- The Washington Times - Friday, October 18, 2002

Though the legs. Behind the back. Off the other guy's noggin. From his knee-buckling crossover dribbles to his whiplash-inducing wraparound passes, Tim Gittens is more than a street basketball star he's something of a blacktop Uri Geller, seemingly able to alter a ball's movement through sheer will.

"I've been doing it since I was 12, 13 years old," Gittens, a 26-year-old New Yorker, said with a laugh. "If you see me on tape, I'm the Jason Kidd of the 'hood."

In more ways than one. A featured attraction in a national street basketball tour and video series sponsored by the sneaker company And 1, Gittens has parlayed his ball-handling acumen and playground panache into a level of fame that wouldn't be unfamiliar to Kidd, an All-Star point guard for the New Jersey Nets.

Nicknamed "Headache" as in, opponents need aspirin Gittens has: suited up for the Harlem Globetrotters; signed a shoe and apparel deal with And 1; cameoed in rap videos; had his likeness digitized for a recently released PlayStation 2 game.

He even does speaking appearances. At $1,500 a pop (or sometimes for gas money, depending on the organization).

All in all, Gittens says, life is good particularly for a player whose resume boasts two years at the University of Milwaukee-Wisconsin and a short tour in the U.S. Basketball League.

"I'll walk by the park to watch the kids play, and I see them do all the stuff I do, saying 'that's a Headache move,'" Gittens said of visiting his local court, located at 141st Street and St. Nicholas in Harlem. "I'm damn near blushing. I can't believe I'm somebody that a kid looks up to."

Believe it. Eager to connect with urban consumers and looking to move beyond traditional athletic endorsers such as Michael Jordan, shoe makers and other corporations have turned to the fast-and-loose world of street basketball, where slick moves, gritty play and colorful noms de hoop are the norm.

In turn, the playground game has become more popular and more commercial than ever before. Sponsored tournaments are commonplace. Local legends like Philadelphia's Aaron Owens ("AO") and Brooklyn's Anthony Heyward ("Half-Man, Half-Amazing") have been featured in national marketing campaigns.

A handful of streetballers have signed endorsement deals worth more than $50,000. One of them, Golden State Warriors backup guard Rafer "Skip 2 My Lou" Alston, even has his own signature sneaker.

On Amazon.com, four of the top 10 best-selling basketball videos are playground basketball compilations. So is the site's most popular sports item, the recently released "And 1 Mix Tape Vol. 5," which stars Gittens, Owens and eight other streetball icons.

Sitting four spots below? "Ultimate Jordan," a two-DVD set dedicated to, well, you know who.

"We have created a real sort of star quality for our playground players," said Errin Cecil-Smith, director of public relations for And 1. "They're celebrities. People ask them for their shorts and headbands. They chase the tour bus.

"And I think kids connect to it because it's real. People get hit, people get in fights, people throw balls over the fence into the Hudson [River] because they're [mad]. You don't get that in a very nicely packaged entertainment and sports program that you see on TV."

The new Rucker

Tell that to Greg Marius. A former rapper, Marius is the chief executive of the Entertainer's Basketball Classic, an annual summer streetball tournament held at Harlem's Holcome Rucker Memorial Park, a New York playground considered by many to be the Mecca of pickup hoops.

Once the site of a no-frills league that pitted the likes of Wilt Chamberlain and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar against local blacktop legends like Joe "the Destroyer" Hammond, the famed court on 155th Street is still a pros vs. street proving ground. But the surrounding tournament has taken on a life of its own.

A stage for NBA players like New Orleans guard Baron Davis and street stars like Larry "Bone Collector" Williams, the EBC draws roughly 2,000 spectators per night. Rap mogul Sean "Puffy" Combs sponsors a team. Former President Bill Clinton has been known to drop by.

"When I first started, it was just basically a basketball challenge to another rap group," said Marius, who founded the EBC in 1982. "But when I saw the crowd, I knew I had a tournament. Then when I had a tournament, I knew I had a situation.

"Now we've become bigger than everything else. I've got actors coming to the park, every NBA player wanting to play. The only person I have left that hasn't stood on that court is Jordan."

Around the park's concrete bleachers, banners tout corporate sponsors Gatorade, Mountain Dew and AT&T. Reebok outfits the league's 16 teams. Disc jockeys spin hip hop tracks during timeouts. Video cameras surround the court, and the NBA broadcasts games on cable and satellite television.

The league even has a Web site and runs a nearby store where fans can purchase EBC videos, a glossy EBC magazine and should the mood strike $80 EBC football jerseys.

According to Marius, the league is looking into opening shops in Philadelphia and Norfolk.

"What we're trying to do is get like a clothing deal going first," he said. "So we'll be able to put stuff in everybody's store."

