Yesterday, people were briefly brought back in time to year 2000. AND 1, the shoe company founded in 1993 that gained prominence in the NBA during the late nineties and early aughts, was sold to New York-based brand management firm, Global International. This is the latest news for a brand that has seen its worth and exposure fall from where it was once primed to be one of the dominant brands in basketball.
That is, if you even heard about news of AND 1’s sale in the first place. At the height of the brand’s success, any news from AND 1 would’ve been a hot topic among sneakerheads and the innumerable ballers that had recently bought into the brand’s aggressive image. Earlier in the year, AND 1 was part of the larger acquisition of American Sporting Goods by Brown Shoe company, but now the global footwear company doesn’t see any place for the hard-edged basketball company in its larger umbrella of brands.
According to the press release:
“AND 1 is a great brand with a strong heritage, however, it did not cleanly align with our strategy to focus on the key consumer platforms of healthy living, contemporary fashion and family.”
It’s not surprising that, in 2011, this sale announcement seems an afterthought in a sneaker market increasingly dominated by Nike and Air Jordan, and to a lesser extent Adidas and Reebok. With the big brands selling more models and colorways than ever before, the influx of cheaper Chinese brands making their way to market on the backs of exposure from high profile endorsement deals with Shaquille O’Neal, Yao Ming and Steve Nash, the market is more crowded.
Even Dolce & Gabbana makes basketball shoes (and, unlike some of the Chinese brands, Gilbert Arenas actually wears them). In a fun twist, new kid on the block Under Armor is making serious headway into the market pulling similar moves that worked to AND 1’s favor in the late 20th century.
AND 1 thrived on an image that no longer exists in professional basketball. Or more accurately, AND 1’s visual style catered to a particular urban image associated with basketball that the powers-at-be attempted to rid from the NBA. The AND 1 image is brash, wears its shorts too low and should probably be called for traveling. It wasn’t until 2005, at a time when the NBA’s image was at its most diverse, that David Stern initiated the NBA Dress Code and formally made a stance against the blacktop influence rapidly taking hold of the game. Inevitably, AND 1’s value began to sink.
To give credit where credit is due, there was a time when AND 1 dominated the run. Matt Halfhill, propietor of Nice Kicks in Austin, TX and publisher of the sneaker magazine NiceKicks.com, remembers the launch of the Tai Chis while working in an Athlete’s World in Victoria, B.C. in 2001.
“The Tai Chi was the shoe. The shoe had already been out everywhere else but hadn’t come here yet, and suddenly everyone was getting a pair.”
Not only was it the most popular basketball shoe from AND 1, it was one of the most popular basketball shoes of all time. Taking its design inspiration from the Ying-Yang symbol, the design was distinctive as it was simple. One large ‘ying’ of color wrapped the inside of the shoe while a ‘yang’ of white wrapped the toe and outside of the shoe. The design of the Tai Chi achieved in bringing a rare balance of statement and style to the court when other shoes had a lot going on.
The shoe also sold extremely well.
“The fact that they color-blocked so well, tons of high school and college teams could wear them,” Halfhill said, adding that “it may not have been the best” in terms of athletic performance.
The immense popularity of the shoe was in some large part because Vince Carter wore a red colorway of the Tai Chi during his legendary 2000 NBA Dunk Contest performance. Authentic to the spirit of the brand, no one was playing defense when Carter jumped 360 degrees and put the ball through his legs before dunking it. He wasn’t, say, swishing a set shot from the corner of the key.
One of the most highlighted clips of all-time from any sport, the dunk contest performance vaulted Carter into the stratosphere and he did so AND 1s – despite the fact that he wasn’t even sponsored by the company. (The next year Carter signed with Nike, which you’d think a shooting guard from North Carolina would’ve been prone to do earlier, no? Maybe I should give Vince more credit for making such a bold statement in the perfect shoes to do so?)
In the absence of the slam dunk king on the AND 1 roster, the company had signed the infamous-even-then Stephon Marbury as their first spokesman in 1996, adding authentic-to-the-brand Rafer Alston, aka Skip 2 My Lou, two years later in 1998.
Skip 2 My Lou was the true star of the AND 1 brand in its infancy. As the story goes, the coach of the Benjamin Cardozo high school team in Queens, NY, delivered a tape to AND 1 headquarters containing footage of Alston performing a variety of impressive streetball moves: quick dribbles between his legs and the opponents’ interspersed by disturbingly fast stutters and ball-fakes. You could lose the ball watching the low quality videotapes (videotapes!) if not the reaction of the crowd and the defender doing spins like an enthusiastic dog trying to follow the ball.
