The AND 1 Mix Tape Tour, whose emphasis on dunks over defense and trash-talk over chalk talk has vaulted AND 1 from being a niche clothing line to a major athletic apparel manufacturer, culminates tonight at MCI Center. Attendance for the tour is up 30 percent this year, averaging about 7,000 spectators per game. About 10,000 are expected at tonight's event, which begins at 7:30.

"I never would've predicted this," said Aaron Owens, known as A.O. on the court. "We went from playing on the street to inside gyms and rec centers, and places like that, to now we're playing in the big arenas. It's crazy."

Players such as Owens are typical of famous playground basketball athletes. Most, if not all, had NBA aspirations, only to see those dreams derailed by various circumstances. They continued to compete on playgrounds and achieved fame, at least in their locales. In successfully marketing its merchandise, the AND 1 Tour also gave this brand of basketball a national audience and these players modest celebrity status, including appearances in some national television advertisements.

Much of the tour is famous for individual achievements and antics, but beneath that exterior is a genuine competition. Only four players on the current tour have contracts beyond this season. That leaves the other 10 competing for six spots on next year's roster.

For some, the end of the tour means a return to the real world. Anthony Heyward, known as Half Man, the team's elder statesman at 34, says he is fine with resuming his job teaching special education students at Brooklyn's P.S. 393. For others, such as Tyrone Evans, known as Alimoe, the plan is to use the tour as a steppingstone.

"Everybody should be using this fame to get prepared for life after AND 1," Evans said. "You should be making contacts with all these people we meet. Believe me, you will see me somewhere if this don't work out.

"If I don't make it, watch the news!"

-- Vincent Thomas