How the NBA Got Its Handles

Twenty years ago, AND1 brought streetball to the mainstream. Now, its influence is everywhere. Just ask the best ball-handlers in the Association—it's the tapes, man.
photo of Leo SepkowitzLeo Sepkowitz@@LeoSepkowitzContributorFebruary 12, 2019

Rafer Alston's job is to watch basketball. In Houston, where he spent three-and-a-half seasons as a player, he scouts local games on behalf of the Minnesota Timberwolves. He pays special attention to point guards, some of whom are his old foes, now pacing the league in extraordinary ways. James Harden, Stephen Curry, Damian Lillard, Chris Paul—the list goes on. For Alston, the current so-called golden age of point guard play is something of a callback. The moves of today have a familiarity to them.

There is the way Curry glides beyond the arc, slicing and dribbling at high speeds, pitter patter, until he springs himself open for a three. There's the probing, fearless work of Kemba Walker, a New Yorker like Alston, who treats every trip down court with mano a mano desperation. On a recent night, Kyrie Irving confused the defense so deeply in transition that by the time his pass traveled through his own legs—backwards—and into the hands of his teammate, the guy was open by 20 feet. Have we covered Paul or Lillard yet? Or how about Ben Simmons, who at 6'10" casually dropped in a youthful, slightly haphazard behind-the-back one-hopper two weeks ago. And then there is Harden, who performed the most notorious move in recent memory last year when he crossed over Wes Johnson, poured him out onto the floor, took a long look at him and then popped a three. All that was missing, as far Alston might be concerned, was Harden bouncing the ball off of Johnson's dome before shooting.

"They got it from somewhere," Alston says of these astonishing guards. "That's the funny thing about basketball. They didn't start doing some of the moves and passes that they do. CP, Steph, Lillard, they didn't do it on their own. They got it from somewhere. You ask them, 'Who'd you watch?' It might have been a streetball guy."

Two decades ago, Alston was the streetball guy. In 1998, he brought his audacious, borderline unsportsmanlike style of streetball to mainstream audiences as the dazzling Skip 2 My Lou on the inaugural AND1 Mixtape. He would pave the way for 10 such videos. The first three centered around individual streetball players such as Alston, Main Event, Hot Sauce, and AO. The final seven tapes tracked a team of AND1 streetball stars, such as The Professor and the late Escalade, as they traveled the nation, facing local competition in various cities. In many ways, Alston was a pioneer of the goosed-up highlight reel; the AND1 Mixtape arrived some six years before YouTube and a dozen years before Instagram. Today, the basketball world is oversaturated with such clips, but back then, there was only one set that mattered.

"We used to watch it all the time before we'd go play, as inspiration," says Phoenix Suns veteran Jamal Crawford, now a sort of ball-handling sage at age 38. "We'd take the VHS everywhere with us." When Crawford saw Alston on the tape as a teen, he was "mesmerized," he says. "The way he passed the ball, the way he handled the ball, the way he just displayed that kid of flair." Crawford was such an admirer of Alston that he initially enrolled at Fresno State to follow in his footsteps. "The creativity of it, the art of it, you didn't see guys like that in the NBA," Crawford adds. "It just brought a whole different layer and viewpoint of how you could play the game."

All these years later, Alston's approach—and that of his fellow AND1 streetball players—has permeated the NBA. "Every pass, every fancy play, the derivative is streetball," says Larry Williams, better known as the Bone Collector, who joined the AND1 live tour (a follow-up to the mixtape tour) in 2011. Williams has worked on handles with a number of NBA players, including Harden. "Jamal Crawford, for instance, Lou Williams—look at their entire game," Williams says "What kind of offensive structure do they have? Is that a [conventional] pro game? Crawford isn't a point guard or a 2-guard, he's everything. That's why streetball is important for the NBA, and I'm happy James [Harden] and guys like that are bringing light to that."

On any given night, you're liable to catch some mixtape-worthy moments in the NBA. Even on the brightest stages—like, say, Game 7 of the NBA Finals—a quick crossover and a springy stepback might decide an entire season. That's now light work for a player like Irving. "He's really got it down pat," says Irving's teammate, Jayson Tatum, of such wicked moves. "For him to perfect it in the biggest moments—it's special."

Indeed, Irving, Harden, Curry and the rest have taken the snazzy elements of the mixtapes they grew up watching and elevated them, honored them, pulled them apart and reassembled them. For trailblazers like Alston, it wasn't easy to prove that a guard could win and look so good doing it. Today, though, substance and style are a packaged deal in NBA backcourts, and the AND1 mixtapes are owed a debt of gratitude.

