The latest iteration of the “Untold” documentaries brings to focus the American basketball apparel brand AND1, which almost became synonymous with street basketball during the early 2000s. The company could not ultimately hold on to its success, losing ground to the bigger brands in the same market, and “The Rise and Fall of AND1” tries to capture the whole phenomenon that it was. Although this particular film does not contain as scandalous or shocking a turn of events as most of the other “Untold” films, only because there was nothing too sordid behind the failure of AND1, it is an entertaining and well-made piece nonetheless.
How Was AND1 Formed, And What Led To Its Initial Success?
While an undergraduate student at the University of Pennsylvania’s prestigious Wharton School, Seth Berger knew well that mainstream business firms were not professional spaces he could imagine himself in. Basketball served a major part of his life as a sport that he actively followed as well as spent time with, and thinking about basketball the whole day every day was self-admittedly his dream life. Together with his best friend and batchmate, Jay Coen Gilbert, he decided to give a try at starting a company that would sell basketball t-shirts. A third co-founder quickly chipped in, a young man named Tom Austin, who was equally interested in the sport as the other two, and the three held meetings at pizza parlors to pursue their dream. Thinking of a name for the company, the three enthusiasts decided on AND1, which itself has a charge of energy and passion about it. To briefly describe and-one as a phrase in basketball, an extra free throw is awarded when a player manages to score a basket and is fouled on the way, and this is more often than not expressed with great excitement by the fouled player’s shouts of “And 1!” on the court. With their company’s name itself signifying something so charged-up, Seth, Jay, and Tom decided to take it on further by making their product t-shirts with basketball trash talk printed on them. This almost instantly clicked with the crowds, as other companies like Nike or Reebok had no such product range, and AND1 immediately made a unique spot for itself. Although the three co-founders initially sold their products themselves from the back of their car, the company was soon approached by Foot Locker, a major sportswear retailer in America, and other stores quickly followed. Within two years of its origin, AND1 appeared on popular TV shows like “Friends” and “Fresh Prince of Bel-Air” due to its growing sales and fame.
Next, the company wanted to follow in the footsteps of Nike, which was undoubtedly the biggest player in the basketball apparel market, and decided to sign deals with an NBA star themselves. Much, if not most, of Nike’s meteoric success during the 90s was due to their partnership with Michael Jordan, and AND1 decided to sign up with promising young talent Stephon Marbury. After having a brilliant showing of his skills at college level with Georgia Tech, Stephon was drafted 4th overall by the Milwaukee Bucks in 1996, and AND1 saw a great opportunity in him to take their brand to the next level. They came up with on-court basketball sneakers, and Marbury wore them on his debut a week before the product’s launch. However, this turned out terribly for the company as the promising rookie broke his ankle that night mid-game while wearing the AND1 sneakers. Sales dipped, and more importantly, the project to take themselves to the level of the NBA failed. It was during this time that the team found a tape lying around in their office that opened up the avenue to even bigger success than they had imagined. This tape was of the immense popularity of street basketball on the Rucker Park court in New York’s Harlem. Street basketball, or streetball, is a slight variation of formal basketball, in which style and flair take much more precedence over rules and regulations. Harlem, being a financially backward area, had flocks of people who were tremendously interested in basketball but could never afford to buy seats at Madison Square Garden or dream of playing in the NBA. Instead, it was streetball that was popular here, with players hailed as stars in their neighborhoods, and street courts thronging with spectators who enjoyed watching the skills on exhibition. AND1 knew that bringing this to the mainstream held a lot of potential, so they mixed unreleased music with the footage on the tape to call it “AND1 MixTape Vol. 1”, and distributed it for free in the Rucker Park area. This is what blew AND1’s popularity high very quickly, as people loved the idea of a brand that was all about street style and close to the masses. The NBA was also not at its best place from the point of the market, as Jordan had just announced his retirement from the sport, and there was a lockout in the league as well, and this empty space was taken over by AND1 and street basketball. Enthusiasts of the sport loved this new exposure that the AND1 MixTape brought, and streetball was being followed more closely, along with AND1 products becoming more popular as well.
Just How Popular Was AND1 During Its Peak Years?
