NYC Streetballers Drive Nike’s Infectious ‘Freestyle’ Campaign

"But by the time MTV had shown it six times," said Jimmy Smith of Wieden & Kennedy, "the word spread like wildfire, and we were swamped with kids sending us letters and e-mails wanting to know more about it."

Watching the silky-smooth b-ball stylings through bulging eyes, none of those kids have any idea how hard the players worked to perfect their routines. Each of them rehearsed their moves under the watchful eye of choreographer Savion Glover, who won the Tony Award for his dancing and choreography in the Broadway hit Bring in 'da Noise, Bring in 'da Funk.

"We did a long and grueling three-day shoot in L.A. in January" for the first, 60-second spot, said Smith. "And then a 15-hour day in [Queens,] New York in March" for the longer ad. The Nike crew also traveled to Toronto in order to capture Vince Carter's mug—and handle—on film.

In yo face: The Future gets busy.
photo: Julia Xanthos
In yo face: The Future gets busy.

The beat that drives the "Freestyle" ads was created by hip-hop godfather Afrika Bambaataa and Steven "Boogie" Brown. Using musical instruments, they put together an addictive urban pulse. Later, Jeff Elmassian of Digihearit, a music editing company, replaced the instruments with the natural sounds of the game—the bounce of the ball, the squeaks of sneakers, whistles, grunts, etcetera—while keeping Bam and Boogie's beat. The result is an infectious street beat that perfectly captures the rhythm of the game.

"The dunks, the grunts, the squeaks, the bam, bam, bam, those are the true sounds of hoops," said Smith. "We turned those noises into dance music because that's what they're really doing out there, expressing themselves in the form of a basketball dance."

All that creativity, however, comes at a price—particularly when it's on display in an advertisement. For the pros, that probably meant the low to mid five figures, "somewhere around $50,000, and a guy like Vince Carter would get even more," according to Bob Williams, who helps match up athletes with corporations for commercial endorsements.

The streetballers, of course, got less. According to Wieden & Kennedy, they were paid scale SAG wages, which is $500 per commercial, plus residual fees. Residuals start at $5.58 for the first 50 times an ad is shown and wind down to 15 cents per after 1000 airings. But at the rate the "Freestyle" ads are being played, that can add up to a pretty penny. According to Speedy, "After residuals, it's like a year's salary for some guys."

But while it doesn't hurt to get paid, for the playground guys, the ads weren't about the money. It was a celebration of the game—especially the way it's played on the blacktop.

"The NBA guys are used to playing in a system," says Speedy. "But us street guys, we make our living by being creative.

"We get by doing exactly what I'm doing in the commercial to Booger," continues Speedy, "which is shaking your man and making him look real bad."

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