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The legend of King Handles and The Notic

The rise and fall, and rise again, of one of streetball’s greatest crews

Almost everyone who played a pickup game in Vancouver in the 1990’s tells the same story: Joey Haywood, a 6’1 teenage guard with a slender frame, innocently dribbling around multiple defenders, many of whom are at least a decade older than him. He goes behind his back in a flash, leaving another defender at mid-court in his rearview mirror. “He would just teleport and leave people behind,” says Dean Valdecantos, who used to play in those open runs.

At any pickup game, you are bound to see a streetballer who makes you jump out of your seat. Haywood didn’t just do it sometimes. He did it every time. He conquered every local court and community center run. Soon, people stopped referring to him by his real name. At the age of 16, he simply went by ‘King Handles’.

In Vancouver, that name still sparks memories, not just of his legendary game, but of a streetball movement that grew from something entirely local into a global phenomenon. The Notic was a group of young Canadian ballers who only had basketball in common at first. They met haphazardly through a pair of filmmakers. The name, The Notic, came from Kirk Thomas and Jeremy Schaulin-Rioux, the tape’s producers who took it from a track off the 1996 The Roots album, Illadelph Halflife.

The players were King Handles, David Dazzle, Johnny Blaze, J. Fresh, and Goosebumps, among many others. David and Johnny were brothers who pushed each other on the courts growing up. David was the more unpredictable one. Johnny was known for his signature low dribble (“I’ve never seen anyone dribble as low as him,” Haywood says). J. Fresh and Goosebumps were known for their freestyling moves.

What started as a pet project became a viral sensation with the help of early internet message boards. The Notic were the kind of underground success that you rarely hear about anymore, immensely popular within a tight-knit circle of streetball fans, a if you know, you know situation. Their moves were modeled in NBA Street. They were invited to cameo in movies. In time, The Notic became a massive accidental enterprise, one that threatened to slip out of control.

Before all of that though, The Notic was about a group of teenagers who loved basketball, and the creativity and individuality it encouraged. They weren’t looking for fame, and they didn’t think what they did on playground courts would translate into a financial windfall. The Notic was born out of a simple desire among a group of young men to change the way basketball was viewed and played on their local courts.

“I remember seeing this guy put the ball around somebody’s head, held the ball on his shoulders with his elbows and just made the ball vanish,” says Mohammed Wenn, who was known as Goosebumps. “I did that move in eighth grade and the guy [guarding me] was so lost he didn’t know where to look and everyone just went nuts. I felt that feeling. It was different. From then on, I wanted to feel that feeling again.”

The Notic chased that feeling together, right up to the brink of collapse. Everything happened so quickly, and just as fast, it was gone.

Joey Haywood, AKA ‘King Handles’, defending Johnny Mubanda, AKA ‘Johnny Blaze’

In 1999, a small group of family and friends gathered at the Don Bosco Youth Centre in Surrey, British Columbia, to screen The Notic, a 30-minute streetball mixtape a year in the making. The footage was grainy, but it didn’t stop several people in the crowd from jumping out of their fold-out chairs. For many in the room, it was their first time seeing Haywood and his friends show off their moves.

The Notic was meant to document a moment in time, and nothing more. The year before, Thomas and Schaulin-Rioux had just graduated from high school. After watching a copy of the first AND1 streetball mixtape that Thomas brought home from a trip to France, they decided they wanted to make their own.

A chance meeting with Haywood at the 1998 Hoop-It-Up tournament, a three-on-three streetball tournament featuring Vancouver’s best ballers, changed the direction of the mixtape. Initially, it was an excuse for Thomas and Schaulin-Rioux to make something that they could watch among friends. They brought a video camera to their own pickup games and filmed hours of footage, but no one was particularly good at basketball.

At the Hoop-It-Up tournament, Thomas and Schaulin-Rioux realized they could do so much more.

“We stumbled upon this holy grail of creativity,” Schaulin-Rioux says.

Haywood still remembers the encounter, one that would chart the course of his basketball career for the next two decades. At the time, he thought nothing of it when Thomas and Schaulin-Rioux asked if they could follow him around the city, recording him as he played. “We didn’t know what was going on,” Haywood says. “We were just playing ball. We were all like, ‘Why not? This could be cool.’”

The tape opens with the instrumental version of “Act too (The Love of My Life),” a track from The Roots’ fourth studio album Things Fall Apart, as a montage of The Notic members flashes on screen. It cuts quickly to a highlight reel backed by more hip-hop instrumentals.

