The breakout star of this year’s N.B.A. finals was not a member of the Miami Heat or the Oklahoma City Thunder, but instead a man appearing to be well into his 70s who had supernatural basketball gifts and referred to himself simply as Uncle Drew.
In a series of short commercials shown during the games, fans were teased to find out who Uncle Drew actually was by going online. More than 11.7 million people so far have taken the bait and learned that the character is none other than Kyrie Irving, the 20-year-old Cleveland Cavaliers point guard, in an advertisement for Pepsi Max.
The ads and video became a viral phenomenon largely through word-of-mouth and the effort has yielded a 98 percent like-rate on YouTube and made the front page of the Web site Reddit. In Game 5, as LeBron James was on his way to clinching his first N.B.A. championship, Irving was trending worldwide on Twitter, not just under his name, but under Uncle Drew’s as well.
“I’m not even Kyrie Irving anymore,” Irving said. “I’m Uncle Drew.”
The character and videos were created and developed by Sam Duboff, a member of the Pepsi Max brand team. Pepsi had signed Irving to a two-year partnership after working with him earlier this year on what was intended to be a one-time video. It was Irving’s youth that inspired the elderly character.
“At the time he was a 19-year-old rookie who was going to win rookie of the year,” Duboff said. “We all thought there was something relevant about someone so young doing so well and playing with the concept of age and people’s perceptions of age.”
The idea was not something that immediately resonated with Irving.
“At first I wasn’t looking forward to it,” Irving said of the process that involved spending four hours in a makeup chair. “But once I got out on the court and started playing, I got more excited about it.”
The video was filmed at Clark’s Pond Court in Bloomfield, N.J., which is close to where Irving’s father lives. Local players were gathered and told that Pepsi Max was filming a documentary on a character named Kevin who they claimed was a youth basketball coach. Other than Irving, Kevin and the player whose injury leads to Uncle Drew entering the game, no one on the court knew that it was actually Irving under the makeup.
Irving said the only awkward moment once the action started was when his prosthetic belly slid around to his back and he had to leave the court to have it adjusted.
The video was posted two days after Irving was officially announced as the rookie of the year. With no media behind it, the video garnered 10 million views. With 80 percent of the viewers watching four minutes into the five-minute video, and the key target demographic of males from 25 to 54 accounting for most of those views, Pepsi Max decided to create a series of trailers to the video to be shown during the N.B.A. finals, representing a significant advertising purchase. Even so, the decision was made to stay true to the viral roots of the video by not giving away anything in the 30-second spots.
“It was important to stay true to the spirit of the online piece,” Duboff said. “The last thing you want to do is have this awesome video people are loving and then put your media dollars behind it only to ruin the whole thing.”
The most surprising part about the explosion of popularity has been how sparingly the commercials have actually run. They were shown once each during Games 1, 2, 3 and 5. Other than those spots and a large advertisement on ESPN.com over the weekend, Uncle Drew has not appeared anywhere.
On Twitter, fans have created fake accounts for Uncle Drew and took to posting about him in reference to the games, including countless comparisons of Uncle Drew to Mike Miller, the Heat’s hobbling sharpshooter. More than 25,000 Uncle Drew-related tweets have posted so far.
The success puts Irving in the rare group of players who have developed popular alter egos, along with Larry Johnson’s Grandmama, Penny Hardaway’s Lil’ Penny, and the M.V.P. puppets that Nike used for LeBron James and Kobe Bryant. The ability to showcase himself in such an unorthodox way ended up appealing to Irving, who said his personality tends to be more introverted.
With the success, plenty are wondering what is next for Uncle Drew, but other than another takeover advertisement on ESPN.com, nothing is planned right now.
“My main focus right now is to continue to work hard,” Irving said. “In July, I’m going to be in Vegas working out on the U.S. select team and playing summer league, so it’s not my primary focus, but after that the sky’s the limit for Uncle Drew.”
Duboff clearly intends to protect the character he created by keeping consumers wanting more.
“The last thing we want is to overstay our welcome,” Duboff said. “We have little things planned, and our partnership with Kyrie includes a bunch of other elements as well. Uncle Drew the character will definitely be back, but we’ll give him a little bit of a breather.”