Remembrance of Things Past: The NBA Returns to its Roots

LeBron James took his talents to South Beach. Now, Grant Jones is taking his talents to Instead of Texting to present his definitive retrospective on NBA fashion through the ages (with an assist from Jimmy).

The recent unveiling of the new Washington Wizards uniforms was further evidence of a growing trend among NBA franchises to re-brand themselves into the aesthetics of their own past. Golden State, Utah, Philadelphia, Milwaukee, Detroit and Minnesota have all rebuked the “upgrades” of the 1990s in favor of a return to the uniform styles of the 1970s and 80s. Looking back, this now seems only the inevitable conclusion of a decade-long obsession with throwback uniforms, which had begun as an occasional homage to a team’s history but quickly proved very popular with fans. Now those same teams that once rebuked these older styles as out-of-date are changing their minds. In fact, the only franchises which seem immune to this growing trend are those whose style have never (or seldom) deviated from their original incarnations. Teams such as Boston, New York, and Los Angeles, Chicago and San Antonio. It would appear that the same NBA marketing teams which, during the 1990s, ushered in one of the most comprehensive, unnecessary and unappealing style shifts in league history could finally realize what fans had long known: nostalgia sells.

Well, usually.

It seems odd that such a sweeping change in uniform styles would have taken place in the 1990s, when the league’s popularity was at an all-time high. Not only were logos updated but in many cases, entire color schemes—which had been associated with their respective teams for decades—were swapped out for new ones. Detroit went from blue and red to green and orange. Houston, which had always been red and gold, made navy blue its dominant color. Sacramento, Milwaukee and Utah each decided to drape themselves in purple despite no preceding association with that color. Cleveland ditched burgundy for sky blue and black. Denver, Philadelphia and Golden State all fell into the modernization trap, with Toronto, New Jersey and Dallas staggering into new designs by the early 2000s. In a few cases, these overhaul designs were met with positive critiques, while in most, such as Detroit’s odd choice, the changes were met by fan outrage. Undoubtedly, as The Gap recently realized, change for change’s sake is not always a good idea, especially if it uproots an identity fans came to regard as part of their own.

The mistake so many NBA brand managers seemed to make in the 1990s—and are only now willing to admit through the return to the designs of the 70s and 80s—was to so radically overhaul their team’s images. Boston, New York, Chicago and Los Angeles (arguably the league’s four highest-profile franchises) each underwent just as many upgrades as their counterparts, but did so in small and digestible increments, making their teams look modern without losing the identity fans regarded with such affection.

With the benefit of hindsight, it has become clear that in their attempts to modernize the league’s look, the designs of the 1990s only served to highlight the worst eccentricities of their era. That said, I fully expect in another twenty years’ time we will see a sudden onslaught of 1990s designs begin their march back to prominence in the form of alternate throwbacks.

God save us.

Ranking the Franchises

There are very few teams that truly have done nothing to modernize their looks. Even the Knicks changed their colors for one year during the early 80s. Most teams have worn an abundance of different looks over the decades, so I thought it would be a fun exercise to look back at the different uniforms each franchise has worn over the past 30-40 years and grade them in terms of overall aesthetics. Helping me out in this endeavor will be Jimmy.

Bobcats 

Grant: 3/10 – Orange seemed a strange choice for this franchise, as it has no association with the city or the state other than a (reasonably close) proximity to Clemson University. The futuristic font is equally odd.

Jimmy: 2/10 – Those checkerboarded rib cages are dreadful. The Bobjohnsons have introduced some gray, pinstriped jerseys that I like. On the whole, they’re undistinguished.

Bucks

Grant: 6/10 – Loses points for that god awful deer uni as well as the pointless addition of purple during the ’90s.  Their recent return to red and green is long overdue.

Jimmy: 6/10 – The deerhead jerseys looked like knockoffs. Otherwise, the Bucks’ uni history is nothing to be embarrassed about.

Bulls

Grant:  9.5/10 – Classic in every sense. You know your uniforms are successful when you own your color in your sport. The Bulls own red.

Jimmy: 9/10 – They’ve never made a mistake, unlike this year’s MVP voters.