The film quality doesn’t come close to the hi-def reality we’re used to. But you can see the appeal, even if you have to look closely to make out The Notic dribbling around their opponents during a night game at the playgrounds, or how the Hoop-It-Up crowd ate up every single one of King Handles’ crossovers and no look passes.

The Notic more resembled a home video for family and friends than something for public consumption. No one thought much about the mixtape after the screening. It was a fun high school project. The VHS tape would probably end up a souvenir in either Thomas’ or Schaulin-Rioux’s future homes.

Then the two filmmakers posted a 30-second trailer of the mixtape to a streetball message board. Every time they refreshed the thread, the page count multiplied. Everyone was asking where they could get a copy.

Joey Haywood

The footage made its way around the world, all across North America and to parts of Europe, the Middle East and Australia. Thomas and Schaulin-Rioux set up a website so they could accept mail orders. Thomas, working at a local video rental chain called Rogers Video at the time, collected empty cassette cases so the two could dub copies of The Notic. In total, around 800 copies were mailed. Thomas and Schaulin-Rioux realized the mixtape was becoming a phenomenon when they went online and saw bootleg copies popping up on eBay.

Suddenly, The Notic was a household name in streetball circles, both on online message boards and in Vancouver. Haywood’s childhood friend Yash Zandiyeh told him that someone had reached out on AOL Instant Messenger in hopes of connecting with King Handles so he could break down some of his dribbling moves. The request came from Estonia. “We were like, ‘where the heck is Estonia,’” Zandiyeh says. “They didn’t teach us that in geography class.”

The Notic became Vancouver celebrities.

“One kid came up to me, asked for my autograph and said, ‘you’re my favorite player in the world,’” Johnny Mubanda, AKA Johnny Blaze, remembers. “I was like, ‘what are you talking about? Michael Jordan is out there.’”

The Notic was suddenly more than just a group of basketball junkies who wanted to see themselves on tape. Fans were tracking their every move. They were beloved simply for living their regular streetball lives.

This was just the beginning.

For the group, and especially Haywood, the success of the mixtape felt like vindication for everything they believed in. They all viewed streetball as a credible way of playing basketball, to the chagrin of some of their high school coaches.

Haywood modeled his game after Rafer Alston, who rose to streetball fame as Skip 2 My Lou and later played in the NBA. But in Vancouver, Haywood’s penchant for turning organized games into his own one-on-one showcases often rubbed coaches and players the wrong way. Many saw him as undisciplined, selfish and a showboat. It didn’t matter if he was clearly the best player on the floor.

“Not a lot of people had that style of play in Vancouver,” Haywood says. “People tend to look at you like you’re playing rap ball or something. They say you’re just a streetball guy. You can’t really play basketball. You don’t really have fundamentals. At the same time, I was still killing top-level players on the court but it still didn’t matter. It was hard for me.”

Mubanda saw the criticism that Haywood faced firsthand. “We got so much hate when we were young,” Mubanda says. “That’s the one thing [Joey] has been fighting against all his life. It was love on the street, but once he brought it into the regular game, people were hating all day.”

Galvanized by critics and the success of the first tape, the group quickly got to work on a second mixtape, The Notic 2. The tape was more structured. The guys studied what worked the first time, and coordinated what moves they wanted to pull off before the cameras got rolling. Everyone had a clear idea what they wanted to showcase. When it was released, the tape sent the group’s fame into the stratosphere.

EA Sports invited The Notic to help create streetball moves that would end up on the video game franchise NBA Street, released in 2001. Today, Schaulin-Rioux still hooks up the Playstation 2 just to bust out some of Haywood’s signature tricks.

“I remember telling the guys, ‘Imagine playing a video and when I press a button I could be doing one of your moves,’” Schaulin-Rioux says. “Four months later, I was sitting with Joey and Mohammed at a motion capture event for NBA Street and we were laughing, like, ‘Wow, this is really happening.’”

The Notic were invited to play streetball tournaments in the United States, and even received boxes of shoes and apparel from AND1 as tokens of appreciation. “Jeremy and I received the package and piled everything in the back of our car and told the whole crew to meet us,” Thomas says. “We opened the trunk of our cars and shoes just fell out. Everyone lost their minds. They were in high school. They couldn’t afford any of it. Now they got to have all of this stuff. It was so cool to see their excitement.”

For a group of high schoolers, this was the apex. By pursuing their collective passion for streetball, The Notic had become stars. They thrived just by being themselves.

“There was never any business plan,” Thomas says. “The only plan we ever had was to film ourselves playing basketball. We loved basketball and we loved making videos.”

