Every NBA Team's Sweetest-Looking Retro Jersey
What is the throwback jersey that defines your franchise's image?
We live in an age with constant uniform updates and countless alternate options, but some looks are just unarguably classic. It may draw that distinction from its design or from the men who wore it on the court, but it transforms a simple sleeveless shirt and shorts combo into an emblem.
The best unis call to mind the flair, attitude and greatness the teams that once wore them continue to strive towards. They pop up on fans in the stands and on bygone highlight reels, reminding us of the past glories that made us love the jerseys and the game to begin with.
From the white stripes to the simple, evocative font and especially the short-shorts, these Atlanta Hawks duds scream 1980s.
The red, white and yellow color scheme absolutely popped, and the diagonal streaks made Dominique Wilkins seem like an even more ferocious dunker. It's as if the contours of the jersey were designed around the concept of 'Nique taking flight.
Those Hawks may not have won it all, but their style and swagger made them one of the iconic teams of their era.
The Boston Celtics uniforms are truly timeless.
There have been slight changes to it over the years—little alterations to the piping or the font size—but the C's still have the same look they did back in the early days of Red Auerbach.
Celtic green itself is a throwback. Now that every team is focus-grouping any shred of ingenuity out of its new designs, the fact that Boston has held on to its signature color is a testament to the franchise's uniqueness and storied history.
The Brooklyn Nets' best retro look dates back to the organization's first stint in New York.
That was before the decades of unremarkable play and jerseys that plagued the New Jersey NBA years. Back in the ABA, the New York Nets had real personality.
A team with such a bland nickname needs something else to give it character, and these patriotic unis definitely got the job done. The star-and-stripes motif running down the left torso is gorgeous, and also accomplishes the rare feat of totally pulling off an asymmetrical design.
Of course, you need Julius Erving's afro to achieve the full effect, but the clothes are pretty sweet on their own.
Well this is awkward...
In their ignominious history, the Charlotte Bobcats have never had a particularly attractive jersey or a very inspiring squad. The one time this Queen City franchise made the postseason, Gerald Wallace was leading the charge with a muted, pinstriped look. It's all the Bobcats have got, but it's not much.
So instead we look back further to the days of Emeka Okafor. The underlined nickname gives this design a little bit of personality, and it recalls a time when Charlotte's first-ever draft pick gave the fans a reason to hope for their new team.
The Chicago Bulls basically copped their classic design straight from the Boston Celtics, so let's turn instead to something more unique to them.
So here's a young Michael Jordan with an unshaved head and script across his chest.
These unis live on in our collective memory due to His Airness' coolness, even on subpar teams, and their elegant simplicity. The upward-trending Chicago meshes well with the number in the bottom left of the jersey, and the rest is negative space. It's stripped-down conceptually, but it works like a charm.
There is so very much going on here.
In theory, the powder blue is a large dash dealt by the Cleveland Cavalier sword, which is good. But the burnt orange boxy lettering and jagged white numerals make this a mishmash of disparate elements over the black background.
It's a nonsense jersey, but it's oddly alluring. It doesn't necessarily cohere as a uniform, but there's an excitingness to the chaos of the design. If you think about it, that's distinctly the Cavs' way.
Apologies for not choosing the clearest photo of these jerseys, but this picture is everything.
In addition to being a prime example of high unintentional comedy and a perfect snapshot of the late 90's Dallas Mavericks, this photo includes the one thing these unis implied but didn't include: cowboy hats.
Between the denim look of the dark blue and the untamed-frontier callback of the lettering, there's not a lot of flash here. But there's an easygoing authoritativeness to them, a confidence that these young guns are going to run the West.
That's what those Mavs teams were going for, and the uniforms only complemented it.
This one was as obvious as they come.
No list of retro jerseys could be complete without Alex English of the Denver Nuggets.
The number floating above the Denver skyline. The mountainous rainbow backdrop accentuating the Mile High City. The all-lower-case nickname falling at the navel, with the bright yellow waistband seeming to provide emphasis.
