Zion Williamson fakes out a defender near half-court with a nifty in-and-out move and eyes the rim. Just outside the paint, he takes flight and cocks the ball so far back his arm is almost parallel to the ground, then dunks the ball with devastating force.
The dunk is just one of the many dazzling plays shown in EliteMixtape’s first compilation of the then-high schooler, posted on YouTube in March 2017. And the hype was just getting started.
ESPN, SB Nation, Bleacher Report, and other media outlets started featuring Williamson on Instagram, Twitter, and their own websites. He was referred to as potentially the next LeBron James, Other production companies, such as Ballislife, also put out mixtapes of Williamson, each amassing millions of views as audiences were wowed by his off-the-charts athleticism.
When Williamson clashed with LaMelo Ball in an Adidas-sponsored event in Las Vegas in July 2017, so many people flooded the gym that security had to barricade the doors. Damian Lillard, Lonzo Ball, and Andrew Wiggins were among those in attendance, and a livestream of the game drew more than 80,000 concurrent viewers.
Williamson’s popularity followed him to Duke, where he is one of the most anticipated true freshman players in the country.
The coverage of amateur players may be in its golden age right now, but its roots can be traced back more than 20 years to the influence of streetball tapes and the arcane days of AND1 mixtapes. Without AND1 and the culture it inspired, the way we follow basketball might look very different today.
Just ask basketball player and social influencer Grayson Boucher, also known as The Professor, who was one of the first stars of the AND1 mixtape era.
“[The AND1 Tour] basically birthed my brand and everything I do today,” Boucher says. “It basically segued into how I brand my stuff. Every time you watch a Professor Live video I want you to feel the energy that was felt in AND1 mixtapes.
”It definitely birthed what I’m able to do and how I go about it.”
Today, a tradition that was stoked by AND1 is still creating unique opportunities for players who may or may not be NBA- or WNBA-caliber. Thanks to social media, videos like Williamson’s mixtapes have the power to take the internet by storm. More than that, they show how mixtapes have evolved into a grand tradition and art form all their own.
AND1 Mixtapes and the basketball highlight trend
Before the internet became their go-to medium, streetball highlights were hard to find. Before the 2000s, studios such as 20th Century Fox put out VHS tapes that featured NBA stars, and ESPN covered basketball during SportsCenter as it does today, but footage largely focused on NBA and college players. Then the AND1 Mixtape Tour began and took some of the spotlight off of the NBA and put it on the pure creativity inherent in the game, all while injecting a hip-hop vibe.
In 1998, in order to promote its shoe and clothing brand, AND1 began releasing mixtapes that featured famous streetballers such as Philip Champion, also known as Hot Sauce, and Waliyy Dixon, a.k.a. Main Event. The mixtapes gained a wider reputation when AND1 began hosting a competition in which streetballers traveled to towns across the United States to challenge local talent. Footage from these games, along with clips from outside the tour, were compiled into the mixtapes and sold as VHS tapes to the public, with the last volume coming out in 2008.
The footage was one of a kind. The AND1 mixtapes gave basketball a fresh, on-the-ground feel that also brought new faces to television. They showed flashy one-on-one plays that often ended with alley-oops and other acrobatic finishes. The videos also featured hip-hop music in the background, alongside the clips of dazzling offensive maneuvers.
The AND1 tour quickly became one of the hottest basketball products of the 2000s. The segments were regularly shown on ESPN under the term “Streetball”, and the tour went international, further increasing its fame. The players were also featured frequently on Hoopstv.com, one of the first sites to showcase playground basketball before the site shut down in 2001. The tour and its mixtapes even inspired a video game called AND1 Streetball for PlayStation 2 and Xbox.
Among the most famous players from the AND1 mixtapes are The Professor and former NBA player Rafer Alston, also known by his streetball name Skip 2 My Lou. By the end of 1999, more than 100,000 copies of the AND1 Mixtape Vol. 1, a collection that heavily featured Alston, were sold. Though Alston, who enjoyed a long professional basketball career, probably did not need mixtapes to become a household name, The Professor showed how highlight videos could boost an amateur player’s reputation. Through the AND1 mixtapes, The Professor quickly became a streetball legend, and the popularity he gained because of the tour is evident today. He currently has more than 2.5 million subscribers on YouTube.
