Director Kevin Wilson Jr. Charts ‘The Rise and Fall of AND1’
How many times did you bust your ankles emulating AND1 mixtapes? Founded by three college kids from the University of Pennsylvania, AND1’s soaring ascent took the basketball industry’s breath away in the 1990s and 2000s – the fledgling label somehow going toe-to-toe with market titans like Nike. Immortalised by Vince Carter’s Slam Dunk Contest in 2000 (where he laced red and white Tai Chis), AND1 looked destined to become the king of the court.
So why did things go south?
To celebrate the premiere of UNTOLD: The Rise and Fall of AND1, we hooked up with Oscar-nominated filmmaker Kevin Wilson Jr. to hit rewind on the greatest hoops show on earth.
One, two, three, AND1!
How did this project come together?
I grew up on AND1 in North Carolina. Basketball is a huge, huge part of our community and culture down there. I grew up in Durham, so there’s UNC and Duke. I’m a big Tar Heels fan. I wouldn’t call myself a hooper, but I played a little bit when I was younger.
We were trying to find where we fit in, my friends and I. We weren’t able to go to the big UNC basketball games, Duke games, or Charlotte Hornets games because we couldn’t afford them. So, when the AND1 mixtapes came out, I think I was at my friend’s house, and he showed me. It was volume three when Hot Sauce first came to it, and I was hooked.
We just watched him relentlessly and went outside and tried to practise the moves. It was a big part of my childhood, and it brought us all together. It was the reason I became friends with certain people. We were all wearing the AND1 sneakers.
I remember going into a classroom, and there was one guy who was wearing the Too Chillins, and I was wearing the Too Chillins. We were the only two cats in the class who were wearing them, and we became best friends. We’re best friends to this day.
So, it was a big reason I’m a part of the community I’m part of. When the project came to me, I jumped at the opportunity. We talked about what AND1 meant to all of us and what I wanted to do with the story. For me, I really wanted to give players an opportunity to speak their truth unfiltered because the last I can remember, I was enjoying the mix tapes and the show, and then everything just went away. I never really understood why.
I heard some light rumblings that the players were unhappy. I was always curious about what happened, what players were feeling and what founders were feeling. So, I talked about what I would do and the environment I wanted to create for everyone to speak their truth. Then we started making it together, and we spent two months shooting. We started at the beginning of 2020. Then we took our time over the next two years to really put the story together and present it in a way that was not a glossed-over, sugar-coated fantasy of what happened but the truth of what happened. I’m really happy with what we arrived at.
What was unique about AND1’s marketing? How were they able to go toe-to-toe with a Goliath like Nike?
For the first time, people were really able to see folks who looked like them and looked like the community in the mainstream. Basketball at that time was, for the most part, very fundamental. There were cats doing flashy moves here and there, but they weren’t doing what Hot Sauce and Main Event and Shane the Dribbling Machine were doing – jumping over motorcycles and all this crazy stuff.
AND1 approached the game with passion and trash talk. People crowded, lining the court and spilling onto it. People in New York and Philly, places where street ball was king, saw that all the time, but it was sort of relegated to that community.
When streetball hit the mainstream, people went crazy. It was attractive. It was fun and flashy. Flamboyant. The way people were dressing – people could wear their ‘fro’s out. People could wear their diamond stud earrings. They looked like your friends and cousins playing out there, so that was attractive. When you’re finally able to see yourself reflected and feel like, ‘Hey, I can go out there and be part of that too.’ That’s a recipe for success.
Vince Carter wearing the AND1 Tai Chi during the 2000 Slam Dunk Contest was obviously a huge moment for the brand. How did you tell that story?
I remember watching that dunk contest with my stepbrother. We’re both huge Vince Carter fans. I recall the Tai Chis because I had a pair. What was crazy about that moment was that he wasn’t even signed to AND1. He wasn’t an endorsed athlete. He just liked the sneaker and decided to wear them. They flew off the shelves after the Slam Dunk Contest. Everybody was talking about those dunks. The way his feet were positioned in the air – it was the perfect way to showcase the sneaker.
