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‘The Greatest Mixtape Ever:’ reliving the grainy, raw streetball footage that changed the game

The And1 Mixtapes took authentic pick up basketball culture, a few transcendent stars, set it all to hip hop, and the rest was magic.

During a slow season after the NBA Draft, basking in a post-free agency firestorm lull, wallowing decadently in “where will Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving, and Donovan Mitchell land” limbo, patiently waiting for one Mr. James Harden to officially sign, wishing and hoping for Brian Windhorst to deliver a sly sermon on how the Celtics might surprise us and tank next season, I had just enough time to catch the awesome ESPN’s 30 for 30: The Greatest Mixtape Ever, which you can click here to watch.

The documentary is based in New York City during the 90’s on the uptown basketball playgrounds where street ball functioned as lifeblood, where hip hop reigned, our soundtrack of the era, all centered at the birthplace of the grainy, raw, now legendary And1 Mixtapes.

The first volume was released in 1998, but filmed over several years prior.

You can imagine the state of things in New York City in those days. Michael Jordan was literally in his prime! The Knicks, in one of the most basketball obsessed towns, had one of the greatest players ever in Patrick Ewing and were perennial contenders. Allen bleeping Iverson had just made his pro debut! Do you know how many kids started practicing their A.I. wide-crosses that summer?

As much as I might try, I cannot possibly describe to someone too young to remember how insane the energy was for round ball at this time. Anyone who was anyone threw on some Olaf’s and Nike’s, or even just rolled up in baggy jeans, grabbed an Arizona or a Gatorade, and called “next after next” at the park.

As a native New Yorker, I was quite familiar with the doc’s subject matter even if I was too young to venture up to Rucker Park myself. But the energy certainly trickled downtown to the lower Manhattan and Park Slope Brooklyn games I frequented. (I have zero And1 shimmy to my game but I did learn the cheat code spots on the metal backboards to rain plenty of dweeby bank shots on fools who underestimated me).

I spent countless, countless hours playing pickup hoops in NYC parks and remember the days when opponents would try to put the ball through my legs and clown me like Skip 2 my Lou. So while the film was only 51 minutes, it vaulted me back in time to the days when I was nervously waiting for next, hoping not to get laughed at.

I’d learn later upon moving to Lombard St. in Philly that the energy here isn’t all that different. Still, with limited wingspan, you can see I had trouble guarding rangier wings:

Just kidding, I wish that was me who Joel And1-style baptized.

The film is narrated by Jadakiss and features original interviews with Dr. J, Kyrie Irving, Fat Joe, Funk Master Flex, Iman Shumpert, Isiah Thomas, Kemba Walker, Lou Williams, Rafer Alston, Scoop Jackson, Bobbito Garcia, and plenty more, plus some of the And1 founders and day one originals.

Rafer Alston is the biggest And1 star, (although nicknames like “Hot Sauce” may be more iconic) and the only one who enjoyed a true NBA career. Known as Skip 2 My Lou, or just “Skip,” Alston played 11 years in the NBA. But he’ll forever be known as king of the streets:

Quick tangent. Watching as a Sixers fan, it was a trip to wonder what about Skip’s game once appealed to Daryl Morey, back when Alston was with the Houston Rockets.

Morey didn’t originally sign Alston, but he did retain him for the 2007-2008 season upon being promoted to GM. I wonder if there was some complex calculus factoring in his Rucker Park flare (held in check for the pro game of course) and some analytics-based pro-level principles intertwining.

I like to imagine that somehow Skip awakened Morey’s inner hooper. Because let’s face it, And1 and analytics-style moneyball would seem to represent two different worlds. Yet James Harden, the player Morey is most closely associated with, has been the perfect embodiment of both paradigms.

Indeed, the film alludes to folks like Harden, Kyrie Irving, Steph Curry, Baron Davis, Jamal Crawford, Lou Williams, Kemba Walker and others being undeniably and admittedly influenced by the pizazz street ball athletes played with. Yet, those names are also a few of the most efficient scorers in pro history. So Alston can be regarded as one of those key “bridge” players.

