You know the story.
What started with a tape of grainy park footage sparked a revolution. Over 15 years later, that revolution is still going strong, going from New York and East Coast parks to countrywide tours to NBA arenas to now overseas.
Over the years, streetball has taken on various forms and currently it’s found a home with Ball Up. Featuring legends like AO, Sik Wit It, Professor, and the Bone Collector, Ball Up is in the midst of its biggest year yet. This summer’s tour features 10 city stops, including Las Vegas tomorrow night for the championship game, and a $100,000 “Search For The Next” streetball legend competition that’ll give one player at the end of the tour a contract and a spot on the team.
“Ever since we started this three or four years ago,” says Ball Up CEO Demetrius Spencer, “it was reigniting the world of streetball again. We had to deliver the message of this is a really competitive game, more than what you thought before. It’s a chance to compete and play against some of the best guys in this space.”
Nowadays, streetball, at least on this stage, is played in arenas and includes half-time shows and TV cameras. That’s a far cry from where it started, back when the players did their own promos and handed out their own flyers.
With the title game in Sin City tomorrow, we caught up with Spencer, and AO, Sik, and ‘Fess, three legends who’ve been down with the revolution since the beginning. They talked about where streetball has been, where it is now, and where it’s going.
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SIK WIT IT: I was 24, man, 25 years old. I had just got out of college at the University of Nevada, Reno. I was playing at a gym and just working out and just trying to further my career at a professional level. Someone told me about AND1 having a tryout and I knew nothing about AND1 at all. Period. I had no idea, no clue what type of game they played, the excitement that they brought to the streetball atmosphere. I went to a tryout and without those games, AO, Main Event, Shane, Headache, Hot Sauce first day on, Half-Man, Half-Amazing, Aircraft. They came out to L.A. and 92.3 sponsored it. Without those guys, there wouldn’t be no me. It was awesome for me to see how they played on an East Coast level, on a high level, the style that they brought to a regular basketball game. It was a regular basketball game and I’ve never seen nothing like it in my life.
For me to have a few crossovers and for them to like my little West Coast style, it made me feel really good. They opened their arms up to me and made me feel like a family member. It was big because after that L.A. game they offered me to play in Washington, D.C., Atlanta, and New York. After that Riverbank game, they signed me to a contract.
AO: It’s kind of different for me because I was there for the first tour. When we went out to L.A. and played against Sik, it was just a game. It was more of a game. I had played against Biz twice. I played against Shane twice. I didn’t really know Main. I didn’t know Headache and I didn’t know Craft. Sauce came that time too, so I didn’t know Sauce. That whole first game was intriguing because you had these five guys from New York who don’t know or even care about me and Sauce. AND1 just kind of stuck them on a plane, flew us out there and had us play. We had to work it out ourselves. For it to go from that to seven months after when All-Star Weekend came out and we played in D.C. for the Vol. 3 tape with me and Sauce and then two or three months later when we started the tour, it was crazy. Me and Shane were in McDonald’s and I just said, “Yo this s*** is crazy.” It just snowballed, avalanched out of nowhere.
I had just got out of school. I played in the CBA and came home and there was a New York vs. Philly game at St. Joe’s. I played. The funny thing is the two other guys I played in the game with was this dude J.R., he came on the AND1 tour with us and the guard that played with me was Flip Murray. So it was me, Flip, J.R. We were playing against the New York guys and that’s when the Skip tape was just catching momentum, catching speed. That’s when they had HoopsTV.com. They were there and they were asking to do something with me. They didn’t even know that my guy from college had a tape of me similar to the Skip tape and was giving it out. Somebody from AND1 had got it. This game was in June and they called me up like “Do you think you could come into the office?” When I went up there, HoopsTV.com was right next to them so I saw both of them. They said they were trying to get this tour going in L.A. and we want you to come. They said they found five other guys and this kid from Atlanta named Hot Sauce. I was like “What? Okay.” (laughs)
The next week we played in Chicago and we were beating them so bad that we didn’t even play the last eight minutes because they were trying to hack us.
It was crazy for me to be playing on ESPN and then on South Street like a regular dude getting cheesesteaks. People yelling, “Hey AO! Can I get an autograph?” Just to see that go from our first tour in the Southwest and then to Chicago, then in Atlanta, and us handing out our own flyers, doing our own promo, then the next year ESPN jumped on, then the next year it exploded when ‘Fess came on. It was crazy. Surreal.
