The cultural tapestry of NBA jerseys

A brief history of NBA uniforms ahead of the 2023-24 season.


As anticipation for the 2023-24 NBA season builds, teams are pulling back the curtain on their latest jersey designs, unveiling threads that promise to be more than just sportswear — they’re a testament to legacy, identity and the evolving spirit of the game.

From all-white tops and shorts with three-inch inseams in the 1950s to the Vancouver Grizzlies’ bright teal jerseys in the 1990s, the progression of NBA jerseys has always mirrored the times. Each era’s design reflects not only the prevailing fashion sensibilities but also the broader cultural pride of the city it represents.

Incorporating landmarks and cultural symbols in jersey designs is commonly seen around the league. In 2010, the Golden State Warriors unveiled a redesigned logo prominently featuring San Francisco’s iconic Golden Gate Bridge. The bridge, often embodied as the “gateway to the Pacific,” has long stood as a symbol of unity and innovation. By incorporating it into their jerseys, the Warriors sent a clear message about bridging the past with the future, and connecting their rich history with the dynamic energy of the San Francisco Bay Area.

Since 2013, the San Antonio Spurs have integrated military elements into their jerseys to reflect the city’s deep-rooted military heritage. The Spurs donned these green camo jerseys during the NBA’s Hoops for Troops weeks, later introducing a sleek black camo City edition for the 2017 through 2020 NBA seasons.

Post-game jersey swaps have emerged as a prominent tradition in the NBA. But what’s driving this trend? Why do you want someone else’s sweat-soaked clothes?

“It’s the story of your career,” said Devin Harris, a former NBA guard in an interview with Sports Illustrated.

These jerseys are not just pieces of fabric for the players. They embody memories, challenges they have overcome and personal journeys. 

After George Floyd’s murder in 2020, approximately 300 NBA players opted to replace their names on jerseys with powerful statements like “Equality,” “Respect Us,” and “I Can’t Breathe,” showing how sports jerseys can amplify a collective call for justice and change.

In tribute to the passing of former Boston Celtics player Bill Russell last year, the NBA chose to adorn jerseys with a black No. 6 patch, celebrating his legacy and eternal impact on the game.

Looking at some of this year’s newly released jerseys, the Phoenix Suns’ Icon and Association editions are my favorites so far.

“The sunburst is an iconic design that is one of the most popular among Suns fans,” the team’s Chief Executive Officer Josh Bartelstein said in a press release. “These new uniforms seamlessly blend the nostalgia of the past with the excitement of the future as we begin the next great era of Suns basketball.”

The team’s creative department, Centercourt Studios, designed the new threads for the Suns, who hoped to channel the essence of the beloved ’90s sunburst elements while infusing them with a modern flair. 

These home and away uniforms will feature orange streaks of sunburst, topped with an embroidered “Suns” text over numbers that boast a darker drop shadow. Paying tribute to the ’90s, the shorts will display an uneven pattern, incorporating the “Phoenix” label and an extension of the jersey’s sunburst with the team’s logo in the middle of the beltline.

With the constantly evolving nature of fashion and sports, the significance of NBA jerseys go beyond their function as uniforms on the court. Each stitch tells a story, from honoring legends like Kobe Bryant to amplifying calls for justice.

In combining fashion with sports, creatives are given a unique canvas, allowing jerseys to stand as powerful testaments of narration and expression. Those anticipating each season’s new designs serve as witnesses to the connection between history, passion and identity in the fabric that unites players, cities and fans. 

James Bao is a sophomore writing about the ties between sports and fashion, as well as athletes’ identities. His column, “Fashion Focus,” runs every other Friday.


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