It just brought a whole different layer and viewpoint of how you could play the game—Jamal Crawford on the legacy of AND1.

"AND1 played a big part in handling the ball. Period. For everybody, no matter your size," says Terry Rozier, the Celtics' backup to Irving and an electric player in his own right. Rozier followed the AND1 Mixtape Tour as a kid and often tried his luck with mixtape moves. "It had a big impact on the stuff we see in peoples' games today—it's more natural now," he continues. "It's not so much of guys being stiff when they're playing [anymore]—everybody's more loose. I wouldn't say it's mainly because of AND1, but I feel like that played a big part in it."

To be sure, there are any number of reasons that the NBA game looks like it does today. Guys have been crossing up defenders and flipping the ball behind their back for decades—you can trace great ball-handling from Bob Cousy to Pete Maravich to Magic Johnson, with countless practitioners in between. Jason Williams, aka White Chocolate, recalls owning just one jersey as a kid: Jason Kidd's Mavericks No. 5. During a broadcast last week on TNT, Isiah Thomas recalled that when he was a veteran, a young Tim Hardaway challenged him "and used my move [the crossover] on me! That's when I knew it was time to hang it up." Later, as Hardaway's career faded in the late '90s, Allen Iverson took the torch and sprinted ahead.

Other factors have influenced the way the game has evolved, too. In the early 2000s, the palming and hand-checking rules were shrugged off, opening up the court. Everybody learning to shoot threes only widened it further. "I think it all played a role," says Aaron "AO" Owens, a former AND1 star. "It all meets in the middle and goes down the same lane." But, says, Waliyy Dixon, aka Main Event: "Let's be real. Kyrie Irving, Isaiah Thomas, James Harden, a lot of guys—they had to watch the tapes."

True—it seems most everybody in the NBA did.

"I watched it, and there were times where I tried to do some of the moves, of course," Walker says. He never thought of AND1's style as one that would mesh or thrive in the NBA. And yet, he adds, "I'm a small guy, so I had to use some of those moves to get where I wanted to go or get the shots off that I wanted to get off."

"I watched it, and there were times where I tried to do some of the moves, of course"—Kemba Walker
"I watched it, and there were times where I tried to do some of the moves, of course"—Kemba WalkerSteve Dykes/Associated Press

Will Barton, the Nuggets swingman, can pinpoint the gestures he borrowed from the AND1 players on the tapes.  "A lot of crossovers I stole from them, a lot of moves I tried," he says. "They definitely had a particular flair. Sometimes when I dribble, you'll see me skip—I definitely got that from Skip 2 My Lou. Throwing passes while looking away, I definitely got that from him and Alimoe [the late Tyrone Evans]. Sick crossovers from Hot Sauce, definitely."

Devin Booker, the Suns' combo-guard, felt more of a connection with the bravado, the posture of AND1—what it represented. "It was definitely a culture of basketball; a whole different swag was invented from that," Booker says. "We'd watch the moves and then go in the backyard and practice them—get a 3x shirt, put it on, headbands, they did it all, man."

Tatum has similar fond memories. "[It] was really big, as a kid on the playground," he says. "I tried putting the ball in my shirt, throwing it around, throwing it off their head—I used to try all that stuff."

That AND1 could affect multiple generations of current NBA players—Crawford is Generation X; Tatum, coincidentally, was born in 1998, the same year that the first AND1 Mixtape dropped—is testimony to its brilliance. And to its impeccable timing.

The NBA was entering a transitional period in the summer of 1998. Michael Jordan had three-peated for the second time, defeating the Utah Jazz, the epitome of controlled, no-frills basketball,again. John Stockton was a kind of anti-mixtape point guard. Meanwhile, Allen Iverson, then in his second year with the Sixers, was upending that stiffer tradition, performing what Thomas Beller of the New Yorker recently described as "the apotheosis of street ball's swagger at the NBA level."

That offseason was a wild one: In June, Vince Carter (No. 5 pick) and Williams (No. 7) were drafted in the first round. Alston was selected with the No. 39 pick. In August, the first AND1 Mixtape, starring Alston, dropped. In January 1999, Jordan retired. All the while, the league was on strike. There would be no NBA basketball until February 1999 (and no MJ until 2001). A window opened for AND1. "The timing was perfect," Alston says.

