By Paul Lukas
Special to Page 2

Basketball has always been problematic for uniform aesthetes, mainly because the uni covers so little of the body -- no sleeves, no pant legs, no headwear (sorry, those lame-o headbands don't count). Plus, the baggy shorts have gotten way out of hand. Ditto for the shiny fabrics. And the growing reliance on Technicolor eyesores has made the game increasingly unwatchable.

But fear not, hoops fans -- Uni Watch comes to praise the NBA, not to bury it. For starters, the league deserves credit for keeping its uniforms free of the insidious Nike, Reebok, and Majestic logos that have infested other pro sports leagues and the NCAA. And recent NBA uni revisions, such as last year's Cavs and Rockets overhauls (huge improvements over their embarrassing predecessors), have shown a welcome back-to-basics approach.

There are three new designs on the court this season. Here's the deal:

Memphis Grizzlies: The real problem, of course, is the team name. As Uni Watch Memphis bureau chief Sherman Wilmott points out, "You'd be hard-pressed to find a grizzly within 500 miles of here!" But if management insists on keeping the Grizzlies moniker, why not come up with a Memphis-inspired logo, like a bear eating a slab of ribs, or a bear mauling tourists on Beale Street -- y'know, something that makes sense? Unfortunately, the team's new logo is just a generic ursine mug shot, which appears to share some DNA with the Timberwolves logo. Similarly, the new color scheme -- navy on white at home, light blue on navy on the road -- is lifted wholesale from the Mavericks, a division rival. This lack of originality overshadows some nifty jersey typography and an admirably clean, uncluttered design. In short: Not a bad uniform on its own terms, but somewhat disappointing in the larger scheme of things.

Official Uni Watch grade: B

Utah Jazz: Another relocated team with a problematic name, and another great logo just waiting to happen. (Uni Watch's modest proposals: Orrin Hatch playing a saxophone, or a zoot-suited hepcat with seven wives.) Alas, nothing of that sort is in the offing, but the good news is that the league's worst uniform has finally been put out to pasture, a crucial victory in the war against teal and purple. The bad news is that the new uni isn't exactly exhilarating. Instead, we've got a very reserved design with simple block lettering -- navy on white at home, light blue on navy on the road. Hmmm, notice a pattern? Clearly an improvement over the old design, but docked a notch for repeating the Grizzlies' and Mavericks' color scheme.

Official Uni Watch grade: C-plus

Charlotte Bobcats: No navy and light blue here, thankfully. After extensive brand research, the league's newest franchise is basing its uniforms on a tomato-ish color. It works surprisingly well, projecting a sense of orange without being too orange. The lettering, numbering, and side panels look particularly sharp in game action, and the jersey has a unique rear V-neck for added flexibility. Too bad about the excess sheen, but still very nice.

Official Uni Watch grade: A-minus

In addition, the Hornets, Mavericks, Warriors, Hawks, and Sonics are all introducing new alternate road uniforms this month. But those designs are being kept secret until they're unveiled on the court -- we'll follow up on them later.

World Series Report
Did everyone notice those striped dugout jackets during the Fall Classic? As you might expect, they're for sale. But longtime Uni Watch enthusiast Kevin Gee points out that they're officially called "2005 Premiere Jackets," so expect to see more of this jacket style next season. Leave it to Major League baseball to use its showcase event to market next year's merchandise.

Pine Tar Update
Last month's column about batting helmets smeared with pine tar sparked a raucous e-mail debate about the trend's originator. The one thing everyone seems to agree is that Uni Watch blew it when suggesting that the pine pioneer might have been Craig Biggio. So who was it? A small army of readers claims it was ESPN's own John Kruk in 1993. Another sizable contingent says Ozzie Guillen was tarring his lid back in the late 1980s. And a few readers say George Brett, best known for pine tar on his bat, also had plenty on his helmet in the mid-1980s.

Conclusive photographic evidence for any of these claims has proven elusive. And Kruk, who's a new dad, has been too busy to respond to Uni Watch's inquiries (contrary to what you might think, we don't all hang out together in the ESPN cafeteria every day). So for now, let's award a tar-stained crown to be shared by Kruk, Guillen, and Brett, with an eye toward revisiting this topic if more definitive info becomes available.

Meanwhile, it turns out extracurricular pine tar use isn't limited to helmets. Reader Nicolas Prante points out that Mariners outfielder Jay Buhner spent much of the '90s wearing a big splotch of pine tar on his right hip. "I heard he did this so he could dry his sweaty throwing hand in the field," reports Prante. No word on whether Buhner uses pine tar instead of a towel after washing his hands.

Finally, although the Red Sox clearly led the majors in tar-helmeted players, reader Davis Brewer notes that this season's real pine baron was Cardinals pitcher Julian Tavarez, who served an eight-game suspension in September for having pine tar on his cap. Given Tavarez's well-documented postseason meltdowns against the Astros and Red Sox, Uni Watch suspects he'll be looking for a new place to hide his pine tar next season.

In Two Weeks: The results of Uni Watch's DC baseball uniform design contest.

Paul Lukas hopes to bump into John Kruk at the office candy machine one of these days. Archives of his pre-Page 2 "Uni Watch" columns are available here and here. Got a uni-related question or comment for him? Send it here.