It was early spring, but basketballs were already in full bloom by the time Baron Davis hit town to shoot one of Nike’s popular “Freestyle” hoop-hop commercials that seem more like music videos than sneaker ads.
In the commercials, NBA stars, looking buff and glistening against a dark background and metallic black floor, dribble and dance to the beat of a bouncing rock alongside some of the best streetballers you never heard of.
Sitting between producers during a segment that featured ball-handling solos by playground wizards from New York and Los Angeles, the Charlotte Hornets point guard looked like a bobble-head doll as he tried to follow the dizzying dribble of Malloy “the Future” Nesmith.
“Baron is sitting there, his eyes wide open, saying, ‘Man, I can’t even do that, and I’m a pro,’ ” said Jimmy Smith, a creative director and copywriter for Wieden & Kennedy, who has produced a total of seven “Freestyle” spots with his partner, Hal Curtis.
None of those spots are more popular than the original 60-second production, which aired back in February during the NBA’s All-Star weekend, and a beautifully choreographed two-and-a-half-minute ad involving Davis, the Future, and several other asphalt gods, which Nike has been running in heavy rotation during the NBA playoffs. (Four of the other five spots—each 30 seconds long—are shortened versions of these two ads).
“Now Baron Davis is a cold-blooded player, and he’s just sitting there in amazement, looking at us,” said Smith. “We were all just trippin’.”
So were the rest of the NBA and WNBA players on hand that day in Queens, including Paul Pierce, Dawn Staley, Chamique Holdsclaw, and Sheryl Swoopes, all of whom were taken aback by the Future, a legendary wizard of the blacktop from the Bronx who earned his nickname on the court by making moves that had yet to be invented.
Sporting a $3 red T-shirt and a million-dollar handle, the Future blows up his spot with what he describes as an “earthquake, shake-and-bake exhibition.
“Those were all Future moves, no one has seen them yet,” he said, laughing. “I was just doing my thing out there, just being Future.”
While most hoop fans can identify the NBA and WNBA stars in the spots—also showing their stuff are Vince Carter, Darius Miles, Lamar Odom, Jason Williams, and Rasheed Wallace—a number of lesser-known players who carved their reps behind chain-link fences share the spotlight with their hardwood counterparts.
In fact, the longer commercial opens with Arnold “A-Train” Bernard, of Rucker Park and Harlem Globetrotter fame, tossing the rock in the air before taking it for a spin—on his fingertip. The action cuts quickly to the Future, who puts a little Chubby Checker in his jab-step before dishing off a pass.
As the commercial moves on, Robert “Bobbito” Garcia, a/k/a “the Barber,” does a James Brown-like slide across a row of players. Not only is Bobbito a playground star, he’s also a hip-hop personality in New York with a loyal radio following on WKCR-89.9 FM.
Sprinkled throughout is the incredible two-handed dribbling technique of Marlo Egleston, the only non-pro woman in the spot. Egleston, a George Washington University alum who’s trying to hook up with a team in Europe, displays an ambidexterity that no male in the shoot could match.
Later, James “Speedy” Williams, another Rucker legend, wearing a dark headband and a gray sweatshirt, comes into focus. But the ball he’s zipping around, and eventually through the legs of defender Booger Smith, his real-life playground rival, is merely a blur. (Don’t worry Booger fans, Smith gets to put the moves on—and break the ankles of—an opponent later in the spot. In his case, the sucka is a Los Angeles-based streetballer named Shihan Vanclief.)
“The playground guys from New York know how to express their creativity on the basketball court,” said Speedy. “Sure, it’s good to know the basics of the game, but there’s nothing wrong with bringing a little style to it.”
Perhaps no other streetballer brings more style to the “Freestyle” campaign than Luis Dasilva, a bald-headed, light-skinned Puerto Rican from New Jersey, who steals the show in the longer ad.
The 19-year-old Dasilva, a/k/a “Trickz,” turns heads, including his own, with a series of behind-the-back ball flips. Whirling from side to side, Trickz literally proves he is a thinking man’s player, catching the ball with his left hand as it lands, all the while keeping his right hand up to his chin as if he is contemplating his own greatness.
“I learned all of those moves right here in my backyard, 149 Ripley Place,” said Trickz, who played high school ball at mighty St. Patrick’s in Elizabeth before his family moved to Woodbridge.
“Filming those commercials was an excellent experience,” said Dasilva, whose impressive basketball virtuosity earned him a 30-second solo spot—the final “Freestyle” ad is just Trickz, showing his skillz. “I mean, here I am, a regular guy, in the middle of all these amazing players—it was a real rush.”
** “Freestyle 150,” as in seconds, is the unofficial name of the longer spot, which was directed by Paul Hunter, who is best known for directing music videos for stars like Jennifer Lopez, D’Angelo, and Lenny Kravitz. It originally aired six times on MTV—as a video—but philosophical differences between Nike and MTV honchos as to whether the spot was pure theater or thinly disguised advertising led Nike to officially turn it into a commercial.
“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.
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.”