No business like shoe-business
By Eric Neel
Page 2 columnist

Page 2's "Critical Mass" is a weekly survey of what's happening at the busy intersection of sports and pop culture.

Ever since Spike and Mike did "It's gotta be the shoes!," commercials for basketball treads have been must-see. These days, they're the premier ads on television -- sharp cinematography, jammin' soundtracks, and a subtle blend of street smarts and Madison Avenue savvy.

Mars Blackmon, Michael Jordan
Do you know, do you know, do you know?
Like the league itself, the world of hoop shoe ads is a come-strong-or-don't-come-at-all thing. Almost every spot is high-concept and turned-out, each one looking to take the form higher, to be the new gold standard, to get guys talking on the playgrounds. You watch these commercials and you think, Damn, why isn't everybody -- why aren't sitcom producers and politicians -- this serious about their work? You watch them and you get a little buzz -- it's like the feeling you get watching the opening sequence of Orson Welles' "Touch of Evil" for the first time, or when Martin Scorsese does those bam-pow-zoom shots in "GoodFellas" -- the rush that comes in the perfect balance of substance and flash.

Last season, Lee proved old-school ain't necessarily old, when he delivered Nike's jazz-inflected "All Rhythm, No Blues" bits, and the champeen spots came from Nike's "Freestyle" campaign, each one a crazy, nuh-uh, no-way celebration of the art of the dribble.

This year is just getting started. Reebok and adidas are first out of the gate, Reebok with an ad for Allen Iverson's "Answer 6," and adidas with one for the "TMac2," the signature shoes of Tracy McGrady.

Both commercials are strong, squarely in the tradition, but which is stronger? Here's the breakdown:

Reebok "A6"
Allen Iverson
The look: Just slightly hyped-up black-and-white. The floor is black, the ball is bright, and Iverson and rapper Jadakiss are in white sleeveless jerseys. It's a stripped-down, simple thing -- straight-ahead. While JKiss describes him ("Soon as you guard up, you ain't got a chance to stop it ..."), AI does crossovers and layups. He looks easy, liquid. He flits and flows behind and beside JKiss for a while, bobbing his head, then lets the ball go and moves his arms like wings, laying down his own rhymes: "For 2K3 I rock the A6 my new kicks/Take a few hits, it ain't nothin'/ I'm used to it." Iverson looks right at the camera most of the time -- dribbling, rapping, staring -- and moves in and out of focus as JKiss holds sway.

The sound: It's a dribble, swish and squeak track; the sound of balls dropping through nets, balls bouncing, and shoes cutting on hardwood, layered and syncopated to play like a throw-back Boogie Down Productions track off "Ghetto Music."

The strong suit
1. The look is lush but quiet, confident without braggadocio.

2. The lyrics play up Iverson's personality more than his game: "Tryin' to build a team I'm the player ya need/Heart like Willis Reed," he says at one point, while JKiss talks dedication at another: "Besides family the only thing on his mind now is a ring."

3. The spot plays against type (or against the popular perception of Iverson, anyway) with a simple delivery that says he's not about flourish, and he respects the game: "AI and Jadakiss presenting the A6/It's all fundamentals and basics." At the same time, the ad stays true to Iverson's school, talking about how he "brought the hood to game," and about how "they love him for the braids and tats." It's an unorthodox, kind of brave, and just plain cool, pairing: Willis Reed and the braids and tats coming together in the little point guard that could, the little point guard that won't do it any way but his way. In a little more than a minute, the ad gives us the flavor of the complicated Iverson, the flavor that makes him such a challenge to any labels we might want to put on him.

4. It turns out, Iverson can rap a little.

The underbelly 1. Too much Jadakiss on camera. There's something appealing, in the abstract, about Iverson giving up center stage, playing the low-fi ego and all, but it's only appealing in the abstract. In the concrete world, on the screen in front of my face, JKiss is a distraction.

2. The ad is too much like last year's ad for the "A5," which had a similar look and sound (and even more JKiss, and even less AI).

3. This line: "Yeah Trackmasters, AI and Jadakiss, make sure you go out and get a pair of the A6." I don't care if it does rhyme, this is some clunky, clunky stuff right here. We're in a post-post-modern world, Mr. Reebok Man. Shoes sell by second- and third-hand associations. Shoes sell with the whiff, the hint, of a direct connection. Make me feel good about AI, make me dig his rhythms and moves, I'll find the shoes. But tell me to buy the shoes straight-out and I'll end up thinking you're a little bit desperate and a little bit square. Tell me to buy the shoes, and you threaten to undo all the good vibe you've been working with that lush look and those irresistible swish-and-squeak hooks.

