If we learned anything from Avatar, it’s that the pursuit of money – heaping bags of money – can lead to some seriously inspired filmmaking. Was it the best movie of the year? Who knows. The Academy didn’t think so. But it’s definitely the one people will remember for the longest. That’s the logic behind a good commercial. All kinds of trickery and marketing techniques are employed to make an idea or image stick with you, with the hope that your brain’s unconscious mechanisms will prevail over rational thought and two weeks down the road you answer your door and you’re signing for a Slap Chop. The commercials on this list are here because they’re memorable. In some cases, they’ve tangibly permeated pop culture or changed the way we thought about a player. Style and innovation, of course, play their own roles in these rankings. It’s hardly an exact science, but rest assured I’ve surveyed the landscape, for better or worse, dwindling the eligible entries down to make as informed a decision as possible to anoint these the ten best basketball commercials ever aired.
#10: Grandmama, Larry Johnson for Converse
This commercial exemplifies some of the great and truly goofy qualities of early 90’s ads, when players were seemingly lining up to make fun of themselves or look completely ridiculous. An innocent time, that was. LJ’s floral-printed alter ego was a phenomenon, getting a guest spot on Family Matters and branding him with a nickname that sticks to this this day.
#9: Banned, Jordan
The first Jordans, and the first of many Jordan spots on this list. The commercial is somewhat misleading, in that the shoes were never officially “banned”. They violated league rules about how shoes had to match a team’s uniform and how much white had to be in the design, so the NBA office fined Jordan every time he wore them and he eventually stopped. So basically, 25 years ago, Kevin Durant would have been kicked out of the league.
#8: Failure, Jordan
Jordan ads have painted the man in a lot of different ways–anti-establishment (see #9), elder statesman, maybe friends with cartoon characters–but there’s something that resonates about the idea of him as just a guy who shows up to work every day, sometimes doing his job better than at other times.
#7: Lil Penny Playground, Penny Hardaway for Nike
Unfortunately, only one of the talents on display here ended up a legend (that would be Chris Rock; Tyra Banks is still active but I have it on good information she’s gone off the deep end). Lil Penny remains the benchmark for sneaker marketing comedy. The rocket launch cracks me up every time. Why is he doing that?
#6: Let Your Game Speak, Jordan
More MJ, and there’s more coming. You can debate a lot of things about the guy (Is the the greatest ever? Is he resolutely driven, or just bitter? Did Kwame Brown possess incriminating evidence on him?) What you can’t debate, as this commercial serves to emphasize, is his influence on a generation that includes Kobe, LeBron, and countless young people who require last names for identification. The attention to detail here is incredible.
#5: The National Anthem, Marvin Gaye/The Redeem Team for Nike
Watching this clip induces 2 reactions from me every single time: Chills, and “Oh yeah, Michael Redd”. But really, this was a classy and well-executed mash-up of performers of the highest rank. Everybody knew this team had something to prove, but this commercial wasn’t just filled with wounded braggadocio. Instead, it was a solemn message: “These guys are unequivocally not screwing around.”
#4: It’s Gotta Be the Shoes, Jordan
Mars Blackmon started off as a character in Spike’s 1986 joint She’s Gotta Have It, but the Brooklyn-bred sycophant didn’t become a true fictitious celebrity until these ads started to flood the airwaves. This is probably the iconic campaign of a brand whose fresh and innovative commercials usually left the competition playing catch-up. The catch-phrase launched by this particular spot helps solidify it as the most memorable of the bunch.
#3: I Am Not a Role Model, Charles Barkley for Nike
This commercial did more than just sell an attitude, though it did a good job of that. It genuinely pissed a bunch of people off, and sparked tons of debate about the responsibilities that come with athletic superstardom. I personally tend to side with Sir Charles here. People do forget that, say, power forward for the Suns is somebody’s occupation, and one that basically prohibits any normal kind of family life and allows for re-assignment to competitors without consent or warning, even if said competitor is based in Salt Lake City. I would prefer for players that I’m rooting for to be nice guys and give maximum effort, but fans and analysts accuse players of “just playing for a paycheck” like there’s a circle of hell reserved for those who do it; is that really so different from what you do at your job? This is all kind of tangential, but case in point: this commercial still gets people talking.
#2: The Showdown, Larry Bird & Michael Jordan for McDonald’s
Simply classic. Rarely does a commercial warrant an updated remake some 17 years later, but rarely is a commercial remembered in the public conscious for that long after it aired. Larry Legend’s one-note acting couldn’t even bring down a great concept. Jordan’s wardrobe choice is one of those things that, unless you were there in the early 90’s, just can’t be understood. The story behind that outfit, and some other trivia, can be found here (again, this commercial is kind of a big deal).
#1: Freestyle, Nike
This was a game-changer. I can still remember how my friends and I, in middle school, would focus intently on the screen each time this commercial came on, trying to glean clues about how to replicate some of those moves. And I can remember my amateurish attempts in front of my basement mirror as my mom wondered what the HELL ALL THAT NOISE was. I know I’m not the only one. Keep in mind, this is the one commercial on the list where the action is driven mostly by guys who never played a League minute. I didn’t know who Jackie Jackson or Booger Smith were back then, but this spot let them and a who’s-who of street ballers steal the spotlight from whatever game was actually being aired. A commercial had never been so cool.
Well, that’s the list. Have a different #1? Think I left something out? That’s what the comments are for. Below are a few that, er, didn’t make the cut. The less said about them the better.
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