National exposure

Putting stuff in everybody's store also is the idea behind And 1, a Pennsylvania-based basketball shoe and apparel maker that was the first company to market streetball to a national audience.

Pretty much by accident, it should be noted.

"I'd be giving ourselves way too much credit to think that we had strategic thinking behind any of this," Cecil-Smith said.

Three years ago, the company put together a videotape of Rucker Park footage set to rap music, then gave the tapes away at basketball camps and Foot Action stores. Company officials didn't expect much to come of the promotion, which was mainly intended to help introduce a new slip-on casual shoe.

"We literally had some footage sitting around the office of Rafer Alston when he was young," Cecil-Smith said. "When we got bored, we would watch it. It was amazing stuff, stuff you never see in the [NBA].

"One day, somebody was like, 'we should do something with this.' And that was the birth of the mix tape."

The idea was an instant hit. Alston, then a third-string rookie guard with the Milwaukee Bucks, became an underground star. And Foot Action, which handed out the tape with the purchase of any item, unloaded roughly 500,000 copies in just three days.

"That was quite beautiful," Cecil-Smith said. "A kid would walk out of the store with a new pair of Air Jordans and our mix tape in his bag."

Four additional tapes followed. In the summer of 2000, And 1 rounded up a group of streetballers, dubbed them the "And 1 Mix Tape Team" and sent them on a modest, five-city barnstorming tour that matched them against playground stars from around the nation.

This year a similar tour lasted three months and covered 25 cities, including Boston, Philadelphia, Los Angeles, New York and Washington. During open runs games in which the And 1 players took on all local comers crowds sometimes exceeded 5,000.

An eight-episode series featuring the tour is currently airing on ESPN2.

"It's really crazy in the smaller markets that have never really seen our style of street basketball," said Owens, a member of the And 1 team. "We're more like entertainers, personalities now."

Indeed, showmanship accounts for much of streetball's appeal. On the And 1 mix tapes, flashy moves and alley-oop dunks are the order of the day.

In one clip, Owens rolls a ball between his opponent's legs then follows with his entire body en route to a layup.

"Kids will try to imitate our moves before they'll try to imitate somebody that's in the NBA," Owens said. "On tour, little kids will come up and be like, 'I got some new moves for you.' And they come up with stuff that's outrageous."

Corporate copycats

Since the release of the first tape, And 1's sales reportedly have more than doubled, from $108million in 1999 to $248million last year. And according to Cecil-Smith, that's no coincidence.

"We know that in the time that we have worked with Foot Action, their store traffic increases dramatically when a Mix Tape comes out, as do purchases of our brand," she said. "So can I point to the tapes and the tour specifically? No. But I can anecdotally."

While filming a commercial in Brooklyn last month that featured Phoenix Suns guard Stephon Marbury, Cecil-Smith was surprised by the reaction of some local schoolchildren.

"We were shooting near a school, and when it let out all these kids came over to watch us," she said. "We told them we were doing a commercial with Stephon Marbury, and they were like, 'Well, when are you going to do a Hot Sauce commercial?' Clearly, we've tapped into something here."

Predictably, other shoe companies have followed suit. Last year Nike aired a well-received series of commercials dubbed "Freestyle" that featured both pro and street players performing deft ball-handling moves. Reebok countered with its own playground videotape, starring Williams and Kareem "Best Kept Secret" Reid.

Video game publisher Activision recently released "Street Hoops," a game that contains virtual versions of actual streetballers. Foot Action and And 1 marketing partners on the project, and the game even allows players to dress their on-screen alter egos in licensed gear from urban clothing companies such as Sean John and Dada.

"Sponsors get an incredible return for their investments in street basketball," said Shawn Bryant of GameFace Ventures, a New York-based company that handles marketing and licensing for the EBC.

Though the influx of corporate cash has helped lift streetball to new heights, some worry that excess commercialization may damage the game. In August, Hammond told the New York Times that "big business is killing the basketball" at Rucker. Business issues nearly prevented some of And 1's players from competing in this summer's EBC, which was sponsored by Reebok.

"I don't even like playing at Rucker anymore," Gittens said. "Everything's so commercial."

Gittens also wonders if the And 1 tapes packed with Globetrotter-esque dribbling antics have dulled the playground game's gritty, ultra-competitive edge.

"The game ain't what it used to be," he said. "Everybody would rather do a trick than score. All the commercials have everybody thinking they can do it. In some ways, that hurts the game."

Marius disagrees. So does Matthew Rosner, director of basketball for the Street Basketball Association, a Mitchellville-based organization that is attempting to create a national streetball summer league.

"I don't think streetball can really dilute itself too much," Rosner said. "It's been going on for 50, 60 years. It's a style of basketball that is raw and unharnessed. It's more exciting and entertaining than watching conventional basketball.

"Streetball has been here forever. Now it's getting its due."

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