Lost NBA Style Trends Of The 1990s

Kenny 1989-1990: Kenny Walker of the New York Knicks looks on. Mandatory Credit: Mike Powell /Allsport

When you were playing hacky-sack and watching the Fresh Prince during the '90s, NBA ballplayers were flashing some serious style on the hardwood. Dan Grunfeld takes a look back at some of his favorite style trends from way back when.

There are many pictures of me as a kid that are proudly on display at my parents' house.  In one particularly special photo, I'm about 4 years-old, I'm at the zoo, and I happen to be hanging out with a goat.  The two of us are basically just standing around, and while cute-kid images like this are standard in pretty much every household on Earth, there's something about my outfit in this picture that could be viewed as strange: both of my arms are lovingly adorned with thick white wristbands. 


The logical question, of course, is why the hell was I wearing athletic wristbands at the zoo when I wasn't even old enough to sweat yet?  And for that matter, why did I wear wristbands pretty much everywhere I went at that age?  Literally, there are pictures of me at home, at the beach, at the playground, at the roller rink, and more often than not, I'm wearing my wristbands.  So why?  The answer is pretty straightforward, and one that I'm sure any lifelong basketball fan can relate to: because guys in the NBA were wearing them at the time.  Duh! 

Even as a toddler, I loved basketball and watched it every night.  Accordingly, by age four, I was already mimicking the styles of the players that I saw on TV.  Since the double wristband look was (understandably) popular in the NBA back then, I did what any little baller with big dreams and cold wrists is supposed to do: I rocked the style of the NBA's best (and in case you don't believe me, here's the evidence, starring Young Me, sweatbands, and of course, the goat).

The double-wristband look has come and gone, but I'll be damned if I don't think back fondly to those days when NBA style really meant something to me.  And by "those days," I mean the '90s (and also the very-late-'80s, but for posterity's sake, let's just call it the '90s).  That is the era that I grew up watching hoops in, and that is the era whose style trends (and the players that popularized them) I will forever view as iconic.  For that very reason, and because I am the type of person who wore wristbands to the movies as a kid, here are my Top Ten Lost NBA Style Trends From The '90s That I Don't Necessarily Want To Come Back But That Still Spark A Special Twinkle In My Eye And Make Me Appreciate The Game That I Love. 

The order has been determined casually, based on how nostalgic a particular fad makes me feel as I look back.  And even though wristbands always make me feel nostalgic, there's really no better place to start, so without further ado...

10. The Double-Wristband


No matter how you slice it, rocking the double-wristband in the NBA (or at the zoo) was a pretty sweet look.  I mean, check out Xavier McDaniel.  He was one of the toughest S.O.B's in the league regardless of accessories, but I have to believe that the intimidation factor was ramped up a few notches by the thick cushions covering his wrists.  He also once guest starred in an episode of Married...With Children, so he's got that going for him.  If X-Man wore it on the court, you know it was cool, but in a word, it was also workmanlike; a stylish and absorbent way to show that you came to the arena to get a job done.  The double-wristband was half keen fashion sense, half personal cleanliness, and half gritty determination.  All in all, it was 150% awesome.

9. The Gold Tooth


Right?  Right?  Am I the only person who misses this?  I guess I just find it unfortunate that there has not been a gold tooth in the NBA that has really resonated with me since Larry Johnson's.  In general, expressing oneself dentally has never been done with such power and precision, in my opinion, as when LJ rocked the gold front back in the day (and I was clearly blasting Nelly's "Grills" as loud as anyone in college, so I know a thing or two about dental expression).  For me, LJ's gold tooth added so much to his mystique in the early '90s: he was an explosive athlete, he was absolutely jacked, he went to UNLV, he wore Converse, and to endorse these Converse, he dunked basketballs in commercials sporting a granny wig and a patterned dress.  You have to be pretty legit to pull that off.  LJ was indeed legit, and his gold tooth will always make me smile.  My smile, by the way, will be gold-free, because I am half the man that LJ is, at best, and I'm cool with that.

