I used to wear NBA replica jerseys over my turtlenecks in the winter. This was when I was a youngster, of course, in the early '90s, at that tender age when a smooth turtleneck most elegantly accentuates a child's big ears and bowl haircut. The jersey on top was, I suppose, my own personal coup de grace; the coolest piece of elementary school flair that a basketball-loving kid like me could use to spice up his outfit at that stage in life.
This confession is not meant to illustrate my unfortunate pre-pubescent wardrobe -- though I admittedly just did that -- but is instead meant to show my deep enthusiasm for the best form of sleeveless apparel that's ever been available to a hoops fan: a replica jersey of a specific NBA player whose name you are proud and excited to have draped across your back.
Once upon a time I wore these jerseys with everything. Then as I got older I started to collect them by the dozen. And now as an adult (kind of), I no longer covet them but still greatly appreciate them. Jerseys of the NBA will always have a place in my heart, and I will forever consider the era in which I grew up -- the '90s -- to be their golden age.
So what is it about an NBA jersey that has always helped warm up my Adam's apple in such a special way? Reasons abound, but first and foremost, it's the expression; the way that wearing a jersey can make a statement. About your favorite player, your favorite team, your favorite style of play, or even your favorite style of style.
This choice of who you represent and why is most of the fun. If you were a die-hard Bulls fan in the '90s, for example, you could just as easily have rocked the Jordan, the Pippen, the Rodman, or even the Kukoc without anyone batting an eye. (I personally wouldn't have balked at a Luc Longley, either, but that's just me.) Ultimately, the choice would have been yours. Each one would have said something different and interesting about your fan sensibilities, based on the unique athletic qualities and cultural significance of the player you were wearing, and the choice between the home white, the away red, or the alternate black away with the red pinstripes would have added an aesthetic element to your expression as well.
Clearly, I think about NBA jerseys from the '90s with a certain sentimental nostalgia, and I'm writing about it now for one important reason: I'm not alone here. Within the last few years, it has been well-documented that '90s children all over the country have been unearthing their old-school hoops jerseys for various reasons and sporting them loud and proud all over town.
Maybe it's a hipster ironically wearing the most random jersey he can find, as hipsters have become wont to do (a Carl Hererra Rockets would earn respect in this category). Maybe it's a frat guy sliding on his Antoine Walker Celtics as an ode to his New England roots while he throws down some brewskies with his broskies (frat guys say stuff like that, right?). Or maybe it's a weekend warrior playing pickup ball in his Kerry Kittles Nets jersey, just so he can finally commit to the high socks look without feeling like a total turd.
Whatever the motivation, old-school jerseys are a trend that doesn't seem to be going anywhere, and I'm not talking about $300 Mitchell and Ness throwbacks. I'm talking about the $14.99 replica Champion jersey that you begged your mom to buy you at the mall, and that somehow still fits, but just barely.
As a basketball player, fan and jersey connoisseur, it's no surprise that I always take notice when I see someone wearing one of these bad boys in the wild. I study the design and appreciate the color; I remember the player; I reminisce about the team. While it's usually a good time, some players and some jerseys just resonate more than others. A lot of this has to do with personal preference, but I'd like to think that at least some of it has to do with certain players/jerseys just being more generally awesome than others.
With this in mind, and because it's the holiday season, I have decided to put my expertise to good use in the form of a buyer's guide to must-have '90s hoops jerseys. If you are intent on scouring eBay this holiday in order to reinforce your '90s jersey collection, or perhaps that of a loved one, then this list will help you "separate the game from the truth," as the biggest rapper of that era said. Basically, in my mind's eye, if you're going to express yourself through a retro NBA jersey, these 10 are the ones that, because of their mix of athletic, cultural and aesthetic impact, speak universally loudest, at least according to this grizzled jersey veteran. These guys are not superstars, nor are they ironic no-names, but they are certainly jersey badasses. Now let's get our '90s on.
John Starks, #3, New York Knicks
John Starks would pound his chest. He would dive on the floor. He would dunk on you. He would drain a three in your face. He would nail you with a Bloodsport-inspired head-butt square in that same face, but only because you deserved it. More than anything, John was all heart, and his blue-collar, won't-back-down style epitomized those rough-and-tough Knicks teams of the '90s.
