Perhaps you've seen Grayson Boucher on YouTube. After all, he does have 2 million subscribers. In between tutorials on dribbling moves and his Spider-Man series, Boucher still hits up courts around the world as The Professor, a streetball legend looking for pickup games.
What typically ensues is equal parts performance art and genuine competition—in one moment he'll snatch a hat off someone's head mid-dribble; in the next he'll stare them down after they trip on themselves trying to swipe at him. All in the name of getting a win.
"Some people are funny," Boucher told Bleacher Report. "They'll be like, 'I don't care what you do, just don't throw the ball at my head. It's just much more personal when it has to do with your head. It's like if you cross a dude, you twist his ankles and he falls, that's disrespectful, too, in certain regards on a highlight. But I guess people are more offended with the off-the-head move."
Boucher is 33, which, for an NBA player, would signal the twilight of his playing days. But he insists he's in his prime, an opinion shared by his millions of viewers. Boucher's role as a YouTube star is the latest act in a career that exploded on the street-basketball scene more than a decade ago, and has kept those who remember The Professor enthralled since.
It was June 2003, and Boucher, then a community college player, had just been given 10 seconds of face time on ESPN's Streetball: The AND1 Mix Tape Tour. Sporting pencil-thin sideburns and an oversized jersey that emphasized his skinny frame, the 18-year-old appeared younger than his age.
"I'm just excited to play with Hot Sauce, Alimoe, all these dudes I've seen on tape, I'm seeing in real life," Boucher said, his eyes looking every which way but at the camera. "It's just like a dream, you know what I mean?"
Minutes earlier, Boucher, who grew up in a suburb of Salem, Oregon, called Keizer, had completed an open run in nearby Portland as part of the AND1 tour.
He impressed enough against a bunch of locals to get the judges' attention, meaning he'd finally have a chance to take on the real competition—guys like the aforementioned stars, Hot Sauce and Alimoe. He became part of the reality show that would eventually award one aspiring streetballer an AND1 contract. (Spoiler alert: Boucher would go on to not only win the contest, but also become one of the tour's main draws.)
Within a year of his tryout, Boucher was traveling to sold-out arenas and tossing midair, under-the-legs alley-oops, a remarkable development for someone who had rarely attempted a regular alley-oop prior to joining the AND1 tour. "I remember feeling nervous that they would judge me a certain way if I didn't really know how to throw an alley-oop," he said. "I think my first few that I just tried worked really well, and I was like, 'All right, screw it. I guess I can do it.'"
It was clear The Professor never had a serious case of imposter syndrome. "He learned how to fit in and do his thing," said 43-year-old Aaron Owens, aka AO, who made his mark in Philadelphia before joining AND1. "Fess is still your regular little white kid from the Northwest. He's humble. I don't think it ever really made him big-headed at all, which is cool, because going from JUCO to a motherf--king tour bus a year later can blow your head up."
Boucher's interpretation is slightly different. "I think my work ethic may have tailed off a little bit," he admits. "My ego may have been inflated to a certain degree, just being young and getting a lot of money and exposure overnight."
Also, as AO alluded to, it's hard to ignore that part of Boucher's popularity resulted from his being an undersized white guy from humble beginnings in rural Oregon. At first, there was understandable skepticism that sometimes bled into resentment among tour players who had long ago proven themselves against the best of the best on the streetball circuit in a way Boucher hadn't.
It had only been a few years earlier that Boucher was merely a high school freshman who stood less than 5'0". Though he had grown to around 5'6" by his junior year, he was still languishing on the JV team. He eventually plateaued at 5'10" and went on to play for Chemeketa Community College, where he barely saw the floor and averaged just a couple of points per game.
"My whole upbringing there was a tug-and-pull with my coaches," Boucher said. "They didn't like me going outside the system ... I never really got that green light to express myself on the court until the AND1 Mix Tape Tour."