Mohammed Wenn, AKA ‘Goosebumps,’ left, and David Mubanda, AKA ‘Dazzle’

By that time, AND1 Basketball had exploded into the mainstream. Streetballers were earning a living and appearing on ESPN. Everyone in The Notic thought the same thing would happen to them.

And while opportunities came, no one in The Notic thought about how well they were parlaying their popularity into financial stability. It was cool enough to be performing streetball moves in front of a green screen for a video game franchise.

In retrospect, everyone agrees they could have been compensated better if the group had just sat down to discuss a long-term plan.

“But when you’re young,” Haywood says, “you don’t expect a whole lot.”

As the group began work on a third mixtape, even showing up to the pickup games to capture footage became a challenge. They didn’t have the time nor resources to support the work that their popularity demanded. Thomas and Schaulin-Rioux were recent university graduates with full-time jobs. Simply picking up a video camera and driving to the park wasn’t as easy as it used to be.

“I couldn’t call into work and say, ‘The weather is nice, there’s a game happening today, I’m not coming in,” Thomas says.

The ballers also started feeling less motivation to show up. Some of them had graduated high school and moved out of Vancouver. Their numbers dwindled. Those who remained in the city had their own education and bills to worry about. Pulling off dazzling dribble moves at the park wasn’t at the top of their priorities anymore.

Slowly, the group dissolved. By the mid-2000s, everyone went their separate ways. The Notic officially broke up.

Haywood wondered where his streetball career would take him next. He continued to hit local courts in Vancouver during the summer when he wasn’t traveling around the world to play in streetball tournaments. In 2008, Haywood went to Kitsilano Beach, one of the more popular beaches in Vancouver, to play pickup. A bit older now, Haywood was still the stand-out player on the court.

Playing against him that day was Howard Kelsey, a member of Team Canada’s Men’s National Basketball Team for 11 years and previously the head recruiter at the University of Victoria. Kelsey considered himself an encyclopedia of Canadian basketball prospects, so he was surprised to find out he had never heard of Haywood.

Mohammed Wenn and David Mubanda on the SkyTrain in Vancouver

What Kelsey did know was his scouting instincts weren’t betraying him. In Haywood, he saw one of the most skilled players he had ever come across locally. “He had guys triple-teaming him and he’s going through their legs and putting it over their heads,” Kelsey says. “I have never seen anybody at any level handle the ball better than him.”

As a streetballer, Haywood had proven himself in every way possible. Defenders feared him. Fans adored him. The Notic cemented his reputation. But now he was an adult who needed to turn his basketball hobby into a living. Among The Notic, Haywood was the only member who had the skills and the drive to pursue a pro career.

But organized basketball never jived with Haywood’s free spirit. After high school, he attended Langara College in British Columbia and played point guard on the men’s basketball team, but lasted just a few months. Haywood and his coach didn’t agree on his playing style. Even when Haywood felt like he was playing well, he still wasn’t getting a lot of run. Taking on a reduced role was too difficult for his ego to swallow.

“I just wasn’t used to sitting on the bench after starting my whole life,” Haywood says. “I felt like I deserved to be a starter and that was my mentality.”

For the next half decade, Haywood traveled the streetball circuit, flying around the world to tournaments, open runs and elimination challenges. Haywood tried out for AND1 and didn’t make it. He competed in a $100,000 tournament and came up short. The high school phenom was now a streetball vagabond in his mid-20s trying to figure out what was next.

Kelsey was matter-of-fact about what Haywood should do: play pro ball, because streetball doesn’t pay the bills.

“You can be All-Rucker Park,” Kelsey told Haywood. “But if you’ve never played college, the legitimacy is just not the same. You have to be legit. You have to be able to make it in college.”

Those words stuck with Haywood. Shortly after their meeting, Haywood played in a streetball tournament in Halifax and caught the attention of the Saint Mary’s University coaching staff. Ross Quackenbush was the school’s men’s basketball head coach, and happened to be friends with Kelsey, who vouched for Haywood when Quackenbush called him for a scouting report. Haywood was offered a scholarship.

“I let the coaches know, ‘Listen I’m for real, I wanted to change my style of play,’” Haywood says. “‘I didn’t want to come in here and do streetball stuff. I wanted to work on my fundamentals.’”

Haywood kept his word and became a household name again, setting Saint Mary’s single-season scoring record. In his senior season, Haywood was the nation’s leading scorer, averaging 28.8 points per game. He was first-team All-Canadian and the Atlantic University Sport Player of the Year.

