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A Comprehensive History of Basketball Uniforms

The Birth of a Game

During its infancy in the 1890s, basketball was played in regular street attire. Since the game was invented initially as an indoor wintertime sport, players typically wore everyday school clothes consisting of baggy flannel trousers and sweaters for men, and long skirts and blouses with scarves for women. Some enthusiastic players wore tracksuits or football uniforms.

As the sport evolved with an expanded set of rules, basketball as a team sport quickly gained more popularity and acceptance. Schools and universities, amateur sports clubs, professional guilds, and other social organizations held tournaments throughout the United States and Canada. In the early 1900s, the first team-coordinated uniforms of woolen tees and knee-length, form-fitting shorts made their debut.

The Early Years

 

The official 1901 catalog of the A.G. Spalding and Brothers sporting goods store offered long padded shorts that ended just below the knee and form-fitting jerseys with quarter-length sleeves along with a sleeveless variant. In 1903, the company introduced specially-designed basketball shoes with suction cups on the soles to prevent slippage on hardwood floors.

 

In the years prior to World War I, having been played in the 1904 Summer Olympics as a demonstration sport and with several intercollegiate federations adopting basketball as part of their annual athletic competition, basketball cemented its standing and legitimacy. As a result, further efforts were made to distinguish between opposing teams to avoid confusion among players, officials, and fans. Dyed wool and cotton were used to make colored knickers and shirts. The uniforms were adorned with letters and insignias to identify teams and instill pride in their supporters.

In the 1920s, in order to meet the demands of an increasingly competitive sport, basketball outfits became more functional. Long pants and sleeved shirts gave way to mid-length shorts and sleeveless jerseys to allow ease of movement and mobility. The jersey was fastened underneath the crotch, similar to an infant’s onesie, to avoid getting untucked mid-game. Women wore knee-length bloomers, short-sleeved shirts, and knee pads. Both men and women wore knee-high socks.

The Advent of Synthetic Fabrics

Uniforms were made from stretchable wool and cotton. During those times, these natural fabrics were the staples of daily wear. In fact, the word “jersey” originally referred to a style of knit used for woolen pullover sweaters that fishermen from the island of Jersey in the English Channel wore. For today’s hoopsters, wool might seem like a poor choice of fabric for athletic wear. But, back then, there weren’t a lot of options.

Wool easily gets saturated with sweat which makes it heavier as the game progressed. This can cause itching and irritation, especially in sensitive areas of the body. It’s a good thing that the game was shorter and played at a slower pace, so players didn’t have to endure too much discomfort.


The invention of synthetic fibers like nylon in the 1930s revolutionized countless industries. Originally invented as a low-cost replacement for silk, nylon was used in everything from women’s stockings to parachutes.

Basketball uniforms made from nylon-polyester blends appeared in the late 1930s. They’re light, durable, stretchy, breathable, inexpensive, and very easy to launder. This type of material would change the game and set the standard for decades to come.

The 1940s and 1950s

Come the 1940s, uniforms from blended synthetics featured shorter shorts and body-hugging sleeveless jerseys. The Basketball Association of America (BAA) and the National Basketball League (NBL) would merge in 1949 to create the National Basketball Association (NBA) that would necessitate the need for more recognizable, distinct team uniforms. The Harlem Globetrotters, formed in 1928 and by now famous around the world, wore a flamboyant, flashy uniform that would serve as a template for future basketball team outfits.

While amateur and professional baseball teams had been numbering its uniforms since 1916, basketball teams only started to put numbers on jerseys in the 1950s. Shorts got even shorter with built-in belts made from fabric, and aluminum or plastic buckles.

The ensemble was paired with plain white slouch socks and black or white high-top Converse sneakers. Women wore shorts and jerseys with short sleeves and collars.

The 1960s to the 1990s

There wasn’t much change in the style and fit of basketball uniforms throughout the 60s up to the early 80s. Shorts remained short and jerseys stayed tight much like the previous two decades although belts have been replaced by sewn-in elastic bands. Designs and color combinations became more imaginative and adventurous in the 1970s. Teams from the short-lived American Basketball Association (ABA) presented uniforms with bold, bright patterns reminiscent of the Harlem Globetrotters that characterized the renegade spirit of the new and groovy league.

