Interview : The Return of AND1

And1 Tai Chi SCwords & interview_Nick DePaula

It's been quite a ride for the basketball brand known as AND1, after starting off in 1993 as a grad school project between three friends from Pennsylvania. Seth Berger, Jay Gilbert and Tom Austin were, like most college students, spending a night at a local bar, when the three began to jot down funny hoops trash talk slogans and phrases onto nearby napkins. By the end of the night, and perhaps with the aid of some liquid courage, the guys decided to turn their funny slogans into a run of three graphic t-shirts. After displaying their tees at an upcoming tradeshow shortly after, a few Foot Locker reps walking the floor took notice, and the two sides began talking. By the end of the following weekend, the three founders had convinced friends and family to loan them enough funds to fill up a Foot Locker story display with their tees. The tees took off. With a raceless, faceless Player logo and phrases like "Your game is as ugly as your girl" and "I'm the Bus Driver, I take everyone to school," the shirts had tapped into the ego and brashness of streetball that larger corporations were afraid to touch. AND1 soon introduced their original game shorts to the joy of ballers nationwide, and before they knew it, they were launching a footwear category by 1996, with Coney Island's finest, Stephon Marbury, on board.

While the rise to legitimacy in hoops circles during the 90's was quicker than anyone could have predicted, this past decade has been the exact opposite -- a continual slide in popularity. That's where Rob Purvy and Rod Keller come in. Purvy, AND1 Basketball Company Executive Director, and Keller, Director of Brand & Sports Marketing, both came to AND1 right at the start of 2008, and have been looking to re-direct the company ever since. With their efforts just now coming to fruition, after some tough decisions like trimming the NBA roster, ending the Mixtape Tour's eight year run domestically, and repairing the brand's retail prospects, AND1 appears primed for a return to relevance after a tough stretch during the past four years. Sole Collector spoke with both Purvy and Keller not only about their personal backgrounds as Division 1 ballers and longtime industry veterans, but also about the re-launch of the original Tai Chi, without a doubt the brand's most iconic model, as well as the company's plans and future going forward.

Nick DePaula: Can you guys share a bit about your own personal backgrounds and how you came to AND1?
Rob Purvy: Rod and I have actually worked together for the better part of fifteen years now, and we've been around it, of it, or somehow connected to basketball virtually all of our lives. This has almost been a labor of love and passion as much as anything else for me. Coincidentally, or ironically, depending on how you look at, I guess, I'm actually from Philadelphia and grew up there and played ball there and knew the founders of AND1 when they first started the brand originally. I had always had admiration for them from afar. I knew a lot of the original people from the brand and several of the people that worked with the brand, prior to this company's acquisition of the brand.

I actually started off in the industry as a store manager for a Foot Locker in Philadelphia, back in the 80's. I just always wanted to be around the game after playing high school and college basketball. I got a job as a tech rep for Reebok, and I did that for awhile in the Philadelphia/ New Jersey/ Delaware area. Then, I was fortunate enough to get a job to live in Asia. You hear people say they're a sneakerhead, but I'm really, truly a sneakerhead. [laughs] Most of the time, when people say they're a sneakerhead, they're actually into one style from a really big company that we know, and they're just into that shoe. I won't name the company, but if you don't know it, then you don't what sneakerheads are about. I lived in Pusan, South Korea for about two years, learning the manufacturing side. From there, I moved to Thailand and worked in manufacturing in Thailand for them. Then, I moved to Boston, which is where Reebok is headquartered at of course. I worked there for about seven years, and I eventually became Managing Director of Global Footwear Development. I joined adidas from there, hooked up with Rod, and did Basketball Marketing with him while there. Rod and I both eventually ended up working for Shaquille O'Neal for awhile, while he was at the start of his entrepreneurial ride that is still going on now. I ended up doing a brief stint with a couple of other brands and doing some entrepreneurial things with Rod, and then two years ago, we both ended up here and are trying to now resurrect this brand.

Rod Keller: After I graduated from USC in '87, I did a couple things working for our basketball alumni. I started cutting my teeth in the industry with the old LA Gear group, there was a group of old Reebok marketing executives that were hoping to turn LA Gear around. I worked there for about three years in the performance division. After I worked there, I moved up to Portland and was working for adidas, working in basketball and doing international marketing. Once I moved into product, that's when Rob and I hooked up and started working together. After I left adidas, I went over to Nike and worked there for two and a half years, and that's when the whole .com thing started and Purvy and I started working together again [for Shaq's Dunk.net.] Both he and I worked for American Sporting Goods, and we worked with Avia Basketball and now we've moved on and are working here. I've been involved in basketball in some way, shape or form for thirty-five years and have been in the industry now for about eighteen years.

