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Friday, March 1, 2002
Updated: March 4, 3:44 PM ET
New school meets old cool in Nike ads

By Eric Neel
Page 2 columnist

Just after the NBA All-Star break, and just before Michael Jordan's knee went cartilage on him, Nike introduced the new Air Jordan XVIIs. (Forget how old MJ is ... consider the concept of 17 versions of the shoe you absolutely had to have in 1985, and then think about this: How old are you feeling right now?)

Quentin Richardson and Darius Miles
Young Clippers Quentin Richardson and Darius Miles play to a classic jazz soundtrack in "Duet."
I've got nothing to say about the shoes -- they cost about $200 and come in an aluminum briefcase, not exactly a good fit for my budget or my gym bag -- but the commercials for them (directed by Spike Lee) are slick.

In one, the lights come up on Ray Allen standing with a ball in the middle of a dark court, dressed in a white sleeveless, white shorts and shoes. A small crowd claps its approval as a jazz and hip-hop blend from Gang Starr kicks in. Ray takes to the dribble and shoots and scores over and around three defenders, again and again, easy as you please. There are shots of the crowd bobbing and weaving, then Ray hits a long 3, slides back along the arc, pointing his finger like a gun, feeling the swagger in the music.

It's all shot in dramatic black and white, like jazz photographs, and the court feels like a club. At the end, a close-up on Ray's "that's-right-I'm-bad" smile morphs into a blue-lit still shot of his head on an album cover: "Ray Allen, All Rhythm, No Blues," it says.

Ray Allen
"Ray Allen, All Rhythm, No Blues" swaggers with the music.
Two other spots are just as good, one featuring Clippers Darius Miles and Quentin Richardson, and one that's just Darius. Same premise, same look, similar sound, more headbands, more dunks. The D and Q ad closes with that two-fisted forehead thing they do and resolves to a tangerine cover of a record called, "Duet to You." The one of Darius alone fades to red cover art for "Refrain from the Lane."

The covers copy the layouts, color schemes and lettering of album art from Blue Note records, the jazz label that was the essence of cool in the 1950s and '60s. Along with the screw-you attitude of Miles Davis and Charles Mingus, and the yearning of John Coltrane, it was Blue Note covers that made jazz feel crucial and hip in those days, and for decades after.

Check out Hank Mobley's "No Room For Squares," Coltrane's "Blue Train" or Lee Morgan's "Search For The New Land" -- tell me you don't want to be that smooth, that bad, that smart.

Spike Lee
Spike Lee, who was "Mars Blackmon" in Nike's old Air Jordan campaign, directs the new commercials.
In echoing the old covers, Nike reaches back and gets some of that original Blue Note cool for its new shoe and its overall brand. If you know the covers, you appreciate the tribute the ads pay; if you don't know Blue Note, you groove on how good-looking the spots are anyway, especially the cover images.

Beyond selling shoes, what interests me is the idea that the covers, and the whole jazz feel of the ads, make Ray, Darius and Q part of a tradition; they anchor their new-school brilliance in old-school style.

People often talk about young NBA stars who have no respect for history, but these spots seem to give young lions the benefit of the doubt. They suggest their game and their style are an extension, not a rejection, of what's come before.

That's the bridge between basketball and jazz, a bridge that reaches back at least as far as Kareem and Dr. J -- musicians and players are always trying to master what has been handed down to them, even as they rework it and make it their own. That's the essence of improvisation, and improvisation is at the heart of both games.

Darius Miles
Miles goes solo in "Refrain from the Lane."
Ray, Darius, Q. AI, KG, Vince, Kobe, Nash, T-Mac -- their games are well-schooled in the ways of Michael, Doc, Magic and Bird, and those guys were students of Russell and Cousy, Elgin Baylor, Clyde Frazier, the Big O and Connie Hawkins.

The Nike ads put young faces on old covers and ask us to see the resemblance at the same time that we recognize the new thing. And they ask us to think of present-day players not as brash punks, but as artists who, like their predecessors, get a kick out of being creative and entertaining, sometimes tough and fierce, and always cool.

Eric Neel reviews sports culture in his regular "Critical Mass" column for Page 2. You can e-mail him at neel@sportsjones.com.