The Rise and Fall of the Basketball Jersey as Mainstream Fashion
There was a time when players were the only people in arenas wearing jerseys. Check the photos of basketball games from the 1950s and '60s. Fans in those days didn't believe they had the right to bare arms or, worse still, wear an oversized white t-shirt under a replica uniform while they cheered on their city's professional ballplayers.
No, back then, in a more civil era when people dressed like adults, fans looked more like Mad Men execs than the aloof, ramshackle spectators of today who just throw on whatever team-color attire has the fewest mustard stains before they head to the big game.
Plus they wore cool hats. It was a debonair time.
I don't know exactly when fans started to wear team jerseys. As with everything related to merchandising, my guess is that Michael Jordan was at the center of the trend. No. 23 jerseys were likely the first to explode into a routinely worn clothing option, and the NBA likely responded in kind, mass-producing the gear to a generation of consumers who wanted nothing more than to express their fanhood.
Digging through the photos of yesteryear, it seems as if the fan-jersey movement started to take off in the 1980s, but never really caught on in a mainstream way until the 1990s.
Let's take a look through the ages.
The Rise of NBA Jerseys Worn to Games
In the photo below, we see a photo of Larry Bird playing in Houston during the 1986 NBA Finals with nary a single Rockets jersey to be found in the background.
There are some red and yellow shirts, but mostly it just looks like the audience is adorn in the typical '80s garb you would see on Cheers or Family Ties. (I see you, lady in a full pink outfit to the right of Larry's No. 33).
Fast forward to 1989, when Michael Jordan was ripping the hearts out of the Cleveland Cavaliers and Craig Ehlo on his way to becoming a broken heap on the ground. We have just a single jersey visible in the background.
But this superfan is wearing a football jersey.
It may be the Browns, but my guess is that this is a wanna-be Al Bundy wearing his personal Polk High game-worn equivalent that he scored four touchdowns in during his glory days.
In the classic 1994 Finals photo below, we find one lone (I think) woman in Madison Square Garden repping her Knicks with a jersey. Since this game isn't being played in Houston, the picture couldn't have been taken during Game 7.
Which is good for her.
(Though the Rockets did take two of three in New York, so her night might not have turned out well anyway).
Again in MSG, we see this 1998 iconic image of Reggie Miller torturing the Knicks for like the ninth time during the decade.
We have three folks in jerseys: Spike Lee in an oversized (and probably authentic) Starks, some little kid in an orange ensemble he may have found at his local YMCA and a female in the back wearing a blue New York classic.
I wonder if it is the same lady from the 1994 Finals?
Later in 1998, we have Michael Jordan dusting Bryon Russell off his shoulder and sticking his last shot as a member of the Bulls. Here we start to see the appearance of jerseys as popular game-attendee wear.
Perhaps not surprisingly, three of the four definitive jerseys pictured are being worn by Chicago supporters. Two are the black alternates that were innovative at the time. Perhaps this is when the NBA learned that people were wearing jerseys for fashion reasons, with the pin-striped black joints quickly going into mass production?
(Note: As with all the photos "analyzed" in this highly nonscientific study, I'm only highlighting those that are clearly, undeniably jerseys. There appear to be several more in the stands, but the resolution makes it difficult to discern between jerseys, team-colored attire and shirseys).
In 2006, Derek Fisher stole a game from the Spurs by knocking down the infamous 0.4-second shot. It must have been particularly devastating for the six San Antonio bros rocking the black-and-white jerseys.
Learning from the Bulls black-pin-striped mania of the late '90s, the 2010 Cavaliers may have printed more variations of jerseys than any team in history up to that point. Every week, it seemed as Cleveland played a nationally televised game in a different uniform. (Since acquiring LeBron James, the Miami Heat have to have surpassed Cleveland's output).
And LeBron Stans bought all of them so they could look cooler than the guy standing next to them at the game in different King James jersey. In addition to those highlighted, there appear to be dozens of other jerseys along the baseline and far side of the arena.
For a final reference point, here is a Paul Pierce game-winner from early 2013. The stands are full of green. It is Boson in the winter, so a lot of people are wearing jackets, but I'm pretty sure we have several other Garnett, Piece and Rondo jerseys in the mix there as well.
Probably some Larry Birds, too.
And knowing Celtics fans, maybe a couple Dino Radjas and Brian Scalabrines.
Jerseys as Street Wear
At some point along the NBA's path from obscure sport whose playoffs were shown on tape delay in the early 1980s to the marketing behemoth the league has become in 2013, replica jerseys began being mass produced.
As such, fans started wearing them to games, pickup stars started wearing them in parks and the super-cool kids eventually started wearing them just walking around parties.
Rappers were early adopters of sports jerseys.
The two most famous iconic images of '90s rappers wearing jerseys, oddly enough, might both feature hockey teams. Tupac, in an infamous photo of him spitting on reporters, is rocking a red Detroit Red Wings jersey with a matching bandana. Snoop Dogg, who at the time was the hottest MC in the game, opted for a Pittsburgh Penguins jersey for his "Gin & Juice" video.