PROFESSOR: I was 18 years old and I was actually a fan of AND1 before I got on. In 2002, I was a junior in high school and went up to the AND1 game and it was one of the most incredible games I’ve ever seen. They did it different back then. They did it different back then. There was a portion of the game that you got to play in and I remember actually playing against Sik Wit It and he remembers this too. I had an incredible time. I just took joy in being a part of it once a year.
So the following year when they came back and I got to tryout and then had an opportunity to go on tour with the guys, that was beyond awesome, especially at 18 and not having a big buzz at basketball. To be a part of that was incredible. Then for it to turn into a career opportunity for me, it was like a dream come true.
Just the year before I was at a junior college getting only a few minutes a game and then the summer after my freshman year of college I made a ton of improvements and putting in extra work, doing two-a-day workouts at the gym. I had improved a whole bunch, grew a couple of inches, a lot happened really fast and then I tried out for the tour. The next thing, they’re airing episodes daily on ESPN.
SIK WIT IT: Just to walk through the malls. I think my first experience was I was walking through Fox Hills Mall in L.A. and I don’t know who I was walking with but we passed a sneaker store where we were giving out our DVDs and tapes and I had a poster on the outside mirror on the wall and it was bigger than me. I was like wow. I went in there and tried to get them to give me the poster. They were going to charge me for the poster, but I didn’t mind paying. And they gave it to me right off the mall in the room. I was like wow. I’m shocked that I’m walking through the mall and seeing myself laid out on a big poster.
I remembered walking through the mall one time with Keon Clark and he’s 7-2, 7-1. Kids ran over to us and I’m like, okay, I’m sure they want Keon’s autograph. They didn’t even know Keon. They knew me. I was sitting there shocked and dumbfounded. It was like a wave. It was so big and so awesome. It grounded you. It made you humble.
AO: Probably the best game, well, not even the best game but the best 10 minutes I’ve ever seen in a streetball game straight was when we played on the AND1 Live tour and we were playing against each other. It was my birthday weekend in Columbus, Ohio. For 10 minutes straight, I haven’t seen that many highlights. It felt like everything was in slow motion. The funny thing about it was I wasn’t even in the game. I was on the scorer’s table watching. We had new guys, ‘Cop and High Riser going dunk for dunk, and Prime hitting threes from half-court. It was crazy and I’m sitting on the seat and they’re like “You want to sub in?” I’m like no. I’m sitting here watching. “You don’t see this?” I don’t think there was a flawed play in 10 minutes straight of play. I don’t think we even got video of that. I don’t think they were even taping those games.
PROFESSOR: That game definitely stands out for me. A couple that stand out for me early on was when we played Japan. I think at the time we had like 17 guys on the team and a good chunk of us went over there. I think everybody did their thing. The energy of the first half was just non-stop highlights. It was a 10,000-plus seat arena and our first trip to Japan was big.
I would also say 2003, my first time playing in Madison Square Garden was very memorable.
AO: I told ‘Fess when he first got on, some of the guys were like “Oh, the white boy.” But I was saying that at a certain point, we might’ve gotten to a standstill. ‘Fess helped. You go on ESPN, it’s cool but eventually it’s going to get to the point where it’s the same old thing. But now you got a white kid from Central Oregon playing. He’s on TV with all of these black urban kids and this pale white kid is doing his thing. Why wouldn’t an older white man who’s probably 45 who would’ve probably never paid attention look at ESPN and be like “Oh, I like the Professor.” And I got that. I don’t care if ‘Fess gets more time than me now. It didn’t really matter to me. I had no problem walking next to anybody. I didn’t have no ego with it at all. And I still don’t.
But that game in Japan might’ve been the only time the whole crowd stayed for autographs. Seven thousand people. The whole crowd.
SIK WIT IT: I think the best thing that stood out for me was the first time I went to Europe. I went to Paris, France, and before we could enter the building, the game, we were in regular clothes. And those fans over there in Paris knew our names. I’m talking about government, streetball names, and we were sitting there in regular clothes. I didn’t even have my jersey on yet! And they knew me.
PROFESSOR: We became friends with the guys that were filming the show. A lot of times when they were filming, we were hanging out with them anyway so it didn’t feel like camera-shy and it wasn’t a burden in any type of way. They were really just capturing it real and raw. There were no scripts. I would say, looking full-circle, that it was one of the realest reality shows to date because I know a lot of the stuff now in reality TV, you think it’s scripted or it might be fake.
SIK WIT IT: Being on television, it wasn’t scripted everything was just real. When it’s real, people on the outside that are looking in that may think it’s fake, they’re gonna figure it out. When they see the realness and the seriousness because me and AO got into it a few times on television. We spazzed out on each other when we were on opposite teams. We are competitive. They liked that.