If you were a Knicks fan then, which I was, you love this man, and if not, you might very well hate him. Either way, you have to respect him, because he gave every inch of himself to the game.
To wear a John Starks Knicks jersey (in away blue, I'd hope) is to champion all these heart-and-soul qualities. And even though old-school Bulls, Pacers, and Heat fans might want to throw down with you kumite-style when they see you in that #3, there's no reason for you to fear these sissies.
I mean, come on: you're wearing a Starks jersey.
Latrell Sprewell, #15, Golden State Warriors
Before the choking incident, and before the iconic braids, and before he turned down the $21 million contract, there was just young, bald Spree, the stone-cold competitor who scored and defended with maximum ferocity and who didn't much care what anyone "from the Bay Area and back down" thought about it.
Spree was a brash and brazen beast in his day, and it's not just because he led his team to 50 wins in his second year while being named First Team All-NBA and Second Team All-Defense. It's also how he did it: tough, hard, and with very little regard for human life.
Spree scored, he scowled, he threw down incredibly vicious two-handed dunks on the break for no reason other than to punish the rim for existing, and finally, his blue away jersey with yellow trim is a particularly flattering color combination that pairs nicely with many different types of jeans, khakis, and cords.
All in all, young Spree was special, and anyone who wears his jersey should feel special, too.
Detlef Schrempf, #11, Seattle Supersonics
It would be so easy to wear the Shawn Kemp or the Gary Payton, but if you're a fan of those excellent Emerald City ballclubs of the late '90s, and if you really want to say something with your jersey choice, then I'd go with the Detlef any day of the week.
He was Dirk before Dirk -- an affable German with a skill set of someone half a foot shorter -- and as his 17-6.5-4 for the '97 Sonics finals team would indicate, he could flat-out ball.
Also, he looked as much like Ivan Drago as any NBA player in the last few decades (besides Andrei Kirilenko), and he's done a couple wonderful turns as himself on Parks and Recreation. To overlook these facts and undermine not only his excellent hoops career, but also his substantial cultural significance, would be a great disservice to everyone -- most importantly, yourself.
Don't make that mistake. Throw on the #11 and get down with Detlef instead.
Glenn Robinson, #13, Milwaukee Bucks
The Big Dog's mid-range jumper in the '90s was sweeter than a packet of Shark Bites and smoother than an Ecto Cooler drink. Dog could just flat-out put the ball in the basket, and he made it look effortless; he'd jab you, he'd rock you with a dribble left, he'd step back on you, and that 17-foot jumper would be cash money.
Then he'd jog down court slow and relaxed, because his game was just so easy.
As a career 20-point-per-game scorer, he was a cool, calm, and collected killer, and accordingly, his #13 in that classic purple and green tells the tale of someone who would rip your heart out on the court, but who would prefer not to break a sweat while doing it.
Basically, wearing a Big Dog jersey will tell people that you're a low-key, laid back dude, even though in reality you're probably an insufferable dillhole. Thanks to your attire, though, nobody will know the truth. They'll think you're chill, just like the Big Dog.
Penny Hardaway, #1, Orlando Magic
It's almost redundant to talk about why Penny matters. In the mid-'90s, before the injuries, he was the next big thing: First-Team All-NBA and a finals appearance in his second year, his own über-popular shoe that people still wear today, and a charismatic puppet of himself with a funny voice that captured the heart and soul of a nation.
Once upon a time, Penny teamed with Shaq to form about as young and talented a duo as the NBA had seen, but it ended too soon. Whenever I see them back on the court together, lifting the Western University Dolphins to heights unknown, a soft sadness washes over me.
It's only temporary, however, because I know Penny's greatness will be immortalized forever through his many replica jerseys still gracing crowded streets and open gyms around the globe. And in a perfect world, I'd like to think that somewhere, on a dusty gravel road outside of a rustic barn in Middle America, Ricky Roe is swishing jumper after jumper through a battered old rim, all the while wearing a light-blue Magic alternate road jersey with that #1 painted on the back.
That's the dream, at least.