Cavs

Grant: 7/10 – Burgundy is back in Cleveland and none too soon. But the powder blue mistakes of the 80s and 90s cost them heavily.

Jimmy: 3/10 – If confined to those early 90s Mark Price unis, I’d give the Cavs a solid B. Major demerits, though, for those mid-90s abominations, and nothing else they’ve ever worn has made an impact with me.

Celtics

Grant: 10/10 – Other than increased bagginess, there has been virtually no change to Boston’s uniform since its inception. They own green the way Chicago owns red. The players come and go, the championships rack up, but the uniforms are always the same. Absolute perfection.

Jimmy: 10/10 – Distinctive color meets timeless design. If they ever change these, the NBA as we know it will have ended.

Clippers

Grant: 8/10 – Bad basketball does not equate to bad uniforms. The Clippers have sported the same colors and same cool nautical font since they moved from Buffalo to San Diego.  The only thing keeping these uniforms from being iconic is the lack of success associated with them.

Jimmy: 9/10 – Nothing beats red, white and blue. Even the misfires (top left and bottom right corners) are at least interesting.

Grizzlies


Grant: 3/10 – This is the first year of their existence the Grizzlies haven’t been a complete joke. And fortunately their new uniform designs reflect that newfound maturity. Because the old ones, the ones they wore even after their exodus from Canada when an overhaul would have been more than justified, looked like there were concocted by an 8-year-old.

Jimmy: 2/10 – I actually kind of like their current look, and the Gasol-era uniforms would have looked good if they weren’t so busy. Their first few years were just horrific.

Hawks

Grant: 4/10 – The Hawks are schizophrenic. As soon as they develop a good look, they ditch it for something else entirely. And of all the uniforms they’ve had over the years, none are actually truly good. The one worn during the ’80s by Dominique Wilkins and company has fond memories associated with it, but it wasn’t a good uniform in its own right. Atlanta was foolish to ditch the Red and Gold for the far darker scheme of Red and Navy. It’s the same mistake the Rockets had made a decade earlier.

Jimmy: 2/10 – Their only good uniforms were the ‘Nique-era ones. And those looked like cigarette packs.

Heat


Grant: 8/10 – I’m not quite sure how a franchise based in Miami escaped the fashion frenzy of the 1990s, but somehow these uniforms have been updated slowly and tastefully over the years. They look as good on Dwayne Wade as they did on Mitch Richmond.

Jimmy: 7/10 – There’s nothing wrong with the Heat uniforms, and they do get credit for consistency. But they don’t linger on the palate, either.

Hornets


Grant: 8/10 – Despite the opportunity to overhaul the team’s design following their move from Charlotte, the Hornets wisely chose to only make small, smart changes to the color scheme to reflect the culture of the new host city. In fact, I think the rather playful uniforms do a great job reflecting the city’s identity without coming across as goofy.

Jimmy: 10/10 – Those early Paul-era jerseys were the only misstep, and even they looked pretty good. The Hornets pull off pinstripes better than any other NBA team. Sorry, Magic.

Jazz

Grant: 6.5/10 – Here is a team that should have taken the opportunity to overhaul following their move from New Orleans. And yet they waited to do so only after several generations of Utah fans had grown accustomed to their idiosyncratic name and looks. Therefore, it seemed almost egregious to drop the jazz note in the 1990s in favor of a mountain-scape that made Karl Malone look like a Coors Light can. It was an error that took them two decades to overcome, given that they have had three new uniform sets over the past 6 years, only to come full circle again this year, going back to their New Orleans look.

Jimmy: 5/10 – Despite the incongruous mascot, I think the Jazz uniforms of the 1980s and early- to mid-1990s looked great. Kudos for echoing them with the latest design. But those late-1990s topographic jerseys were atrocious. Why were the 1990s so pointy?

Kings


Grant: 7/10 – Although it is tempting to put the Kings down as another franchise that needlessly adopted a purple color scheme, I will say that since the change they’ve both stuck with it and made it their own. When I think of purple in the NBA, I think of the Kings. Once upon a time I thought of the Jazz or Raptors, but then both those teams went haywire and lost their claim. But if the Kings move south to Anaheim as many predict, expect another name change. They would be only 35 miles from where the L.A. Kings, whose color scheme and logo bear a striking resemblance to Sacramento’s. It is a shame that the Kings, who were a founding member of the NBA as the Rochester Royals, have had to change cities and nicknames so many times.

