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"Yo, check out the white boy." Grayson Boucher is hard to miss; he couldn't look more out of his element. The skinny kid with the Eminem haircut is the only pale member of the And1 Mix Tape team--hell, he's the only white guy on the court. And the 6,700 screaming fans in Atlanta's Philips Arena last summer can't take their eyes off him. The following three seconds are why:
Taking the ball at his man, he switches right between the legs, fakes a drive and cuffs it back through the legs, shaking the defender off a step. Through his legs again, left spin move, legs again. He begins to penetrate, then stops short--and pops a 12-footer. It's a dizzying burst: a two-point play, sure, but more than that, it's a play that embarrasses. And that's what counts most in And1's funked-up, flaired-out game. All from a kid too small, too polite, too suburban. "It's like when you see a black guy playing golf," says teammate Tyron Evans, a.k.a. Alimoe. "A white boy did that? I've never seen it before."
The move is standard fare for the kid they call The Professor. ("He's the white scientist schooling everyone," says on-court emcee Duke Tango, bestower of the alias.) But those particular three seconds are special for him because he shook and shamed a $29 million NBA player. What's more, that player is none other than Rafer Alston, a.k.a. Skip to My Lou, an And1 icon and Boucher's
"That was crazy," says The Professor, reliving the moment. It's a word the 20-year-old uses constantly, in a husky, weirdly urban drawl. It was crazy when Shaq brought over his son to say hi. Crazy to play in front of Sly Stallone, Ja Rule and Steph Marbury. Crazy to meet his favorite player, Jason "White Chocolate" Williams. The girls in Australia? Crazy. Owning hundreds of pairs of shoes? Crazy. It was crazy to be a presenter at the Source Awards, and it's crazy to read for a lead in a feature film. It's crazy to be mauled for an autograph, crazy to play in front of thousands of fans in the Philippines who knew his name. Outlasting a nation of aspiring streetballers in a summer-long, internationally televised contest--ESPN2's Street Ball--was crazy. Crazy lacks detail, but it's all the white boy can muster now that it's all happening so fast.
He's right, though. This whole thing is crazy.
"MY LIFE has changed pretty dramatically," says the mild-mannered Professor. His new gray Mustang is parked at home because he's being driven by an And1 handler. As they navigate his hometown of Salem, Ore.--S dot O, to his teammates--Boucher grapples with his transformation from a skinny suburban kid called Gray to a living legend known to the cognoscenti as Fess. "Just a little while ago, I was going to school and working on my game," he says."Now I'm getting paid to do what I love. Crazy."
The fish-out-of-water subplot is nothing new to Boucher. As long as he's balled, he's been an outsider. In 2001, two years before he hooked on with the And1 team, he was a junior playing JV at McNary High, and at 5'6", 100 pounds, looking like he just wasn't built for the game.
From the rental car, Boucher points out the Marion Square Park courts. "On a sunny day you'd have 50 or 60 guys hoopin'," he says. He points out a public bathroom courtside. "I heard some crackheads live in there," he says, "but there's nothing you can really call a 'hood court in Salem. This is it."
With two well-maintained hoops surrounded by lush grass and tall pines, Marion Square Park is hardly inner-city. By his sophomore year, as he languished on his high school's undercard, Gray was running regularly here. And he killed in spite of his size. A no-look pass. A crossover that shamed. A shake, a drive and a look-back scowlthe kind of stuff his coaches wanted nothing to do with. "Sometimes he'd make a move more difficult than it had to be," says his JV coach, Jim Litchfield. "I would get on him for that."
But Boucher was already a lost cause. A year earlier the kid had bought an And1 Talk Trash T-shirt that was bolstered by a freebie, And1 Mix Tape, Volume 2. "I thought it was really cool," he says, "and I figured there had to be a Volume 1."
He found it on eBay for $20, and it changed his life. "I learned a lot from Skip on that tape," he says. "I must have watched it 100 times." Boucher was transfixed by the And1 style, and he absorbed each successive release. Even now, music from Volume 1 thumps behind his voice on his cell phone message.
"He has an extraordinary knack for imitating," says Steve Boucher, Gray's dad, a jewelry shop owner. Steve spent hours with his son watching locals run, then hours more watching him copy their shots. "He can listen to you for a minute, and when you walk away, he'll speak just like you. It's unbelievable."
When Grayson first ran at Marion Square Park, a lot of older guys there were better than he was. After getting trashed by them, he'd go hone his game at the Courthouse Athletic Club, a swank hardcourt in its own right. Mostly he'd play alone, working on his moves. Once in a while he and his friends set up a camera to shoot their own mix tape. Soon he was back at Marion, schooling his elders. "People started asking, Are you Grayson who plays in the park?' " Boucher says. It's not much of a nickname by And1 standards: Grayson Who Plays in the Park. But hey, this is Oregon.
THE PROFESSOR takes one step and sends up a half-court shot. Swish. It's 5:45 a.m. inside Denver's Pepsi Center. The ballers are waiting for a local sports reporter to arrive to cut a goofball morning segment. Tonight, And1 will open its first-ever winter tour here. "Man, this is where Melo plays," Fess says, awed. "And Earl Boykins! That's crazy." Boucher has just lapped two teammates in a game of around-the-world from behind the pro arc. Now Eric Holmes, a.k.a. Spinmaster, who played four years at UAB, wants another game: "Half-court shots. First to three."