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Above: Rob Purvy, left, and Rod Keller, right, are tasked with rebuilding the brand.

Both of you guys had been around the industry for quite some time already, and when you came to AND1 towards the end of 2007, what was your take on where the brand was at and what were you initially hoping to change in terms of the direction?
Rob Purvy: I think we accepted the responsibility. I think something that Rod and I have in common and both believe, is that if we show up and things are going well, we'd wonder why'd you need us. We both came to resuscitate and resurrect the brand and try and help get it back to where it was in the mid 90's and late 90's when the brand was at its peak in those days. One thing we can both say is that we were really admiring of the authenticity and passion for basketball that was always exuded by AND1. The main thing was to try and restore that and bring that back. Over the last two years, those have been the things that have been the driving force behind almost everything we do.

Rod Keller: It was really important for us to stabilize the ship in some ways. One of the things that we had discovered was that the Mixtape tour had become the brand, as opposed to the Mixtape being an element of the brand. Living and breathing basketball and delivering dynamic product, in conjunction with the Mixtape tour, is what the brand should be about. So, the thing that we wanted to do first and foremost was stabilize the ship, and let people know that the brand is there. That was one of the things that we heard most from people, "Hey, I love the brand, but where can I find it?" In our research, as we were re-establishing our strategies, our web guys found out that there's over 9,000 websites that are associated with AND1 in some way, shape or form. That was always the question though, "Where can I find it?" So getting the right products out there, and getting the right message out there, that's really what we've been focused on the last two years.

VC 350So the Tai Chi is the focal point of this campaign, as part of its tenth year anniversary.  When was the decision made to bring it back?
Rod Keller: When you look at the constant drive for authenticity that we have in almost all consumer goods, it was almost a perfect situation for us. As we looked up and realized that after being with this brand for almost two years now, that the most iconic performance shoe in the history of this company was creeping up on its tenth year anniversary; that was a great situation. The shoe came along, originally, around Holiday of 1999, and it really exploded onto the scene of course in February of 2000, when Vince Carter won the Dunk Contest in this shoe. There were a lot of things that we felt could be the ingredients to help create a tremendous menu with regard to bringing relevance to the brand and giving us an opportunity to bring back a shoe, that from all of the research and buzz that we've put out there, it seems like something that a lot of people have wanted to come back.

What kinds of colorways and special editions do you have guys planned?
Rob Purvy: Well I think we would be remiss if we didn't come back with the original white/red/silver colorway, which was the one that won that Dunk Contest. Since the Tai Chi is actually patterned against the bagua and yin yang symbol, the white/black colorway was really really cool, and then the original black/royal colorway we'll do as well. Those are the three colorways that we're going to launch initially. We've done a few adjustments and modifications to the shoe that I think speak to what you need to do with what you have at your disposal in 2009-2010. From an aesthetic aspect, the shoe is coming back almost 100% as per to what it was when it launched in 1999.

You guys added in the herringbone pattern too right, and what other changes did you make?
Rod Keller: We put a more performance lining in there, as there was a terry cloth lining before. The herringbone was obviously something from a performance standpoint that we thought would be beneficial for us as well.

Rob Purvy: One of the driving forces for that is that all of our NBA guys will be starting the season in that shoe and then will wear it throughout the rest of the year. When you talk about NBA level players, especially today, we wanted to give them optimal performance where we could.

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Above: The original Tai Chi on the right, with the new and improved Tai Chi on the left.

Is there Duraspring in the Tai Chi still?
Rob Purvy: No, there's no Duraspring in the Tai Chi, but we will be revisiting some of the previous technologies that we've dealt with before. One of the things that we really put our arms around now, is that as a product team, we really like the L2G concept, our Low-2-the-Ground cushioning system. We're going to be moving forward with L2G as we progress. As you can see, we're living in an era where comfort and lightweight and performance are definitely the buzzwords for building performance product for 2010 and beyond.

So things like Harmonix and Duraspring, we probably won't be seeing those?
Rob Purvy: You may, and if you see them, it'll probably be more from an homage and retro perspective. In terms of building our performance stories, we're really wrapping ourselves around L2G more than anything else right now. I think that L2G is less a tangible technology and more a philosophical approach to how you build better product, and I think for us, it'll help us evolve the brand more and more as we move forward.

