Thursday, June 14, 2001
Updated: June 15, 12:21 PM ET
Bedazzling ballhandlers make video a Stomping success
By Darren Rovell
On a Tuesday in March, 18-year-old Luis Da Silva Jr. arrived at Kaufman Astoria Studios, Stage E, just as he was told. After going through wardrobe and makeup, and greasing up his body with baby oil to create the illusion of sweat, the 5-foot-11, bald-headed wonder they call "Trikz" flaunted the basketball moves he had been practicing in his "2-by-4 backyard" in Elizabeth, N.J., since "the first of the Chicago Bulls' three-peats began."
Da Silva dazzled before the five cameras with his Harlem Globetrotter-like dribble moves that day to the tune of the shoe-squeaking, hand-clapping, basketball-pounding, Stomp-reminding, hip-hop rhythm that has become the familiar background of the Nike Freestyle commercials. Included among the moves was his single-handed, behind-the-back toss-and-catch. He completed the maneuver, of course, while proudly holding his chin with the right hand.
After first airing its 60-second commercial during the NBA All-Star weekend in February, Nike turned the spot -- predominantly filled with NBA stars like Vince Carter, Baron Davis, Lamar Odom, Rasheed Wallace and Jason Williams -- into three more Freestyle versions that included the work of other asphalt gods with names like Malloy "The Future" Nesmith and Chris "Handlz" Franklin.
"It blew up like a neutron bomb and we said, 'The playoffs are coming so we might as well take it to the next level,' " said Jimmy Smith, a copywriter at Weiden+Kennedy, the advertising firm that produced the commercial for Nike. Smith and his creative partner, Hal Curtis, dreamed up the spot in 1998.
Fueling the fire
"Taking it to the next level" included the creation of the 2-1/2 minute, music-video-style advertisement dubbed "Freestyle150." After it aired six times on MTV, the spot achieved cult proportions. Much like the Budweiser "wassup" ads and another Nike commercial that caught Tiger Woods bouncing a golf ball on the face of his club before hitting it with a picture-perfect swing, the Freestyle ad became all the rage in high schools and around the office water cooler.
Much Music, the Canadian music video channel, aired a 24-minute, behind-the-scenes Freestyle show on its U.S. television broadcast. Copies of the broadcast were seen selling on eBay for more than $45 a piece.
"Everyone was talking about it," said Franklin, 28, a child therapist from Harrisburg, Pa., who played with the Harlem Wizards for a one-and-a-half years. In the ad, Franklin dribbles a ball while moving backward on his knees. "From grandmothers to little kids, wherever I went people were running to the TV as soon as they heard that music."
Like the Budweiser ads, Nike knew it had become big when it started being spoofed. TNT's "Inside the NBA" parodied the commercial, as did ESPN's "NBA2Night," Craig Kilborn on CBS' "Late Late Show" and even the Milwaukee Bucks coaching staff. George Karl and his assistant coaches tried to loosen up their team before Game 7 of the Eastern Conference semifinals by showing a video of them imitating the Nike streetballers. "Scary Movie 2," which will be released July 4, also is supposed to feature a Freestyle knockoff.
"The Nike swoosh is recognizable enough that the company can afford to have a commercial with entertainment value -- a bunch of guys dribbling around," said Kenneth Shropshire, author of "Basketball Jones: America Above the Rim," a book on basketball and popular culture. "Budweiser can do the same thing. They drop a logo after the 'wassup' ad and you know who they are and what they make. Both commercials are less aggressively in your face about the product they make and in softening up the message it's more unique and pulls you out of the usual advertisement clutter."
The run of Freestyle ads, which were choreographed by Tony-winning dancer Savion Glover, will come to an end when the NBA Finals concludes. It's success has been more than Nike officials had imagined.
"The amount of e-mails, phone calls and faxes has been higher than we can ever recall for an ad campaign," said Eric Oberman, communication manager for Nike Basketball.
Nike did its best to keep the frenzy alive. In late April, it launched Nikebasketball.com, complete with all versions of the commercials and a Freestyle remixer, which users can create their own remix of Freestyle video. Fans also can enter their own video in a contest. The player whose performance registers the most votes on June 18 will appear in a future Nike commercial. In less than two months, the site has received three million page views, Oberman said.
But just because the commercials stop doesn't mean the Freestyle promotion will come to an end. Many of those players featured in the commercial, including Da Silva and Franklin, have signed one-year promotional contracts with Nike. Da Silva, who is of Italian and Portuguese descent, appeared on a Freestyle float in last Sunday's Puerto Rican parade in New York. And both will be part of a Freestyle concert tour of sorts that begins in Taiwan in August, Franklin said.
Carving out a niche
While Smith said Freestyle speaks to "the heart of the game," the ads -- featuring dribblers complete with tattoos and corn rows -- clearly are targeted to hip-hop-loving streetballers, a niche Nike was losing out to shoe and apparel rival, And1.
"And1 made heroes out of streetballers and Nike didn't have that, so they figured that they'd go full blast and that's exactly what Freestyle is," said Da Silva, who is featured as the solo performer in a 30-second commercial. Nike must have gotten something right. Franklin and Da Silva are among those who appeared in the commercials who have received free And1 clothes. Both were offered "nice money," Franklin said, to switch to And1.
Smith said Nike could safely say there was a direct correlation between the Freestyle spots and an increase in basketball shoes and apparel sales over the past couple months. Oberman would not confirm the relationship between the two.
Da Silva said his life has changed since that Tuesday in March. Things can't be bad when there is a 6-foot poster of you hanging on a wall in Nike Town in New York.
Then again, Da Silva said, it's hard getting the Freestyle beat out of his head when its time to go to sleep at night.
Darren Rovell, who covers sports business for ESPN.com, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.