Interview with AND1’s ‘Big Mike’ Ellis
“Who you with? HoopsVibe? Y’all ain’t official until you’ve interviewed Big Mike.”
With the main game hours from tipping off, Big Mike is as restless as a six-year-old on Christmas Eve. The languid play of the open run just isn’t giving him his fix today, and, as a consequence, he’s as impatient as any addict looking for his next hit. Mike’s drug isn’t a substance, however; it’s a game – streetball – and today there isn’t much resembling it in the parking lot of the UM Convocation Center.
As all streetball junkies know, there are only three ways to combat withdrawal symptoms: Play streetball, watch streetball or discuss streetball. With the first two off the menu, Mike went for the third option. As luck would have it, that meant that a young reporter loitering in the shade of the stage – yours truly if you hadn’t guessed – was given the opportunity to speak to one of the legends of the industry, a man whose three decades of involvement with the game more than qualify him to decide whether or not we’re official.
With my recording equipment close at hand, I was able to capture our conversation on tape so that the rest of you would have the opportunity to learn from someone who’s seen a thing or two. Read on for the first of instalment in a seven-part series of AND1 interviews, available exclusively at HoopsVibe.com.
C.Y. Ellis: How’s the tour been going so far this year?
Big Mike: Oh, man, the tour is great. I see that the talent pool has gone up dramatically, and I think you’ll be in for some new surprises this summer.
CYE: The big story right now is the return of Hot Sauce. Has his comeback met expectations?
BM: I think you’d have to discuss that with Hot Sauce. You know, I coach against Hot Sauce, and I think he’s really improving since the last time we played, and I think it’ll be alright for the fans.
CYE: What’s been the best stop on the tour for you so far?
BM: Denver – the game I won.
CYE: Tell us about some of the individual highlights of the tour.
BM: My man Homicide. Who got the ball? Homicide. Everything was Homicide.
CYE: Corey isn’t at Rucker right now. What’s happening with him?
BM: Last time I spoke to him, a couple of days ago, he was playing with the Denver Nuggets’ summer league team. If he had a choice between the Nuggets and The Rucker, I think he’d go for them big cheques.
CYE: You mentioned Rucker Park when we were talking earlier. How do you think the basketball there compares to something like AND1?
BM: There’s no comparison. When you think about it, the Rucker tournament is just what it is: a tournament. We’re a travelling tour, so there’s really no comparison.
CYE: In that case, what makes AND1 what it is? There are other companies out there, but you’re far and away the biggest brand on the planet.
BM: Because we have some of the biggest individual stars on the planet coming to your neighbourhood. So you don’t have to go to them; we come to you.
CYE: People are still talking about the influence AND1 has on kids who should be focusing on indoor-type basketball. What do you say to them?
BM: I say “Look at Allen Iverson’s crossover.” You know, that’s always been around. When Bob Cousy went behind his back, they said there were no fundamentals. Pete Maravich, Jason Williams, Allen Iverson: There’s always going be players with some flair, and players who can’t do it and complain about fundamentals.
CYE: How does the talent of today stack up to that of yesteryear?
BM: No matter what it is, the talent evolves, so you get better and better as we go along. The guys that were in the NBA fifty years ago could not do the things that NBA guys can do today, and it’s the same way in streetball.
CYE: So, if the guys who held down Rucker back in the day – Joe Hammond, Pee Wee Kirkland, The Goat – came out in 2006, how would they perform against the competition?
BM: Those guys were so ahead of their time that I know they would still do well. I would never disrespect some of those legends because I know they were so good that they’d do the same thing today as they did yesterday.
CYE: Talking of all-time legends, Air Up There just reserved a spot in the dunking hall of fame. How does he rank among the dunkers around now?
BM: The Air Up There is my favourite dunker on the planet, besides James White.
CYE: Flight White! That was my boy when he was in Florida.
BM: Those are my two favourite dunkers on the planet. I’m going to be a little biased because Air Up There is on the tour with us. And, no matter what happens with his career, James White will be with us also.
CYE: Since you mentioned both of those players, I’ll ask you for your thoughts on an argument I’ve been having recently. What’s better: Taurian’s 720, or James White’s between-the-legs-from-the- free-throw-line dunk?
BM: They need to put a million dollars down and do a poll on ESPN, and the winner gets the million dollars.
CYE: Do you ever think a guy like James White would come out here now that he’s been drafted?
BM: I know he’s really interested in getting that big-money contract, but there’s always a place for him here also. This is the only place you can do both, so I hope he makes it in the NBA, but I hope he graces us with his presence to play one game also.
CYE: We talked before about AND1 as a platform for players to get professional contracts. Do you think it might sometimes hurt a player’s chances of going pro if teams consider them as streetballers rather than pure basketball players?
