Nike’s ‘Freestyle’ Has Grand Prix Magic Hip Hoops

Very few commercials capture my attention the way Wieden + Ken nedy’s 60-second “Freestyle” has.

The spot opens with a simple pass of the ball, the way most basketball games do. But then this elementary image gives way to a hypnotic cres cendo of movement and rhythm. Each player dribbles, dances, spins and bops to a subtle hip-hop beat and the rhythms of the game. The players themselves—the thump of their basketball, the squeaks of their rubber soles, and the grunts of their passes and their fouls—provide the musical accents.

It is no ordinary game on no ordinary court. A stark black backdrop and onyxlike metallic floors replace the customary fluorescent lighting and hardwood. It’s the perfect stage for the players’ every flex, jump and dunk. The contrast, combined with the overhead lighting, accentuates their muscular forms, while the floor reflects their agile movements. The rhythm builds.

Most of the shots feature single athletes performing their hip-hop–inspired riffs, but then a traditional break-dance circle surrounds one of the players as he spins on his head. The track finally breaks with a rim-clinging slam dunk. A lone figure runs into the distance as a ball bounces alone on the court and the Nike swoosh pops up in the corner of the screen.

It’s another slam dunk for Wieden + Kennedy, Portland, Ore., and a spot worthy of the Grand Prix this year. It’s beautifully choreographed and graceful in every way. And you can see the effort that was put into it.

The agency recruited an all-star cast of on-screen and off-screen talent to produce the virtually flawless tribute to the game. Vince Carter of the Toronto Raptors, Ra sheed Wallace of the Portland Trailblazers, Jason Williams of the Sacramento Kings, and Darius Miles and Lamar Odom from the Los Angeles Clippers are joined by street-ball players from New York and Los Angeles. (For hip-hop and basketball aficionados, the two-and-a-half-minute version, which airs on MTV, is a must. It’s even more dazzling than the original and can be found on Nike’s basketball Web site.)

To put the players in motion, the agency hired Savion Glover, the Bring in da Noise, Bring in da Funk Tony-winning choreographer and dancer. For the classic hip-hop rhythm that forms the spot’s underlying track, the agency went right to the “godfather of hip-hop,” Afrika Bambaataa (the New York DJ who transformed dance music with his 1982 electro-funk hit “Planet Rock”).

With Glover coaching and “Planet Rock” piping into the studio, the athletes matched their freestyle moves to the electronic beat. Music-video director Paul Hunter was brought in to di rect. In fact, the look of the spot was inspired in part by his video for D’Angelo’s “Untitled.”

The final track fuses a Bambaataa composition with a track by Jeff El massian of Digihearit, a Los Angeles-based music and sound-design company. Elmassian used his re cordings made during the shoot—of the ball bouncing, sneakers squeaking, whistles blowing and players grunting.

Despite the blatant attempts to disguise the spot as a music video, I can’t help but get caught up in the rhythm. Not since the Globetrotters has such a stylized and en tertaining ode to street ball been brought to the masses via mainstream TV. You don’t have to know the background—or even to really like basketball—to en joy the commercial. It’s in fectious. I haven’t dribbled a ball since I was forced to in high school, and I’m not particularly a fan of hip-hop. But the spot keeps me riveted. And it makes me want to move. Isn’t that the point of a Nike commercial?