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Q&A: Director Paul Hunter Revisits His Famous 2001 Nike Basketball Freestyle Commercial

Director Paul Hunter discusses his legendary 2001 Nike basketball commercial, the inspiration behind it and why it's his favourite thing he's ever done.
Photo by Kevin Frayer-The Canadian Press

In 2001, Paul Hunter had already made his mark as a director of numerous famous music videos, including Puff Daddy's "Can't Nobody Hold Me Down", Notorious B.I.G.'s "Hypnotize", Mariah Carey's "Honey" and more. But Hunter always had an itch to direct a Nike commercial, and finally got his chance when he was approached by Nike and their marketing agency Wieden+Kennedy for an idea to merge basketball and hip-hop culture in a spot. At the 2001 All-Star Break, the Nike freestyle commercial made its debut:


The commercial would go down as one of the most memorable Nike spots ever. Featuring pro players and streetballers in freestyle segments which, put together, recreated a classic hip-hop instrumental of Afrika Bambaataa & The Soul Sonic Force—"Planet Rock"—it had everyone figuring out how to replicate the moves that were featured, and spawned many different spoofs and homage videos in the coming years. One of the players featured in the video was Vince Carter, who at the time was coming off his Slam Dunk Contest win and the most popular player in the league. Hunter would end up shooting in Los Angeles, New York and Toronto. The commercial was so popular that Canadian sports television network TSN showed a 30-minute, behind-the-scenes special of the spot.

Hunter has directed other commercials and music videos since, but to this day, he calls it the best thing he's ever done. Below is our interview with him, as we walk back the process of how the commercial came out, and other memorable moments from the shooting of the spot.

VICE: How did the idea to do this type of commercial come about?

Paul Hunter: The initial input and idea was developed at Wieden+Kennedy. They always had the idea to try and create music and have it work along with the dribbling. For me, it was more about: how could I simplify it, and really bring out the basketball moves, and then isolate the music in a way so that it really connected with the viewers on a visual level. At the time, I had done a music video for D'Angelo called "Untitled (How Does It Feel)", which was very similar in terms of isolating on a particular person. I felt that at least for this commercial, it would be a good direction to go. Also, I remember going as a kid to see the Harlem Globetrotters, and they always passed the ball through their legs with music in the background. That was a huge personal influence for me as well.


So you have the idea, and now you have to figure out who to bring in to shoot.

There were pro players that Nike always liked to use. But there weren't any specific player sets—Nike just wanted me to sprinkle them in whenever we could. The initial thought was to just have streetballers and highlight them. At the time, streetball was getting really popular. It had obviously been around for a while, but no one really knew about it. I grew up playing basketball, that was my entire life. So doing this commercial was like hanging out with my buddies. It was like: let's go have some fun. Plus, when I was a kid I never could afford a pair of Nikes.

So this was a good opportunity to fix that.

[laughs] 100 percent. In junior high, we didn't have enough money and I needed shoes for P.E. class and for whatever reason the shoes I had sucked. I was sliding across the floor when we played ball and I couldn't play defense. So my buddy had a pair of Nike's and he let me borrow it. It took him about a month to get them back.

What was the decision making process behind deciding on Afrika Bambaataa & The Soul Sonic Force - "Planet Rock" as the song which the players would recreate with their basketball moves?

Initially we were looking at a couple of music artists. At the time, we were looking at an Outkast song from the Stankonia album (note: Hunter couldn't remember specifically which song, but it was "probably one of their anthem songs"). But I liked Planet Rock. I pushed for it over Outkast because I felt like the beat in Planet Rock was just so classic. I remember being a kid, seeing that video, and how people were moved to the music. There was a kind of electricity that would just overtake people, kind of like a spiritual vibe. It was a classic hip-hop beat.


This commercial had some personal, emotional connect for you then.

I had always wanted to shoot a Nike spot. I was never able to get one and finally I got to a place where it was the right idea. I knew the feeling of expressing yourself. I sang in a church choir, I played drums, all these kinds of rhythmic processes and my life experiences I had gone through merged with the creative process for this commercial. That's why it was very real to me.

What were your favorite Nike commercials growing up?

I loved all the Spike Lee Mars Blackmon spots. Those have a lot of personality and it inspired me to be a filmmaker, because I was like: wait a minute, you could play basketball and shoot commercials? It just brought out so much in me where I said, 'Hey, that's my world.' So I gravitated towards that.

I also liked David Fincher's Charles Barkley spot. It was really stylized photography, production design and a really thought out and executed idea.

So now you have the cast, the music, then comes the hard part: putting it all together.

The first part of the process was to just separate the music, to determine the part of the beat we wanted to deal with at each shoot. We ended up shooting for about 10 days, probably more. We were in Los Angeles, Toronto and New York. But before that, I worked with Savion Glover, who's an American tap dancer, actor and choreographer. There were other choreographers on the table at the time, but I thought he was the best person to capture the rhythm based on his experience. Before we did anything, I went to the Santa Monica Boys and Girls Club and got some ball players together and we just practiced dribbling and passing the ball from one player to the next. It was a little test run. I showed Savion what I did, so he had an idea of the style I was talking about and the transitions I was looking for. We were in a studio in New York, and just went to working in simplifying the beat.