You're bringing the Tai Chi back now, but are there some other models from the late 90's and early 2000's that you're already thinking about bringing back?
Rob Purvy: I think one of the things that we're toying around with now is how to resurrect the essence of the Tochillin that was really popular too. We're just looking at how to remix the Tochillin and figure out a way to bring it back for today. We're starting to get some good reads on the variations of pre and post-court lifestyle models that we have, that are still driven by the basketball DNA type product that we had success with during that time as well.

Skip wore them when the original came out. Did you talk to him about what he remembered about that shoe and get some feedback from him?
Rob Purvy: Well, we actually talked to a whole lot more people than just Skip even. We had over 100 guys in the NBA back in those days. Just as a compelling story, when I mention his name, you'll know him if you're a real baller. He's not a star by any means, but he speaks to the faceless, raceless player that the brand has always been about. When we spoke to several guys and the buzz was out there that the Tai Chi was coming back, Mike James contacted us and said he wanted to come back into the fold. Aside from being with AND1, I've always admired Mike James for his grit and determination, and just doing whatever it takes to stay in the NBA. Aside from that, people don't often realize, but he's a champion as well, as he was on the 2004 Detroit Pistons team.

And1 Crew

Back in 2002, AND1 had close to 20% of the league, and some signature guys like KG, and then by the end of 2006, that number had shrunk to around 13%. Now, the brand has a handful of players in the NBA. Are you looking to sign more players, or will you be sticking with the stable that you have?
Rob Purvy: That's not a black and white answer. We're looking at being smart, and I don't want to second guess what the strategy of the brand and our forefathers was, but our strategy now is to try and get as much visibility now with the people that we have, and make sure that the people that we have match the culture of the brand. I've always said this, almost jokingly, but I'd rather have a player that's contributing off the bench on a team that's on TV nationally a lot, as opposed to having a whole starting five of a team that doesn't get a lot of national exposure. That's something that drives our strategy as we look at guys we want to have on our roster. We also look at everything from a family aspect, in terms of making sure that the guys that we bring in fit within the message we're developing, and also, everyone needs to get along. At this point in time now, it was actually a beneficial thing that we have a smaller, more manageable group when we got here, because it allowed us to create a refreshed DNA to build on from there.

Monta Ellis had his own shoe last year with the ME8, will he have his own shoe this year again, or will he be leading whatever the model may be for a particular season?
Rob Purvy: That was one of the things that was advantageous about having a family type of environment here. Once we presented Monta with the strategy for the Tai Chi Trilogy, he was excited, because part of why he wanted to come to the brand, was he was one of the people that admired the Tai Chi in his pre-NBA days when he was in his formative years. We called his shoe the ME8 last year, but the first thing he said was, "Can I get me a Tai Chi ME8?" We were like, "Sure." He's going to be actually supporting the brand by wearing the shoe as well. We're actually customizing a very Monta version of the Tai Chi right now, just because of the specific requirements that he has with the style of play that he plays.

Rod Keller: What's really important for us with all of our guys, is that they participate in everything that we do from a marketing initiative standpoint. I don't think it behooves any of us to simply write guys checks, just to say we have X number of guys in the NBA. Any and every guy that we have on our roster will be very integral in what we do from a marketing perspective.

and1 trashtalk 400The Trash Talk tees were something that was huge for the growth of the brand in the 90's also. Is that something we'll be seeing make a return as well?
Rob Purvy: Absolutely. We know that the game shorts were ground-breaking for this brand as well.

Just don't do the tear-away versions please.

[everyone laughs]

Rob Purvy: The only thing that'll probably be a little bit different, and this is something that I always struggled with, is when we do our game shorts, they might not be 100% authentic because we'll probably stick a pocket in 'em. I think what happens is, as much as those game shorts changed the game, most people that wear them like to wear them ALL the time. One of the things I struggled with when I had them, was they didn't have a pocket, and I'm like, "Man, I can't wear these out, 'cause I can't put my stuff in my pocket!" [laughs] So we'll do that. Aside from that, we'll segment the line, because the trend in performance apparel is that shorts now come in several different lengths and fits. If you remember with those original game shorts, they were really baggy and long.

Somebody from AND1 once told me they should've just offered them in "Big" and "Biggest."
[everyone laughs]

Rob Purvy: We'll continue to make those 'cause we want to be true to that kid and that aficionado, but we also want to be true to how people want to dress now, since we do live in a slimmer era. As far as the Trash Talk tees, in the past couple of weeks, we went into the archives, and it was almost like trying to be Indiana Jones and going through the Temple of Doom. [laughs] We blew the dust off it. We think we re-found and captured all of them, and now we're just trying to step back and do it the right way, in terms of doing the right noise and properly relaunching it so that we can get the right effect from it.

