Stream It Or Skip It: ‘UNTOLD: The Rise and Fall of AND1’ on Netflix, the definitive history of the iconic streetball brand
For a brief period at the turn of the millennium, the hottest thing in basketball wasn’t in the NBA, and it wasn’t Nike. It was an upstart brand that brought streetball to the masses, reaching incredible heights before flaming out. In Netflix’s UNTOLD: The Rise and Fall of AND1, we see how trash-talk built a shooting star of an empire, and how it fell as quickly as it rose.
The Gist: If you grew up loving basketball in the late ‘90s and early ‘00s, there might’ve been bigger brands than AND1, but there weren’t cooler ones. From trash-talking t-shirts to dazzling mixtapes, the upstart streetball brand changed the game, both on-court and off, bringing a swagger straight from the asphalt courts of New York City to the rest of the world. Nothing that gold can stay forever, and in The Rise and Fall of AND1, the filmmakers follow the company’s meteoric arc through interviews with the three founders, but also with the players who drove it all.
What Movies Will It Remind You Of?: This is just the latest in Netflix’s sterling run of UNTOLD documentaries, a series that’s quite possibly eclipsed ESPN’s long-running 30 For 30 series as the pre-eminent sports-documentary brand running today. There hasn’t been a dud yet, and it’s certainly not The Rise and Fall of AND1 that’s breaking that streak.
Performance Worth Watching: It’s interesting to hear from the three founders of the company, but by far the most interesting interviews come from the former AND1 athletes–streetball players like Rafer “Skip 2 My Lou” Alston, Waliyy “Main Event” Dixon, Shane “The Dribble Machine” Woney, Grayson “the Professor” Boucher, and the brand’s biggest star, Philip “Hot Sauce” Champion. They offer the insider perspective this documentary needs, and demonstrate the heart and soul behind the brand’s success.
Memorable Dialogue: “Most people at some point realized, I might not make D1, I might not make the NBA,” reflects AND1 cofounder Tom Austin on watching what would become the first AND1 mixtape, “but you can still go play at the playground. So I realized what’s on this tape–it’s just pure, like, self-expression. And that’s when I started to understand this is the essence of who we are. We’re playground, we’re grassroots, we’re everyman basketball. We’re attitude, we’re raw expression, we’re art–and this is a strategic position that Nike can’t touch.”
Sex and Skin: None.
Our Take: It’s hard to believe that a brand as inextricably associated with streetball-cool as AND1 started with three Wharton grads, but that’s where it started. Fresh out of business school in the mid-’90s and bored to death with the idea of working at an investment bank, Seth Berger, Jay Coen Gilbert, and Tom Austin decided to launch a basketball brand.
The first thing they did? Put trash-talk on t-shirts.
The shirts, bearing salty slogans like “I’m Sorry, I Thought You Could Play”, “I’m The Bus Driver, I Take Everyone To School”, and “What’s Wrong, Momma Forget To Pack Your Game?” were an instant hit. Within a year, AND1 merchandise was selling like crazy, and the founders decided to take on Nike–launching a signature shoe and signing the NBA’s #4 draft pick, Stephon Marbury, to a ten-year endorsement deal.
It didn’t go as planned.
In his first game wearing AND1 shoes, Marbury suffered an ankle injury, jeopardizing the launch and leading his agent to threaten to “throw your shoes in the trash on national TV”. It looked like AND1’s plans on world domination might be dead before they even got off the ground, and the brand was forced to regroup.
Their salvation came from the streets; the founders viewed video of streetballers playing at New York City’s Rucker Park, and realized there was a new market outside of the NBA, and a fortuitously-timed one. In 1999, Michael Jordan was retiring, the NBA was locked out, and they had an opening. Acting on an idea from DJ Set Free, the brand released the first AND1 mixtape–a VHS tape of Rucker Park highlights set to unreleased hip-hop tracks that the brand pressed tens of thousands of copies of and distributed for free to shoe stores, barbershops and locations all over the city.
The tape was a huge hit, and demand for Volume 2 spurred the creation of the AND1 Mixtape tour; the brand would assemble an in-house team of streetballers to embark on a multi-city tour to generate new content, the first time streetballers would be signed to professional contracts. Along the way, they picked up new players, like Philip “Hot Sauce” Champion, an Atlanta street-court idol who quickly became the tour’s marquee attraction.
“At that time, I might’ve been the most popular basketball player on Earth,” Champion laughs, without too much hyperbole.
There was no stopping AND1–the tour led to an ESPN reality show, an arena tour and international swing, major sponsorships and even a video game. Players who once dreamed of playing in Madison Square Garden suddenly found themselves doing just that, only in a way they never could have imagined. The brand’s cachet spread so far that when NBA superstar Vince Carter delivered the most iconic Dunk Contest performance of all time, he did so wearing AND1’s re-launched line of shoes, Tai Chis, without the brand even knowing in advance, let alone having paid for the exposure.
Of course, success like this wouldn’t go unchallenged. Threatened by the upstart, apparel goliath Nike would soon have AND1 in the crosshairs, and would co-opt the brand’s edgy image with their own “Streetball” campaign. Meanwhile, the brand was facing its own internal struggles; players chafed the pay disparities in their ranks, and how much money the company was making off of them relative to their pay.
“It started becoming a thing that, we’re getting pizza, but we go on a staff bus, and they’ve got filet mignon,” Shane Woney recalls. “The rock star started getting in everybody’s head, and everybody started thinking about the money.”
The Rise and Fall of AND1 is a hugely entertaining watch–a chance to immerse in nostalgia for a suddenly-distant-seeming moment in basketball culture, and a chance to see the story behind a brand that was virtually everywhere until it wasn’t anymore. It’s clear there are still some resentments harbored by the players–and perhaps rightly so–but to a man, they all still seem genuinely grateful to have had the experience.
“AND1 has allowed everyone to think outside the box about this game,” Alston reflects, “Their stuff was for all people, you know, not just people that make it in the professional world.”
“Was it big, and did we make it?”, Woney asks rhetorically. “Of course we made it. Because when you’re walking down the street with your son, and a stranger tells your son, ‘Do you know who your father is?’, that doesn’t happen to ordinary people.”
“At the end of the day, we will always be ‘yo, that’s the dudes from AND1’.”
Our Call: STREAM IT. The UNTOLD series has been great from the beginning, and The Rise and Fall of AND1 is one of the most entertaining entries yet.
Scott Hines is an architect, blogger and proficient internet user based in Louisville, Kentucky who publishes the widely-beloved Action Cookbook Newsletter.