Basketball jerseys soon became avant-garde as well.
It wasn't just the rappers, however.
A legion of young men started to get in on the act, especially those in warm-weather states, embracing the ability to stay cool in sleeveless shirts while, well, staying cool. Some skaters and work-out fiends in California enjoyed the look, and it soon took off among the citizenry.
It made sense.
They were wearing neon-colored tank tops anyway. So as the more macho-oriented '90s mentality replaced the '80s carefree style trends, basketball jerseys became an acceptable tank-top option for most men to feel comfortable wearing. "Sure, I may be half naked and showing off all my arms but ... SPORTZ!"
And thus the trend took off. NBA jerseys started becoming regular wardrobe for those attending games, and the young hypebeasts of America began wearing them around town.
Then came the throw back.
When Mitchell & Ness Outfitted the World
Mitchell & Ness was a small Philadelphia boutique that launched a line of retro MLB apparel ("The Cooperstown Collection") in the 1980s. Few people had ever heard of the company. Then, in the late 1990s it signed deals with the NBA, NFL and NHL to make old, officially licensed uniforms in all three of the major U.S. sports.
There was a niche market.
Then, some rappers stumbled upon the store.
And there was a market.
It started off small, a few MCs wearing a Warren Moon throwback here and an Oscar Robertson classic there in a video. Next thing you knew, it was an epidemic. I don't know where it started, but it spread like the zombie plague.
The store, according to Darren Rovell of ESPN, went from $2.8 million in sales in 2000 to $23 million in 2002. He made the hip hop connection.
Hip-hopper Fabolous resurrected NBA great Alex English's popularity 10 years after he retired with an authentic replica of his 1987-88 Denver Nuggets jersey in one of hip-hopper Bow Wow's videos. Sammy Baugh's 1947 Washington Redskins jersey became a tough find after Jay-Z wore it in his video, "Girls, Girls, Girls." And once P. Diddy wore Wes Unseld's 1977-78 Washington Bullets jersey on "The Carson Daly Show," it became a must-have -- yes, even for LeBron James.
Rovell reported that Fabolous had more than 1,000 throwbacks. Athletes jumped on the bandwagon as well. Kenyon Martin reportedly dropped nearly $2,000 in the store one day and had a 40-jersey collection.
The Throwback Market Crash
Again, I don't know exactly when the trend started.
But I know when the market had fully ballooned out of control, reaching an unsustainable market apex that was destined to crater.
In his song "American Pie," Don McLean called the plane crash that killed Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and the Big Bopper "The Day the Music Died." Well, the video shoot for rappers Beanie Sigel and Freeway's "Roc The Mic" can be considered "The Day The Throwback Died." At least as a streetwear trend.
Never before had there been such an egregious display of grown, out-of-shape men wearing sports jerseys. It was the type of excess that had been growing for years, and this was the end.
The market could rise no further. It was saturated. There was nowhere to go but down.
Soon after, the backlash began.
The throwback era, and with it the sports-jersey-as-fashion trend, was nearing an end.
It was like an epiphany. On ESPN's Page 2, Patrick Hruby summed up the mentality behind the widespread flash of insight that pushed people to come to their senses.
Remember how dopey Michael Dukakis looked in a tank helmet? Or how jarring it was to see Ricky Williams in a wedding dress?
Guess what: wear a jersey in public, and that's you. Playing dress-up. And not even for the sweet reward of trick-or-treat candy.
A 5-year-old in a Stormtrooper costume is cute; a 25-year-old in the same outfit is borderline creepy.
"You know how they always say those 'Star Wars' geeks have gone too far? This is the same thing," says Daniel Billett, the men's fashion and grooming expert at About.com. "Jerseys are a novelty item. They go along with boxer shorts with funny hearts.
"I can understand going to a game and supporting your team. But why wear somebody else's shirt on the street, with a name and number that they earned?"
The lack of cache for throwbacks among a major purchasing group didn't slow down the growth of jersey sales. Go to any game and you'll see hundreds. And some holdouts continued to shamelessly wear their jerseys all over the place.
As mainstream fashion, however, NBA jerseys were over.
Don't do it anymore.
The Charred Landscape of NBA Jersey Fashion Today
You still see diehard sports fans walking around the mall in their favorite team's gear. In the summer, that one friend of yours may attend a barbecue in one.
Some people enjoy the comfort of NBA jerseys at multiday music festivals, where sleeves only get in the way of doing drugs and sleeping in the mud. Old guys might get some gas in one they found in the dollar bin at the thrift shop.
Or you might see the odd hipster (better known as a "hoopster") wearing a Yinka Dare or Manute Bol jersey while trying to be ironically cool and shrouding themselves in the nostalgia of an NBA era he never watched.
But by and large, though they have never been more popular among fans in arenas, jerseys have become increasingly unpopular garments to wear in the real world.
Everyone still has a few in their closet.
But most everyone just lets them hang there.
As they should be.
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