Knicks logo visionary reflects, 20 years later

The Knicks unveiled their new uniforms last Thursday, but one thing on the threads basically remained the same: the main Knicks logo, which is featured on the bottom left of the shorts.

While it only featured one small change -- a shade of silver under the "Knicks," replacing black -- the overall design celebrated its 20th anniversary this year.

As it turns out, it was Thomas O'Grady's first big project when he was hired by the NBA in 1990 to be its inaugural creative director, when commissioner David Stern wanted to control the league's branding and licensing more in-house. President Dave Checketts, general manager Ernie Grunfeld and marketing director Pam Harris, who call came on board in 1990 and ’91, consulted O'Grady to change the team's identity.

"The Knicks approached me because they wanted to make their impact on the team with new brand direction," he said. "They were introducing [the Knicks City Dancers] and also wanted to freshen up the 'Roundball' logo they had from 1964."

For the new logo and uniforms to launch at the start of the 1992-93 season, Pat Riley's second one with the Knicks, O'Grady and his team needed to work 18 months in advance. That was done to make sure approvals and production, which was done overseas, were ready on time.

Here's O'Grady recount of the design process for the logo:

"We wanted to just evolve the old logo -- a little bit like the Coke can. We didn't want to redo the packaging. One of the things we really wanted to do was capture some of the feeling in New York, so we made the 'Knicks' font looking up. It's as if you're right by the Garden and you're looking up to the sky, and what you see are tall shapes. That was kind of the inspiration, and we added black below the lettering. [Now it’s silver.] We also evolved the basketball a little bit to make it more authentic to the actual ball.

"Then we came up with the triangular shape in the background to almost give it a super-hero feeling. We drew inspiration from Superman, Batman and Gotham City. There's no city like New York, there's no lifestyle like New York. We worked with a native New Yorker named Michael Doret, who was a Knicks fan and the perfect guy to help us pull off the logo. He is one of the best hand-lettering people I've ever met and he's well-known. He only draws things out by hand. Overall, the logo was well-received when it came out. The timing was good because the Knicks were very competitive at the time."

O'Grady said the early 1990s marked two significant breakthroughs in logo and uniform development: Mac computers and jersey material.

"At that time, the Mac was changing everything, and we were going away from pencils and markers," he said. "By 1990, we had a Mac division in the NBA office, where we used Photoshop and Illustrator. It was all-new software. That was a big turning point. It was like the perfect storm of changes because of technology that was advancing so rapidly. We had a lot of freedom as designers to kind of redo old ways of doing things.

"What was also happening too is that jersey design changed. The Suns jersey looked purple, but it was basically a white mesh material. The colors were literally ink-jetted on and the dye would set into the white material."

A few years later, in 1995, the Knicks' front office approached O'Grady again and told him that due to the success of jersey sales, they wanted something on the logo that referenced New York City to increase marketing visibility around the world. Not only did O'Grady and his team launch the "NYK Subway Token" alternate logo, but also "New York" was added to the top of the main logo for the start of the 1995-96 season. But the city written out wasn't the first idea.

"We actually had at one point the Empire State Building pointing right on the top, which was really cool, with 'N' on the left and 'Y' on the right," O'Grady said. "But there were some legal concerns about rights to the building. So there were some conversations about putting 'New York' on the logo. That just paid homage to the city itself."

O'Grady left the NBA in 2003 and is now the CEO and executive producer of Chicago-based Gameplan Creative, an award-winning sports and entertainment branding and marketing agency. While he's currently wrapping up work on the Elite Football League of India, the first professional American sports football league in that country, he still holds on dearly to the memory of the 1992-93 Knicks' initiative. He said it was one of his most fun assignments.

"I was from Chicago and just moved to New York," he said. "I was just swallowed by the excitement of the city and how exciting basketball was at the Garden, and how passionate Knicks fans were.

"It was one of the original NBA franchises, so it was a privilege to work on the brand. There was also a lot of social connections to the brand, so I wanted to make sure we did it right. I thought we nailed it."

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