AO: With Flash and Es’ and Alimoe [Eds. Note: Flash, Escalade, and Alimoe have all passed away. RIP.], all my memories are based off stuff off the court. The tour bus was basically the best part of the tour, the camaraderie going from city to city and the stuff that we did on the bus. We all became friends. Of course, we are all ghetto kids but Philly is not like New York. New York is not like Chicago. Chicago is not like L.A. For us to even be put in that situation – it’s not like we had crash courses. You basically put 10 or 12 guys on the bus that didn’t know each other and said, “Alright, go play ball. Go make a show.” And it was fun.
First of all, my bunk was always next to Flash’s on the bottom bunk. He had this god*** laugh, man. His laugh made you laugh because it was like a whine. It always made you laugh. To this day, this one time we were on the bus, me, him, Shane, and Hot, and there’s this karate movie on. Shane is sleeping but he wakes up and looks up at the movie and it’s this Chinese teacher or master. It’s like 6 in the morning. We are just waking up, getting off the bus and Shane is saying it like “Teeeaachaaa.” I didn’t even know Flash was even up and all I hear is Flash like “Aaaaaaaahhhhh.” (laughs)
I remember one time Es’ was on the bus mad because the air conditioner wouldn’t work. He had his shirt off. I sat down next to him and took my shirt off. (laughs) The bus was so funny.
SIK WIT IT: It was a real extended family. I sang at Flash’s funeral. I flew out to Chicago to sing at my teammate’s funeral. It was big for me because his mom… she didn’t even know who I was. She knew who I was, but didn’t know who I was. “Who’s this boy up here singing at my son’s funeral?” Then they told her this is Sik Wit It and she was like wow.
AO: Nowadays, I like the way the fans are reacting to it. The fans are coming out in droves. The atmosphere is basically like the summer of ’02.
When we first started with streetball tours, we were going in to play against the best players they had available and now it’s getting back to that. We might’ve lost it at one point with all of the trickery and stuff that like and not getting to the aspect of what the streetball culture is, the competitive aspect of it. I think these last couple of Ball Up games in Indiana, then New York and then in Alabama, guys are coming out here trying to rip our heads off. That motivates us to play more. I like that environment a whole lot because it gets back to that East Coast streetball, summer-time, 2000-people-in-the-park, hanging-on-gates atmosphere.
DEMETRIUS SPENCER: In our third year of Ball Up this year, we’ve just seen the competition level rise. You get more guys that are really talented players in each market coming out to play against them because they know what’s at stake. They see it’s real.
You can see guys overseas or some of the local, hometown heroes who are big in their city that play ball that are now really trying to come out and compete as compared to before when they were like “Is this real? Do I really want to play against them? Is this something that’s going to come and go really quickly?” Now they see that this is the biggest franchise globally in streetball and now they want to participate.
SIK WIT IT: I think now they have an understanding that not only can they get on our team but there’s money involved and it’s exposure for them. So they’re coming out to really win the game and really beat us. For them to have that idea, that it’s really serious, it brings up the competition level and it makes the players sit there and say, “Oh you know what? These guys really can lose on any given day.”
AO: I don’t even think the loss in Birmingham was even a competition thing. That was one of the least talented teams we’ve played but their passion for their city, to play and want to beat us, was tremendous. It felt like we were at Duke the last five or six minutes of the game.
SIK WIT IT: What I noticed is that in every city it’s like when Rocky Balboa went to Russia. He went over there and they didn’t really like him. They knew Ivan Drago was supposed to win but the fans switched over. We have our own fans that come to see us play and some of them want to see us win, but that switched in the last five minutes. (laughs) When Alabama came with it, they were like “Oh, we got a chance!”
That’s how it’s supposed to be. But when we came out, we felt like some of the fans wanted us to win the game and some of them wanted us to lose. I’m telling you the switch was turned on the last five minutes and Alabama was saying “No, no, no!” We got to root for Alabama. We’re from here, let’s see if we can be the first city to beat them and they came together as a whole. That whole gym came together. But what’s funny, after the game, they still gave us love. They still wanted autographs.
PROFESSOR: I think for all of us, we definitely feed off the energy of a crowd that sits behind you. They are part of the streetball culture and they get really excited off our games. Initially, in the beginning parts of the game when we clear out you can already hear the anticipation of the crowd start to rise, the ooohs. Those things drive us to take our game to another level.