And off-court, around 2005 and 2006, AND1 had a big vulcanized shift. Is that still a big emphasis for you guys from an off-court perspective while you guys are also doing all of this performance stuff too?
What we're doing when we introduce Tochillin-like product, is we're actually going to be introducing a line segment that we're calling Lo-Qi. It'll be a play on words, so obviously this will be the product that you're wearing when you're being a little more low key, and these will be your pre and post-court stuff. But also, if you're rockin' it, and somebody is talkin' trash to you and you need to serve 'em up right now, it'll still be good enough for you to go ahead and get down a bit on the court. All of that type of basketball-lifestyle oriented product will come under the Lo-Qi segment.

AND1 Mixtape 700

Can you talk about the Mixtape Tour at all? Is that going to be pretty much over here in the US, or will we see a return in the near future?
Rob Purvy: It's never over my brother! We just did a game in Japan in August. We did three days there in Tokyo and the game sold out tremendously. What we did was we basically pulled away a bit domestically, because when you're dealing with the challenges of this economy, everything that we've talked about in this conversation has really been possible because we've had to re-direct our financial efforts towards rebuilding the brand. When Rod and I got here, we thought it was almost humorous that everyone was almost talking and wondering what was going to happen to the Mixtape. We were wondering why you couldn't go buy the product in Foot Locker. [laughs] We got here, and as Rod said at the top of the conversation, we kind of felt that the brand had become a Mixtape/TV show/ESPN brand, and didn't really want to be in this space [of building performance shoes for retail] anymore. That's why we came to the brand.

We're looking at how we will do the same things on the product side with the Mixtape, in terms of how we can re-build it and resuscitate it to where the Mixtape can be something in 2010 and beyond. We've worked with some of the Mixtape guys really closely, and we've worked hard to develop relationships in this new regime with the iconic guys for this brand. In some cases, that works better for others, as some guys can be a bit more business minded and look for other opportunities. We're really excited though about what we're going to be able to do in the Mixtape space, in terms of redefining it and putting the same efforts towards it that we've been putting towards the footwear, apparel and accessories side of it.

So thankfully the brand will be carried in mall stores once again. For awhile there, people just kind of figured that Zappos was the official retailer for AND1.
Rob Purvy: You know what, I don't think it was official, but that might have been true. [laughs] I've got much, much love for the Mixtape, and I've been really blessed to develop relationships with those guys. For me, I'm probably a little different in that I'm from the East Coast, and I have lineage with the guys from the Tour. The people who begat them was the people that I used to hoop with. A lot of the guys on the Tour used to try and tell us things that they think we don't know, when the guys that they played with growing up or the guys that coached them went to school with us. [laughs] If you're really true to the game and you're really a true hooper, we're all from the same family. I got love for every possible level that it can be played at. I think as we continue to develop and evolve the brand, we're going to be doing some exciting things with the Mixtape. When I say Mixtape, I really mean covering that whole culture of being a baller and playing at every level. It's more than just a Mixtape, because what a lot of people don't know, is that a lot of the players that are on the Mixtape also play professionally throughout the world.

AND1 Nate

Above: Last November, to the surprise of everyone, AND1 announced a sponsorship deal with MMA fighter Nate Quarry.

Outside of hoops, you guys had sponsored a MMA athlete last year. Is that something you guys are going to be looking more into, or is that more of a one time deal?
Rod Keller: Well one of the things that this brand was started on, is that it was dedicated to all things basketball. You know, one of the things that we wanted to portray, is that the brand is a basketball brand. If you look at our new logo, it says "AND1 - Basketball Company." With that being said, signing Nate wasn't something that we planned, it was something that just kind of happened. Steve trains and is business partners with Nate up in Portland, and one day, he just called and said, "Hey, one of the guys that I work out with is a huge fan of the brand, and I don't know if you guys are into UFC...." and we both just started laughing. Other than basketball, that's probably one of the things that we live, eat and breathe all of the time. We came up to Portland and met Nate, and he's a phenomenal guy and an incredible athlete. Just looking at how Steve was training and the year that he had last year, he attributed a lot of his success to his off-season training.