The Professor hits two quick ones and shuts out his foes. "Nice hoopin' with y'all," he says. He is deep in conversation with And1 coach Big Mike Ellis before either of the other two hits a shot.
"He's just putting spin on the ball!" The Professor insists. Big Mike is convinced Skip to My Lou used a foot to pop the ball back up in a move at Harlem's Rucker Park that's been captured in the grainy footage of Volume 1. Never mind that in 1994, when the game took place, The Professor was 9, with no idea where Harlem was, or that Big Mike was actually at Rucker that day. You can be sure Fess has it straight. To settle it, he picks up his cell and dials the expert. Rafer is still asleep so the final answer has to wait for a later text message. (For the record, Fess is right.) Rafe's number on speed-dial? "Kinda crazy," he admits.
We're a long way from that June day in 2003 when Boucher packed his 14-year-old brother and an Eminem CD into the car and headed for the And1 Open Run in Portland. After his freshman year at Chemeketa CC, he was still only 5'9" and averaging just three points and 13 minutes per, so if he wanted to ball, And1 was his only hope. Of course, back then he was amped just to rub shoulders with his heroes. But he was also prepared to battle locals for a spot on the team of challengers that travels with, and is fodder for, the And1 stars. "I was just hoping to make the final game," he recalls. "I didn't know anything about a contract." He had no idea that having made the cut, he'd be voted onto the main squad at season's end. He certainly had no idea anyone would make a big deal about what he looked like.
"You always heard the same thing," says Aaron Owens, a.k.a. AO, "that he was only here because he was white." In one memorable scene from Street Ball, Spyda, Boucher's primary competition for a contract, says to the camera, "We all know that everybody wants The Professor to win." Everyone loves an underdog, and being white, humble and short makes Boucher the ultimate one. But it was his game that convinced his future teammates. Fess is one clutch baller. Twice that summer he hit buzzer-beating game-winners against the And1 contract team. The one from 26 feet at Madison Square Garden in front of 10,300 fans won most of the And1ers to his side. "For me it wasn't even that he hit the shot," says Waliyy Dixon, a.k.a. Main Event. "It was that he had the balls to take it."
Before hooking up with And1, Boucher had left the state of Oregon only three times. The biggest crowd he'd played for was about 200. Suddenly, he was traveling all over the country and playing in front of at least 5,000 fans a night, a screaming, dancing, fist-pumping demographic that John Harvey, a.k.a. High Octane, dubbed Hollyhood.
From a basketball standpoint, the assimilation was smooth. "He had all our moves," says Alimoe, "Volumes 1 through 7. But with him it doesn't look rehearsed. P is just playing." In some cases, though, studying the tapes wasn't good enough. "I hadn't ever really thrown an alley-oop," says Boucher. "Guys in Oregon can't dunk."
Socially, the learning curve has been a bit steeper. "Obviously, I'm the only white guy everywhere I go," he says. He does his best to blend. "He's grown into the culture of hip-hop," says High Octane. "Now he's like a black guy from Harlem. He's got shorts below his knees and big T-shirts. He's all, 'S'up, Oc?'"
Boucher insists he talks and dresses the same way he always has. But he does admit to coming out of his shell since joining the team. "When I was in high school, I hardly talked at all," he says. Early on, after signing with And1, Fess would sit at the mike during promotional spots and speak quietly only when questioned. But in this gig, he has learned from the masters of smack. His favorite trash-talker, Troy Jackson, a.k.a. Escalade, says he knew the new life had soaked in the day Fess hit Philly radio listeners with a boastful dare: "You haters want to be me? Come and see me!"
As The Professor has become less of an oddball on tour, he feels more like one at home. Before a promotional signing in Salem's Lancaster Mall recently, Fess chows a burger at the food court. He's jittery: "I wonder if anyone will show up." A 17-year-old Latino kid spots him and walks to the table. "Whatcha doing, man?" the kid asks. "I've got this in-store thing," says The Professor. "That's what I'm here for," the kid replies. Fess looks relieved.
He had nothing to worry about. Since earning his contract 18 months ago, The Professor has become And1's most popular baller, getting more appearance requests than any other player. The tour uses Fess in its national advertising campaign in addition to Alston and Jason Williams. Because fans would get so annoyed when Fess wasn't available for postgame autographs, the company had to change its policy: Fess no longer meets with the press after games.
Still, this is the first time Boucher has been The Professor so close to home. He strides unobtrusively into Copeland Sports. Inside, 130 people are already lined up. His people. His new people. He's no longer Grayson Who Plays in the Park. Most of these fans don't even know he's from around here.
To them, he's a mythic character they know only from TV. The Latino kid from the food court waits patiently at the back of the line. "The Professor's tight," he says. He's also inspiration. "I can do all of his moves." The kid says people think he's got game "for a Mexican."
THERE'S NOT much to do in Salem, especially if you're under 21, so tonight Boucher invites some old friends to his new place. The freshly painted one-bedroom sits in an ordinary development. It is nearly barren except for the And1 Professor jersey hanging on the wall and a stack of tapes and DVDs in the corner by the TV. Boucher pops in Volume 1, the Skip tape. Through jerky, handheld footage, you can make out Alston crisscrossing, cuffing, shaking defenders. It's eerily familiar choreography. Sitting here at the intersection of his two worlds, Boucher gives Alston the highest Professorial sign-off: "See that? That's crazy.