“[The AND1 tour] seemed to be the most influential merger of hip-hop and basketball,” Boucher says. “It also captured the crowd with streetball-style highlights. It was the first time we had seen that and got a feel for that. When you watch it, it just puts you in a good mood.”
Though the AND1 mixtapes were popular, the tour did not have the advantage of today’s robust social media environment. It missed the boom of platforms such as YouTube that would have given it even more exposure. Its influence, however, continues to be felt. Partially inspired by the AND1 mixtapes, basketball brands such as Hoopmixtape and Ballislife started compiling videos of their own a few years after AND1’s releases.
“AND1 was the forefront of Hoopstv.com,” Boucher says. “They were actually very innovative in all of their marketing, and they were on top of digital. But I don’t think YouTube and all that stuff really took off as a big business and became mainstream until at least after 2010 or 2011, so it just missed the wave.”
Evolving beyond AND1
In 2006, Ballislife posted one of its first ever videos, showing an 11th-grade Derrick Rose emphatically dunking over a defender. The clip garnered 20,000 views in a few hours, propelling Rose’s popularity with the capture of one spectacular dunk. Rose’s play became an early example of how a young player could become an overnight sensation.
According to Nils Wagner, who worked for Ballislife before going on to co-found Hoopmixtape, the video was so popular it quickly crashed the Ballislife website. The hype from the video inspired Wagner and other pioneers at Ballislife and Hoopmixtape to put some AND1-style shine on high school players.
High school basketball mixtapes were commonly produced in the late 2000s and early 2010s. However, the number of production companies grew quickly in the mid 2010s along with interest in recruiting. Within the past five years, production companies evolved again by putting out longer videos of in-game footage that show a whole game’s worth of key plays without background music, saving them time from meticulously editing mixtape videos and allowing them to get highlights out before their competitors.
“When [Ballislife] first started, it was going around all summer and all high school season and collecting all this footage to cram it into a three-or-four-minute video,” says Tyler Tubridy, founder and videographer of basketball website HoopDiamonds. “It was a really awesome three-or-four-minute video, but it’s a lot of time, energy, and footage that gets put into one video.”
While flashy videos such as mixtapes show only the best basketball scenes from a player’s season or career without context, raw in-game footage made it much clearer what a single player’s impact was. For those players who wanted to get noticed solely for their basketball, the game-focused videos were often preferred.
Still, the tried and true highlight mixtape is hard to beat in terms of its ability to go viral. Fortunately, companies today try to put out a mix of content so that fans don’t have to choose between entertaining and more practical options to learn about up-and-coming amateur players.
“The viewership is interested in seeing [players] as full-on basketball players, too,” Tubridy says. “They may appreciate the mixtapes, the flash, the editing, and stuff like that because at the end of the day it’s still an art form. But they also want to see how they are in a full game setting.”
How a good mixtape can open doors
Though high school basketball coverage can help players get noticed, critics of social media worry about the insidious effect of exposing players to the world at such an early age.
“I think there’s a lot of pressure on the players,” Ballislife co-founder and president Matt Rodriguez says. “Especially if they have social media accounts, they have to grow up really quickly and can’t make a lot of mistakes. These kids can’t make a harmless mistake at all because if they do, they’re under the lens. If they do something on a video, everyone will see.”
Though the pressure is there, many high school players have proven they can thrive under the intense scrutiny. Williamson gained national fame while in high school after footage of his flashy dunks went viral. With the media’s eye focused on him, Williamson dominated his competition and earned scholarship offers to several college basketball powerhouses before eventually choosing Duke.
The large audience also doesn’t seem to bother Mizzou commit Mario McKinney, the No. 1 ranked high school player in Missouri in the Class of 2019, according to 247 Sports.
“I feel like I’m doing well when everyone is watching me,” McKinney says. “I’m just not going to take it for granted. I have people just surrounding me and being supportive of me. I receive a lot of criticism every day because people are just going to hate. It really doesn’t do anything to me but just push me to go harder and make it.”