And that wasn't just true in a basketball sense. Something was bubbling in American TV culture, too. Reality TV was exploding—think The Real World, Survivor and American Idol. AND1, which had established its own authentic version of basketball, was, on some level, tailor-made for reality television. The AND1 tour picked up in 2001, and the next year, ESPN built a show around it called Street Ball. (EA Sports also released an unaffiliated video game called NBA Street in 2001.)

Cameras would follow the AND1 team from city to city to film not just how they played, but how they interacted off the court. "We'd do some whacked out stuff, some stuff that they probably had to edit out," Alston says. "But at least it was organic—this is who we are. Then with basketball, you had kids, mothers, grandmothers so fascinated. Each player had something unique he could do with the basketball." (In 2003, Dave Chappelle mocked—or maybe honored—the show in a hilarious sketch.)

Aaron "AO" Owens drives at an AND1 Mixtape Tour game in Los Angeles.
Aaron "AO" Owens drives at an AND1 Mixtape Tour game in Los Angeles.Steve Grayson/Getty Images

AO recalls the AND1 tour stopping at Wake Forest, where college-aged Chris Paul came to watch them play. Big men like Ed Davis and guards like Shabazz Napier and Monte Morris caught the tour, too. Morris, who’s now among the NBA’s leaders in assist to turnover ratio, credits his hesi dribble to the AND1 players. At a Cavaliers game in the mid-2000s, Main Event recalls LeBron James finding him in the crowd to dap him up. "He didn't know me from sitting in the stands; he had to from watching the mixtapes," he says. In 2012, Grayson Boucher, aka The Professor, connected with Curry, who asked him for a photo. Not long ago, in a Las Vegas casino, Alston came across a fan in Lillard. "He was like, 'Man, what's up, OG Skip?' I know he's not calling me an OG because I averaged 20 points per game in the NBA, you know what I'm saying? He's like, 'This dude was a streetball dude, man—AND1 Mixtape!'"

As much as players respected the AND1 Mixtapes—from the personalities to the style of play—many coaches felt differently. "I came up when coaches wouldn't allow it or they call it junk ball or they're like, 'Oh, that street stuff is no good,'" Alston says. "We grew up playing the game in the playgrounds and the gym, we come from playing the game with so much flair and passion for the game. I think the coaches had a hard time trying to blend the two, trying to incorporate the fundamentals and make sure these young men keep their God-given talents, some of the good things that they do."

Alston's first coach when he entered the league in '98 was George Karl. "[Alston] had that game, he had that street game, or..." Karl says, before pausing for a beat. "He definitely had some shit, man. It was good."

Still, most nights early in his career, Alston was stuck behind Sam Cassell, a more established, balanced point guard. Alston and Karl developed a "love-hate relationship," in the coach's words. Karl had just wrapped up a six-plus-year tenure in Seattle, where his SuperSonics had reached the Finals behind the all-around excellence of point guard Gary Payton. Alston wasn't Payton in sensibility or style, despite both having been molded by the rigors of the playground. (Alston in Queens, New York; Payton in Oakland, California.)

"He played with the ball a lot," Karl says. "We had a little problem there, but I think I realized Rafer was young, youthful, maybe too playground-ish. The game has maybe gone to the playground a little more than back then. There were more set plays then—the point guard was more to be a mental mind on the court for the coach rather than a talented player as today."

AND1 played a big part in handling the ball. Period. For everybody. ... It had a big impact on the stuff we see in peoples' games today—Terry Rozier

In that version of the NBA, a number of AND1 players struggled to break through. "When I was coming up, it was so political—if you were a streetball player, you weren't meant for the league," says Boucher, who joined the AND1 tour in 2003. Boucher played a stint in the Continental Basketball Association—the unofficial predecessor to the G League—where, he recalls, "They'd say, 'Well, he's more of a novelty, he's streetball.’"

Part of the problem was a misunderstanding about what AND1 players really could do and what they were already doing. "People would say it's some Globetrotter shit, but it wasn't," says Owens. "In a 40-minute AND1 game, you might only see five minutes of shit (on the mixtape) because of TV, cutting and clipping." Most of the game, Owens says, was something more similar to NBA ball.

Owens was a DII All-American at Henderson State and would later play in the then-D-League, where he won a championship. At times, he felt as though he were being judged for his streetball background. At one NBA tryout, he recalls the team's coach said, "What's a streetball player doing here?" But for Owens, the transition from the street game to the pro game was simple.