DS: One exciting time that I’ve experienced with them was when we played a CBA team in China and when we walked into the arena, all the people were there to support their CBA team. A couple of key plays in that game were ignited by the Professor and one of our other key players. It changed the momentum of the arena. The guys got a little aggressive based on how the Professor really embarrassed them, their starting guards. Because of the way the guy reacted on the China team, the arena wasn’t happy about that. I watched 15,000 people go from rooting for their hometown China team to chanting “Ball up!” at one time. That shift was ridiculous because you’re in another country and now all these fans from China are rooting for us as if we’re the home team. That’s an amazing experience when it’s not just here in the US.
They went a bit far because they started booing their own hometown team and cheering for them and pushing them through all the way through the end.
PROFESSOR: I think it’s fun personally just to be an underdog again because before we started playing those CBA teams in China the last few years, they didn’t have a lot of respect for streetball and thought they were going to run over us. So for us to compete and then come out victorious in certain games was an incredible feeling.
DS: Watching it from a distance you see tricks. But to me it’s not tricks. It’s their style of play.
If you see a dude come down and throw a lob, just because he jumps and puts it through his legs, it’s the same thing Blake Griffin and Jamal Crawford did in a game. There was nothing different except these dudes can do it all the time and it’s natural for them.
PROFESSOR: When people say tricks, that doesn’t mean it’s not real ball. The word “trick” has gotten very vague. I think it started from when streetball first started going nationwide and worldwide. Certain guys were doing moves that were just blatantly illegal. Mind you that was only one or two guys on the team that were doing that. I’ve never seen AO do a move that was a carry in a streetball game. Ninety-five percent of my moves are not a carry.
But people also spend money to be entertained. They want to see those incredible alley-oops from half-court. They want to see people get made to look silly on the clearout. They want to see flashy dribbling. It’s still a heavy priority but still playing at a high level as a competitor and basketball player is still a priority as well.
SIK WIT IT: My thing is people label you whatever they want you to be. A trick, or however they want to say it, has never put two points on the board. I’ve never seen a trick score. Other than that, we spin on the ball on our finger, around our back. We just have a different style of basketball. If the fans want to see regular basketball, they can sit at home and watch it on TV. I think they come for a different style of entertainment of the game. Not to toot our horn but it’s kind of hard to play at a high level against the talent that we play against and to entertain at the same time and to win the game. We don’t get a lot of credit as we go city-to-city and worldwide.
DS: At the end of the day, what they all come out for just like any of us, is to play against the best dude and make a name for yourself. The fact that they could leave that game and say, “I did this against Sik or Professor or AO or Bone or Air Up There.” Or “I dunked on G. Smith.” These dudes are coming out trying to make a name for themselves. If I went up against any known ballplayer like Kobe or LeBron, you’re going to go back and brag about it.
The Ball Up players have a two-fold job. They’re there one, to win, but two, to put on a show for everybody else in there. They don’t get a lot of credit because I don’t think people realize that. That’s a tougher job at the end of the day.
SIK WIT IT: I think the most talented team so far that we played against was Indianapolis. Indianapolis came together and gelled as a crew. New York was talented, also. AO and me had a joke – we could lose on any given day. As far as talent, Alabama really didn’t have all the talent together compared to our team but what they did have was a want and a love and a fight to win the game and it crept up on us at the end.
Like I said, AO made a joke earlier like “We just lost to the Bad News Bears.” (laughs)
AO: The whole overall atmosphere of streetball, you always either gets some dribblers or some dunkers. Now this year, we’re starting to see a lot of guys who can do different things. Shooters, not necessarily a ‘Fess or a TJ (Air Up There) that we get all the time. You normally get a high jumper who just wants to dunk or someone who wants to throw the ball in their t-shirt and roll around on the ground. Now we’re starting to get a lot of ballplayers.
Back in the day, we used to have a lot of guys come out. Mike James came out a lot, and Ricky Davis. I think Ricky Davis played against us one summer like nine to 11 times. He kept flying himself out to every city and just playing. He was just balling with us, period. That was dope.
Mike James was coming out because I sparked it, told him he wasn’t s***. He took that personal and wanted to come out and show that he was in the NBA and we’re streetballers (laughs).
DS: Last year Josh Shelby played in Baltimore against them. Derek Fisher got his practice for being a coach for the first time last year with us because Fish was the coach of the L.A. team. But they’ve had a lot of recognizable people, names, and real ballplayers just come and participate over the past few years. Current guys like your Hardens and your Fishers and your George Hills, but ex-guys too. I think the first year Dr. J and Rick Fox were coaches. Dennis Rodman was one of the coaches.