And his dream of playing in the NBA didn't seem to matter as much now that he was on tour. He was a kid becoming a man while playing the sport he loved for an enormous audience. He got to travel the world alongside a cast of teammates with whom he'd become increasingly close. He was "The Professor," a nickname he was anointed by Thomas "Duke Tango" Mills, the AND1 on-court emcee prone to yelling, "Oh Baby!" at every opportunity.
And then the AND1 tour fell apart, and Boucher was forced to start over.
"When AND1 ended ... I went completely broke," Boucher said.
AND1's deal with ESPN expired at the end of 2008, and Boucher was out of gigs and out of money. For most of 2009 and 2010, he played in one-off events, but they were few and far between. So as he plotted his next moves, Boucher had to get creative to get by.
"When I went completely broke, I actually had all my AND1 jerseys for some reason. I unintentionally kept like 50 to 100 AND1 jerseys, and I sold them all firsthand on eBay and lived off that for a good year," Boucher said. "That held me down—it depended on which jersey, but the cheapest one was going for like $250, and then some went for like $600, $700 ... They didn't even know it was me. I just acted like it was third-party."
By 2011, a league called Ball Up had officially launched, giving Boucher a chance to get back on his feet and continue traveling the world playing basketball. During that time he grew close with another streetball legend, Larry "Bone Collector" Williams. A few years later, Williams was by Boucher's side when he put on a display that would open the next chapter of his basketball life.
It was 2013, and Boucher and his Ball Up teammates were playing against a Chinese Basketball Association team.
"First, [Professor] did a move and the guy slipped," Williams recalled of perhaps the most infamous moment in Ball Up's history. "Then he came back down, threw it off the guy's head, and the guy got upset and picked him up and kind of threw him around a little bit. They were booing and throwing things and had to get everything under control."
Footage of the incident went viral. That same summer, another video involving The Professor did, too.
This one was planned out in advance: Boucher donned a full-body Spider-Man costume and took on unsuspecting challengers at an outdoor court.
Though he didn't speak, the visual of a superhero embarrassing strangers showed off a side of Boucher that Williams said is the behind-the-scenes norm. "He's very, very funny is what people don't know," Williams said. "He almost kind of sounds like Tony Stark with his sarcasm." The clip blew up, and about a month later, Boucher had nearly a million YouTube subscribers.
A post-Ball Up career was born, though it was unglamorous—at least at first.
"I didn't even have the money to hire an editor, and I didn't have a staff or anyone that was willing to help," Boucher said. For a while, he was editing most of his material based off a friend's Final Cut Pro pointers.
But that was then. Boucher's social media presence has since turned into a full-time business. He's hired two videographers and three editors in-house, and recently acquired an office space in Santa Clarita, California. Now when he ventures out looking for a game, or an unsuspecting one-on-one victim, there's a videographer around, too.
Boucher insists he doesn't discuss anything with opponents beforehand, other than alerting them that they're going to be on camera if they want to face him. And he doesn't hold back against anyone.
"You know what's interesting ... some people think [I'm] more recognizable today than [I] was back in the day," Boucher said. "But it's really hard to say. I would say the last two or three years since my YouTube has really blown up, it's almost equal. I think with ESPN you've got a wider demographic, but as far as the number of times I get recognized on the daily, I'd say it's almost equal."
He's got a five-year plan in place, and then, who knows? Before the AND1 tryout, Boucher was about to take a job at a grocery store. When he was dead broke years later, he learned to edit video clips, and basketball saved him again. Now he's a YouTube star. Whatever the next chapter brings, expect basketball to be the recurring theme.
In the meantime, if you approach Boucher for a pickup game, do so at your own risk. AO says his friend took to heart a valuable lesson on the tour: "I don't care if you're back in Oregon or in L.A. or at a streetball court in Brazil, be able to defend yourself."
That advice certainly applies to The Professor's opponents, too. "They all want to know, Is it real? Can he play? Yeah," AO said. "He can play."
Alex Shultz is a writer based in Brooklyn and has covered basketball, guys in Spider-Man suits and other subjects for publications, including the Los Angeles Times, Deadspin, Los Angeles magazine, Grantland and Slam magazine.