The Notic crew asleep on a road trip
Mohammed Wenn

But Haywood, then 27, was graduating college at an age much older than everyone else, and didn’t have an NCAA Division I school or any professional basketball experience on his resume. He didn’t attract any interest from the NBA, and was forced to wander in search of courts again, playing for the Aalorg Vikings of the Danish Basket Ligaen, the Grindavik men’s basketball team in Iceland and the Halifax Rainmen of the National Basketball League of Canada.

Approaching his mid-30s, Haywood, who failed to make the Raptors 905 D League team at a tryout in 2016, admits he struggled to accept that NBA teams weren’t interested.

“I’ll watch some highlights, and then I’ll stop and be like, ‘Fuck man, I wish I was there,’” Haywood says. “I can see myself there. Every day I wish I’d get a phone call or email.”

But even in times of frustration, Haywood is grateful a couple of streetball mixtapes allowed him, in a roundabout way, to play basketball for a living. “It was all The Notic,” Haywood says. “None of it would have been possible without it.”

Haywood does wonder if The Notic would have continued if they had put a business plan in place, and whether he could have spent his 20s traveling around the world with the group, earning large paychecks and watching their celebrity grow over time.

“If we were more business-like and had the right manager and agent, we could have done camps, clinics, streetball tours across Canada,” Haywood says. “The Notic fell off because we didn’t know the business side of things. We never really capitalized on it. We did it for the love, which was great, but we had these tapes, and by the time we sat down to think about how we could eat off it, it was too late.”

Members of the group still kept in touch with Haywood and followed his journey. “I love King,” Mubanda says. “He just kept doing it.” The thought of Haywood carrying the legacy of The Notic by himself was hard to digest.

“I felt as though I let him down sometimes,” Mubanda says. “Before, he had a squad. He had all of us. Now, he was out there by himself.”

Although Haywood never made the NBA, and The Notic never reached their full potential, he found contentment within the career he had. Perhaps he never reached the heights of fame and success he imagined for himself once, but he proved he could persevere and thrive in both street and organized ball.

And just when it seemed like Haywood had nothing left to chase, streetball came calling again.

The Notic crew

In 2017, a hoard of basketball fans arrived at a local basketball court in Tokyo to get a glimpse of their favorite streetballer. Almost two decades after the first Notic tape made its way around the world, Haywood was there to put on a show. Later, fans in the audience asked their idol to sign DVD copies of The Notic 2 and pose for photos.

When a friend reached out about opportunities in Asia to re-enter the streetball scene, Haywood did not hesitate at all. After all these years, the passion that fueled him as a 16-year-old kid at the local community centre had returned. “It’s a rebirth,” Haywood says. “I’ve coming back to the roots of where I started.”

Joining him in Tokyo was Mubanda, who now coaches high school basketball in Vancouver. Mubanda was overwhelmed by the turnout in a foreign country. He could finally see The Notic’s legacy. “You might not be LeBron James,” Mubanda told Haywood. “But look at the impact you’ve made.”

Years after The Notic failed to capitalize on their fame, Haywood is doing it for himself. He has built an online presence and runs his own own YouTube channel, where you can still see him competing in streetball tournaments and holding clinics for younger players around the world. The Notic lives on through Haywood, who still goes by King Handles and features the group’s logo prominently at the start of his videos.

Thomas and Schaulin-Rioux have kept in touch with Haywood, and are proud to watch him carry on The Notic.

“Joey is the best flag bearer for The Notic and for streetball,” Schaulin-Rioux says. “When he steps on the basketball court, you can’t look away. When you meet him after the game, he makes you feel like he’s your best friend. He’s brought people together through the love of basketball.”

They’ve even approached Haywood about making The Notic 3. Thomas and Schaulin-Rioux envision it as one part back-to-basics Notic streetball highlights, another part retrospective of Haywood’s basketball journey over the past two decades. “There’s still a couple of streetball moves I’ve never seen anyone do that’s sitting on some Hi8 tapes at my dad’s house,” Schaulin-Rioux says.

Where Haywood’s basketball journey goes next is hard to say. But he likes the possibilities.

“When you’re a pro, you’re getting paid, but you’re not really marketable,” Haywood says. “I think this route is a lot better for me. I can give back to the guys and shape the way the streetball game is played by the next generation. I can give back now. I have so much more passion giving back to streetball than playing at the pro level.”

Haywood’s story won’t include an NBA appearance, nor will many basketball fans be able to recall his career. But that doesn’t mean he didn’t succeed.

“I’m so proud of him,” Mubanda says. “He just kept going. He kept The Notic alive. He kept us alive. Through him, we’re still living. Forget the fame. Forget whether people know us. What we had together, that was love. It was a moment in time and it was precious, man.”


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