Was this planning process a relief for you, that this idea would actually work now that you had put it into action?

Absolutely. It's always better to go into a project with as much knowledge as possible, especially with a rhythm piece like this. I wanted to make sure the technique was worked out before we got all the people in there.

The part I find fascinating about the commercial is that while there are freestyle elements from individual players, it is also a very heavily choreographed piece.

Yeah. The thing about the freestyle element, which I thought was cool, was that once the players understand the rhythm they needed to be on, we just let them go and do their own thing. We could always use (what they did) and put them where we needed to be on the final cut because they would be on beat.

Aside from some of the famous NBA players—Vince Carter, Lamar Odom, Darius Miles, Jason Williams, to name a few—there were also a lot of streetballers. How did you go about casting those people?

I had a street casting person, and whenever I did basketball spots and needed streetballers I would call this guy. We would go around New York, to uptown, to Harlem, to Fourth Street, to Rucker Park. And then we brought in a couple of guys from Los Angeles. We mixed in traditional ball players, other guys had more flavor. If you watch it, it's a combination of all styles. It's all different personalities, which is the most amazing thing about basketball because you can understand people's personalities by the way they play. If someone is selfish, they're just going to shoot the ball. If they're a team player, then they're always looking ahead for the next play on the basketball floor. Those elements make it exciting. And those elements weren't as strong in the last piece (note: Hunter is referring to the extended version of the commerical, which ran longer and featured a larger cast). They wanted to bring it out and add more people, and it started to feel a bit contrived. It was becoming too controlled in a way. It you're going for that control, it's fine. But I think the flavor of the original piece was much more interesting. It was more human.


One of my favorite bits about the original piece is when Rasheed Wallace shows up, and he's not even dribbling. He just shoves a guy. It was so him.

Isn't that crazy. Rasheed was known as the bad boy back then, and when he came to set a lot of people were intimidated because you watch him and he was always getting technical fouls. But ironically, he's probably the nicest guy. Once he had the ball in his hand and we were shooting, his presence was strong. His segment, to me, is where from a directorial place I felt that I contributed. I always felt the commercial needed to have a story within a story. In that moment, I had them put a guy there for Rasheed to push away. Then in edit, I said let's add more life to it and add a whistle sound after the shove.

And it's those moments, and I assume, in your mind, made the entire commercial more authentic.

I always like to shoot sound in terms of voices. So you'll notice, in the end, when the guy is running off, you hear his voice. That's basketball, man. You talk shit. It's a live open gym and what's what I love about going to play pickup games. You hear all these voices, everybody's talking and shouting "yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah." I wanted to end it by making it feel like it was the real environment and not just have it feel like a commercial.

How about the shoot with Vince Carter, who was at the height of his popularity at the time.

Yeah, he was super popular, but he was a little shy. He had his kind of charm, and did this little thing where he's holding the ball and dancing.


It must have been cool to see how these personalities come out during the shoots.

Some of these guys had been trained to act a certain way, others were shy, what made it interesting was finding the personality of these guys. I thought Lamar Odom was one of the best things about the commercial, because he just kind of let himself go. He heard the Planet Rock song, and him and Darius Miles were just having fun, being silly because they were boys. We never knew that was going to come out. Then you had someone like Baron Davis, who was from Los Angeles, doing his crip walk.

Were there any surprises?

Jason Williams really surprised me. He had a lot of flavor. He had swag. A lot of swag.

What was the most rewarding piece of feedback you got after the commercial was released?

The feedback that meant a lot to me was from Kobe Bryant. That was awesome. He's the man. He's one of my favorite players. He thought the commercial was phenomenal. I think Kobe wishes he was part of the freestyle spot, for sure (note: when the commercial was released in 2001, Kobe was signed with Adidas. He later joined Nike in 2003).

And you must have seen the spoofs from the Wayan brothers in Scary Movie 2?

[laughs] Yeah, I saw that. I know the Wayans. They're going to go after everything. I thought it was pretty funny.

Is there a present day player you would love to include in a freestyle commercial today.

Chris Paul. For sure, he's the only one that sticks out to me right now. He's got the ball handles and the attitude. There's this edge to him when he's on the court. And you know who else has amazing handles? Kyrie Irving. His handles are stupid.

You've done a lot of different things in your career. Where does this commercial rank?

Number one. Number one. Favorite thing I've done. I can't stop watching it. Every now and then I'll look at it and say, 'Wow, it's fresh, it's still holding up.' I'm still trying to figure out how to outdo it and I haven't been able to figure it out yet, not just in a basketball spot, but in general.

Would you ever consider recreating this commercial with a new generation of players?

I would try, but I feel like it's done. That was it. It was a pure expression. I don't know if you can do it again. It's like a hit song. You can't recreate it, you can't remix it, it is what it is.