It's the Platonic ideal of a throwback: all personality and panache to the point that style becomes substance. We remember English as much for this Devil-may-care look as we do for his scoring prowess, and that speaks to the power of the uni.
The Detroit Pistons have almost exclusively used a red-and-blue color scheme, which makes this outlier so special.
You always remember Grant Hill with the flaming horse over his heart. It's a break from tradition following the Bad Boys era, but it fits the spirit; this uniform represents horsepower personified, with the fire tones leaping off the teal base.
It's also the most recognizable Pistons jersey precisely because it's so unlike their others.
While Detroit's usual threads have an uncomplicated power to them, they are not particularly inventive or special on a visual level. This teal number may not have lasted, but it was certainly noticeable.
Golden State Warriors
There is no Golden State and there is no San Francisco. There is only The City.
Everything falls perfectly into place on this Golden State Warriors jersey. The curved font and the central circle all work wonderfully because they are mirroring the design of the Golden Gate bridge.
That image defines the Bay Area and is a very savvy choice for a team that wants to ingratiate themselves with local fans. It's why the Dubs recently brought back a sleeker version of the bridge logo, reminding everyone how important civic pride is to this franchise.
Of course, Rick Barry at the foul line will always be the avatar for this look, no matter how many threes Steph Curry sinks.
Hakeem Olajuwon played most of his career in the all-red Houston Rockets jersey, but that's not the team's most memorable outfit.
The Rocket nickname is a nice nod to Houston's NASA connection, but their red uniforms didn't do anything to strengthen the homage.
Cue the dark blue pinstriped version with a snarling rocket curling off into space. It is all designed with an eye towards flight, with a more powerful mentality than the Hawks' swifter version of the same concept.
That's not a value judgment of one team versus the other; each designed a jersey that fit their franchise, with Houston opting for verticality to accentuate the rocket.
The Indiana Pacers have always gotten away with having pretty unspectacular jerseys, mainly because their nickname doesn't give them a whole lot of options.
Not that evoking the pace car—a staple of Indianapolis Motor Speedway—is a bad idea by any means; it just is a difficult, in-the-know sort of image to translate into a design.
Fortunately, few seem to care, which has allowed Indy to push the dark blue and gold without worrying too much about what the colors are doing.
That said, this design just has particularly nice-looking font and some good work with the side stripes. Like the Nets, the asymmetry manages to give Indy some individuality the nickname couldn't.
Los Angeles Clippers
There's a reason the Los Angeles Clippers brought these back.
Though the clipper ship does not make as much sense up in L.A. than it did back in San Diego, there are still methods of evoking the seafaring nature of the nickname.
Between the white script and the blue outline, the lettering carries the feel of slicing through the water. It's as close as the Clippers have come to really owning their nickname, which is a part of the reason the franchise was so comprehensively defined by losing.
They're no closer to owning their nautical roots now, but they're owning their team history, and so these classy duds are back in action.
Los Angeles Lakers
There is no alternative for the purple and gold.
Much like their bitter rivals in Boston, the Los Angeles Lakers have held fast to their history when it comes to what they wear, creating a distinctive look in the process.
Unlike the Celtics, the Lakers have just enough flourish between the two-tone color scheme and the unique lettering to carry on this design without imitation. Any attempt to borrow from this jersey would be recognized in a heartbeat, which is both a testament to its significance and a safeguard for its singularity.
We never realized how lucky we were to see the Vancouver Grizzlies.
Though the grit-and-grind Memphis Grizzlies will have a more prominent place in the annals of the NBA, we cannot forget the sheer goofiness of that franchise's origin.
And so, please direct your attention to Bryant "Big Country" Reeves.
Just look at him—he's a seven-foot tall rump roast covered in pastel teal and bear claws. The lettering looks like something out of the Flintstones. All focus is drawn to his left leg due to the size and ferociousness of that perplexing logo placement.
This is madness. This is expansion-era artistry. This is the Vancouver Grizzlies.
It's not totally surprising for a fairly new franchise to have little uniform overturn, but the Miami Heat established a particularly consistent product from the get-go.