8. The Short Shorts


Okay, this was a style trend that really defined the '80s, but it bled into the '90s, thanks largely to John Stockton, so I'm going with it.  In this picture, Stockton is about to bury Houston with a buzzer-beating three to send Utah to the NBA Finals.  It was already 1997, and he's still showing some serious thigh.  Respect!  Stockton was so tough, smart, and all-around great that my dad and I used to refer to him by a special nickname: "The Master."  It pretty much says it all, and the fact that he kept the short-shorts look alive for years just shows how eternally amazing he is.  And by the way, to get an idea of how short NBA shorts used to be, there is a picture of me in my sister's apartment wearing my dad's old Milwaukee Bucks uniform from the late '70s.  I put it on one time when I was home from college, just to be funny.  Recently, her friend saw the photo in her apartment and asked, "Why do you have a picture of Dan in his underwear?"  That's a true story.  Anyway, all praise for this goes to The Master, the one-and-only John Stockton.

7. The Disproportionately Long Spandex


This look was an entertaining bi-product of short-shorts hanging around on a mainstream level until the early '90s.  At that time, a lot of players ditched the classic male athletic undergarment, the confusing and buttless contraption known as the jock strap, and went for a new-age approach to masculine support.  That approach, spandex undershorts, quickly took on a life of its own, as this picture illustrates.  Here we see a few different variations of spandex usage.  There is Mugsy Bogues, who isn't wearing visible spandex at this point and is instead staying true to the unfiltered short-shorts of the day.  Then there is Michael Jordan, the greatest ever, whose spandex sticks out from his shorts modestly as he drives to the basket.  Lastly, and most importantly, there's MJ's defender, Kelly Tripucka, who is closing in on a cool yard stick's worth of spandex action.  There were countless NBA players during this era who rocked the disproportionately long spandex, like Tripucka, and it's a style I'll never forget (or emulate).

6. The Crew Cut


NBA player or not, this is just a solid and professional way to style one's hair.  It's all about efficiency, but at the same time, it conveys many other important messages: I can take orders; I am regimented; I like to have fun; I don't take myself too seriously; I can easily bust out 30 knuckle pushups on command at any time.  I remember seeing a lot of the crew cut in the NBA back in the '90s, but nowadays, not so much.  What happened to guys like Brian Evans, Eric Montross, Detlef Schrempf, Jim McIlvaine, the legendary Chris Mullin, and of course, Greg Ostertag (pictured)?  All of these players donned the crew cut to perfection in the league, but you just don't see it consistently anymore.  It's a shame, and by the way, let's not sleep on Ostertag.  Some people remember him as a stiff, but he played a pretty big role on some awesome Jazz teams.  And, in keeping with guys who wear crew cuts, he liked to have fun and could probably do a bunch of knuckle push-ups.  I'm just sayin'. 

5. The Traditional Sports Goggle


Conceptually, I know why this look no longer exists.  I get it.  Optical wear has come so far that, instead of bulky and cumbersome goggles, NBA players who require eye protection, like Amar'e Stoudemire and Kirk Hinrich, now have options.  They can choose something sleeker and lighter that more closely resembles sunglasses you would sport on the beach rather than ski goggles you would wear on the slopes.  That's all good with me, but there's some definite charm in the full-faced and often color-coordinated goggles that Horace Grant used to wear during his day.  And before him, even the clear goggles worn at one time or another by the likes of James Worthy, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Thurl Bailey, Moses Malone, and Hakeem Olajuwon were fun to look at (not to mention the black-framed glasses of Kurt Rambis).  Those goggles/glasses had character, and if I had to describe them in a word, it would be unapologetic.  They may have seemed nerdy or dorky or whatever, but they certainly got the job done, without feeling bad about themselves.  They are missed.

4. The Snazzy and Synchronized Warm-Up Suit


Is it just me, or do you never see this type of thing anymore?  Everyone on the team wearing the exact same set of warm-ups in the exact same way before the game?  I understand how it is nowadays, because as a player, I wear what makes me comfortable unless I'm told otherwise.  Still, I can't help but miss seeing the snazzy and synchronized warm-up suits of the NBA during the '90s.  Just check out Shaq!  He looks like a basketball boy scout about to lead his friends to the coolest sleepover party ever, and they're the only ones invited, because they're wearing the right outfit.  No cut-off tees, no pants tucked into the socks, no towels tied around the neck for warmth.  Just the full team-issued warm-up, plain and simple, properly zipped and buttoned, conveying the cool design features of the day.  It never seems to be that way anymore, but I suppose the '90s was just a snazzier and more synchronized time, from a warm-up suit perspective, at least.

