The NBA I Grew Up Watching: The Jerseys

When I started watching basketball back in 1995, the season kicked off by celebrating the NBA’s 50th anniversary in style. This era brought graphic designers to the forefront, making uniforms pop with engaging images in time for the organization’s golden season festivities.

Count me among the legions of kids who became obsessed with NBA jerseys. 

Cool jerseys provided an identity to your favorite teams and players, something one could buy and pretend that they were driving the paint for an acrobatic dunk just because he or she donned some fly threads. 

Here my friends, colleagues and I list some of our personal favorites of from this legendarily garish era of in-game NBA fashion—ages before Russell Westbrook and others saturated pre-game walkups as GQ cover hopefuls.

Nods to 1980s Classics

Some friends are a bit more experienced than I am. They watched the game back in the 1970s and 1980s when I wasn’t even a thought. 

My man Kurt Crowley has followed the NBA religiously since the early 1970s, and this Wisconsin kid caught New Orleans Jazz games (and star Pete Maravich) when they took on the Milwaukee Bucks on CBS regional broadcasts. He remembers attending a Milwaukee Bucks game on March 14, 1982, to see Adrian Dantley and the Jazz lose to Sidney Moncrief and the Bucks 129-100. 

“Not many games were on TV to watch then,” Kurt said. “I snatched a hot coveted ticket to that Bucks game as their old 11,052 seat area regularly sold out. I really liked the Jazz’s road green and red jersey and how the music note survived the New Orleans move.” 

Kurt moved to the San Diego area and looked for a new team when the Clippers unceremoniously jetted for Hollywood. He again gravitated to the Jazz as his radio dial could pick up Utah’s airwaves. Those years saw John Stockton and Karl Malone forming a dynamic duo in powerful classic purple and yellow road uniforms. These were a similar-but-different color scheme to the Los Angeles Lakers. 

“Fans despised the Clippers move,” Kurt said. “I don’t usually pick the most popular teams. The Jazz cemented themselves as my second favorite team when they pushed the Showtime Lakers to seven games in 1988.”

My buddy Ari Kaufman, a Minnesota Timberwolves fan who is probably Andrew Wiggins’ biggest critic, has followed the League since the 1980s. Like Kurt, Ari has a penchant cheering for exciting underdogs. One team that sticks out to him is the Denver Nuggets. 

“Denver has the Rocky Mountains and great color scheme,” Ari said. 

Those Nuggets ran the floor as the Lakers did, showcasing the athleticism and scoring abilities of NBA greats Alex English and Fat Lever. 

Ari loves the tough defense of the 1980s-90s and wishes the game would return to those roots. One player who embodied gritty, suffocating defense was Gary “The Glove” Payton. 

“He looked good in those early ‘90s Seattle SuperSonics home jerseys,” Ari said. 

And he looked even better in white and green when throwing postseason oops to Shawn Kemp.

Ari followed those late-80s, early-90s Cleveland Cavaliers teams with point guard Mark Price. He liked the blue and orange combo with the V acting as a basket—a fun, no-nonsense jersey signifying Price and the Cavs were all about the game. 

90s Classics Receive Much-Needed Upgrades 

Historic jerseys mostly exude clean and classic looks. No one will touch the main Los Angeles Lakers gold or the Boston Celtics green as those teams seep winning traditions. But other teams in the 1990s sought to freshen up their looks with creative jerseys and alternates. 

The 1995 Chicago Bulls created an alternate road jersey to welcome back Michael Jordan and newcomer Dennis Rodman in style. The black pinstripes always radiated cool to me, something I excitedly looked forward to whenever they decided to wear them for a road-trip beatdown from 1995-97. 

During The Last Dance year, the team made a slight modification by removing said stripes. It didn’t matter as MJ proceeded to ball out in Madison Square Garden per usual. 

The Jazz continue getting some love with their white and purple mountain jerseys. The colors and mountain imagery fascinated me as a kid and I thought those could compete with the Bulls….maybe…

The expansion Toronto Raptors and Vancouver Grizzlies showed out in interesting, loud and (attemptedly) intimating jerseys and shorts that I couldn’t look away from. 

Seriously underrated Damon Stoudemire hooped out with the basketball-playing red raptor who preyed upon opponents following tip-off. The teeth around the players’ names added to the effect. 