The italicized nickname and the fiery tail off the top of the T are creative ways to emphasize the Heat without making the jersey too busy. In that regard, Miami's design is a mix of old-school simplicity and modern flair.
The dark red and heavy white shadowing put this version over the top. That's partially why they have reentered the Heat's arsenal of active jerseys. The other reason is they're going alternate-crazy, but these ones still stand out among the rest.
Fear the Deer.
Though most jerseys succeed because they don't try to do too much, the Milwaukee Bucks' ostentatious 1990s design was actually quite inspired.
That's because the enormous logo is not in the slightest bit cartoonish. Strange as it might seem to call a purple deer realistic, it looks shockingly lifelike in comparison to the scores of sillier mascots out there.
Milwaukee's Buck isn't trying to be fearsome, but from its stoic nobility emerges fierceness. The team's rhyming credo is less a command and more an inevitability with this jersey; it is simultaneously striking and muted and elicits awe without even trying.
With little historical success in terms of basketball or fashion, the best Minnesota Timberwolves throwback can do only one thing: recall the relative glory days of Kevin Garnett.
Back when KG was one of the NBA's hottest young talents, the future looked bright for the Wolves. Inadequate teammates and front office inconsistency ultimately doomed Garnett's time in Minnesota, never coming together as expected to produce a winner.
So while their black unis were never as intimidating as they were meant to be, they were downright terrifying when Garnett wore them. This is a pure nostalgia pick—a means of remembering a bygone age in franchise history rather than an actual style choice.
New Orleans Pelicans
Obviously the New Orleans Pelicans don't yet have a throwback of their own. So let's go back a city and a nickname ago to what has become the quintessential retro look.
Between the undeniable coolness of the teal and purple, the subtle rebellion of the mismatched pinstripes and the incredible cast of characters that donned these unis, the Charlotte Hornets jersey is a time capsule of '90s culture.
There wasn't much reason to make the Hornets such poppy colors. In fact, little about the conceptual design surrounding these uniforms really makes much sense. But we can't imagine the Hornets any other way, so we accept it nonetheless.
New York Knicks
The New York Knicks have always stuck with the basic uniform layout and the city's usual blue-and-orange combo. What makes the Bernard King model special is the shorts.
First off, the Knicks short-shorts always seemed laughably skimpy because of the amount of stuff they crammed on that little bit of fabric. Unseen in this photo on King's right leg is another iteration of his number 30, while his left leg sports a Knicks version of the famous New York Yankees logo.
That devotion to their hometown is always honorable. New York takes such pride in its teams that more is more in terms of civic iconography. Taking on Yankee imagery might not fly so well nowadays, but that might be something to keep in mind as the Knicks and Nets compete for the city.
Oklahoma City Thunder
This one still hurts.
Seattle fans are still dealing with the traumatic separation that turned their SuperSonics into the Oklahoma City Thunder. Yet regardless of your rooting interests, all NBA fans must lament the loss of the Sonics and their phenomenal uniforms.
The green and yellow are perfectly Seattle, and the arcs surrounding the nickname are so identifiable as the Sonics design. It was an alternative to anything the NBA was doing fashion-wise, even in the freewheeling '90s.
OKC still has its own personality to it, but it is tinged with what was lost along the way.
There isn't much special to the Orlando Magic uniforms anymore, but once upon a time, they were both consciously quirky and cool seemingly by accident.
What exactly was going on with the fonts down in Orlando? There was a movement to make printing edgier and hipper back in the 1990s, but it's sophomoric for a professional basketball team. Nevertheless, the choice made this jersey endearing in a way, which is odd for a jersey to be.
The dynamic between the black base, the pinstripes and all the silliness in front of them works surprisingly well. You would think the overly creative lettering would detract from the imposing effect behind it, but these unis manage to work on both levels.
Apologies to Allen Iverson, but the Philadelphia 76ers uniforms when he was in town just weren't that good.
He may be the most recognizable Sixer of all-time at this point, but it's crazy to think that AI played most of his career in Philly wearing black. These are the 76ers; how on earth were they running out there in anything other than red, white and blue?