What made the original mixtapes fun, the film details, was how authentic they were. That raw, grainy footage of genuine, non-rehearsed (in the Mixtape’s early days) pick up hoops.

After all, the way the vast majority of people in the world play the sport is outside in playgrounds, so we can all relate on some level. But these tapes included highlights of genuine studs with sick handles and ridiculous hops absolutely humiliating defenders as the crowds erupt, all accompanied by music.

Visually, the documentary includes interviews on set, tons of that original street ball footage, and some fun and funny animation to fill in key memories and stories recounted along the way.

“And1 as a company was basically,” explains journalist Scoop Jackson in the 30 for 30, “a company started by three cats from Wharton Business School. White cats coming in looking at black culture and finding a way to basically, not exploit it but find the business way, to put it out to the world.”

We have some vital Philly connections too. The dude who cooked up the magic, putting the old VHS footage to never-before-released hip hop singles as a Mixtape, was local product Set Free Richardson.

“I knew I was sitting on these tapes that we needed to do something special with,” Jeffrey Smith, former Marketing Director for And1 explains. “[Richardson, a newly hired member of the company’s marketing department, who happened to be a DJ on the side] was from Philly, he was music background, he knew basketball, it was pretty obvious to me. Just put Set Free in a room and see what happens.”

In Set Free’s words, how the street magic was bottled and packaged to eventually reach us, the masses:

“So I put VHS of the street ball games in and turned the sound down. And I just started going back and forth with the records. It just felt like magic, playing the music but looking up at the TV. And I’ll never forget when a jump shot went off on the TV but a snare [drum] hit it at the same time. I was like ‘wow.’ And then a dunk hit with the kick. And then that’s when the light bulb went off! And said ‘we got something special this is a mixtape.’”

The team started promoting the videos in Dr. Jay’s stores, and started selling merch left and right. It became so popular they rounded up some of the best athletes (e.g. Shane “Dribbling Machine” Woney, Wailyy “Main Event” Dixon, Anthony “Half Man, Half Amazing” Heyward, Dennis “Spyda” Chism and Robert “50” Martin) and began going on tour in the famous And1 busses, hitting up different cities.

“Playing ball in Philly man, it was cutthroat,” Aaron “AO” Owens describes our local pick up scene at one point during the film.

One theme the movie touches upon was the question of just how good were these mixtape legends? Could they hang with pros? At one point music stars Common and Snoop Dogg wonder if some of those dudes might not actually be better than some NBA players; yet simply lacked the discipline, or background to have made it all the way.

To that point, the film shows Baron Davis, Kyrie Irving, Lou Williams, and others basically cracking up at that idea, citing how much bigger, faster and more disciplined NBA dudes are. But they managed to do so without losing any reverence for what those street games represent and how they influenced the sport.

Nonetheless, former Sixer Lou “Sweet Lou” Williams actually lists “AO” as one of his favorite streetball players ever and said “I tell AO to this day, he’s one of my top 10 basketball players no matter the level.”

This back and forth about just how good they were was my favorite part of the flick, so definitely check it out. It’s really fun to watch the pro stars give props to And1 while also keeping it in it’s proper place.

And of course, Sixers icon Julius “Dr. J” Irving, who was featured, recalled the energy of the NYC park games. And went on to say “all these guys dropping down 50-point games [in the NBA today] that’s definitely street ball like, definitely Rucker-like, that's not traditional basketball.”

The film gets deep and goes into some issues of class, and race, and how over time the monetization of the whole thing stripped it from what made it so authentic and raw and cool originally. But I won’t spoil any more of it for you. It was a fun watch.

Also, hilariously, I just spotted this 30 for 30 title to pop in my queue. I literally may watch “Doc and Darryl” just for some Darryl Morey-Doc Rivers jokes.

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