Editor's Note: This article appears in the December 20 issue of ESPN The Magazine.
During a recent Pacers-Clippers game, I noticed a fan wearing a yellow Indiana jersey with "ARTEST" and "91" on the back. You're not going to believe this, but he was acting like an idiot -- spilling beer, yelling at Clippers fans and generally carrying on like a lunatic. By the third quarter, two Staples Center guards were standing near his section. You know, just in case. Somehow he made it through the game without pulling a William Ligue Jr.
But he got me thinking. What kind of statement was an Artest jersey? What was the dude trying to say? Was it ...
A. He's my favorite player, and I'm standing by him.
B. I'm a Pacers fan, and this was the only jersey I had.
C. I support anyone who charges into the stands and attacks innocent fans.
D. Much like Ron, I'm completely insane -- please be afraid of me.
I don't know the answer. If pressed, I'd guess D. But that made me start thinking about jerseys in general, especially throwbacks, which have become an improbable billion-dollar industry. Jerseys used to be simple. Fans bought them because they wanted to dress like players on the team. Not only were we supporting our guys, but the player we chose became an expression of sorts. And in the old days, this worked like a charm. When I held a gun to my dad's head and made him buy me a Wade Boggs jersey, he knew No. 26 was sticking around for a while. And I knew the jersey designated Boggs as "my guy."
These days, because of free agency and impatient front offices, not only do stars bounce around, but teams switch uniform styles as often as Christina Aguilera changes her hair. Just ask New Englanders stuck with Bledsoe's light-blue jersey from the '94 Pats season (one starting QB and two styles ago). When I take office as President of Sports, fans will be able to trade in dated jerseys for a 33% discount on new ones. Until then, you're screwed. At a recent Pats tailgate, our friend Grover needed a new jersey, but his pals were already wearing certain players whom he considered "claimed." Grover wanted his own guy. Worried that any new purchase could leave in a year or two -- like his last choice, Lawyer Milloy -- Grover discussed his options with the intensity of someone shopping for a new car. Now he's leaning toward an Andre Tippett throwback, "just to be safe."
That's the thing about throwbacks: you never have to worry. Pete Maravich isn't getting traded from the '77 Jazz. Nolan Ryan isn't getting traded from the '80 Astros. Not only are you exercising a form of personal expression -- this player was cool, this uniform looks cool and right now, I'm feeling cool! -- but you aren't blowing $200 on a potential lemon. Once celebs attached a "hip" factor to the whole thing, throwback makers started popping up like Starbucks franchises, with Mitchell & Ness (the pioneer) and Distant Replays (famous for their Atlanta store) emerging as industry leaders. For musicians and athletes, throwbacks are a fashion statement, much like gold teeth and 22-inch rims. Fans inevitably followed suit. Now everyone seems to be making a statement.
But what's the statement? I used to have a running joke that someone should make Disgraced Throwback Jerseys for guys like Chris Washburn and Lloyd Daniels. I was kidding. Well, over the past year, I've seen people wearing throwbacks for O.J. Simpson and Lenny Bias. How could you possibly explain this?
Then again, how can you explain any jersey? About six years ago, I was pretty much broke ... and that still didn't stop me from spending $160 on Tony Simmons' No. 81. I always wanted the Pats to have a wideout with my last name. I had to have the jersey. I wanted to wear it to games and have people say, "Cool, he has your name," and then I'd feel good about myself. Which is pretty weird, when you think about it.
Should adults even wear jerseys? Some naysayers are condescending about this -- the whole "Grow up!" mentality -- but I would argue that it's a reasonable way to support your favorite team, no matter how old you are. As Seinfeld once joked, we're rooting for laundry, anyway. So why not wear the laundry? During the 2004 ALDS, I defiantly wore my game-worn '86 Sox jersey into Angel Stadium. Whenever I noticed other fans wearing Boston jerseys, we invariably nodded at one another, maybe even shared a high-five. It's like Fight Club. Who cares if I graduated from college 12 years ago? I was there to support my guys.
Just like that Artest fan last week. Whether he was backing his team or aiming for a reaction, his No. 91 jersey certainly did the job. I noticed him and I was afraid of him.
Bill Simmons is a columnist for Page 2 and ESPN The Magazine. His Sports Guy's World site is updated every day Monday through Friday.