Jimmy: 4/10 – I’m a sucker for script fonts, so the old Richmond-era jerseys are among my favorites. But I haven’t enjoyed a Kings uniform since Bobby Hurley drove into that ditch.

Knicks

Grant: 9.5/10 – Other than one minor blip during the Bernard King era, the Knicks have held as close to their classic uniform as any team in the league. The 1990s saw a dangerous flirtation with black trimming but fortunately they never went full black-for-black’s-sake as so many college and pro teams did.  Interestingly, their home unis are perhaps even more iconic than their road set. No team owns white in basketball, but the Knicks come the closest.

Jimmy: 10/10 – Nothing to add. Just some sweet unis.

Lakers

Grant: 10/10 – The Lakers have had three distinct looks throughout their history. Green in Minneapolis, sea blue when they first came to L.A., and of course the iconic Purple and Gold we all know today. All three looks are fantastic, and naturally the success associated with these uniforms doesn’t hurt their case. The Lakers uniforms have been so consistent over the years that even the sight of their newly adopted Sunday whites makes me bristle.

Jimmy: 10/10 – I was tempted to deduct a half-point for the shorts that violated Kobe Bryant four years ago. But these are perfect uniforms — as was the case with Boston, the Lakers found a palette and design that worked, and they haven’t strayed.

Magic

Grant: 6/10 – Consistent in color and design through their short tenure in the league, Orlando’s uniforms nonetheless border on the bland. Is it right that the city that brought you the flamboyance of Disney World should be represented in its only professional team by what could best be described as a basketball version of monochrome business suits? And yet when they did lose the pinstripes for a short spell, they appeared even more boring. Orlando played it safe, perhaps too safe.

Jimmy: 7/10 – I’m a sucker for pinstripes. Wish they hadn’t ditched the old Magic logo (see Ho Grant). Wish even more that they (and essentially everyone else) would drop those silly off-color side panels.

Mavs

Grant: 7/10 – The Mavericks have two loves in their life: Green and Blue (ignoring a regrettable mid-life crisis fling with ‘metallic sheen’). I can’t think of Dallas without summoning both these colors to mind. Their relationship with typeface, however, can best be describe as whorish. Seriously.

Jimmy: 5/10 – Surveyed 10 years ago, I would have graded the Mavs much higher. Loved the classic look of their jerseys through 2001, and I thought the royal blue/white/kelly (?) green were both handsome and distinctive. Everything they’ve done since ’01 looks more modern. And shitty.

Nets

Grant: 5/10 – Do you see that top row? Those are awesome uniforms. Not even the epic uncoolness of Mike Gminski can make that uniform look bad. Now look at the bottom row, which ranges from one of the league’s most atrocious uniforms (lower left), to perhaps the league’s most banal (lower right). Once a team known for its style, the Nets somehow became the NBA’s preeminent snoozer.

Jimmy: 3/10 – I have to disagree, and not just because the G-Man was my dad’s favorite basketball player. The Dr. J-era Nets looked like they had won second place in a livestock contest and worn their ribbons to work. The Drazen pic looks awful, but I kind of liked that logo on a solid royal blue jersey. As displayed here, though, that era of the Nets faintly recalls Kentucky’s flirtation with “denim.”

Nuggets

Grant: 4/10 – Nearly as notorious as the Houston Astros’ rainbow uniform, the Denver “Tetris” jersey is iconic for all the wrong reasons. But there’s hope; the new uniforms are actually really good. And the colors work, too. Stop while you are ahead, Mile High. I want to see you wearing those twenty years from now. This is one of the few teams that made the right decision by shedding its uniform history.

Jimmy: 3.5/10 – Everything they’ve done since ’94 has looked great. But it’s going to take a long time to expunge their previous record.