Jamal Mashburn, #32, Dallas Mavericks
Monster Mash was one-third of Dallas' famed Triple J's of the mid-'90s, a fresh and exciting young core featuring Mash and two other awesome basketball players whose names started with a J. They seemed destined for greatness, but alas, they split up more dramatically than Dylan and Brenda (as if that's possible) amid rumors of a love triangle between Jason Kidd (J1), Jimmy Jackson (J2), and Toni Braxton (temptress).
Everyone involved has always denied these rumors, but the Mavericks were never able to unbreak the damage, if you will, so the Triple J's went their separate ways. It was unfortunate, but there are still some, like me, who will never forget how punishing Mashburn (J3) was for the Mavs, and for every other team during his career. He could hurt you from deep, off the bounce, at the rim, in the post, or anywhere else on the floor.
He didn't get all the accolades or command all the attention, but that's what was cool about him. He just gave you buckets, plain and simple, and that's why his jersey, preferably in away blue, is a keeper.
Dan Majerle, #9, Phoenix Suns
Thunder Dan was so incredibly dynamic and popular in his prime that there was a legit rumor among my circle of friends that he was seriously considering leaving the NBA for Baywatch because he'd been asked to replace David Hasselhoff in the role of head lifeguard Mitch Buchanon. I mean, I started this rumor, but the fact that it grew some legs speaks volumes. D
an Majerle was a class act and a great ballplayer, and even though his jersey should read "Marley" instead of his surname's actual bizarre spelling, those who wear it should stand tall, most appropriately in a warm-weather climate filled with palm trees, ocean breeze, and maybe a lifeguard chair or two.
Thunder Dan would want it that way, I think.
Nick Van Exel, #9, Los Angeles Lakers
That's a pretty nice cast of characters, but if I had to have one of their jerseys in that timeless Laker yellow, I'm going with Nick the Quick every time.
He wasn't as dominant as Shaq or Kobe, and he didn't score the ball as efficiently as Eddie Jones, but there was one thing that Van Exel possessed more than any of them: swagger. And he had it 10 years before it became a thing. Nick was flashy but effective; a little lefty guard who was a showman, a shot-maker, and smack-talker all rolled into one. He brought a little bit of Showtime back to the Lakers, and he made kids in parks all over the country want that "rock handle like Van Exel."
There are better Lakers out there, no doubt, but that #9 will garner respect no matter where you go, especially if I'm in the building.
Mark Price, #25, Cleveland Cavaliers
Mark Price had such a clean and compact stroke for the Cavs that it was almost shocking when he missed an open shot. His jumpers usually landed with the military precision of a Joey Gladstone one-liner, and that's why he retired as the best free-throw shooter in NBA history.
It's also why he was a First Team All-NBA selection in '93. The other members of that team? Jordan, Barkley, Malone, and Olajuwon. In other words, Mark Price might not have seemed intimidating with his clean-cut, boy-next-door look, but he could ball with the best of them. He was the main reason why the Cavaliers were a force in the Eastern Conference in the early '90s, and also why Gund Arena was a full house during those days.
Mark Price rained jump shots with the utmost predictability -- of the milkman, the paperboy, and evening TV, say -- and that fact should never be forgotten. A #25 in home white helps keep this memory alive, and it's also a silent nod to the power and majesty of an unassuming assassin.
Larry Johnson, #2, Charlotte Hornets
After being the first pick in the '91 NBA Draft, LJ certainly didn't disappoint. He burst onto the NBA scene as an aggressive and athletic forward who, more than anything else, just embodied the concept of a "Manchild."
He bruised his way to big numbers, he helped turn the expansion Hornets into a wildly popular playoff team, and he also made lasting contributions to American Cinema because his "Grandmama" Converse ads paved the way for the revolutionary Big Momma's House film franchise.
In addition to all this, he had a gold tooth and a memorable part in his hair, both of which just added to the LJ mystique. LJ's play and personality are enough to make his jersey a must-have, but when you throw in the unique white-teal-purple color scheme of his Hornets teams, it's literally a can't-miss. I'd recommend the away teal, although you can't go wrong with the home white or the alternate road purple, either.
And on the bright side, if it's a little chilly out, you can always throw on that Hornets Starter jacket that you wore every day in 7th grade and not miss a beat. LJ is versatile like that.
Merry jersey shopping and happy New Year!