We spoke to Kevin Wilson, Jr., the director of Netflix’s Untold: The Rise and Fall of AND1, about documenting the streetball era of basketball and the importance of remaining unbiased.
In the early ’90s, three college friends with an affinity for basketball — Jay Coen Gilbert, Seth Berger, and Tom Austin — started selling t-shirts out the back of their trucks. The shirts featured funny trash talk often heard on the basketball courts, like “I’m the bus driver. I take everyone to school” or “Go to church. Pray you don’t guard me.” Little did that trio know they were launching a global brand that would transcend basketball.
By the late 90s, the trio’s brand, called AND1, would reach another stratosphere with the AND1 Mixtape Vol. 1, a marketing tool that merged hip-hop and street basketball for the first time. That first tape, which is affectionally known as the “The Skip Tape,” was introduced in 1998. The tape, which was given away at local sportswear stores and passed around neighborhoods, featured Rafer “Skip 2 My Lou” Alston highlights over rap songs (including the all-time classic posse cut, “1999.”) Over the next couple of years AND1 would drop dozens of tapes, featuring legendary players such as Philip “Hot Sauce” Champion, Shane “The Dribbling Machine” Woney, and Waliyy “The Main Event” Dixon. The players immediately became hood favorites, proving that the NBA wasn’t the only way to become a basketball star.
In 2002, AND1 introduced a traveling basketball competition on ESPN. The tour allowed players in touring cities to compete for a spot on the team, leading to the introduction of Grayson “The Professor” Boucher. Their success would challenge billion-dollar basketball giants like Nike; the brand would also expand into video games, sponsorships, and sold-out basketball arenas. And then, only three short years later, AND1 suddenly faded from the spotlight.
Netflix’s latest Untold series, The Rise and Fall of AND1, tells this story of what happened, about how AND1 went from owning the heart of the game to cultural irrelevancy in the span of a couple of years.
The Rise and Fall of AND1 was directed by Kevin Wilson, Jr., who directed the critically acclaimed short My Nephew Emmett, back in 2017. We spoke with Wilson, Jr. about documenting this era of basketball and the importance of remaining unbiased in his storytelling.
Tell us how you became the director of this project?
Kevin Wilson, Jr.: "The guys who created the series of Untold are Maclain and Chapman Way. My agent called me because I’m always talking about sports, and he knows how much of a basketball head I am. He called me and was like, “Hey, I think there’s an opportunity to tell the story here. Why don’t you meet with Mac and Chap?” And we talked in 2019 about what this could be. As someone growing up in North Carolina — who couldn’t afford to go to UNC games — I just remember seeing the mixtapes when I was a kid, and I remember them coming to North Carolina."
"I wanted to meet these guys through what I love, filmmaking, and then I wanted to figure out what happened. Because, you know, one day we’re watching these mixtapes and the next minute they’re gone."
Why was trust such a big part of this particular project for you?
"Trust is everything; these guys aren’t going to open up to anybody. For me, I want to go to their community and be where they are. I’m not going to pull them out and usher them somewhere else to some Hollywood studio. I want to get to know them and their community and hear what they have to say. We sat down with each of the guys for six hours for each of the interviews, so they had the space to talk and say what they wanted and get it off their chest. Vulnerability requires trust."
Why did you speak with the players before the founders?
"Because we wanted to use what the players said, present to the founders, and get their responses and reactions to it. So that was the approach. Honestly, this could have been like The Last Dance. This could’ve been 10 episodes. All the stuff that we ended up getting, I wish we had the time to include a lot of the stories that had to be cut, because there’s still so much more that these guys had to say."
Discuss the connection And 1 brought to kids who weren’t fortunate to see professional basketball in person.
"I’m not putting myself in the same love of the game as Shane, and those guys, but we were born in circumstances where we just didn’t have the money to enjoy things considered the American dream. I remember there were players that I liked, who were good at playing at the high school level, who wouldn’t get recruited by Duke and [North] Carolina because they didn’t present a certain way."
"When we saw AND1 come, it was like, these are guys like us. They didn’t necessarily make it to the NBA for whatever reason. But they finally had the opportunity to travel the world, get paid to play, and go into these arenas. And so, to me, it was what the American dream should be. It was finally giving opportunities to the folks who had been shut out for so long."
As a fan of these players, how were you able to remain unbiased after hearing their stories and telling them to the people they’re hurt by?
"It’s tough, because I see myself and many of these players. My mom is from Rafer Alston’s neighborhood, and they went to school right up the street, so it was hard. It’s hard not to connect with them in a very intimate and emotional way. Then it’s hard not to then judge the people who they’re talking about. But as a filmmaker, I can’t. I have to go in as unbiased as possible, so that I can get the founders the truth, because I think both deserve a platform, and then the audience can come to their own determination of what to feel."
"I think the worst thing that we can do as a documentarian — or as a filmmaker — is to impose our point of view on someone. In a film, you present multiple points of view, and then the people who are of the culture and appreciate the culture, they’ll know what they feel."
"And so, for me, it was about going in and trying to be as gracious as possible, but also not letting folks off the hook without giving it away. Shane has a very specific experience with one of the founders, which was emotional for him. If he told me that, and I have not presented a question to Seth, it would be irresponsible for me. I would lose all trust because, it’s like, what would be the point of him opening up to me about this if I wasn’t going to then go back and at least ask?"
The players are the heartbeat of AND1. Discuss how important they were for the culture and obtaining your dream on a different path.
"Even though they weren’t able to obtain their dreams in the NBA, it’s still beautiful. They let people know that you don’t have to make it to the NBA to still find enjoyment and joy in the game. And there is value in, you know, playing shirts versus skins. There’s a value in the community you exist in. And so that’s what the mixtapes did for me. It made it even more fun to go out to the court, and try to like, replicate what we saw."
"When the guys went to these different cities, they wouldn’t just play in the arenas, they would go to the hood. You know what I mean? The guys never abandoned that part of the culture for the mainstream."
What do you want fans to take away from this film?
"I just want people to reminisce with their friends and reconnect with people who maybe they hadn’t spoken with in a while, just like AND1 brought my community together when I was young. Hopefully, this can remind people of a beautiful time in their lives, and give them the opportunity to relive moments with the players and hear stories they may not have heard before, hear stories of some iconic events, and then hear the gritty, unfiltered truth — from the folks who lived it. That’s the whole goal with Untold, in general, is to get out of the way and allow people to hear what people have to say."