Mere days after the release of Mixtape Vol. 1, the masses were excitedly asking for a Vol. 2, and capitalizing on these demands, AND1 came up with the idea of the AND1 Mixtape Tour, which was essentially a tour of exhibition games. AND1 signed up popular streetball players of the time like Skip 2 My Lou, Main Event, 1/2 Man 1/2 Amazing, among others, and made a team of their own, which would tour cities in New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Washington, and Georgia, playing exhibition games against streetball teams of the places. The idea was to gather footage for their next mixtape while also garnering more attention for itself, and it signed up even more players like Hot Sauce during this tour. Such was AND1’s popularity by this time that Nike had not just started to pay attention to the new brand, but had also apparently made AND1 their target competition. In 2003, ESPN approached AND1 for a reality TV show based around their next Mixtape tour, and together they came up with what was essentially a talent-hunt show to find the next streetball star to appear on AND1’s team. Their new find was a young boy named Grayson Boucher, better known by his court name, The Professor.
Both their tour as well as the ESPN show based around it took AND1’s appeal to an almost household name, and it was now time to go international. Their next mixtapes were conducted and shot in places including Japan, Australia, Brazil, France, England, Italy, and Germany. The company now felt ready to once again get into NBA on-court sneakers, and Tom Austin took on the creative responsibility this time around. The first product in this new range was a slip-on shoe named the Post-Game, and then they launched a pair of different-looking shoes called Tai Chi. While this entire range of shoes was successful, the Tai Chis blew up the market, having raised 65 million dollars in just eighteen months. In 2004, the AND1 streetball team even played at New York’s iconic Madison Square Garden. During the NBA Dunk Contest showcase back in 2001, Vince Carter even wore AND1 Tai Chis during his performance, even though the athlete was not contracted to AND1. However, AND1’s golden days were soon about to run out though, as the bigger fish in the market were only readying themselves, and they had come up with their own range of street basketball apparel named Nike Freestyle. Although AND1 had been in this specific part of the market, the introduction of a multi-billion dollar, hugely trusted company like Nike had a considerable negative impact on sales.
‘Untold: The Rise And Fall Of AND1’ Ending – What Led To AND1’s Downfall?
Although the Nike Freestyle range was launched in 2001, AND1’s fall in popularity did not take place until four or five years later, and it was not just bigger competition that drove them out of the market. There was a gradual belief growing among the streetball players enrolled under AND1 that the company was mostly making money out of their hard work and not giving them enough money in return. AND1 never really had any fixed contract value basis with regards to the deals it made with these athletes, and the amount of money paid to each of them had no parity. This made a number of the individual players feel that they were not being respected enough, and the team’s morale deteriorated very quickly. Soon, players had heated arguments and even altercations with the tour managers, company officials, and then amongst themselves. Some of the initial few streetball players that AND1 had signed started to feel used, and were losing respect for the owners.
But there was trouble among the owners, or founders, as well. For quite some time, Tom Austin was the one heading the creative side of the company, coming up with their shoe and other product lines. In order to make a closer impact on the manufacturing of the products, Tom moved to Taiwan and worked tremendously hard on what was still his passion project. Irregular work hours had a bad toll on his health, as he developed a digestive disorder and lost almost 30 pounds. His mental health took a toll as well, when one day, he just got tired of everything and informed Seth and Jay that he was leaving the company. AND1 suffered tremendously after Tom’s leaving, and the other two co-founders decided to sell off the company before it would lose all its value. Sometime before their Mixtape Tour in 2005, weeks after the team had been on the cover of the prestigious Sports Illustrated magazine, the AND1 team was told that the company was being sold off. Although AND1 still exists today, under a new ownership group, the meteoric rise that it once enjoyed, and the projections of it being the next big sports brand, fell flat. The documentary does not make any mention of AND1’s recent developments, though.
“Untold: The Rise and Fall of AND1” leave us with a slight question of whether the streetball athletes were indeed treated unjustly by the co-founders, who themselves made quite a lot of money from the business. Although most of the players making an appearance in the documentary admit that they were happy with what AND1 was paying them, Shane Woney, a.k.a. The Dribble Machine, clearly states that he felt used by the brand. He had apparently also approached Seth Berger for some money for his son’s education during the latter years of AND1, but Seth turned his request down. Seth himself talks about it, apologizing for ignoring the player’s request, or even remembering it for that matter, and also about the general disarray that AND1’s sale left all their enrolled athletes. He wishes that had they treated the players like employees instead of enrolled athletes like big brands, then they could have been given some bits of the company’s shares, which would have been beneficial perhaps for both sides. Nonetheless, there can be no denying the revolution that AND1 brought to street basketball and even basketball in general. Not only did it give the signed athletes the opportunity to see the world and live the life of stardom, albeit on a smaller scale than usual for NBA stars, but it also inspired many others like them to express themselves through the sport they love the most.
“Untold: The Rise and Fall of AND1” is a 2022 Documentary series directed by Kevin Wilson Jr.