When you look at him and listen to everything that people are saying about him this season, he's probably better now this year than he even was last year. Steve is one of those low key guys that just puts his nose down and really works hard and lets his play speak for itself, and it's funny, just in reading all of the things that are going on, Andre Miller is the disenchanted one, and you've never heard a drop from Steve. To make a long story short, every opportunity that we feel is true for us, and still allows us to be true to basketball, but maybe look at things outside of basketball in a non-traditional way, we'll look at doing. You can probably draw some analogies from years and years ago when people didn't think it seemed to make sense for Brand Jordan to spring off into other sports, but it made sense to me. I got it at that time, and it's supposed to just represent sports excellence, no matter what sport you play. When you think of why Jeter is a Jordan athlete, it was really speaking to those individuals representing the passion for sport and whatever the mission statement for Jordan is. We've got an even closer connection, in our opinion, to sign somebody like Nate, because it was a basketball player that brought him to our attention, not knowing that we were passionate about that sport as well.

And Steve is a phenomenal dude. To me, he speaks to what AND1 is about as much as anybody who's ever worn AND1 products. You think about the unlikeliness for him to be where he is today. AND1 has always been a company that wanted to represent the baller, and it's always been a company that I've perceived to be above any one individual. I think the time that AND1 kind of mis-stepped is when they potentially signed people who were supposed to be the face of the brand. Well, the face of the brand is supposed to be the faceless, raceless player, and that should always be the case. With Steve, if you grab a casual fan and ask them, "Is he a starter or is he coming off the bench?" They'd probably say he's coming off the bench, and we all know the dude is a starter and he does work. He's the guy. The Blazers are definitely one of the better teams in the league, and whatever it takes for him to operate at the level that he needs to be at, he's going to put that work in.

AND1 SkipSteve and Skip definitely represent the heritage of the brand, but can you also talk about Monta and where he's headed with the brand?
Rob Purvy: When you look at the scouting reports, it tells you all you need to know: Gifted Scorer. The kid is naturally talented and gifted. Last year was unfortunately a misstep, but just even last [month] in a preseason game against the Lakers, the Warriors won and Monta had 24 points. It was a preseason game, but still, this dude is one of the fastest, if not the fastest guy in the whole league. He's got a unique game and he's really exciting to watch, and he brings it every night. I think one of the things that we were blessed with, is when the brand was at its strongest, the brand was really big in the southeast, and he's a southeast guy. He grew up actually wearing and loving AND1. Previously, Rod and I worked with Kobe Bryant at adidas, and we realized that about halfway through telling Monta a story about Kobe, that when Kobe came into the league, Monta was ten years-old. [laughs] Here he is now, though, a young veteran in the NBA and one of the most exciting young players out there. For each and every one of the guys that we have, we have a compelling story like Steve's in terms of how far they've made it.

What have you learned from Monta in terms of what he looks for in his shoes? He's played in a lot of TPU plates like the Onslaught, the Wonder and the ME8.
Rod Keller: He wants light weight, he wants support, and he wants something that's not going to hold him down. One thing about this guy, is he's all over the place when he plays. He wants a mid or a high cut, and that's something for him. We've seemed to notice a trend with a small but noticeable percentage of the guys in the league that want to wear low tops, and he's not one of them. He wants at least that mid height, and he likes to know that something is there when he makes his cuts and moves. He likes a clean design, and I definitely could tell that he was a guy that was inspired by the top shoes from around the end of the millennium when was growing up. He likes really clean and also great materials, great support and not too heavy.

You had the 2Chi in around 2004, are you going to be looking back on that as a re-interpretation possibility and having the Tai Chi aesthetic lead the new direction?
Rob Purvy: Not necessarily the 2Chi. With the background that Rod and I have, it's almost like hitting a motherload in regard to the Tai Chi. There's the tie-in to the Eastern philosophies and the 212 Tai Chi moves, and we're going to stay true to that and the inspiration behind the Tai Chi, as opposed to going into something that looks like, rhymes with, or could be apart of it. I remember when the 2Chi came along, and it was a really cool shoe, but I didn't think that it supported this multi-thousand year story that you can tell if you just stick within the mantra of the Eastern philosophies that you can do with the Tai Chi.

I think a problem for brands, when they're in a resurrection stage, so to speak, is that people abandon the past and try to resurrect the brand without its actual DNA. That's one thing that we've been very cognizant of, is staying true to the heritage of the brand and at the same time making it meaningful for 2009 and beyond. We really wanted to anchor ourselves with the DNA of the brand.

Below: The original line art for Vince Carter's PE pair of the Tai Chi.

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