How the Heat made the coolest jerseys in the NBA

Courtesy of the Miami Heat

When Nike succeeded adidas as the NBA's official jersey supplier, it already had ideas for all the new alternate uniforms it would produce -- the so-called "city edition" uniforms, and the new "earned edition" set the NBA unveiled today as a sort of replacement for the mothballed one-day-only Christmas jerseys.

Almost every team listened. Some teams adopted Nike's ideas almost wholesale. The Heat looked over Nike's proposals, which included one jersey featuring a palm tree print, and politely sent them back. They had a plan, and they weren't deviating.

They were right to hold fast. The so-called "Vice" jerseys, in white, then black, and as of today in pink as part of the "earned edition," have rolled out to near-universal praise. Last year's white version -- the original -- finished as the No. 1-selling "city edition" jersey, per the NBA's official data. (Only teams that made the playoffs in the prior season will receive "earned edition" uniforms.)

If they aren't the best uniforms in the NBA, they are certainly the coolest. Just don't call them "Miami Vice" uniforms, even though they use the name "Vice" and the pink-and-turquoise coloring from the wordmark of the classic 1980s cop show. The Heat have been very careful, almost comically so, to avoid using "Miami" and "Vice" together in a way that might suggest infringement upon NBC Universal's intellectual property. They are the "Vice" jerseys, and that's it, the team says. (As they prepped the uniforms, the Heat did call NBC Universal to give the company a heads up, says Michael McCullough, the team's executive vice president and chief marketing officer.)

The team had been toying with "Miami Vice" colors for years. Micky Arison, the Heat's owner, even teased the idea of pink-and-turquoise jerseys on Instagram in August 2015.

But for reasons both artistic and practical, they knew the "city edition" jersey could not be a simple homage to a television show.

Upon learning of the city edition campaign, Brett Maurer, the Heat's graphic designer, sent his five-person team running all over Miami and the surrounding area looking for inspiration, he says. They put together a "mood board" of images and colors that felt most evocative of the city, and of the look they were chasing:

(That image in the upper right corner -- the wave crashing over a basketball -- comes from a program dating back to 1990 All-Star Weekend in Miami, a team spokesman says. It was not necessarily under consideration for use on an alternate jersey. Even so, some motifs on the cutting room floor -- including some beach-themed designs -- could be candidates for future alternates.)

They toggled through all sorts of jersey fronts before settling on a simpler, classic look: the single word "Miami."

"We had everything from extremely busy, to extremely bright, to really right in your face designs," Maurer says. They settled on white as the safest base color for the Vice debut.

They had trouble choosing a font. The Heat's normal -- and very distinct -- Miami wordmark would not do. These would not be normal jerseys. They tried spicing it up with a slanted script meant to resemble a neon sign.

It didn't feel right. It was a little generic. At the time, Maurer happened to be studying the organization's history to prepare for its 30th anniversary this year. In flipping through some archival artwork, he stumbled upon a photograph of the original Miami Arena:

It hit him: Why not just use that font? So they did.

"That was the turning point in the entire process," Maurer says. "Our 'ah-ha!' moment."

They decided to carry the Miami Arena homage across other Vice elements. The shorts have pink and turquoise trim running along the bottom of only one leg (the right) -- just as the Heat's inaugural uniforms sported burning orange-red trim at the edge of just the right leg.

In conjunction with this season's black "Vice" look, the Heat unveiled a daring -- and absolutely gorgeous in every way -- court design:

The double-band of pink and turquoise bordering all four sides was a gamble. It risked overstimulation -- too bright, too busy, overwhelming. Turns out, the Heat's design team experimented with even more gaudy looks. How about a pink "Miami" center-court logo, with the edges of the paint colored turquoise?

Or a pink painted area with "Vice Nights" splashed across the baseline?

The possibility of pink jerseys quashed that idea. Teams try to avoid wearing jerseys that are the same shade as huge portions of the court; players become harder to spot as they traverse the paint. (David Stern, the league's former commissioner, threw a fit when he flipped to a Rockets game in the mid-1990s and struggled to spot players wearing blue jerseys flitting through the blue portions of Houston's infamous floor from that regrettable design era.)

They even played with a painted area featuring rippling gradations of turquoise and pink -- plus a revamped flaming ball, some retro computer-style font, and a snazzy little "Miami" wordmark on the near sideline:

In the end, cleaner was better. The double-banding provides enough neon pop -- but not too much. It also works as a nod to the original Miami Arena court, which featured its own double-banding (and looks bizarre in retrospect):

There was never going to be a pink court accompanying these new pink jerseys, McCullough and Maurer say. They weren't sure about pink jerseys in the first place.

"We were very hesitant about going fully pink," Maurer says. Pat Riley and Erik Spoelstra -- old-school souls who care deeply about the Heat's culture, and how outsiders perceive it -- have something approaching veto power on big artistic decisions. Would they go for a bright, screaming pink jersey -- the only pink jersey in the NBA?

"We don't have free rein here," McCullough says, laughing. "I get nervous every time I walk through the double doors into the basketball operations side" of the Heat's office.

They were so anxious about getting the shade of pink exactly right, they asked Nike to send them a color wheel of every shade they had in-house that was anywhere close to pink. "Maroon, purple, off-red, whatever was in the ballpark of pink," McCullough says.

The pink version might be the only one so far to meet with some fan angst. But probably not. The "Vice" jerseys are beloved. Heat players have been purchasing complete sets of them -- one of each teammate, staffers say. (Some players are worried the jerseys are jinxed. The Heat have a poor record playing in them.)

There has even been a movement among fans to have them supplant Miami's normal jerseys as the team's primary game-to-game duds.

For months, I was right there with that crowd. These jerseys are awesome. They are objectively better than the Heat's classic uniforms. But I'm not sure reorienting the entire franchise around them is the right move. That is a huge undertaking. It involves shoving a lot of the Heat's history -- a history of which they are really proud -- into the dustbin.

Aside from some wacky alternate jerseys (remember the tuxedo uniforms?), the Heat's art has remained largely unchanged for two decades. That kind of top-to-bottom stability is rare. Whether fans realize it or not, all of that art has piled up some institutional value -- a lot of nostalgia and championship memories.

It is a little more staid and serious than the "Vice" art. The Heat are a staid and serious organization. (They might take themselves a little too seriously at times.) The "Vice" art is more lighthearted. It references the city more than it does the team.

The Heat aren't ready for such a drastic change, anyway.

"Those uniforms aren't going anywhere," McCullough says of the Heat's core red, black, and white unis. "We are probably never gonna change those uniforms. We have a lot of brand equity in them."

That may be the right call -- provided the "Vice" look sticks around in alternate uniforms. Each "city" and "earned" edition is intended to last just one season. The league and Nike want you to buy new stuff every year. But some jerseys are too good to die so soon. Nike and the league allowed Utah to keep its orange-and-red "city edition" look for at least a second season. They need to find a permanent spot for "Vice."

"Those discussions are already underway," McCullough says.

The "Vice" cycle may not be over yet. We've seen white, black, and pink "Vice" jerseys. That leaves one more color, doesn't it?