This week, SBNation.com’s NBA team will be celebrating the basketball jersey. We have pieces on deck on jersey culture in 2000s hip hop, the life and death of sleeves, the ugliest jersey ever, the unique 1990s aesthetic, the best fictional jerseys, the evolution of jersey fit, and more. We hope you like what we’ve put together.
Why jerseys? The NBA represents a major global cultural force, and has since the 1980s. It’s a stronger force in some communities (urban, young) than others. But what is declared cool in the NBA often extends out to America and the world.
The jerseys players and fans wear then become the ultimate form of expression — both collective and individual. As we’ll see in our investigation of the ‘90s aesthetic, how NBA teams’ jersey palettes and styles play off each other, one team often raising the stakes for others, shapes the palette we collectively associate with the times. (The Charlotte Hornets made teal happen. Never forget that.) The oversized jerseys many stars of the early 2000s preferred showed up across pop culture; the two-sizes-too-big Iverson jersey is iconic to this day.
Fans who wear jerseys have specific rationales. Many of these are based on team fandom. The little girls and boys rocking Harden jerseys in Houston are repping their city. But there are layers here, too: In the early part of this decade, if you were a basketball-loving Oklahoman, did you prefer a Durant No. 35 or a Westbrook No. 0? That’s a choice you make in how you wish to be represented. Thanks to Mitchell & Ness, you can even display your values by repping your team’s long-retired star. Knicks fans can never go wrong with a throwback Frazier No. 10.
There are other cultural reasons for picking a certain jersey. Jeremy Lin is the most prominent Taiwanese-American athlete to hit America. Repping his Knicks No. 17 jersey shows pride. It’s hard to imagine a little basketball-loving kid with a Greek last name wearing anything but an Antetokounmpo No. 34.
Identifiers can be much less obvious, too. There’s a whole subculture of rocking the most obscure jersey possible at cultural events. You can’t escape Coachella without seeing a Scottie Pippen Blazers kit or a Patrick Ewing Sonics piece. Summer League is basically a convention for these types. Hipsters in Portland and Williamsburg and Nashville walk around in retro jerseys to show their cool. People from Maine to Alaska and back wear Kobes — No. 8 and/or No. 24 -- to show their allegiance to Mamba Mentality.
Before the jerseys are even produced, they are results of self-expression. As mentioned with the common ‘90s palette, teams self-identify as what they perceive as cool. The goal for them, remember, is to move products. The cooler the jersey, the more casual fans who will buy it. (This is but one factor; the Warriors could sell potato sacks with Curry No. 30 on the back.) Players are self-identifying when choosing their jersey numbers. The best players’ numbers become iconic.
Jordan wore No. 23, and then so did a bunch of players who followed in his wake (including LeBron). Dwyane Wade and Chris Paul both wear No. 3 as odes to Allen Iverson. Paul George wore No. 24 as an ode to Kobe; he changed to No. 13 to give himself a marketable nickname: PG-13. (The desire to profit is as pure a self-expression as any.)
Kevin Durant wears No. 35 because his AAU coach was killed at that age. Gilbert Arenas wore No. 0 because a coach told him he’d play that many minutes in the NBA; Damian Lillard wears No. 0 as a stand-in for O, for his native and beloved Oakland. Ron Artest wore No. 37 as a tribute to Michael Jackson, whose Thriller was No. 1 on the charts for 37 weeks. Inspiration comes in many forms.
These inspirations become part of the mystique of the jerseys themselves, imbuing the laundry with added meaning. This extends to the fan wearers, who tell the world around them what they believe; who they respect. It’s all deeply personal signaling.
Of course, there are also jerseys that just plain look wonderful, like the Brooklyn get-ups, the outrageous old Nuggets kits, the classic Bulls or Celtics or Knicks or Lakers or Sonics (RIP) shirts, the baby blue Kings pieces, those iconic teal Hornets joints. (The teal No. 33 Alonzo Mourning jersey is probably the single most beautiful jersey ever.) Jerseys can be fashion; a streetwear stand-in for something more expensive. Ask Mariah and the subjects of this 2003 New York Times trend piece on jerseys as dresses.
Keep that certain tenet of the NBA jersey — self-expression — in mind as you wind through our package this week. It’s what drives what the players and we end up wearing.