Pacers

Grant: 3/10 – The Pacers have no style. Their logo looks like it belongs to a CBA team. When they wear yellow, they look like a knockoff of the Lakers. They look halfway decent in white, but even there they look like a knockoff of the Lakers’ white alternates. Of course, having Rik Smits and Reggie Miller as your uniform models didn’t help the franchise in terms of style, even if they did find reasonable success on the court. Strange, too, that the Bobcats pay more homage to their host city’s car racing culture than an Indianapolis team that derives its very nickname from the world-renowned formula car race.

Jimmy: 3/10 – What he said.

Pistons

Grant: 7.5/10 – I hated the Bad Boys growing up, but I LOVED their look. There was no denying they had a strong identity as a franchise. And yet I can’t not punish them for what was easily the biggest uniform blunder of the 1990s. Can you believe they made Joe Dumars end his career in that green vomit-robe they called a uniform? At least they returned to form in time for their most recent title.

Jimmy: 6/10 – Everything before and after the Grant Hill era looks fantastic. But my God, those mid-’90s uniforms were fugly.

Raptors

Grant: 2.5/10 – Expansion teams in the 1990s had an unfair disadvantage. They made their debut in the midst of the league’s ugliest uniform trend. Most teams have their original uniforms to fall back on when their experiments fail. All the Raptors and Grizzlies can hope to do is continue to distance themselves from that era. Also, I can never quite shake from my mind the nagging reality that this team is named for one of Spielberg’s most ridiculous franchises. I’d feel more comfortable if the Pacers renamed themselves the Indiana Jones than I do rooting for a team named after the creature that ate Samuel L. Jackson and Wayne Knight. That said, I think it was a mistake to drop the purple from their scheme. It was part of their identity. Now they look like baby Bulls.

Jimmy: 1/10 – This team’s uniforms have always looked like Wayne Knight designed them right after his meeting with the dilophosaurus.

Rockets

Grant: 7.5/10 – The Rockets looked good from the moment they moved to Houston from San Diego. They had just enough gold in their uniforms to separate them from the other red teams in the league. Then, after back-to-back world championships, they decided for no good reason at all to make Navy their dominant color. Did they see what the Pistons had done and thinkthat was a good idea? I have to assume so, given that just like Detroit, the Rockets also slapped an atrociously ugly flame-firing mascot on their uniform front. While the Rockets didn’t fully embrace their past (dropping the gold when they dropped the Navy), I can’t argue that they don’t look both good and unique now. Along with Denver, these are the best “new” uniforms to appear in the league in a long while.

Jimmy: 8/10 – Agree with Grant on the Rockets’ jersey history. Their current logo looks great — they suggest a rocket launch without explicitly showing one. Nice.

Sixers

Grant: 8/10 – The Sixers have had far too many variations to cover in a small collage (you can see them all here), but other than that blinding jersey you see on Barkley on the lower right, the Sixers haven’t had a bad look. Even the overhaul during the Iverson era, including the black-for-black’s-sake road set, seemed somehow to suit them. But if I had my choice, they’d go back to the 1965-66 uniforms you see above on Wilt. That’s one of the finest looks of all-time.

Jimmy: 6/10 – The Sixers unis have always been a bit blandto me, but the typeface on the Wilt jersey looks great.

Spurs

Grant: 9.5/10 – Silver & Black is a classic sports combination, and the Spurs have wisely never strayed from it. When the ’90s came knocking, they very smartly relegated experiments in color to their warm-ups. The incremental improvements they’ve made over the years, including integrating the spur logo into the word “Spurs” was the obvious and best route.

Jimmy: 8/10 – Nothing wrong with what the Spurs have done, but they just don’t move me. Pink and teal appeared as accent colors in their logo during the ’90s but (wisely) never reached the uniforms themselves.

Suns

Grant: 6.5/10 – Garish or not, there’s never been any mistaking a Suns uniform. While their finest set was way back in the Walter Davis years (top left), you can’t accuse them of settling for boring. Yes in the 1990s they went big and bold, but as we saw with Philadelphia, there’s something about Charles that makes you just want to smother him in streaking stars. The addition of gray in recent years reeks a little much of the eccentricities of our current era, but that’s something for another blogger of an as-yet-unborn generation to reflect upon.

