'The Comic-Con of the NBA': Inside the Retro Jersey Culture of Summer League

Sean Highkin@highkinFeatured ColumnistJuly 16, 2019

Sean Highkin/Bleacher Report

LAS VEGAS — At the NBA's annual summer league, the crowds are often just as compelling as the on-court action.

Fans converge on Las Vegas from all over the country, and sometimes abroad, to watch their favorite team's rookies play against professional-level competition for the first time. It's a diverse crowd, and with that comes an array of old, obscure jerseys that makes for elite people-watching.

You'll see plenty of Kobes, Jordans, LeBrons and Steph Currys, sure. But you're just as likely to run across someone in a Warriors Anthony Randolph. Or a Knicks Landry Fields. Or a Lakers Glen Rice.

"It's kind of like the Comic-Con of the NBA," says Shaun Gordon, a Clippers fan from the Los Angeles area who made the summer trip to Vegas for the first time this year.

Gordon is here sporting a Chris Kaman jersey, which he got during the bad old days, before the Clippers became the respected, winning organization they are now.

"A lot of folks got on the bandwagon during the start of Lob City," he says. "I didn't want to take flak from Lakers fans for being a bandwagoner by getting a CP3 or Blake Griffin, so I stuck with Kaman."

Old NBA jerseys have an obvious hipster appeal that has made them commonplace at music festivals in recent years. But summer league is an ideal environment for fans to bring out the deepest cuts in their collections.

Sean Highkin/Bleacher Report

Anyone who has never been needs to know only two things about the event. One is that Las Vegas in the middle of July is hot. On a good day, the temperature will still be in triple digits by noon. The other is that, with few exceptions, the quality of the basketball being played is low.

Fans buy tickets to see their favorite rookies, but most of the players on the court will never see an NBA roster. The games are glorified scrimmages, with only occasional flashes of excitement that will tell you anything about how a player will look against NBA competition.

Despite these two factors, the event gets bigger every year. All 30 teams now have a presence, and 2019 saw the addition of two international all-star teams: one from China and one from Croatia. Opening weekend sold out completely in anticipation of the debut of this year's No. 1 overall pick, Zion Williamson.

The growth of summer league, in spite of the debilitating heat and quality of basketball, can be attributed to just how obsessive the most diehard NBA fans are. It takes a certain level of devotion to the sport to drive or fly in from out of town to watch high-level pickup games in the desert during the NBA's offseason dead zone.

If anybody will genuinely appreciate a Joel Przybilla Blazers throwback jersey, it's other summer league attendees.

Sean Highkin/Bleacher Report

The Przybilla belongs to Ben Christensen, a Blazers fan who traveled to Vegas from Beaverton, Oregon, the Portland suburb most famous for being home to Nike headquarters. He sits in the stands at Cox Pavilion, the smaller of the two summer league gyms, with a binder full of cards he's looking to get autographed.

The jersey is a way to stand out in the crowd. He's a collector, fond of browsing eBay and thrift shops for old jerseys.

"When someone no longer plays for a team, a lot of people just give their jerseys to Goodwill," Christensen says. "For me, I collect whatever I can get."

Christensen will buy any jersey he sees. To this day, he's haunted by a Vin Baker Sonics jersey he saw in a Goodwill once and hesitated on purchasing. When he came back the next day, it was gone.

"I don't pass anything up," he says. "If I see something cool, I can't not pull the trigger on it."

As you might guess, that Baker jersey was present and accounted for elsewhere at the Thomas & Mack Center. Mitch Williams, a Toronto native who is attending his first summer league, has one on. He brought a few jerseys with him, including a Penny Hardaway Team USA jersey from 1996 that he wore on the Fourth of July. He's a child of the '90s with a lingering fondness for that era of jersey, and today he broke out the Baker, which he bought at a yard sale.

Sean Highkin/Bleacher Report

"When you see old Sonics jerseys, most people have Shawn Kemp," Williams says. "So I got a Vin Baker."

Even Williams might have been jealous of another '90s Sonics jersey in the crowd: the No. 33 Hersey Hawkins jersey worn by Oliver Silberman, a Seattle native who's here with his brother, Niall (in a blue Magic Hardaway). The pair has several Sonics jerseys between them and relishes the chance to watch live NBA basketball that no longer exists in their hometown.

"I wanted to wear it for the Thunder game, just so they know Seattle is in the house," Oliver says.

Niall, meanwhile, got plenty of compliments on his Hardaway jersey from Grizzlies fans, who presumably appreciate the job the former All-Star has done in turning around the University of Memphis men's basketball program.

The throwback jerseys are a way for fans and strangers to connect. It's a basketball tournament that doubles as a fashion show. Attendees notice which jerseys their fellow fans are wearing and give and receive props freely for their creativity.

"I saw a Rondo Kings jersey yesterday," Gordon says. "I had to take a picture of it and text it to my friend who's a Kings fan."

Rondo played on the Kings in the 2015-16 season.
Rondo played on the Kings in the 2015-16 season.Tony Gutierrez/Associated Press

As summer league grows bigger, so too will the jersey subculture. With the event gaining more notoriety, it's more important than ever for fans to stand out in the crowd.

"The whole retro jersey thing is coming back," Williams says. "It's really cool to see."

       

Sean Highkin covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. He is currently based in Portland. Follow him on Twitter, @highkin.

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