The new NBA season will tip off in a few weeks, which means we'll soon be running down all the season's new looks in the annual Uni Watch season preview.
But Uni Watch didn't exist 20 years ago, so we didn't have an NBA season preview in 1995. That's a shame because '95 was a doozy of a year for new NBA uniforms. Thanks to the arrival of two Canadian expansion franchises and an increasingly expansive sense of what a basketball uniform could look like, the NBA went a little nuts that season. How nuts? Let's look at five of the designs that debuted during the 1995-96 season:
If you're an expansion team looking to make a splashy debut, this is one way to do it. Oh man, where to start? It's nice that they tried to incorporate First Nations iconography on the collar trim, armhole trim and shorts, but it looked so clunky. (Bonus points for including the symbols on the right shorts leg but not the left.) The cartoonish chest lettering didn't exactly help, the teal-based color scheme was trendy for its time but looks hopelessly dated today, and the big grizzly on the shorts was, uh, an inspired touch. There's a fine line between uniform and costume, and this design was on the wrong side of it.
The Grizzlies weren't the only Canadian expansion team looking to turn heads in 1995. Over in Toronto, the Raptors used the other trendy color of the 1990s, purple, as a background color and slapped a cartoon dinosaur on it, a combination that quickly led fans to call this uniform "the Barney design." Among other problems, this uni represented a major missed opportunity for an infinite regression: The jersey should have shown a dinosaur wearing a jersey with a dinosaur wearing a jersey with a dinosaur, ad infinitum uniformum. What a pity.
The Hawks already had a history of pushing the uni-related envelope, having previously experimented with lime green and bold diagonal type. But their 1995 design pushed more than just the envelope -- it pushed the whole file cabinet and maybe even the entire office supply store. From the hawk's laughably elongated talons to the red-to-black gradation on the shorts, the design seemed like something out of a video game. You might say that means this uniform was actually ahead of its time. Or you might just say it looked ridiculous and leave it at that.
The Bucks had introduced a fairly sedate uniform set in 1994, but in '95, they augmented it with a new alternate design featuring a buck. The thing is, a buck is a tricky animal to use on a uniform. If you only the show the head, it looks like a wall-mounted trophy. If you show the whole body, it looks like a hunter's target. If you try to make it look ferocious or intimidating, it just ends up looking absurd. But if you don't make it look at least somewhat aggressive, it ends up looking too much like Bambi. The Bucks' 1995 solution -- show the head and a bit of the body and make it look fairly realistic, with a hint of an aggressively furrowed brow -- wasn't bad, but the green-and-purple color scheme made the whole thing look garish.
After wearing a perfectly functional uniform design for nearly a quarter-century (and winning back-to-back championships in 1994 and '95), the Rockets shook things up in 1995-96 by unveiling a new color scheme and a design that was certainly, well, unusual. As with most of the other designs from the class of '95, the overall feel was cartoonish. Whose bright idea was it to put pinstripes on a basketball uni? Seriously, of all the people on earth, do NBA players need to accentuate the vertical in order to look taller?
In addition to all the bizarro team uniforms in 1995-96, the NBA also went with a pretty radical All-Star uniform set. The bar had already been set pretty high the previous season, which featured cactus-themed unis for the All-Star tilt in Phoenix. With the game shifting to San Antonio, the league swapped in a chili pepper while maintaining the same overall visual theme. (Also, notice anything about the colors? Purple one year, teal the next. Those two colors were everywhere in the '90s.)
There were other notable NBA uniforms in the 1990s, of course -- the Nets' "denim" design, the Pistons' flaming Pegasus and the Kings' split-personality look among them. But the class of '95 marked a pinnacle (or, if you prefer, a nadir) for the decade's unusual hardcourt stylings.
For better or worse, these uniforms didn't have much staying power. The one that survived the longest was Houston's, which was in use for eight seasons. Vancouver's was next, with five seasons, and the others lasted only four. All were replaced by more sedate, conventional designs. Twenty years later, the designs from the class of '95 have reached that sweet spot that lies somewhere between nostalgia and kitsch. Many fans can laugh about them or even embrace them as throwback uniforms, but few would want to see them brought back on a full-time basis.
Meanwhile, the basketball uniform design pendulum might be swinging back toward more innovative looks. Have you seen the Hawks' new uni set? It makes their '95 design look tame. Let's meet back here in 20 years and see how it looks with two decades' worth of hindsight, shall we?
Would you like to nominate a uniform to be showcased in a future Friday Flashback installment? Send your suggestions here.
Paul Lukas will have this year's NBA season preview sometime around Oct. 22. 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 know when a new column has been posted or just ask him a question? Contact him here.