Let me first describe the photo to you.
It’s Steve Nash and Derek Fisher, with a referee trailing in the background. Nash has the ball, and he’s beating Fisher off the dribble — no surprise there — with his hair flying out behind him. Fisher has a huge gold headband that matches the iconic Lakers uniform, but there’s something weird going on with Nash’s. It’s mostly gray, but a more metallic silver when the light catches it.
I can’t remember the first time I saw this photo. It was probably 2008 or 2009, as an image posted to some message board or maybe a blogspot.
But I definitely remember this photo. It was the first time I ever saw the worst jerseys of all time.
In 2003, the Dallas Mavericks were a team on the rise with a revamped roster, and Mark Cuban wanted them to look the part. He introduced the team’s first-ever road alternate jersey with the idea of adding “a slight edge” to the team’s look. Dallas decided to wear them for the season opener: a rivalry matchup in Los Angeles against the Lakers.
Al Whitley was the Mavericks assistant equipment manager then, and he remembers not getting much advance notice that the team would wear them that night. But the concept was solid, he said.
“The color scheme of a gray or a metallic was great,” Whitley remembered. “With our royal blue, it really popped. I thought it would be a popular jersey.”
But the gray was overwhelming, while the new Nike material used for them was shimmery and shiny. It was even worse when the team started sweating in them. Some described the jerseys as turning a shade that more closely resembled dark brown.
“It wasn’t quite the gray we were hoping for, and it was a little darker, and we didn’t want shiny, but it was the way the material was made,” Whitley said. “When the guys started sweating, especially on TV, they just looked horrible.”
There were no redeeming qualities, not even the game itself. The Lakers didn’t have Kobe Bryant, who was rehabbing a surgically repaired knee, and they blasted the Mavericks anyway. Dallas never held a lead.
When Cuban saw the jerseys on television highlights that evening, he made his decision instantly.
“They looked like wet garbage bags,” Cuban said in 2013. “I took them off the market after one game.”
Or, as Whitley joked: “I was ordered by our owner to burn them.”
It didn’t matter how quickly Cuban realized his mistake, because these jerseys have lived on in infamy.
They’ve been memorialized for their infamy by Uproxx, Bleacher Report, and Sports Illustrated. Mavs Moneyball, SB Nation’s Mavs site, wrote this about them: “Final verdict: Dumpster fire. These looked terrible. People still make jokes about these.”
Reddit roasted them (and Antoine Walker). A 2003 message board thread starts out with vague support before universally agreeing they are bad. When creating a list of the worst basketball jerseys ever, these are a guarantee.
That was the story I planned to tell: a misguided jersey turned into an obscure internet joke. I didn’t expect what happened next.
I didn’t expect that I’d actually find them.
Josh Howard played the first five minutes of his career in the Mavericks’ 2003 season-opening blowout. He scored four points on five shots, grabbed three rebounds, and recorded an assist. If you want his game-worn jersey from that night, you can pay $2,500.
This is the first silver jersey I found.
The seller is a small sports collector’s store in Colleyville, Texas, about 30 minutes west of Dallas. I reached out to the owner several times, but he never returned my calls. I would have loved to ask him what he thought of the backstory, and where he acquired the jersey in the first place.
But that’s alright. I found that out anyway.
In 2009, four game-worn silver jerseys were listed on Ebay … or maybe it was 2010. Ebay doesn’t have the records anymore, and neither did Chris Cross, a German jersey collector who I talked with last month. But Cross did remember the jerseys distinctly, and who wore them.
Dirk Nowitzki, Steve Nash, Eduardo Najera, and Josh Howard.
“They were sold by the guy on Ebay for a few hundred bucks,” Cross said. “So I had to grab them, of course.”
Cross purchased the Najera and Howard jerseys, and a jersey collecting friend named Eddie Luk bought the Nowitzki one.
“I also got it off Ebay,” Luk said. “It was in the olden days when there weren't so many people collecting. I thought so because if this came up nowadays it would be extremely expensive.”
Luk lives in Hong Kong, although he went to college in the United States. He still has the Nowitzki jersey, and while he’s considering selling it, he hasn’t yet. People have offered to buy it anyway, though. One offer was for $6,000.
As for the Howard jersey, Cross is pretty sure he sold it to the current owner, the one who has it listed on Ebay for $2,500. Cross remembers he only sold it for $600. He also still owns the Najera jersey.
That accounts for three of the game-worn jerseys. What about the fourth, the No. 13 Steve Nash? Cross and Luk don’t know. That’s perfectly normal; some jersey collectors are private, and some don’t participate in the same jersey collecting social circles where Cross and Luk met.
But I also wanted to find out where these jerseys came from. It was one user who sold them in 2009, but I couldn’t find anymore information on this person, not even a username. Neither could Cross or Luk, who both agreed this was a one-time seller. Whoever it was, they had also sold a Nowitzki game-worn warmup suit. They seemed to have some sort of special access to this game-worn Mavericks gear.
I never found this person, but I can tell you how they got them.
No, there was no warehouse break-in or disgruntled employee smuggling them out under the cover of darkness. After talking with the Mavericks, I learned that Cuban prefers to gives away retired jerseys to charity, or auctions them off through the Mavericks Foundation.
In fact, a USA Today story from 2003 basically confirms it: “They most likely will end up being auctioned as collector's items, corporate communications manager Dawn Holgate says.”
It’s not an exciting answer, but it’s at least an answer.
We’re left with just one more question: Are these jerseys really as bad as everyone says?
While talking to people for this story, they all told me that they actually liked the jersey.
“What I heard is that they were too ugly for television, so they just played one game in them,” Cross said. “But they look good, actually.”
And Luk: “I can’t ever call it ugly.”
And Whitley: “In person, they didn’t look bad.”
I chuckled and moved on every time I heard them say that, because they obviously looked bad. And yes, the photos from that game are undeniably awful.
But then I stumbled across this video from Eddie Rivera.
Rivera is a jersey collector who lives in New York, and his jersey is a replica, not a game-worn one. He bought it for $250 to add to his collection, and he was the person who helped me track down the owners of the game-worn jerseys.
After looking at his video, I finally get it.
It’s not the best jersey I’ve ever seen, but the shimmer isn’t too bad in normal, natural lighting. The gray is a little too dark. It does look much better when it’s not soaked in sweat. I certainly understand how the Mavericks didn’t immediately see these jerseys and throw them in the garbage. Flash photography and 2003-quality television screens did them no favors, but I actually like these jerseys. I really do.
I believe Mark Cuban does, too. He realized years ago that this wasn’t a battle that he could fight and gave into the self-deprecating nature of it. But this quote from 2003, in this USA Today story about the team retiring the jerseys after only a game, gives him away.
"In this case, the uniforms didn't look on the court like we expected them to and we decided to go in another direction,” Cuban wrote in an email. “It's no big deal. They still look good as casual wear for Mavs fans.”
I’m not sure Cuban knew that casual wear would include collectors across several continents who trade them for thousands of dollars. But he was right.