Adidas "TMac2"
Tracy McGrady
The look: This one's in color, and the colors are amped -- the Magic's blue never looked so deep and bright. It's a game situation and the court is bathed in light. The surroundings, except for a row or two of fans and an occasional camera flash, are a dramatic black. Mike Miller steals a ball and throws it behind his back to McGrady, who does a little reverse-pivot spin move at the top of the key, and gets clear for a dunk. After the slam, McGrady points to Miller, Miller points to the coach, the coach points to Horace Grant, who points back to McGrady. It's a share-the-love thing. Next trip down the court features a give-and-go between Grant and TMac, and McGrady reverse jams, lands (in some smart new black-and-blue shoes, I might add), and gives Grant his propers now that he's home.

Key moments -- the behind-the-back pass, the dunk, etc. -- are slowed way down, as if maybe Samantha, despite Darrin's insistence that the boys learn how to win on their own, with nothing but mortal skills at their disposal, had wiggled her nose. Fade to almost black and the words "Forever Sport" appear on screen, followed by the adidas logo, and then we're out.

The sound: No music. Mostly situational sound. Crowd noise, foot falls, bouncing balls and horns, cut with brief periods of spooky, Bionic-Woman hyper-awareness of breathing, heartbeats, eyelash blinks and such, and all periodically backed up by a low, rising drone -- the sonic equivalent of slow-motion.

The strong suit
1. This is one purty ad.

2. The time and sound shifts are Matrix-bitchin'. Plus, they make ordinary plays seem extraordinary, make the synchronicity that goes on between players in rhythm with one another seem like a spectacular exception to the rules the rest of us play by.

3. The teamwork concept is fresh. It's a TMac ad, they're his shoes, but it's an ensemble thing, too (the ad is called "Acknowledge"). He works in concert. His shoes and his game are in the flow. Nice. And again, like the A6 spot, the youngsters, even in the midst of a cutting-edge-technology presentation, are acknowledging the root principles of the game. There's plenty of flair in the ad -- McGrady's dunks are vicious and delicious -- but it's balanced, it's the result of something. You can feel the ad cutting against the grain of highlight films, even as it echoes them.

4. No words (other than the written slogan at the end, which is standard on all adidas ads right now). Two bonuses here: One, even with its special effects and style, the ad has a cinema verite thing going for it -- you feel like you're watching something authentic. Two, the ad taps into the little ways players communicate with their eyes, and with body language, making it feel, in a subtle but important way, like it's the players' ad, not the shoe company's, like it's a short film about what they do, and the shoes they do it in are all just part of the mix. You end up wanting to be part of it, to speak the silent language, to experience the time warp, to get the props for a well-placed pass (and, in fact, TMac's last finger-point ends up being at you). You feel like you're watching an idea, rather than a person or a product.

The underbelly
1. The idea of selling the idea, not the shoe, feels borrowed, from Nike especially.

2. The shoe-shot (after the second dunk) isn't necessary. It's not as clumsy as the buy-the-shoe-line in the A6 commercial, but it's clumsy enough to make it seem adidas doesn't 100 percent trust its concept, and doesn't trust us either -- bad move in a teamwork ad.

"TMac2" gets the nod. The "A6" spot is solid, but it doesn't stay with you. Not enough Iverson at its heart. The "TMac" is a stop-what-you're-doing-and-watch ad, a poem. And, with Miller and Grant willing to play supporting roles, and with McGrady willing to share the stage with them, maybe a warning for the rest of the Eastern Conference.

Eric Neel reviews sports culture in his "Critical Mass" column, which will appear every Wednesday on Page 2. You can e-mail him at



Eric Neel Archive

In hoops, too, it's a California thing

Critical Mass: Style points

Critical Mass: 10 things I like about this World Series

Critical Mass: Never too late to redeem Bonds

Critical Mass: It's been our privilege, Ernie Harwell

Critical Mass: Do new ads work the United Way?

Critical Mass: No one compares to Johnny U.

Critical Mass: The power of empathy

Email story
Most sent
Print story

espn Page 2 index