With the NBA’s Christmas Day games proving disastrous, at least those involving New York, many people focused on what the players wore instead of what they did in them. The league squeezed the players into new sleeved uniforms, debuting them on the NBA’s marquee day.
Seemingly no one liked them, and they didn’t make any sense, from a design or functional perspective. Before the game, LeBron James mentioned that some of his teammates were concerned that the sleeves would hurt their shooting, a legitimate fear as anyone who’s worn a T-shirt during a pickup game can testify. Extra clothing can restrict the shoulders or even implant something mentally that influences a shot. Not that it ended up bothering Ray Allen, who would shoot 50 percent from the 3-point line in the nude or in gear worn by hikers going up Mount Everest.
On Twitter I mentioned how the uniforms reminded me of a blast from Minnesota’s past, when famed hoops program Winona Cotter used to wear shirts with sleeves. It could have been a private school fashion, a modesty thing; I seem to remember Christ’s Household of Faith sporting similar jerseys when they’d pop up at a state tourney and it made me wonder back then if God was against basketball players showing upper arm.
Sleeves looked strange 30 years ago on high school kids, and nothing’s changed when professionals wear them today. There was a time when I wanted sleeves, when Georgetown ruled college basketball in the early 1980s and Patrick Ewing ran his kingdom while wearing a T-shirt under his jersey. I loved the look and loved that a star player at our school copied the style one season when I was a kid, surely an homage to Ewing since I can’t think of a single reason to actually wear a T-shirt under a jersey, unless Minnesota gyms were unusually cold back then.
I’d grown out of that phase by the time I reached high school, along with the few months I dabbled with wristbands. My minimalist approach to the basketball uniform didn’t extend to the shorts, but I didn’t have any choice in that matter. Our school didn’t get longer shorts until the 1996 season, three years after I graduated. But at least by my senior year we actually wore outfits that represented our real school, Janesville-Waldorf-Pemberton. In 9th grade and 10th grade — the first two years of our consolidation — we wore the old uniforms of the Janesville Golden Bears, even though we were now the JWP Bulldogs. The black and gold jerseys — white when we hit the road for Gophers Conference clashes — must have been especially difficult for our Waldorf-Pemberton brethren to wear, like being forced to wear the gear of a conquering army. Not only did they have to come over to our building and town, they had to wear that old school’s hand-me-downs.
Senior high meant finally wearing the blue and silver but the length of the shorts hadn’t improved. By 1993 we knew basketball players didn’t have to wear the fashions that had dominated the game forever — UNLV and Michigan had popularized longer shorts and even teams like our rivals Maple River had gone longer. For modesty I wore bicycle shorts underneath the shorts, and to this day I have dreams where I forget those during a game, nightmares mixed in with the common ones about forgetting my shoes.
My one piece of sartorial flair in 12th grade that I’m sure young future JWP athletes wanted to impersonate was I inevitably played with my shirt untucked. It’d pop out in the second or third quarter and stay that way, even though refs were, I believe, suppose to enforce a dress code that included tucked shirts. It became a good-luck charm eventually and something I felt comfortable with.
A few years later the JWP boys team became somewhat notorious for their style, first debuting long, old-school socks and then eventually wearing long striped socks. They’d break them out about halfway through the season and they seemed to indicate that the real season was starting. They looked ridiculous — and awesome. On a lesser team they’d be ludicrous but the socks actually became a part of those teams’ mystique as they dominated and became one of the great programs in the state for four years. Little kids in the community loved them and wanted their own pairs. Not everyone liked them — one old newspaper editor wrote a column that chastised the team for wearing the socks and said it showed a lack of discipline, even though on the court they were as disciplined and fundamentally sound as any team the guy probably liked watching in the 1950s.
These days of course I usually do wear T-shirts when playing old-man hoops and the shorts look nothing like they did 20 years ago. Fashion means nothing now — I simply want comfortable shirts and shoes and clothes that hide my body’s flaws. Still, the clothing can make the player, or make him worse. Last Christmas Louise bought me some athletic-wear-type shirts but they were too tight on the shoulders, the same thing LeBron feared with the NBA’s sleeved jerseys. When I wore them I fidgeted and adjusted. Everything felt off, including my shot. Maybe it was more superstition than anything else, but I eventually retired the shirt. Fashionistas — and any shooter not named Ray Allen — hope the NBA follows suit.