Jimmy: 9/10 – Those Barkley jerseys are my madeleines, taking me back to 1993 and my first season as an NBA fan. The logo was dynamic, drawing on the best elements of the IN-YOUR-FACE sports design trend. These unis, with the slightly darkened purple and the black arm- and waistbands, also foretold the coming obsession with black uniforms. The ’92-’96 Suns uniforms are to all those late-90s abominations as Eddie Vedder is to the Scott Stapps and Chad Kroegers of the late 1990s. The Suns get a 10 for those and the Davis-era jerseys. Point deducted for replacing the city name with an airport code on the current uniforms.

Thunder

Grant: 1/10 – I did not include the franchise’s Supersonics history for purposes of this post since the franchise left those colors and their nickname to the city of Seattle for future use. But as to the Thunder, Oh Lord, where to begin? I could spend hours slagging off their logo, but fortunately this guy has already done that for me. Their road uniforms so closely resemble the Knicks that I sometimes am forced to do a double-take before I realize it’s the Thunder. I find the Suns’ “PHX” lettering to be a little silly, but if ever there was a team I’d approve of using an acronym, it’s this one. Their entire design is so generic I feel like whatever firm they hired to design their logo and uni just opened up the Photoshop default and changed the words.

Jimmy: (Declining comment, in memory of the Sonics. Despite some truly horrible Seattle uniform designs.)

Timberwolves

Grant: 7/10 – The Cavaliers had no chance to claim red as their own, so they went with wine red. It worked. That same strategy was applied in Minnesota. Tweaking blue and green just enough to not be confused with Dallas, the Timberwolves uniforms are distinct and reasonably constrained. Plus they finally corrected the unreadable uniform font of the Garnett years.

Jimmy: 6/10 – The Wolves started strongly, pairing a classic look with a slightly novel typeface during the Laettner years. Their logo looked great then, too. It’s all been downhill since. When Sam Cassell wears your uniform, you may as well give up on it looking good.

Trail Blazers

Grant: 8/10 – You certainly can’t fault the Trail Blazers for needless overhauls. While their style is still a little stuck in the 1970s, that seems to be in vogue these days. And with good reason.

Jimmy: 10/10 – Great color scheme, and the tweaks they’ve made over the years always seem of their time without becoming dated.

Warriors

Grant: 5/10 – Fortunately, the abhorrently named Golden State Warriors made a wise decision in returning to the Golden Gate Bridge inspired uniforms they originally wore during the 1960s. Unfortunately everything in between was an increasingly disastrous detour. Still “The City” is a true classic so I will raise their score half a point for every year they stick with it. And I’ll raise them several points if they finally come to their senses and rename themselves “The City.”

Jimmy: 7/10 – For all but a few years (the bottom left corner), the Warriors have looked great. That era aside, from “The City” to the prominent outline of the state of California to the Golden Gate Bridge, no NBA team uniform has better conveyed a sense of place. Odd, given that they don’t have a hometown.

Wizards

Grant: 7/10 – And here we are, full circle. The Bullets won the NBA’s first title, and won their second in 1978. They remained a competitive force throughout the 1980s, and their uniforms, as well as their unusual name, was a big part of their identity. Then in 1998, owner Abe Pollin, uncomfortable with the violent undertones of the team’s nickname, changed it to the Wizards. In the process he ditched the more-than-appropriate red, white, and blue color scheme in order to better match the colors of the Washington Capitals hockey club he also owned. He might as well have relocated. The lack of identity coupled with the team’s decline and the messy involvement and breakup with a late-era Michael Jordan only further soured fans to their new identity. This year the Wizards debuted uniforms that reflect both the design and color scheme of the Bullets, though unfortunately not their name. Still, compared to many other franchises, their time lost in the woods wasn’t that long in respect to their total history, even if it was recent. Now let’s just hope those in charge of NBA marketing remember the lessons of the 1990s in the decades to come.

Jimmy: 7/10 – In Pollin’s defense, the violent crime rate in D.C. has dropped by 16% since the Bullets became the Wizards. I can see no other reasonable explanation for the decline — kudos, (late) Abe!

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