It’s only right that The Greatest Mixtape Ever, a documentary on the AND1 movement, came from a young Black creator gettin’ it out the mud. In 2017, documentary co-creator Brian Mickens was looking for a story to tell. He had previously pitched a 30 for 30 on the 2000 Michigan State Spartans team that went to the National Championship, but it didn’t work out. At that point though, the recent Grand Valley State University grad was tired of working factory jobs. He knew he had to make something shake. 

“I just started watching old YouTube videos [and I was] like, “Man! AND1 was groundbreaking!,” Mickens recalls over the phone. “And I was like, ‘I need to do a documentary on this.” 

He’d go to Georgia Tech every day to plot out the project. 

“I would write the description. I would write how I wanted it shot. I would write the players I wanted to be involved with, the rundown. I would do this every day, every day for like a few months.”

Four years later, that work resulted in an hour-long special that chronicled one of the most important basketball movements ever. The show debuted last week on ESPN, and predominantly covers the first four volumes of the AND1 Mixtape series, where Set Free mashed up underground rap with clips of playground legends like Rafer “Skip To My Lou” Alston, Waliyy “Main Event” Dixon, Anthony “Half Man, Half Amazing” Heyward, Aaron “AO” Owens, and many more.

The project is a result of Mickens’ resourcefulness and persistence. A chance meeting with Michael Smith at a 2017 BET Awards afterparty led to a later phone call with Smith and Scoop Jackson who heard his idea for an AND1 doc and linked him with The Undefeated. 

“I [didn’t] have no money,” Mickens recalls. “So my friends come over with some money and fly me there and I meet with [The Undefeated]. I pitch it to them and they love it. They’re like, ‘This is too big. We need to forward you to ESPN films.’” 

From there, the still “dead broke” aspirant made three separate trips from Atlanta to New York to convince the AND1 team to give him their footage. In the midst of that process he told the team he wanted AND1 mixtape creator and DJ Set Free Richardson involved in the documentary, noting, 

“If it wasn’t for him creating the mixtapes, I wouldn’t have no film.” Mickens says that Free’s connections brought on the AND1 players and rappers like Snoop Dogg, Fat Joe and Jadakiss, who lent his iconic voice to narrating the documentary. But the collaborative effort shifted the documentary from his initial plan.

That production choice casts a shadow over the documentary for those who felt like it was too omissive. Some mistook the documentary to be about streetball in general and expected mention of other famous streetball figures. And the people who understood the doc to be strictly about the AND1 mixtape wanted a story that extended into the wildly successful AND1 Mixtape tour, which ESPN covered on Streetball: The AND1 Mixtape Tour, their highest-rated original series ever.

Shortly after the documentary’s release, AND1 player Alimoe’s niece spoke for many by tweeting the film “conveniently leaves Tyron “Alimoe” Evans out” and that ESPN had “left a lot of people out.” ESPN had left out the likes of Alimoe, Escalade, Flash, The Professor, and others who weren’t mentioned.

Mickens says he understands and agrees with the sentiment, noting, “If we would’ve did it the way it was [written in the original script ] everybody would’ve gotten their due diligence. Everybody knows the documentary could have been greater, but I’m just happy for that moment, to give younger basketball players an idea of what it was like when they weren’t born. And why kids, after they do a move, they rush the court. It all started somewhere. And I think we were able to show where.”

Aaron “AO” Owens, an AND1 player and Philly basketball legend who’s one of the film’s prominent voices, agrees. 

“It was dope. I understood what they was trying to accomplish with it, so it was cool,” AO says. “I think it was just about the basis of summertime basketball linked with the music. And that first [AND1 mixtape] was about that. it was more of that than it was us personally and the tour. So, you see only the guys that was in the first three tapes was on it.”

AO is a push-the-tempo guard who many Streetball viewers may remember as the catalyst to many fast breaks which led to a spectacular alley-oop or coast-to-coast finish. His voice is heard throughout the doc, chiefly in a scene where AND1 players and NBA stars discuss whether AND1 players could have made the league. In the doc, AO admitted that his AND1 peers’ discipline might not have been where it needed to be to maintain a pro career, but he doesn’t agree with any of the players proposing that they didn’t have the skill. 

“I played in the D-League (which became the G-League). I worked out with the Sixers and Sonics, stuff like that,” AO says. “As far as how Kyrie was putting it, were we dedicated? Probably not. I wasn’t dedicated to basketball at that point. I really wasn’t pushing myself. But as far as skill-wise, we played against NBA guys before, and the skill factor is not even the issue.”

Indeed, AO helped the Mobile Revelers win the D-League championship in 02-03, and also played in the first division of the Israeli Basketball Premier League. He recalled scoring 26 points on perennial IBBL power Maccabi Tel Aviv.

“The NBA is made up of, let me see, 10 superstars. Then you probably got like your next [25, 30] who could be all-stars. And then after that, you really just filling in your roster with whoever,” AO adds. “So, [for the] 80 percent of the NBA players in there it’s another 80 percent that’s not in the NBA that could play them spots. I know I could have. I know Prime Objective could have. I know Alimoe could have. Baby Shaq, maybe. Kenny Brunner was a fuckin’ McDonald’s All-American at Crenshaw, No.1 team in the country, him and Tayshaun Prince. Like Baron, you played against Kenny your whole life. You get what I’m saying? But I didn’t feel a type of way about it at all.”

During another scene, Iman Shumpert gleefully recalled people dissing AND1 star Hot Sauce as “Ketchup” after a bad showing at a pro-am game. But AO feels that the scene was unfair to Hot Sauce, who never proclaimed to be NBA caliber.  

“Sauce is my man, a hundred grand. But Sauce is not a basketball player,” AO says. “Sauce was what he was. I [commented on] somebody’s Instagram the other day, one of the guys who used to be at the Rucker. He had posted something, and I was like, ‘Yo, Sauce never said he was an NBA guy. He never said he could be a pro. He never said anything bad about Rucker and all that. And every time something come up like this, y’all put Sauce name in it.’ Sauce was who he was. And that’s the end of that.”

That’s why the AND1 crew is set to tell their own story, as AO tells us that he and several other players are in the early stages of their own “Last Dance style” documentary that they’re shopping with Netflix. But even with that future documentary, AO and others at AND1 are appreciative of the story Mickens and Set Free just told. Mickens says AND1’s marketing director and others congratulated him on the documentary after its release. 

“That’s what I’m happy about, man,’’ Mickens says. “I just want to keep creating dope stuff, letting young Black kids know that, ‘Look, I’m from Flint, Michigan. If I made it, you can do the same thing. It’s just all mental man. You got to have your spirit right. Your mind right. You can do it too bro.’” 

Just like AO and the AND1 movement inspired him.