but what they are doing is more specific to their time."
Jackson is so used to the comparisons to AND 1 that he's got a prepared statement. In it he dismisses AND 1 as a marketing scheme, a "reality TV version of street ball" -- not family entertainment. "If it were 1977, it could very likely be called 'disco ball,' " the statement reads. "Watching it, I see a bunch of cool guys who take themselves very seriously in trying to mimic" Harlem Globetrotters players.
AND 1 executives shy away from the comparison, but that hasn't stopped people from making them.
"AND 1 is more hard-edged" than the Globetrotters, says Anthony Langley, a coach for the D.C. Warriors youth basketball team in the District. "They are into humiliation more so," he says of the AND 1 players. "There is not a lot of laughing with the AND 1. A lot of the AND 1 guys wanted to be in the [NBA] and could not get in. The Harlem Globetrotters, you didn't see the frustration as much."
Muhammad Hill, a 19-year-old player known on D.C. playgrounds as "the Floor General," competed in the first AND 1 tour in 2001. The Globetrotters and their history reflect another time, he says, but the interactive nature of AND 1 shows it is more accessible to this generation.
"At AND 1, they actually give you a chance," Hill says. "City in and city out, there is somebody that is throwing shots at them. They have an open run. They like you, or you can try back at the next city."
Skipping Old School
What's clear is that the effect on this generation of ballplayers has been profound, whether it's the NBA or the playground. Some say the street ball mentality has created a pro league full of hot-doggers, which contributed to the United States's humiliating defeat by Puerto Rico at the Olympics this week. Langley says that although the mix tapes excite his players, AND 1's emphasis on flashy ball handling and tricks make it hard to teach the basics. "They don't understand that this is entertainment and there are fundamentals" they need to learn, he says.
Some street ballers have become critics themselves, suspecting that some of the antics are staged. Charles Hall, a District writer who covers the local street ball scene for the Web site UrbanFlavorz.com, says many of the local legends will skip tomorrow's open run because the situation is stacked against them. He also says that by style, D.C. street ballers aren't about the frills. The AND 1 players "come and showboat, but when it's time to score, they can't do it," Hall says. D.C. players, he continues, "have the showmanship as well, but D.C. players can put it in the basket.
"To me, AND 1 is almost like a new Harlem Globetrotters," Hall says. "Nothing against those guys, but I think that when in a real game, I don't think they would beat the real street ball legends."
Lonnie "Prime Objective" Harrell is one bona fide D.C. street ball legend who is on the AND 1 roster. He has a message for the critics.
"Hate, but hate harder," he says. "That's terrible. People always say that until they get out on the court with us. The guys who hate always want to play and want our jobs."
As one of the 13 members of the AND 1 squad, Harrell is both a player and a scout who will decide who will get picked to join the league, a decision that will be announced after tomorrow's game at MCI. He says tricks won't get you a spot on the squad. "I don't really look for that because we've got those," Harrell says. "I like to see people who can play natural basketball, and the tricks come later."
And there have been a lot of tricks. Everything from back handsprings, to break dancing, to bouncing balls off body parts and creative dunks. The announcer, Duke Tango, can be seen in the latest mix tape, wearing a curly blond wig and standing in the middle of the court screaming, "Oh, baaaby! Oh, baaaby!"
Topping what's already on film is getting harder and harder each year. "Some of them are so futuristic, it's like, 'What else could you possibly do?' " says Hill, the 19-year-old baller. "Basically, people will have to start setting the ball on fire with no matches."
They Got Next
Buck Sharper and Easy Hairston haven't quite mastered that trick. But in the years they've been playing at the Hillandale courts, down the street from where they grew up in Adelphi, they have picked up a few others.
Sharper stutter-steps, tosses the ball in the air past Hairston, picks it up off the bounce and charges down the court. He attempts a layup, and it bounces off the rim. All told, in several hours of play, neither of them makes more than a handful of shots.
They've been calling themselves brothers ever since Sharper's mother unofficially adopted Hairston as a teenager. For years, they've been inseparable, running a moving company out of their family's home in Rockville and spending hours in the studio recording hip-hop for their band, Black Park.
"In high school, I really thought I was going to be the next [Allen] Iverson," says Sharper, who is 6-foot-1 and weighs 190. He played ball in high school, eventually graduating from Montgomery County's John F. Kennedy High School. Now, he's pursing a general studies degree at Montgomery College. Sometimes he says he wants to be a lawyer. Other times he thinks rapping or balling is a better fit. Anything but working a conventional job for the rest of his life.
"You enrich somebody else's dream," Sharper explains. "You don't work every day and have a paycheck add up to being rich. You'll die middle class."
Hairston, who attended High Point High School in Beltsville and is pursing his GED, agrees.
"We have to fight to get on that pedestal to be recognized," says Hairston, who is 5-feet-10 and 165 pounds. He has a bright smile and wears his curly hair tucked under a do-rag. "If not basketball, it's gotta be the music. I'm a workaholic. I'll do whatever it takes."
They both have big plans for tomorrow's open run at MCI Center.
"I plan on hurting people," Hairston says. "I'm a loudmouth. I love attention. I'm looking for the best competition because I'm striving to be the best. People know me for jokes. I got handles. I make other people look good. I could make the sorriest person on the court look the best."