Outfits from the early to mid-1980s were similar in construction and style to the previous decade but featured a wider variety of colors and eye-catching team logos. Rivalry between the Los Angeles Lakers and the Boston Celtics together with the ascent of college basketball gave the sport unparalleled popularity and global following. Stars like Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, Michael Jordan and Julius Erving became household names. The NBA started to sell jerseys which is now one of its primary sources of revenue.

In the 1980s, Michael Jordan changed basketball uniform history–twice.

The first was in 1984 when he wore a pair of black and red Nike sneakers that the NBA banned him from wearing during games because it violated the league’s “uniformity of uniform” rule. It’s said that Jordan was fined $5,000 for every game he wore the banned shoe, which Nike paid. Eventually, the NBA will relax its rules to allow players more freedom to choose shoe colorways.

During the late 1980s, after the Bulls were eliminated in the first round of the Eastern Conference playoffs for three years in a row, Jordan approached sportswear manufacturer Champion to design a Chicago Bulls shorts that were longer and baggier than usual so he could comfortably wear his University of North Carolina shorts over it. He believed that wearing the shorts from his college alma mater would bring good luck. The company obliged and the rest is history. By the early 1990s, everybody was wearing extra-long shorts on basketball courts everywhere, all trying to “be like Mike.”

Fun Fact: Utah Jazz point guard and Basketball Hall of Famer John Stockton was the only player to have never switched to long, baggy shorts during his 19 seasons (1984-2003) in the NBA, earning him the nickname “King of the Short Shorts.”


In the 1990s, developments in textile and fabric printing methods saw the emergence of elaborately designed basketball uniforms. Color gradients, textures, complex patterns, dynamic team logos and other design elements were incorporated to create team spirit, brand identity and enthusiasm among followers and fans. Sales of college and professional team jerseys and other merchandise soared. Advances in sports science and fabric manufacturing gave birth to lighter, more breathable materials. While polyester and cotton mesh are still widely used, lycra and dazzle micromesh fabrics have become integral materials for athletic uniforms. These newer fabrics have better insulating and water-wicking properties to moderate a player’s body temperature, thus ensuring optimal performance.

Nostalgia and the throwback trend have produced a surging demand for NBA uniforms and other collectibles from the 1960s, 1970s, 1980s and 1990s. Serious collectors are acquiring game-worn vintage NBA jerseys, shorts, warm-up suits and shoes for record prices. The NBA and NCAA, in partnerships with sportswear manufacturers, regularly issue official Replica, Swingman and Authentic versions of classic, vintage team jerseys and apparel.

The 2000s to the Present

The 2000s to the present retained the basic styles of the 1990s. The influence of hip-hop culture, embodied by players like Allen Iverson and Dennis Rodman in the 90s has remained, with shorts getting longer and jerseys looser. Jerseys were appropriated as streetwear by basketball fans and non-fans alike. Players embraced the accessorized look more as an expression of personal style than anything else. The use of headbands, wristbands, armbands and kneepads was widespread. The overall appearance would carry over to most of the succeeding decade.

However, a gradual change–borne of nostalgia–that began a few years back has transformed the cut and fit of present-day basketball uniforms. What started as a fad among a handful of young players has now become the prevailing style for basketball uniforms. Shorts have become shorter, evocative of the 70s and 80s, jerseys are tighter and more form-fitting, and short-sleeved alternate jerseys are becoming more commonplace. Modern fabric technology has given rise to uniforms that are eco-friendly, lighter than ever and more resistant to moisture.

Though there is an ongoing debate over which player initiated the short shorts trend, most basketball observers credit US high school players Josh Christopher and Jalen Green. They say that in 2018, Christopher and Green decided to roll down the waistbands of their shorts so that the hem would go up mid-thigh for unhampered leg movement and agility. Rolling shorts was actually banned in some states. By 2019, the National Federation of State High School Associations had lifted the ban after numerous petitions from schools, coaches and players. The short shorts style soon caught on and was adopted by other ballers, some of whom would later get drafted to the NBA.

Accessories have also developed from being mere fashion statements to necessities in aiding performance and enhancing safety. Mouthguards are now essential, while a vast majority of ballers wear full-length compression suits and socks, as well as shoulder, arm and leg sleeves. These modern compression garments provide muscular support, limit excessive muscle movement and prevent muscle cramps.

 

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