Sante Gayle, aka 757, chuckles about the heat. He's just finished playing a tour date in Oklahoma City. "Thank God. We got air-conditioning on the bus," he says. But when asked about a different kind of heat the pressure of being an unsigned player on the And1 Mixtape Tour he grows serious. The high-flying dunks and ball handling of this supercharged form of basketball is what thrills the crowds, but the competition for coveted spots on the And1 team creates a far more potent drama simmering beneath the players' showmanship.
The And1 Mixtape Tour had its genesis on the basketball courts of playgrounds and back lots where a looser, flashier game called streetball was played. Footage of streetballers performing jaw-dropping feats was edited together, set to a hip-hop soundtrack, and released by the sneaker company And1 as Mixtape Volume One in 1999. A year later, And1 had its first Mixtape tour. Since then, the tour has spawned a video game, a reality TV show on ESPN called StreetBall, and endorsements for its players.
The tour consists of a core group of 15 players, who have permanent spots on the roster and have names like Helicopter, Half-Man Half-Amazing, Main Event, Hot Sauce, and Baby Shack. Some of them also play in the American Basketball Association league or overseas, but their reputations were cemented in neighborhood courts across the nation, where their abilities are the stuff of legend.
The group travels by bus across 30 cities over the summer. At each stop on the tour, And1 holds an "open run," where locals can compete for a chance to play on the tour.
Four ballers, selected from the open run, get to play against the established team. They join four regional players and three players, like Gayle, who have been chosen from previous open runs and are traveling with the team. These players are half-applicants/half-guinea pigs. Some might earn a chance to travel with the team, competing city-to-city toward a contract, until another prospect knocks them off. Those who don't shine become prey for the established team, the fall guys for dunks, dribbles, and trick plays that leave the crowd roaring.
"At those open runs, you have 50 guys all fighting for the same dream. It can get pretty rough out there," says John Humphrey, aka Helicopter. According to Humphrey, being a member of the traveling team doesn't make things much easier. "It just gets harder because now there are people fighting to take your job. You can't get complacent."
The world of the And1 tour is a far cry from the lengthy and lucrative contracts of the NBA. Here, every game is a notch up the totem pole. Gayle earned a spot on the tour last year but was eliminated later on. This year, he is back and more determined than ever to win a contract.
"It's all work and determination," he explains. "I try and keep both a trick game and a real game. To make it onto the And1 team you have to be able to win the game and you also have to be able to win the crowd."
Gayle has been through a lot in his life. He lost two daughters to a degenerative disease before he was 20 years old. He played in the ABA last year but had problems receiving his salary. "I look at that as a learning experience, a part of growing in this game," he says. The And1 contract would be a big break. In 2003, a contract took Grayson Boucher, who is known as the Professor and is the only white player on the team, from bagging groceries to bagging assists.
Last year, the established players had to decide among themselves which prospects would stay and who would be eliminated. "This year, the coaches do the picking and that takes a lot of pressure off of us," says Humphrey.
Back for his second year, Gayle is familiar with some of the players. "Last year, they hated on me," he says. "But things have gotten better this year."
The open run is at the FedExForum at 4 p.m. Friday, but show up a few hours early to get a spot. The game begins at 7:30 p.m. and will give four Memphians a chance to showcase their best against the nation's top streetballers.