3. The Ballboy or Ballplayer?


Make no mistake, Jeff Hornacek was an absolute killer.  He was an all-star and his number is retired by the Utah Jazz, so no one can say a damn thing about his basketball ability.  Growing up, I loved watching him, but looking back now, objectively, I can say that he physically looked like he could have been the ballboy instead of a ballplayer.  That's no disrespect to him, of course.  It's just that with his guy-next-door look, unimposing physique, and jersey that fits like a sweater-vest, he wouldn't have seemed out of place wearing a 76ers baseball cap, mopping up sweat in the paint or handing out drinks on the sideline.  I also say this with the utmost respect for ballboys, because I used to be one myself and it was the coolest thing ever.  I guess the real point is that I haven't seen too many NBA guys recently who can really throw their hat into the ballboy or ballplayer ring.  Props to Hornacek for pulling that off and getting buckets all the while.  And props to ballboys everywhere, too. 

2. The Functional Sneaker


What, you may ask, is this "functional sneaker" that I'm referring to?  Well, many players wore it during the '90s, and basically, it's exactly what it sounds like: a quiet, effective piece of basketball footwear devoid of the glitz and glamour of modern-day sneakers and instead defined by a simple and bare-bones approach to support and comfort.  This picture of Joe Kleine's clean white Reebok shoe as he prepares to enter a game is a prime example.  Just look at it.  No bells.  No whistles.  No horse and pony show.  It's just a sneaker, folks, nothing more and nothing less.  This is not about flash.  This is not about pizazz.  This is about arch-support, sturdy laces, and stop-on-a-dime-traction.  That is what this is about!  Slide in a Dr. Scholl's orthopedic insert, double-knot that bad boy, and play some ball!  Yes, the '90s were innocent days, and the functional sneaker is a testament to that fact.

1. The High-Top Fade (With Side Details)


The amazingness of this look requires absolutely no description, and I will not demean Kenny "Sky" Walker or anyone else who used to rock the high-top fade by trying to put it into words.  Instead, I will make three general comments that relate to this picture.  First, Sky Walker's final jam to win the 1989 Dunk Contest is a classic, and if you re-watch the clip, you will not only see the high-top fade in full-effect, but also, a striking example of disproportionately long spandex.  It's worth checking out.  Second, I've seen players wear some variation of this look in recent years, but it has never seemed as authentic or felt as right as it did back then.  Third, I would be remiss at this point not to mention Kid from Kid N' Play, who helped give the high-top serious cultural symbolism, and who also provided me with some serious good times by starring in the House Party movies  and Class Act, and for kickin' generally sweet rhymes.  For these reasons, and because I love the picture above of Kenny Walker (and because I used to play Tetris against him on my Gameboy when my dad worked for the Knicks), the high-top fade goes number one. 

The '90s were filled with so many brilliant style trends that I couldn't possibly have included them all, so here are some of the ones that didn't quite find their way into the top ten, but definitely found their way into my heart.

Just Missed the Cut

1. The Frosted Tips (think Bobby Sura)

2. The Too-Tight-for-Me Jersey (think Stojko Vrankovic)

3. The High-Socks (think Elliot Perry)

4. The Tom Selleck Mustache (think Chris Ford as a coach)

5. The Horrific Silk Shirt on the Bench (think every injured player for the entire decade)

As a brief conclusion, let me acknowledge that this list has virtually no real-world value, aside from serving as a way to reminisce about an era during which my friends and I grew to love the game.  Styles and trends and forms of expression are always changing.  It's part of what makes the NBA vibrant and the world as a whole evolutionary.  Still, it's always fun to take a look back at an earlier time in order to pay homage to the looks that have come and gone while also remembering and appreciating the retired players who helped define not only the styles, but also, that basketball generation.  I loved those days, but I also love these days, because at the end of any day, I'll always love the game.  And wristbands, too.  They're just very, very cozy.

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