The Utah Jazz unveiled a new uniform set last week, and the reaction from fans was nearly unanimous: "Not bad -- except for that one with the sleeves."
It wasn't the first time NBA fans have said something along those lines. It wasn't the second, third or fourth time either. It's pretty much what NBA fans have been saying ever since the league and Adidas began making sleeves a major part of the game's look way back in -- uh, when was that again?
The answer is February 2013 -- a little more than three years ago. That's when the Warriors unveiled the NBA's first sleeved jerseys.
Seems like it's been a lot longer than that, doesn't it?
Maybe that's because we've been subjected to such a nonstop sleeve salvo since then. By Uni Watch's count, 22 of the NBA's 30 teams have worn sleeved jerseys in those three-plus years, and that number will climb to 23 when Utah's sleeved alternate makes its on-court debut this fall. With the Jazz now getting aboard the sleeved bandwagon, the only remaining holdouts are the Hawks, Mavs, Pacers, Grizzlies, Bucks, Sixers and Kings (and some of them may yet unveil new sleeved jerseys before this offseason is over).
How did we get here? How did a one-team experiment become a near-league-wide blitz, especially since most fans don't seem to like it? Here are one observer's thoughts on how the NBA's attempt to create a sleeved Shangri-La ran itself off the rails:
1. They got off on the wrong foot. When the Warriors unveiled that first sleeved jersey, they inexplicably paired it with striped shorts that didn't match the jersey design. The uniform's two shades of yellow didn't match, either. The jersey itself wasn't that bad (the chest logo and lettering looked sharp), but it was hard to take it seriously in the larger context of the full uniform. So fans immediately began viewing the sleeved format as a joke.
Believe it or not, it's been only 3 yrs and 3 mos since Warriors unveiled the NBA's first sleeves. Seems longer, no? pic.twitter.com/fwWdW9UhXB— Paul Lukas (@UniWatch) May 16, 2016
2. They've gone overboard. There are lots of examples of a team or a player going with an unusual uniform element that over time becomes a signature look, like Ichiro Suzuki wearing his first name on his back or the Chicago Bears' permanent "GSH" sleeve memorial for George Halas. But if everyone else copied those moves, they'd quickly become tiresome. And that's been the case with the sleeves.
The Warriors already had one of the NBA's most unusual uniforms in 2013, plus they had a history of uniform innovation, so it made a certain kind of sense for them to be the team that experimented with sleeves. Back in 2013, the initial word was that a few additional teams were looking into the possibility of wearing sleeves, but instead it became more the rule than the exception. When the league began imposing sleeves on Christmas Day uniforms, All-Star uniforms, Spanish-language uniforms, Chinese New Year uniforms, and more, it quickly became apparent that what had begun as a potentially interesting quirk had mutated into a rote gimmick.
3. They haven't taken full advantage of the format. In other sports, we see all sorts of graphics appearing on sleeves: stripes, uniform numbers, commemorative patches, memorial armbands, and so on, but most of the NBA sleeves have been left blank -- a disappointing missed opportunity.
There was some hope that things might get more interesting in 2013-14, when the league tried something different with its Christmas and All-Star jerseys. In both cases, the uniform number was removed from the chest, allowing space for a larger chest logo, and moved to the left sleeve. This had the potential to usher in a new generation of basketball uniforms, because the requirement of having a uni number on the front always has been a hindrance for designers. But the idea never caught on after that.
Moving uni number from chest to sleeve on 2013-14 Xmas and All-Star unis was intriguing but nothing more came of it. pic.twitter.com/3aaxvRiW2c— Paul Lukas (@UniWatch) May 16, 2016
4. The whole thing feels too closely tied to Adidas. It didn't take fans long to notice that Adidas was rolling out sleeved jerseys for many of its college teams around the same time it was doing so for the NBA. This made the sleeves feel less like an organic idea and more like a calculated exercise in corporate branding. And that leads us to ...
