For the first time all playoffs, Cleveland opted to wear its black, sleeved alternative uniforms. In what could have been their last game of the season, the Cavs instead handed the Warriors just their fourth home loss in 54 games at Oracle Arena dating back to the start of the 2015-16 campaign.
The choice was surprising to see considering the inauspicious debut for the uniforms back in early November during a game against the New York Knicks, when LeBron James ripped open both of the sleeves on his jersey. He started the game 0-for-3 from 3-point territory, and with the Cavs trailing by nine in the second quarter, James opted for the impromptu personal tailoring.
"I was just frustrated with myself, I was just off rhythm a lot tonight, and the jersey was the only thing I could go to," James said. "I couldn't do nothing to my face."
Fast forward seven months and the Cavs were facing an embarrassing deficit on the road late in Game 2 of the Finals when Mark Cashman, the Cavs’ director of team operations -- affectionately known in the locker room as “Cobra” -- had an idea. It was time to mix up what uniforms the Cavs would wear the rest of the way.
With Cleveland starting the postseason off 10-0, the team fell into a pattern of wearing white for home games and navy blue for road games. As long as it was working, why change? Even members of the Cavs’ public relations staff, who will often wear suits without ties to games, kept wearing ties during the streak because they did so for Game 1 of the first round against Detroit and the team kept winning.
But after losing two out of three road games in the Eastern Conference finals to Toronto in the navy uniforms and then the first two games of the Finals by a combined 48 points, change was welcomed.
When the series came back to Oakland, California, for Game 5 -- Cashman, of course, never allowed a sweep to enter his mind -- he thought it might be time to go back to black, as the issue of James wearing sleeved jerseys had long been solved.
While Cashman did make sure James had a test run in the uniform in training camp, inviting him to wear it underneath his reversible practice uniform during workouts, what happened during the Knicks game was clearly a disaster.
So Cashman called up a friend of his, Becky Zielinski, who works as a seamstress for the Cleveland Browns, and asked her to look into making some alterations on James’ jersey. She had experience over the years with quarterbacks who preferred to wear tight-fitting uniforms while having a looser fit around the shoulders and armpits to provide them greater range of motion to make throws. She made the same alterations for James.
Other than the issue James had with the uniforms in the Knicks game, Cashman knew they were a big hit with the team.
“Everybody loves them,” he said.
Once Zielinski worked her magic on James’ jersey, James was a fan of them, too.
Naturally, Cashman's decision was also informed by the fact that the Cavs always seem to play well in black. They came back to beat New York the first time they wore them and are now 6-1 in the sleeved alternatives, including Game 5.
As a courtesy, Cashman ran his idea to wear the black uniforms in Game 5 by James, who approved. The next step was taking the 15 black uniforms to another sewing and alterations company the Cavs have had a working relationship with since 2001 to have the NBA Finals patches affixed to the backs of all of them.
The NBA does not allow the home team to wear a dark-colored uniform from their jersey set during home games in the Finals -- so the Cavs will be wearing either white or gold jerseys for Game 6. But should Cleveland force a Game 7, there’s a good chance James & Co. will be back in black once again with a title on the line.