The greatest sneaker commercial, according to the greatest This American Life episode

“He would dribble from morning till night, watching his reflection in a basement window. Trying to repeat exactly the same moves again and again. His neighbors, who were often kept awake by his dribbling, thought he was out of his mind.”
– Joel Lovell, This American Life, describing Luis Da Silva.

Everytime I think I’ve heard the greatest This American Life episode yet, I hear another one.

The new favorite, “Crispy with the Rock”, is about the “world’s greatest sneaker commercial.”…or maybe “the greatest thing that has ever been on television. It kicks the moon landing’s ass,” according to reporter Joel Lovell.

Lovell is referring to the famous Nike “freestyle” commercial campaign. The TAL segment originally aired back in 2001. The commercials were in heavy rotation during the NBA season. But this was before YouTube, so Lovell was forced to become an obsessive watcher of the NBA:

I found myself spending a lot of hours watching games I didn’t really care about. Games involving the Indiana Pacers, for instance. Just so I could see the commercial.

Here’s one of the three spots in “Freestyle”, featuring NBA and WNBA pros with streetballers.

Lovell focuses on Luis Da Silva, one of the streetballers featured in the ensemble commercial. Luis grew up in Elizabeth, N. J., in an area dangerous enough that his mother wouldn’t let him go to the park. So, Luis dribbled in his own backyard, “a concrete slab about the size of a Twister mat”

He would dribble from morning till night, watching his reflection in a basement window. Trying to repeat exactly the same moves again and again. His neighbors, who were often kept awake by his dribbling, thought he was out of his mind.

Luis: “When my father called me in, he’s like, son, it’s time to come in now. I’m like, what time is it? He’s like, it’s 2:30. I was like, wow. Time just came by. Time just flew.

“And I would wake up the next day during sometime like 9, 10 o’clock and get like four or five hours of sleep. Back up. But I wanted it so bad. I wanted it so bad.”

“I was just in my backyard. That’s how much I loved it. I mean, nothing else mattered. Nothing else mattered…”

For all of his practice, Luis didn’t even make it as a starter on his high school team. Then his friend told him of a Nike commercial filming the next day in Manhattan.

There are three versions of the freestyle ad. Two of them are ensembles. The third features just Luis:

The rest of the episode is a must-listen, which includes an explanation of “crispy with the rock” and an encounter at the Taipei airport.

The story ends with Lovell recounting his attempt at going 1-on-1 with Luis:

This wave of relief and giddiness comes over me. There’s something reassuring in the idea that someone, through sheer determination and will, can become so impossibly blow-your-mind good. And there’s something so comforting about being in the presence of such goodness.

I expected to Google “Luis Da Silva” and not find anything, as his commercial aired back in 2001 and seemed to be something that should have consumed the entirety of his 15 minutes of fame (and more). As it turned out, he’s doing well. Well enough, at least, to have his own Wikipedia entry, and even a movie career.

Check out the episode here, which I found through TAL’s excellent iOS app. Completely worth a few bucks. I’m sometimes skeptical about verbal storytelling’s ability to capture the visual, but TAL makes be a believer every time.

I'm a programmer, data journalist, and photographer in New York City. I'm the author of three in-progress books: The Bastards Books of Ruby, Photography, and Regular Expressions.