While Iverson also bounced around, he was always more distinctly Philly's than the likes of Charles Barkley, Moses Malone and Julius Irving were. But it's the old guard's basic duds that get the nod over Iverson's newfangled, nonsensical update.
On the other hand, Barkley has become downright synonymous with the pinnacle of Phoenix Suns fashion.
It may not have the slimming effect of pinstripes, but that meteoric basketball streaking across his chest seems to make Sir Charles' girth a source of wonder. That the scorching rays stretch across the vast expanse of his midriff is a testament to all the logo—and the team behind it—can accomplish.
Though purple is not your first pick to describe the sun, it's a great backdrop for the orange bursts before it. A similar thing can be said about the font; it doesn't immediately bring brightness and warmth to mind, but its positioning around the central image fits visually. That's what counts in this case.
Portland Trail Blazers
You have to jump back to the all-too-brief age of Bill Walton, NBA superstar, and the Portland Trail Blazers, budding dynasty, to find these old-school gems.
We can go on all we want about the in-your-face bright red, the thick waistbands and the floating numerals. It's all completely '70s, but it all pales in comparison to that nickname layout.
Nothing could be more fitting for such an unusual group of players. The all-lower-case style seems straight out of the Internet era, and the vertical lettering seems like an explicit attempt to be different without being extravagant.
The Sacramento Kings are the one team that makes sense to use purple, the color of nobility, but their best throwback predates that logic.
Back when they were the Cincinnati Royals, they used... ahem... royal blue to denote their high status. The stripes framing the nickname call to mind a red carpet, and the numerals are enlarged and elevated to give each player an air of sovereignty.
Oscar Robertson was the most likely to beat you in this jersey, but the design says that anyone wearing it has the power to. When that humbling does come, you will know the individual who put you in your place.
San Antonio Spurs
This is the lest interesting jersey in San Antonio Spurs history, but the reason it appears here is twofold.
George Gervin is freaking cool—let's just start with that. No one was smoother than the Iceman, and this uniform was a complementary part of that because it did so little. The black simply made him look even more sleek, and his charisma on the court did the rest.
There is also the imagery of the outlaw in all black at work here. The Spurs don't need bombast to intimidate anyone; as long as they have their players and their dark, nearly nondescript jerseys, that's all they need.
The nascent age of Toronto Raptors basketball can best be described not with words, but by a high-flier with a red dinosaur over his belly.
At first glance, what exactly is going on with the original Raptors jersey?
The two pinstripes are doing absolutely nothing, the number is sloppily wedged in above the dino tail and the lettering is roughly based upon how an eight-year-old might believe a raptor would write.
It's all very juvenile, but it stays on message in that regard. The awe factor is high on this uni because there's so much going on; no wonder it didn't have staying power, but it's a lovable relic.
The mountains mean more than continuity.
From a nickname perspective, it's the biggest running joke in the NBA that the Utah Jazz exist. That doesn't matter one bit though, because there is purple, there are mountains and it is all so majestic.
Amidst all the whitecaps is that misplaced moniker, seemingly frozen into italics and with a gorgeous blue-to-violet gradient. Conceptually, it still makes no sense, but aesthetically, the jazz is one with its Salt Lake surroundings.
You just don't see anachronism too often in uniforms. Granted, there's really never any need for it, but it's pretty remarkable that Utah pulled it off so evocatively.
The best part of a Washington Wizards throwback is the old favorite nickname.
After all, D.C.'s team has already reclaimed its patriotic past with their thick stripes in red, white and blue. It's much more appropriate, classy and attractive than the blue the Wizards rocked in the early aughts, but there's still a weird disjoint between the past and present.
That's because the franchise's roots lie in Baltimore with Bullets emblazoned across Wes Unseld's wide frame. The Wiz have had their fair share of embarrassing and ignominious history, but the organization and its fans are still deeply committed to their history.
We keep retro jerseys around for just that reason—to allow our past style, culture and memories to live on through what our favorites once wore.