Barbara Lippert’s Critique

Every couple of years, Nike comes out with a commercial that is so transcendentally good it sets a new bar for creativity. “Freestyle,” the most recent basketball spot from Wieden + Kennedy, does just that.

Imagine the high-wire mastery of the Tiger Woods spot in which he bounces a golft ball on a club face, combined with the pulse of Stomp.

Except that here, building slowly, frame by frame, the beauty and grace of basketball are fused with hip-hop, street and African dance, all set to an amazing rhythm. It’s not musical instruments, but a track composed of the actual sounds, the bounce and squeak, of the sport itself. And whether you’re a B-ball maniac or not, you’ll find the precision and artistry of the spot hypnotic.

It also embodies a hard truth. With every generation, we see more of the selling of black culture to white mainstream America.

Each generation ratchets up the comfort level. This has been happening in music and fashion for a long time; it’s a nonissue in youth culture. There is an unsettling divide, however, in the National Basketball Association. This was recently brought to life during the All-Star game, at which Commissioner David Stern (a middle-aged, buttoned-up white guy) embraced player Alan Iverson, who also happens to have released a rap record filled with offensive lyrics. It was just like Elton John harmonizing with Eminem.

Now, given the NBA’s mission—to promote this new, not-quite-ready-for-prime-time, post-Michael Jordan generation of players—it’s amazing this spot is so crowd pleasing.

Raised on rap and hip-hop, these athletes are to McDonald’s-approved endorsers like Magic Johnson and Larry Bird what the next generation of more profane (and felony prone) rappers are to a sanitized sitcom star like Will Smith.

They play a more singular, self-expressive game. Nike took the accusation from the hip-hop haters —this isn’t teamwork; it’s all glitz—then found a way to showcase individual skills.

It starts with a single graceful move—one player in the black-and-white frame passing the ball. The spot features the distinct moves, stunts and dribbles of Vince Carter (Toronto Raptors) Rasheed Wallace (Portland Trailblazers), Jason Williams (Sacramento Kings), and Darius Miles and Lamar Odom (Los Angeles Clippers) seamlessly interspersed with the action of L.A. street-ball players, break dancers and hip-hop crews.

It’s the depth of talent that makes the difference. “Freestyle” is visually pure and true and beautifully edited. It starts with Savion Glover, who won the Tony for his dancing and choreography in Bring in da Noise, Bring in da Funk. He drilled the rhythm of the track into the streetball players and hip-hop guys. Each athlete was then shot individually, on a sound stage, by video director Paul Hunter. They move, play, dribble and do layups with Glover’s dance direction.

The soundtrack is also a many-leveled thing. First, the creative team commissioned Steve Brown and Afrika Bombaataa to compose an original rhythmic track using traditional instruments. Once that was recorded, Jeff Elmassian of DigiHearit took the sounds of the video shoot, the things that so identify basketball, like the squeak of the shoes moving on the court’s polished floor, and used them to replace musical instruments.

The resulting score is a perfectly integrated tour de force. It is hugely entertaining, but it also smartly hedges its bets about the NBA’s next breakout star.

And by the way, the shoes look great.