You certainly wouldn't see some of the AND 1 players in the NBA, either. Few of the players are like Rafer Alston (aka Skip to My Lou), who now plays for the Toronto Raptors -- have gone on to play pro or semi-pro ball. (Some players can make six-figure salaries; Alston signed a one-year contract with AND 1 for $612,000 before his leap to the NBA.) Some players, like the 6-foot-10, 315-pound Escalade, for instance, and the barrel-chested Helicopter looked like they had a hard time just getting up and down the court during last month's game in Houston. But during that same game, when Helicopter went up for a poorly timed alley-oop and just hovered there for what seemed like a full minute while he waited for the assist, the Houston audience cooed in a moment of collective comprehension.
Despite many such gratifying moments during the Houston game, the real drama of the Mix Tape games happens before the arena doors even open. In what is called the Open Run, prior to every game on the 30-city tour, local players vie for a chance to play with the AND 1 team in the main game. The novelty brings in fresh competition -- not to mention new fans -- to every game, a five-on-five affair with a brisk pace that's enhanced by no foul shots and permissive officiating.
Jake Stokes, a hearty 19-year-old from Pottsville, Ark., made the 10-hour trip to Houston with his family the day before just so he could play in the Open Run. "I did alright, I think," he said hopefully, wiping the sweat from his reddened face. Although Stokes has received several offers to play college ball -- from "some tiny, little schools" -- he's holding out for a better offer and figures the extra attention from the AND 1 games could only help. "I'm just happy I made the first cut," he said.
A total of three players out of 150 are picked from each Open Run game to play in the main game, which guarantees that they remain unscripted. At tour's end, one player is offered an AND 1 endorsement contract and a spot on the next tour.
That's what happened to 20-year-old Grayson Boucher, (aka The Professor), a 5-foot-10 guard from Salem, Ore., who was recruited to join the And 1 team during the Open Run games last year in Portland. Also known to audiences as "the white guy," The Professor was, in his own estimation, a "total unknown" prior to the AND 1 gig until wowing the players with his ball-handling skills.
"I knew about AND 1 when VOL. 1 (the first underground "mix tape" featuring Alston) came out in 1998," Boucher said. Now with his own cadre of fans, Boucher sees this as a stepping stone to a professional career. "I still want to go beyond this and go semi-pro -- it's not like I think this is the max or whatever, but I'm definitely having fun."
Still, AND 1 is sometimes dismissed as little more than a gimmick by basketball purists. In criticizing the Los Angeles Lakers' "undisciplined" style of play in a column last season, Los Angeles Times columnist J.A. Adande wrote the team "went into AND 1 Mix Tape' mode ... ."
But AND 1 remains focused on its goal of legitimizing the playground style of hoops. "Our mission is to become the No. 1 basketball company in the world," says Taylor Duffy, a spokesman for the sports-apparel company. "We want to show that there's another basketball outlet besides the NBA."
As ambitious as it sounds, it may not be so far off.
The AND 1 Street Ball franchise now includes six "mix tape" volumes, which are best-of video compilations of players' toughest moves; an ESPN show called Street Ball, a Survivor for sports fans where viewers can vote for their favorite players (Street Ball airs Tuesdays at 11:30 p.m. on ESPN2); a video game; and an international tour. Last month, for example, more than 14,000 people attended the AND 1 game in Philadelphia -- about the same number of people who attended the average Hornets home game last season.
"If we went out to play just a regular game, we wouldn't have jobs," Boucher says. "This is about entertainment. ... Winning is very important, of course -- we want to win -- but if we lose a game and it was entertaining, we still leave with a good feeling."