SIK WIT IT: When Rick Davis was coming out, he was coming out serious, though. He came out nine games trying to put 40 up. He was trying to make his NBA name ring louder at a streetball game. He was giving us love at the same time. If you’re coming down to play against us, you better have your game ready because we ready.
AO: He went crazy in Miami. Everybody was acting like he ain’t score on anyone. All the big guys were acting like they weren’t guarding him and then you looked in the book and he had like 66.
PROFESSOR: All of our dudes who were 6-4 and up, he gave each person like 15 points (laughs).
SIK WIT IT: I keep reiterating, we don’t get enough credit, man. Everybody has a different city. Everybody has a life. Everybody is doing what they’re doing. For us to come together without really practicing, and just doing individual things to make our game better, and we come together as a whole and gel the way we gel, it’s an impressive thing for us to do that.
PROFESSOR: If someone were to tell me that we don’t train together year-round and practice and then we come together and gel like that, there’s no way I would believe them. A good friend of mine who is an NBA trainer, he asked me the other day if our stuff was fake because he’s like “Man, y’all, sometimes you kill somebody on the wing and then you drive to the rack and it just so happens that somebody cuts to the basket and it’s a perfect alley-oop.” He was thinking that it came together too good to be real.
Since I got down in 2003, I’ve never played any summer tour games that weren’t high-level competition. I think what people discount or don’t think about is that if a play is going to be a highlight, the defense is never going to look good. That wouldn’t even make sense. How is a defense going to look good on a highlight?
People make this conclusion that we might not have high-level competition but then again I think they underestimate us. As far as the comp, I do think it’s getting better with Ball Up. Social media is expanding. The buzz is crazy. We are turning away at least 2,000 to 4,000 people in each city from an attendance standpoint.
AO: When you get to cities where streetball is a form of life, like Philly, Chicago, New York, D.C., of course the game is going to be more hype because people wait all year for the summertime just to go to these Dyckmans and these Ruckers and the Chicago Pro-Am and the Barry Farms in D.C. That’s different than going to a Birmingham. That crowd is hyped because they don’t really get to see that environment.
PROFESSOR: It’s always way crazy than your traditional summer league game because they come with the anticipation in mind. They’ve seen us on YouTube. They’ve seen us on TV. They know what to expect. They really get excited about that. I think our atmosphere is way more hype than any summer basketball game that goes on because we have more frequent highlights throughout the game.
A smaller city where we don’t normally go to is going to be hyped. A bigger city where streetball is part of the culture are going to be hyped. If we go international, those are beyond hyped because they know they’re only going to get us once every few years if it’s not a country you go back to every year. It makes it that much more special.
AO: I always say at the end of the day with the streetball stuff, the game is the game. It’s a real game when it’s slow. It’s a real game when it’s fast. It’s a real game when it’s entertainment. But the way they’re promoting the game and how we’re presented and how we’re seen on TV, that’s what really makes this so dope. The stuff that’s going with the kids in between the timeouts and the giveaways and it’s just dope from the intro all the way to the game. It’s going to draw a nice audience. It’s different. It’s not just us going out there and playing ball. You really get a show, a whole show inside of the show. That’s dope.
For me, in a couple of years, I hope to be on the other side because these guys who come in and try to win every year don’t necessarily understand it’s cool for you to get 40 points going against us on the other team. But it’s way harder to get on this team and be able to make a dent.
SIK WIT IT: Timing is everything but I think Ball Up for the most part is a big and up-and-coming company. They are really trying to market each individual better than other streetball companies have. I would say that. They’re bringing the entertainment value to a high point so if you’re trying to get on, they have to stay ready rather than having to get ready. We’re on our way out. We got a few years left but I’m trying to be on the other side also to help up-and-coming kids that want to get to the place that we are right now.
AO: I’m sure all of us wanted to play basketball on the highest level, but nobody intended this. Now kids have dreams of becoming famous streetball players and that’s crazy. That’s something you would do at the park for free, now you can make money and make a living off it. That’s crazy right there.
Streetball is equivalent to hip-hop. Nobody thought the DJ could set up his turntables on a light post on the park, start playing music and put a little “uh huh uh huh” and now those people are owning companies. Jay has got 40/40s and airports and clothing lines and doing his shows with rock stars. Just off a DJ setting up in the park. That’s that same way with streetball. It’s its own genre. Like there’s nothing to fall back on, people are really dreaming of becoming famous streetball players and that’s dope.
Follow Sean on Twitter at @seansweeney