Freestyle Basketball: The Untold Story
Freestyle Basketball’s Origins and Meaning
Freestyle basketball is thought to be a young art. Most people think it was a famous Nike TV commercial back in 2000 that started it all. But is it really so? Or is there something more? Let’s dive into this philosophical and historical read: we might discover that, just like a tree giving sweet fruits, freestyle basketball actually has deep roots.
This article is not meant to be regarded as “The Truth” about freestyle origins as much as it is a collection of facts that might have influenced it more than we all believe. It is indeed very important to “know where you come from”, because if you don’t you can’t be sure about where you are going.
It All Begins with Play
The first thing we need to understand and accept is that it doesn’t matter if it’s Basketball Freestyle, Football Freestyle, Footbag, Juggling, Jumping Rope or whatever, it’s ALL about PLAYING. We all play, we all have fun and that’s the purest thing in the world… playing is in all of us, it’s natural, it’s what we all do since day one, and it’s by playing with a rock that the man discovered the wheel after all..think about it…!
Moreover, from a merely psychological standpoint, the following statement is not stretching the truth: every form of freestyle obeys man’s primal need of overcoming his limits, guided by an inner drive for perfection, that pushes everyone to a never ending process of self-improvement. In addition to that, there is the always fascinating “matter control” topic, imposing one’s will over an object or thing (in our case, the ball) sometimes trying to defy physics’ laws.
Juggling – Freestyle’s Forefather
In the past, all the various disciplines that we have nowadays used to be called a single name : “JUGGLING”. Many people consider juggling as the “simple” act of throwing 2-3 or more balls (or other objects) in the air and literally juggle them (now called Toss Juggling), but that was only a small part. The word “juggling” from Middle English “jogelen” means “entertaining by doing tricks”, and basically that’s what we all do, even a free runner is entertaining by doing tricks with his body. Entertaining doesn’t necessarily mean you have to entertain a crowd, by freestyling you have to (and if you don’t you definitely should) entertain yourself, and that’s how we re-connect to the “play and have fun” theme.
So just as each single man plays since he was a little kid, all human beings play since they are on this world: the first documents of people playing/juggling comes from about 4000 years ago from the tomb of an Egyptian prince where they found some representation of female dancers doing toss juggling. But the most interesting part of freestyle’s ancient origins is that it comes first from Asia (of course!), more precisely in China where warriors used to “showcase” their skills to the enemy before the battle (this dude Lan Zi used to juggle 7 swords!).
This indeed resembles what happens in Freestyle battles: we really are some kind of modern warriors who abdicated our weapons and violence but kept fighting for our honor with peace and respect for the enemy, representing our nation or crew instead of a king or a emperor, “just” by showing our skills. And still to present days there are few things that can strike fear in the opponent or demand respect from the crowd as a masterful display of skills and control.
Modern Juggling – Tricks Take Form
More recently, but still more then a 100 years ago, juggling was re-invented and became what it’s called now, “modern juggling”. This revolution was made mainly by 2 very important characters: Enrico Rastelli and Franciss Brunn. This brings us closer to basketball freestyle as they truly were pioneers in performing using only one large ball, juggling 3 or more, spinning, rolling and manipulating the ball(s).
Rastelli was born in 1896, at those times Dr. James Neishmith barely created that fabulous invention that basketball is… so because basketball was not yet very popular worldwide, and probably also because Rastelli was Italian, he was using mostly soccer balls and doing tricks with his feet and his head. He died at 35 due to anemia; 35 years of dedication – he used to practice 8-10 hours every day.
Meanwhile, Brunn was using his hands a lot more. He is the inventor of the famous “Impossible Combo” that he used to do straight with the heel and not with the side of the foot. He also used to do some other amazing tricks that nobody has been able to repeat, even after almost 100 years. Another great thing about Brunn that will certainly please the older freestylers is that he performed until the age of 72 (!!!) and he stopped only because he had a major injury. In the 20th century the jugglers (not only Rastelli and Brunn) started the basics of what today we call “multiball” and “spinning tricks”.
Basketball Adopts Tricks
As basketball started to develop in the U.S. a team that we all know, the Harlem Globetrotters, was founded. In their games and shows they did (and they still do) a lot of tricks – not only in the game but they have the classic “circle” during warmups where every player does his freestyle run. That type of freestyle is the union of straight ball handling, dancing , and some rolls and spins taken from modern juggling.
