Put on And1 Mixtape Volume 1 and you’ll see a familiar scene: a boyish Rafer Alston skipping down the court during a 1995 NYC All-Star Game, clowning on everyone around him. But if you squint hard enough at that grainy VHS footage, you’ll notice another skinny teenager from Harlem with a 6’ 7” frame handling the rock as if he were a point guard and battling Skip for streetball supremacy.
While not quite as recognizable as Skip, that equally precocious kid on the tape is none other than Tyrone “Alimoe” Evans aka “The Black Widow,” one of the New York City playground legends who helped launch the global streetball phenomenon.
According to various news outlets, Alimoe died Tuesday after suffering a seizure. In a 2010 Slam article, Alimoe revealed that he was diabetic and that at times he had neglected his health by refusing to take the medications prescribed to treat his condition.
Like most legends, Alimoe was something of an enigma. While Rafer Alston eventually left New York to play in college and the pros, Alimoe stayed behind in the Harlem neighborhood of his youth where he was known and loved.
Like Skip, Alimoe was given an opportunity by Jerry Tarkanian to play college basketball at Fresno State but opted instead to take what he saw at the time as the easier route. He admits as much during an episode of the popular ESPN2 reality series Streetball, and some of his quotes from the Slam article are equally as maddening on the surface.
When asked if he had any interest in playing overseas, his response was “Nah. You have to work to play overseas.” In response to the follow up question “So you don’t want to make money?” he replies “I do, but I just don’t want to have to work for it.”
There’s a whole spectrum of reasons why some players never “make it” in the conventional sense, and a puzzling lack of ambition is often chief among them.
But there was another undercurrent to the Slam article that seemed at odds with the image of the confident, charismatic figure who stole so much screen time during that first season of Streetball: a crippling insecurity that seemed to border on paranoia.
When Alimoe joined the And1 Mixtape Tour, he became a fixture of the ESPN2 reality series which documented the team as they traveled around the country each summer taking on local players in different cities and hosting a competition for those vying to become “the next streetball legend.”
But after a few summers on tour, Alimoe grew increasingly suspicious of his And1 teammates. He became disillusioned when the friendships he made on tour were not maintained off the bus. He worried that his teammates might think he was gay because he didn’t have any children or that he was strange because he didn’t spend his money lavishly like some of the other players. He was also suspicious of the show’s producers for watering down the game with overnight sensations and even went so far as to publicly accuse them of staging some of the tour games.
Alimoe left And1 at the peak of the streetball craze, which has been on the steady decline ever since. Perhaps he saw the writing on the wall. For Alimoe, and for many And1 fans, streetball had jumped the shark. After the novelty had worn off, all that was left were the gimmicks. Stepping away from it could be seen as move for self-preservation.
Of course, there’s danger in trying to distill too much about someone’s life from so little information or to speculate about their motives. From the outside looking in, it’s tempting to fault Alimoe for being too complacent, for being too scared to step out of his comfort zone, for not having bigger dreams or aspirations, and for not putting forth the effort necessary to meet the expectations laid out before him. That’s just what he’d expect from someone who doesn’t really know him.
But that’s the extraordinary thing about fandom. It creates an artificial intimacy between us and the celebrities we admire, and it gives us a false and unsettling sense of ownership over them. And this, at least partially, appears to be what alienated Alimoe from this particular lifestyle.
For the last few years of life, Alimoe lived in Harlem surrounded by his friends and family, occasionally playing in streetball tournaments when he was healthy enough and visiting local schools to speak to kids about life and basketball. Below is a quote from a 2011 HoopsVibe interview in which he was asked what he’d like to be remembered for.
“As somebody that made somebody else get up and do better. They don’t have to let me know that I lit their fire; just go out and do it. They don’t have to thank me and bring me out to the game; just go do it. Just knowing that that little kid watching me took something home with them. See, basketball is a teacher of life. The lessons you learn in basketball – don’t be selfish, work hard, and treat everybody good – they’re the same lessons in life.”
If you listen closely enough, these pearls of practical wisdom sound a lot like the antithesis of what the streetball mentality eventually became – a mockery of a game that glorified tricks, gimmicks, individual performances, and, like every other reality show, fostered an environment in which the untalented are indiscriminately allotted their 15 minutes of fame. Even during the filming of the show, Alimoe was highly vocal with his criticism about the commercialization of streetball, and he was always careful to draw the distinction between entertainers and real basketball players, and that’s probably one of the best legacies he could leave behind for his younger fans.