"There wasn't the balance for me—if I was playing in an AND1 game, it's one thing; a D-League game is real basketball. But if I get an outlet and my instinct is to throw it through his legs, I'm gonna fuckin' do it. The only way to get past him without a turnover might be through his legs," he says. "I didn't have to calm myself down like, Don't do no dumb shit like throw it off the side of the backboard. It was basketball."

That's how Jason Williams looked at it, too. Williams, who arrived to the NBA as a highly touted point guard prospect, felt comfortable leaning on some flashy street elements. He didn't view his style of play as a novelty—not even his signature behind-the-back elbow pass. "Sometimes throwing it behind my back was easier than a regular chest pass," he says. "I didn't look at it at a street level; it was basketball to me. I watched [the AND1 mixtapes] growing up and loved it, but I didn't pattern my game after any of that. I was just doing my own thing."

"Sometimes throwing it behind my back was easier than a regular chest pass. ... I didn't look at it at a street level; it was basketball to me."—Jason Williams aka White Chocolate
"Sometimes throwing it behind my back was easier than a regular chest pass. ... I didn't look at it at a street level; it was basketball to me."—Jason Williams aka White ChocolateRocky Widner/Getty Images

Now eight years retired, Williams is amazed by how much the league has changed. "When I was playing, guys were still throwing the ball into the post and trying to get double-teams that way," he says. "Now that's out the window." He prioritized feeding the big stars around him: Chris Webber and Vlade Divac, then Pau Gasol, then Dwight Howard. And Shaquille O'Neal, too. "If Shaq don't get the ball two or three times downcourt, he looks at you and says, 'I need the ball,'" Williams says. "It's just different. My job was to get scorers the ball. Now their job is to score and get guys involved."

Sunday will mark 20 years since Alston debuted in the NBA. The league—perhaps especially at point guard—has changed tremendously since then, while the star power of certain streetballers has faded even in Alston's own home. Alston's son, a 10-year-old guard who will undoubtedly arrive in your Instagram feed before long, "doesn't realize how good his dad is," Alston says. "To him, I'm just dad. I'm not Skip 2 My Lou, the streetball legend, the guy who played 11 years in the NBA. Other kids gotta tell my son, 'You know how good your dad was?'"

Owens never made an NBA roster and now coaches high school basketball in Philadelphia. His ninth and 10th grade players, much like Alston's son, don't fawn over his streetball fame like a young Jamal Crawford or Terry Rozier once did. "They're like, 'I seen you on YouTube," Owens says, flatly, "but not necessarily like, 'Yo, that’s AO!"

Vince Carter, who is as much a mentor to young players as he is a rotation player in Atlanta, has sensed a change in the way young players relate to the tapes. "I think most younger people today just watch YouTube or watch highlights on social media just because of the convenience and access," says Carter, who wore the AND1 Tai Chis during his iconic Slam Dunk Contest performance 19 years ago today. "And while they've heard of AND1, I don't know that it has the same impact."

Take Booker, for instance. The 22-year-old Suns guard was born only two years before the first mixtape dropped. He may have tried out the moves he saw, but his connection with the AND1 tour only runs so deep. When asked about his favorite mixtape ballers, Booker says, "I know Hot Sauce put the ball in the shirt, and who was the white guy with the handles?"

Alston and Carter together in Toronto.
Alston and Carter together in Toronto.Ron Turenne/Getty Images

Booker can't quite come up with the name of The Professor, the type of player who meant so much to his older teammate, Crawford, back in the day. One reason, Crawford suggests, is that mixtape culture today is so omnipresent. "There's so much now to digest on Instagram," he says. "It wasn't like that before."

The mixtape has become something new, and in a way, it is stronger than ever. "Now a kid can get a scholarship off a Ball Is Life mixtape," The Professor says. Or even climb up NBA draft boards. Zion Williamson, for instance, became famous long before he arrived at Duke—before his games aired nationally—and he’s likely to go No. 1 in this year's draft. "Now the influencer hooper is the new streetballer," The Professor says.

But the old streetballers aren't going anywhere. The Professor runs his own YouTube channel—Professor Live—where he airs his familiar skillset to nearly 3.5 million followers. The Bone Collector has nearly 1 million followers on Instagram, where he posts photos with Harden and tapes of poor kids falling all over themselves while defending him. Hot Sauce made waves last year for doing the same in Atlanta as a Hawks halftime performer. And Alston is still as connected as can be to the game.

Plus, as he points out, those original tapes are never far away.

"The footage is still around," he says. "It might be some grainy footage—you gotta convert the VHS to DVD, then convert it on the computer. But the footage is still around."