Then in 1999 the “streetball era” (the last major predecessor to freestyle) began with the first And1 Mixtape featuring NBA player and streetball legend Rafer Alston a.k.a. Skip to My Lou. In the early 2000’s And1 made streetball famous through tours, more mixtapes and the TV show “Streetball” which aired on ESPN. Its impact was truly huge and global, inspiring a generation of young ballers to start practicing the tricks and moves of players like Hot Sauce, Headache, AO, Sik Wit It and Alimoe.
Freestyle Basketball – The Birth
As 2000 approached, freestyle basketball was shaping more and more into the art we all can appreciate today. The basics of ball handling and flow, the musicality of the Harlem Globetrotters, and the flashy moves of streetballers influenced a lot of players in the U.S., and some of the best of these players took part in the famous Nike Freestyle commercials. Guys like Luis “Trix” Da Silva, “The Future”, and streetball legend “Bone Collector” took part in it, as well as NBA superstars like Jason Williams , Darius Miles and Vince Carter.
Another important freestyler was later featured in the soccer/football versions of these commercials (which aired in Europe), and he is one of the the first freestyle basketball legends – Tommy Baker from England. He had a totally different take on freestyle compared to the other guys. He was more influenced by the European jugglers, and used to juggle and do rolls with 3 balls, but he also dribbled as well. He created a new style with spinning tricks, and started using Francis Brunn’s Impossible Combo by kicking the ball with the side of the foot.
Modern Freestyle – The Scene Grows
All of a sudden the streetball and freestyle movement was a worldwide thing, not only in the U.S. and Canada with crews like Daze, Dime55, and Notic, but also in Europe with Da Move , Streetball Xtreme (SBX), WOTS , Streetflavour and many others. These crews were actually streetball crews that used to play in streetball tournaments and pick-up games and freestyle was something separate, but it quickly became more and more important. The crews started showing freestyle in the mixtapes and streetball tournaments, and started to perform freestyle shows – some of the crews even organized the first freestyle battles.
It was also through a streetball crew (The Notic) that one of the first freestylers from Japan appeared on the global scene – the legendary Lee with the Japanese-Canadian connection. That was the final addition to Freestyle, the birth of the Japanese style – probably the biggest influence for today’s freestylers or at least the kind of style that most people prefer.
The Cycle Continues . . .
In conclusion: we all are part of something fresh, something new , something that each and every one of us is contributing to grow. It’s tough now to find somebody that has been freestyling for at least 10 years. We are writing the first part of a story that hopefully will be much much longer, but as we had the chance to see in this article, we also belong to a part of a story that lasts forever. The story is not just about freestyling, dancing, juggling or playing. It’s not just about doing tricks, it’s a lot more! It’s a culture, an attitude. It’s a constant battle between you and your limits. It’s something that lives and needs to breath – the evolution of the art and improvements are like fresh air.
So keep it alive, keep working hard on whatever you do, whatever your style is, whatever your goals are. People have done amazing things, but there’s still an infinite number of goals to achieve and tricks to do. The most important thing is to do it with passion and dedication, as it’s always better when it comes from the heart.
And finally, always remember to express yourself! Be original. Originality is as important as execution is. It is the creative force that made all of the things we love in freestyle possible. In the words that Sun Tsu used in his masterpiece “The Art of War”:
“Skilled and uncommon maneuvers are inexhaustible as Heaven and Earth, unending as the flow of rivers and streams; like the sun and moon, they end but to begin anew; like the four seasons, they pass away to return once more.
There are not more than five musical notes, yet the combinations of these five give rise to more
melodies than can ever be heard.
There are not more than five primary colors, yet in combination they produce more hues than can ever been seen.
There are not more than five cardinal tastes, yet combinations of them yield more flavors than can ever be tasted.”
Words that every freestyler, as a descendant from those warriors Sun Tzu was referring to, should engrave in his memory.
*according to the Chinese culture of that time, there were only 5 musical notes, 5 primary colors (blue,
yellow, red, white, and black) and 5 cardinal tastes (sour, acrid, salt, sweet, bitter).