The Grizzlies had 3D font, Canadian indigenous characters around the sleeves and collar and that badass grizzly clawing the basketball on those shorts. 

TBW Editor in Chief Joel C. Cordes is another big fan of the 1990s jerseys that he collected over the years. He agrees with me how all these teams produced fire uniforms. Even as a kid, he was collecting unique players and oddball jersey combinations as a hobby.

Over the years, he nabbed the Cavs black and blue Shawn Kemp, Detroit Pistons teal Grant Hill, Raptors blue Vince “Air Canada” Carter, teal Grizzlies Bryant “Big Country” Reeves, black Miami Heat Dan Majerle and cartoon Rockets Clyde Drexler, just to name a few

We both loved the Atlanta Hawks wings-extended, talon ball-grabbing jersey. I particularly liked the red and black road uni. It perfectly exemplified a talented squad consisting of Dikembe Mutombo, Steve Smith, Christian Laettner and Mookie Blaylock. 

“I nearly bought a Laettner Hawks jersey as a teen (ironically on sale in Minnesota) and thought hard about a probable knock-off Mutombo jersey in Vietnam recently,” Joel said. “That jersey is among the holy grail I’m still missing in my collection, but I just love that era’s designs for how ridiculous and ostentatious they could be.” 

The early 2000s

Some awesome jerseys such as the Pistons, Milwaukee Bucks (Fear the Deer!) and Houston Rockets (angry rocket face!) began to go back to their more subtle roots by the early 2000s. However, a couple still stood out from the crowd. 

Thanks in large part from Allen Iverson, the Philadelphia 76ers became one of the League’s hottest jerseys. From 1997-2009, the home and road uniforms displayed Sixers on the front with a star, swooshing tail-like flag stripe and a basketball. These came in white, blue and those awesome blacks. 

AI spread fear in opponents large and small during his 2000-01 MVP run and looked good while doing it. 

TBW’s Brandon Jefferson remembers watching his favorite, Tracy McGrady, dominate the League as “arguably its best player” during the 2002-03 season in those star-studded white, blue and black Orlando Magic unis. 

“It was such a cool, different idea where the stars weren’t visible unless you were close enough to see it,” Brandon said. “I had an authentic one, and I wore it as much and as often as I could. It was so cool and different for the time.”

Maybe those super jerseys gave T-Mac the edge to drop 40-point triple-doubles! 

The Wizards’ original 1997-2011 jerseys were simply fire, especially when Michael Jordan and Gilbert “Agent Zero” Arenas went to work in them.

Though they’ve recently returned to the Washington Bullets’ design, I will never stop loving those white and blue jerseys with dramatic Wizard font and crescent moon.

Hell Nah 

Jerseys are a love of mine, but a few made my ‘hell nah’ section, and deservedly so. 

The Golden State Warriors consistently have brought clean and interesting designs throughout the years (love The Town, The City and Chinese New Year ones!). However, they committed a major fashion crime with the 1997-2010 thunderbolt unis. For me, the coloring and font weren’t pleasant, and I was super excited when they went back to their Bay Bridge bread and butter. 

Die-hards will disagree as they look nostalgically back at the ‘We Believe’ Warriors. Fair point, though the Dubs might have gone even further with some better threads. 

Another even worse fashion disaster is the modern Indiana Pacers’ Hickory 1950s throwbacks. 

….No….just no….

Shorts too shimmery and the burgundy shirts too plain. 

What’re Your Favorites? 

2000: Grant Hill of the Detroit Pistons during the a Pistons game at The Palace of Auburn Hills in Auburn Hills, Michigan.
Mandatory Credit: John Biever/SI/Icon SMI

Cool, eye-catching jerseys breathe color into the game. They form connections, (especially with younger fans), to teams and players alike. Regardless of the generation, fans often look back to the color schemes of their youth as the “classics” while turning a much more discerning eye against the newest threads. (I’m guilty as charged on this as well!)

This conversation continues to evolve as teams now make six or more different types to drive up merchandising sales. Variety is never a bad thing, and we certainly have a lot to choose from now when discussing jerseys we like and dislike. 

I know there are teams and eras I haven’t covered, and you might have different takes. Please share a jersey you liked and why by sending opinions and pictures to @bobbajek or on Twitter. Let’s revisit some memories!