You couldn’t pay for that kind of publicity if you’re AND1. If you’,re a kid back in North Carolina, it’s like, ‘I don’t have to get Air Jordans If I can’t afford them. I can go get these Tai Chi’s and be able to rock it like Carter.’
We wanted to make sure we showcased that story because that was the height of the brand. That was when AND1 was making the most money. That was when they were at the top of the game. That was when they were challenging Nike, giving them a run for their money. I think Nike was at number one, and AND1 was right at number two, chasing their tail. That was when everything was going well – right before everything went south.
How come AND1 weren’t able to maintain the momentum?
Well, the sneaker market is extremely competitive. When you have someone like Nike, a titan of the industry, they were always going to tap into what AND1 were tapping into. Nike ended up catching on. Other brands also caught on. Nike were trying to figure out ways to appear less ‘establishment’ and connect more with the people on the ground level. That’s what AND1 was able to do early on that nobody else was doing.
Quite frankly, Nike obviously had more resources than AND1. AND1 had one sneaker designer, Tom Austin, and a very small group of people supporting him. Nike just had and continues to have a huge base with which they’re able to create and continue to demolish competition. That’s what ended up happening.
For the founders, when they saw that Nike was catching on, other competitors were catching on, and sales were starting to drop, they wanted to make sure that they were able to get out of it on top when they could. So, the company ended up selling. When you end up selling a company, if you don’t sell to someone who understands the culture and understands what made things so successful to begin with, I don’t think you’re going to achieve the same fruits that you were initially able to achieve, and I think that’s what happened.
Do you feel that David Stern’s dress code of 2005 impacted the brand?
I don’t think so. People were still able to rebel and do what they wanted to do. AND1 is a company known for inviting people who were rebelling against the establishment. The biggest example was Latrell Sprewell, who the NBA and David Stern pretty much wrote off after he choked out his coach in practice. AND1 quickly invited him into the fold. In many ways, the dress code, crazy as it was, helped the brand. For one, AND1’s success wasn’t just confined to the NBA. It wasn’t just Sprewell and Kevin Garnett leading the charge. It was those guys who were on tour, on the road. They wore whatever they wanted to wear. They did what they wanted. In fact, the crazier it was and the more trouble they got in, the more people wanted to connect with the brand. AND1 were always the brand on the edge. Breaking rules and doing things their way. I think that’s what resonated with folks in the community.
Was money a source of tension between players and owners?
Oh, absolutely. There were players who definitely felt that they were taken advantage of by the company. There are two sides to every coin. As a filmmaker, I try not to side with the players or the owners. I like to give people the opportunity to speak their truth. Then folks can form their own opinion about what happened.
Quite frankly, the founders had a point to be made in terms of their business model and what they intended to do. I don’t think they intentionally exploited the players, but I wouldn’t dispute those players when they say they weren’t paid their worth. From my point of view, if it weren’t for Main Event, Shane, Hot Sauce, AO, Half Man and all those guys, the company wouldn’t be what it was. Had it not been for The Skip Tape to come along and turn it into The Mixtape Vol 1, who knows what would’ve become of AND1? So, I don’t think the players were wrong in feeling what they felt.
Could something like the AND1 phenomenon happen today?
I think it is already. What AND1 was able to do in the 1990s and 2000s is what’s happening every time you log onto Instagram and see a kid. You don’t know where they live, but they’re posting some crazy ankle-breaking crossover or some wild dunk. That was essentially AND1. And I don’t know if a single brand is going to be able to take that and commodify it anymore because everybody has the opportunity to do it themselves. Players, quite frankly, can make more money if they’re able to gain a following by posting on their own platform. That was the kind of thing that the AND1 players were talking about, which is why they felt that they brought a much bigger value to the brand than they were actually compensated for.
I think people are smarter these days and have more opportunities to control their own brand and content. To post what they want to post and gain the following. Look at The Professor. He’s got millions of followers. He’s doing his own thing now. Maybe the younger generation of players doing their own dope stuff can come together and create a collective brand of their own.