BM: I think that anything is possible with the opportunity that AND1 presents. So you’ll see guys like A.O. doing print work for Boost Mobile. You’ll see guys like Hot Sauce – he did a movie. Me, I hope to be on the radio one day. So it gives us more professional opportunities.
CYE: Staying on that issue, do you think that the increased interest that goes hand-in-hand with the new money in the game helps streetball or cheapens the product?
BM: I saw Jay-Z doing an HP computer commercial; I don’t think it hurts anything at all because everybody stills knows that he’s the greatest alive.
CYE: So you think it’s just the natural progression of the game then?
BM: People want to pigeonhole something; they think they own it. But when you have a beautiful prize, it’s for everybody.
CYE: Do you think perhaps that streetball is going the same way as rap music? White America embraced rap and, I personally feel, ruined the product. Do you think streetball could go the same route?
BM: You know, that’s the beauty, because we go to your local neighbourhood, and we’re always looking for the best talent. We try to put the best talent out there at all times, so I don’t think it’ll be the same as rap.
CYE: Where do you think streetball can go from here? Do you think it may have reached a peak? Is that possible?
BM: It’s impossible because we have expanded globally. We’ve been to Europe, Asia, Australia – streetball is a global phenomenon. Any time you think it’s peaked, there’s always a new, younger guy that’s coming out, so it never peaks.
CYE: You’ve been involved in streetball for so long now that you’re a part of the game yourself. How did you initially come to be involved?
BM: I used to play basketball way back yonder, so I’ve always been a fan of the game, always going to the games since the early days to see Joe Hammond, Pee Wee Kirkland, Earl Manigault, those types of guys. I’ve been going to games for over thirty years, so I’ve just always been a fan. Then my nephew, who played for Miami Heat and now plays for the Rockets, Rafer Alston, we would go to these AND1 functions together. It gave me an opportunity, and I took it and ran with it.
CYE: Talking of Rafer, he started off as another skinny kid from New York, and now he’s a streetball icon. What made Skip different from the others?
BM: You see, a lot of people think that you can’t jump from streetball, but Skip is a student of the game and a master of the fundamentals. So, when people look at Skip, they sometimes overlook how intelligent he is and how knowledgeable he is of the game. But this is a guy who knows every fundamental. For me, as a coach of over thirty years, I can still go and ask him a question and he always has the answer.
CYE: What’s interesting is that Ron Naclerio said much the same thing to me, so now, having heard it from you as well, I’m taking that as gospel!
BM: Absolutely. And I’m not just the announcer: I’m the recruiter, coach – I do a lot of things for AND1, and one of the things I love to do is find new talent. So if anybody feels they’re talented, please come to an open run in a city near you. Remember that the Air Up There had a job in Houston, and now he’s “Mister 720”. Anything is possible.
CYE: Let’s go somewhere else with this now. Mike and Scottie have the court, and you need to pick two streetball players to go against them. Who you taking?
BM: I’ma go with Skip and my man “All Day” Steve Burtt.
CYE: Steve Burtt! Tell us about the guy, because he never received the publicity of some of these other dudes. To me, he was never fully appreciated as one of the talents of the game.
BM: Steve Burtt might be one of the few people I know that averaged fifty points a game for five summers in a row. Back then, it was against NBA-calibre talent and the best and hungriest streetball players around, so that’s really a remarkable feat. Even today, in a shooting contest, I would bet my money that he could beat just about anybody around.
CYE: I’m pretty deep in the streetball game, but these are things I’ve never heard before, at least not from a reliable source. Tell us about some of the other things you’ve seen that today’s fans have never heard about.
BM: I’ve seen Joe Hammond make fifteen jumpshots off the backboard in a game situation in a row. I saw him score thirty straight points with the same shot. I’ve never seen anybody take anything off the top of the backboard, but the Air Up There said that if the money’s right, if someone’s willing to put a cheque up there, he’ll go do it for modern-day street basketball.
CYE: Who do you think is the nicest player in streetball that isn’t currently with AND1?
BM: My man “Big Strick” – John Strickland.
CYE: The Franchise!
BM: If I had to get one man, it would be my man Big Strick.
CYE: The Charles Barkley of streetball.
BM: He’s the Charles Barkley, the Rick Mahorn and the Martin Lawrence of streetball!
CYE: What about some of these younger guys on the scene?
BM: There’s my man “World Premiere” out of New York City playing in Kingdome. We played against him last year. There’s also my man Bobby out of D.C. – they call him “The Draft Pick”. There’s so much talent around.
CYE: What one thing do you want people out there to know about AND1?
BM: That we put on a great event, and that you want to come back over and over again.
CYE: Thanks for your time, Mike.
BM: Thank you.