These tapes would catch the attention of execs and morph into the AND 1 Mixtapes, a series of tapes that contained the most extreme and difficult-to-perform streetball moves. The tapes started circulating among people awestruck by the quick moves of the cocky guards, leaking into the suburbs and gaining a totally new audience. The authentically low-quality tapes became less a window into urban basketball culture and increasingly an AND 1-branded promotion. The success of these tapes would launch the brand further into mainstream North American households, including the spawn on an ESPN show and the release of streetball themed video games NBA Street from EA Sports in 2001 and Street Hoops from Activision in 2002.
Also in 2001, Kevin Garnett joined AND 1 for a brief stint between his Nike and Adidas deals. Taking a gamble on Latrell Sprewell after his suspension for choking P.J. Carlesimo, Spree wore AND 1s during his revival as a Knick during their playoff run.
But it was Allen Iverson’s campaigns with Reebok during the same time that drew the most attention from critics and supporters of the NBA’s increasingly ‘urban’ image. Reebok had signed Iverson to a 10-year deal in 1996 worth $50 million, and in 2001 re-worked the deal to give Iverson lifetime sponsorship. They’d produce an ad campaign featuring Iverson in full 2001-era hip-hop uniform: bandana, diamond-studded earrings, tattoos clearly visible and of course, his trademark cornrows.
Stern and co. would take notice, and years later the debate over urban image in the NBA would be had and lost. AND 1 would enter era of mediocre shoe design and falling sales that were compounded by the NBA’s indirect campaign against the soul of the brand’s identity. But then again, it could also be because the brand never had that soul born from the blacktop.
For me, a then-teenage product of the generation, the AND 1 website is a relic from when I was such a naive consumer. To quote the site directly:
“The revolution began on the streets of Philly in 1993. By shining a light on a game that lived in the shadows, streetball started shaping the basketball lifestyle. And in the middle of the storm was the Player. The Player made it okay to talk trash as long as you could back it up. The faceless and raceless icon gave ballers everywhere the confidence to take on all comers. He brought attitude back to the courts and swagger to the streets. The Player backed down to no one, and he wasn’t afraid to say it.”
By the “streets of Philly,” the marketers at AND 1 might mean the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business, where Seth Berger, Jay Coen Gilbert and Tom Austin turned AND 1 from a graduate school project into a multi-million dollar sporting goods empire.
If the international popularity of streetball in the summer of 2011 is any indication, streetball no longer lives “in the shadows” as it once did.
Curiously, though, AND 1 is nowhere to be found. Admist all the names of tournaments and courts like the Dyckman, Drew, Goodman, and obviously, “the Rucker”, there hasn’t been whiff of the AND 1 Live Tour, which has been on an international tour through Venezuela, South Africa, Mozambique and Saudi Arabia throughout the summer.
In true “form over fashion,” the brand du jour at the playground is actually Nike, who have engineered their Hyperfuse basketball shoes to be optimal for youths and playground use. (Perhaps this was at the time when AND 1 designers were hard at work on their WonderBread-inspired shoes.)
When asked of the demand AND 1 shoes carry today, Halfhill is skeptical.
“I don’t see it much happening anymore.”
Yet, AND 1 still has its place in the basketball market. In 2010, they saw a very successful re-release of one of the most iconic basketball shoes their Tai Chis.
According to Halfhill, it’s the last time they’ve brought any buzz back to the sneaker industry.
With his shorts pulled down to his broken ankles, the “faceless and raceless icon” that “gave ballers everywhere the confidence to take on all comers” saw Nike swoop up and sign young starts LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony, promoting the two new icons in the NBA’s new suburban-friendly image.
Since then, the brand has struggle while their competition have flourished. After the NBA had lost all of its urban grit, red AND 1 Tai Chi’s soon became much more symbolic of Vince Carter’s unwillingness to play defense rather than his legendary dunk contest heroics. During the NBA’s whitewashing in the mid-aughts, AND 1 was the first to go.
Today, AND 1 are predictably focusing their endorsement efforts in a score-first, defense-second guard. In Monta Ellis and his ME8 Sovereign Mid, AND 1 have a very indefinite future. Sold yesterday for $55 Million, this is about a third of AND 1’s 2005 reported revenue.
Now the question is, will the sale bring about anything new for the once-great brand?