By Paul Lukas
Special to Page 2

It was there when you sat down to Thanksgiving dinner, and it's there when you're doing your Christmas shopping. It distracts you when you're at work, and it haunts you when you're trying to go to sleep. It's that nagging thought that won't go away, gnawing at your brain stem until you finally hear yourself shouting it out loud:

"What is the friggin' deal already with Kobe Bryant's tights?!"

Kobe's hose, which he began wearing toward the end of the preseason, are the latest and presumably final stage in his long legwear evolution. Previous phases have included bare legs, a calf band, a calf sleeve and a full-length leg sleeve.

Those styles all had their pros and cons, but the tights -- which Kobe sometimes supplements with an added pair of undershorts, but not always -- are a total dork-o-rama.

It's bad enough for an athlete to mimic the leotard look; it's worse when he wears an actual leotard. Seriously, it's a bad sign when you can't tell which person in this photo looks like the bigger doofus.

And then there's the issue many Uni Watch readers have raised, namely that the tights don't exactly make, shall we say, the most masculine impression. Or as Marcus Camby of the Nuggets recently put it, "I don't wear pantyhose."

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So is Kobe auditioning for a L'eggs commercial, or what?

"I assume there's a medical condition behind it, like a muscle strain or something like that," says Christopher Arena, the NBA's vice president for apparel. But a Lakers spokesman says the real explanation is much simpler: "It's to keep his legs warm."

So there it is, sports fans: It might look as though Kobe's wearing pantyhose, but he's actually wearing leg warmers -- clearly a much, uh, ... manlier statement. Take that, Marcus Camby!

Uni Watch doesn't really understand how anyone's legs could get cold while running back and forth under intense TV lights, but that hasn't kept at least three other players from following Kobe's lead over the past couple of weeks: Antonio Daniels (who also has tried pairing his tights with tube socks), Joe Smith (who briefly experimented with home and road tights before going down with knee surgery last week), and Samuel Dalembert (whose locker includes separate tights for home and road).

Uni Watch bets the next player to take the long-underwear plunge will be Chris Wilcox, who often looks as though he's already wearing tights, although he actually just wears reeaaallly long socks, kinda like thigh-highs (which, in an improbable confluence, makes him the separated-at-birth hosiery soulmate of punk guitar goddess Kim Shattuck).

Another likely suspect is Tracy McGrady, whose left leg already has showcased a dizzying array of styles: a red calf sleeve, a white calf sleeve, a black leg sleeve, a red calf sleeve over a black leg sleeve, a white calf sleeve over a black leg sleeve and a white calf sleeve with black capri-length tights -- and that's just this season! So far, he hasn't gone for the full-length tights.

It's not clear who was the first to take basketball legwear beyond the realm of socks, although it might have been Hakeem Olajuwon, who appears to have worn Kobe-style hose with one leg cut off during the 1989-90 season -- sort of a proto-leg sleeve.

Another key moment was when Michael Jordan took his knee sleeve and began wearing it a few inches lower, effectively creating the calf band. This eventually developed into the slightly longer calf sleeve, which some players wear on one leg, others switch from one leg to the other and still others wear on both.

Then came the full-length leg sleeve (or tights with one leg cut off), which has been worn by, among others, Kobe, Dalembert (who apparently picked up the style while playing in his native Haiti), MJ and Marcus Camby (who, remember, does not wear pantyhose!). But the player who wears it most consistently probably is Vince Carter. Other styles no doubt are still to come -- lately we've seen padded compression shorts, which Kobe appears to be wearing under his tights.

There's nothing wrong with any of these accessories per se (well, except for Lamar Odom's double-barreled purple nightmare). The problem is that they distract lower-leg attention away from where it should be: on the socks, of course! That's a whole 'nother topic -- one Uni Watch will address Thursday.

Paul Lukas knows enough never to let his long underwear show. Archives of his "Uni Watch" columns are available here, here and here. Got feedback for him, or want to be added to his mailing list? Contact him here.