5. The merch tail is wagging the on-court dog. Fans have accepted, if somewhat grudgingly, the reality that many of the alternate uniforms they now see were created solely to drive retail sales. But it's one thing for a team to roll out a new jersey in an alternate color as a transparent attempt to get fans to ring the cash register; it's another for a league and a manufacturer to pursue that same goal by rolling out an entire new jersey format. Almost from the beginning, it was all too obvious that the primary rationale -- maybe the only rationale -- for the sleeved jerseys was to provide a new product line for retail customers who might hesitate before buying a tank top. When your retail program is driving your on-court program to that degree, your priorities are badly out of whack.
6. They didn't get the big guy on board. Steph Curry might have surpassed LeBron James as the game's best player, but LeBron is still the biggest name in the league and the most powerful voice in the sport. And he apparently doesn't like sleeves. He first made this clear while playing for the Heat in 2014, when he blamed the sleeves for a poor shooting performance. About a year and a half later, he made things even clearer by ripping the sleeves off of his jersey during a game.
Lebron James rips the sleeves off his jersey https://t.co/fwag9UPDVv— Cleveland SN (@SNCleveland) November 5, 2015
LeBron may not have the power to unilaterally abolish the sleeves (at least not yet), but many fans and other players take their cue from him. Once he made it clear that he has no respect for the sleeves, that basically gave lots of other people tacit permission to do the same.
There's a looming X factor here, which is that Nike will be taking over the NBA's uniform contract in 2017-18. That raises a bunch of questions, so let's address them:
Will Nike get rid of the sleeves next season?
Nike can't do anything next season. Adidas will still be the league's uniform outfitter next season. Nike doesn't take over until the season after next.
OK, sorry. So will Nike get rid of the sleeves in 2017-18?
Nike can't do anything unilaterally. The question is really whether the NBA wants to get rid of the sleeves as part of the Adidas-to-Nike changeover.
Sigh. OK, then will the NBA want to do that?
Good question! The feeling here is probably yes, given the extent to which the sleeves are associated with Adidas and the general lack of enthusiasm for the sleeved format.
Won't they have to get rid of the sleeves, because the sleeves are an Adidas thing? Nike can't use Adidas designs, right?
Adidas doesn't own a patent on sleeved basketball jerseys (and neither does anyone else). And there are countless examples of a uniform design or design element being created by one manufacturer and then produced by the next manufacturer that took over that team's or league's contract. Consider the Lakers' wishbone collar, for example -- Nike created that element back in the 1990s, but Adidas kept on producing it after taking over as the NBA's official outfitter. So there's no reason Nike can't make jerseys with sleeves. It just seems unlikely from a strategic standpoint.
But if the sleeves disappear in 2017-18, that means some of the new sleeved designs -- like the Utah's new alternate -- will have to be scrapped. Doesn't it seem odd for them to add a sleeved jersey that they'd only wear for one season?
Agreed, that would be odd, and it seems like the only reason why the sleeves might be retained into the Nike era. We'll have to see how that plays out.
Won't they start putting advertising patches on the sleeves next season?
You're getting ahead of yourself again. The NBA's uniform advertising program, like the Nike takeover, doesn't go into effect next season. It happens the season after next.
OK, OK. So when the uniform ads start in 2017-18, won't they want to put them on the sleeves?
Probably not. The plan is for the advertising patches to appear on the upper-left chest. And that placement makes sense, because it will make the ads clearly visible on television when players stand at the free throw line. An ad on a sleeve wouldn't get nearly as much TV exposure.
After reading this article, I think I'm now officially overloading on the word "sleeve" and all its permutations.
You're not the only one. The problem is that there's no synonym for "sleeve." If the sleeves are retained into the Nike era, maybe Nike can come up with a snappy new name for them -- "biceps modules" or something like that.
Would you like to nominate a uniform to be showcased in a future Friday Flashback installment? Send your suggestions here.
Paul Lukas actually likes Utah's new sleeved alternate jersey but thinks it would be even better as a tank top. If you liked this column, you'll probably like his Uni Watch Blog, plus you can follow him on Twitter and Facebook. Want to learn about his Uni Watch Membership Program, be added to his mailing list so you'll always know when a new column has been posted or just ask him a question? Contact him here.