Because of the power of highlight videos, high school players today can also be more proactive in the college recruiting process than their predecessors. For players who hail from schools that do not receive vast media coverage, the videos provide them an opportunity to advertise their abilities to the world. Now, they often take the initiative to create and send professional-looking videos to NCAA scouts in order to increase their chances of being seen.
“I don’t think [video coverage] has ever landed a kid a scholarship offer on the dot, but it might enter a name into a school or coach’s head,” Tubridy says. “Then [coaches] might go and check them out and come to find out that they really do like the player and pursue them as a recruit.”
Viral basketball videos can even help open up career possibilities for many individuals who may never make it into the NBA or WNBA, or earn a spot on an NCAA team.
While playing as a sophomore in Patterson High School in Baltimore, Aquille Carr received a $750,000 contract offer from Lottomatica Roma, a professional Italian team. The social media fame that the 5’6 Carr accumulated for his crafty play style helped earn him one of the biggest contract offers at the time by a European team to any player who had yet to graduate from high school.
The future of basketball mixtapes
Social media can even build relationships among players who are inspired by each other’s game. A few years ago, University of Minnesota guard Isaiah Washington started the concept of the “jelly”, a way to perform a layup in a fanciful fashion that includes holding the ball outward and kicking the legs out before putting the ball up with significant spin. The jelly became a movement known as “Jelly Fam” as many others began to imitate the move, and footage of it popularized the layup everywhere in the basketball community, even up to the NBA.
Tristan Jass, a University of Ottawa commit, has amassed more than 510,000 followers on Instagram for his videos that feature basketball trick shots. Jass adds his own twists on many shots, but the influence of Jelly Fam and AND1 is clear. Many of his dribble moves and layups could have been performed by The Professor and others.
Following in the footsteps of Jelly Fam, McKinney began his own movement called “Hoodie Fam”. McKinney started referring to himself as Hoodie Rio after he wore a hoodie under his jersey while playing in the Bradley Beal Elite Fall League, and the name stuck as videos of him that used the moniker totaled hundreds of thousands of views on YouTube.
“I did a poll on Instagram and asked people on it if I should start a Hoodie Fam movement,” McKinney says. “I saw all these different ‘fams’ like Jelly Fam, Jam Fam, Unicorn Fam, so I wanted to see if I could start my own train up with Hoodie Fam.”
Along with the other “fam” movements, it also represents acknowledgement and kinship among high school players. On Instagram, players may ask each other for approval or recognition to join respective fam movements, noting the rising popularity of a trend or player who is at the center of a movement. Players can form a community as hype around certain basketball moves or ideas are generated.
And that hype moves fast. Players including rising talents Khoi Thurmon, Rodney Gallagher, and LeBron “Bronny” James Jr. have joined McKinney’s Hoodie Fam movement.
Fans of the game, more than ever, have the creative freedom to create basketball-related content that can inspire followings.
“There’s that potential where they [the players] don’t live up to those expectations and all that hype,” Tubridy says. “Even if that’s the case, at least they went ahead and were able to build up a following of fans who are interested in them as players and people. So if they don’t end up going on to play college or don’t play in the NBA, they can then leverage that fan base and following to whatever they want to do with their lives.”
Boucher, for example, was able to make a career out of creating stylized basketball content featuring dribble moves, and in turn creating his own brand known as Global Hooper. The entertainment company Dude Perfect started off as a group of friends that became known for posting trick shots on YouTube and owes much of its success to online exposure. Semi-professional player Brandon Armstrong became a social media sensation for his impersonations of NBA players posted on various sites.
“I’m in support of the online movement,” says Boucher, The Professor. “I think there could be pros and cons … but I think it’s all about how you use it. I think it’s important to understand where you’re representing and be a good influence for everybody.”
Not only have viral basketball videos given players a platform on which to shine, but they have also provided fans a wealth of options when it comes to watching the game they love. No matter what the future of basketball highlights looks like, seeing a star player jump out of the gym or break a defender’s ankles will never get old.
This article was reported in collaboration with Dat Winning.