Originally published in SLAM 176

by Tzvi Twersky | @ttwersky

On the evening of February 16, when 10 of the best basketball players in the world take the floor in New Orleans Arena for the 63rd NBA All-Star Game, a few firsts will catch fans’ eyes like a pair of fresh Jeremy Scotts.

Namely, fans will notice the presence of four first-time starters—Stephen Curry and Kevin Love for the Western Conference; Paul George and Kyrie Irving for the Eastern Conference—all of whom are under the age of 26. This will be the 25-year-old Curry’s inaugural appearance in All-Star Weekend’s main event; Kevin Love, also 25, will be making his third appearance. Kyrie Irving, just 21 years old, will be playing in his second straight Game; the same is true for the 23-year-old Paul George. 

Another roster-related difference that people will pick up on: This past summer, after years of debate, the NBA eliminated the position of “center” on the All-Star ballot. Instead, voters were able to vote for three forwards and two guards. Not surprisingly, then, neither Conference has a center starting in the Game. 

The inclusion of those four players and the exclusion of centers became official on January 23. One week before that, though, perhaps the most eye-catching new aspect of the All-Star Game became official: The uniforms that were to be worn in the Game would have short sleeves on them. 

“For the past few years, there’s been one or two design elements or innovations to the uniforms or warm-ups that we’ve been able to talk about and show the world on our biggest stage,” says Christopher Arena, the NBA’s VP of Apparel, Sporting Goods and Basketball Partnerships. “That brings us to where we are today.”

For those who regularly watch the All-Star Game, the addition of sleeves, as well as a few other BIG embellishments on the uniforms, shouldn’t come as a shock. Traditionally, the NBA and its apparel partner—which has been adidas since ’06—have used the All-Star Game as a runway, televised to hundreds of millions of homes around the world, to introduce new innovations. In the past, that has meant experimenting with colors, or materials, or as was the case at the 2009 Game held in Phoenix, AZ, a complete new uniform system. 

This go-around is somewhat different, though. The year-in, year-out shifting of color patterns and logos are noticeable to the TV-viewing eye, but hardly memorable. Likewise, the yearly introduction of new meshes and sweat wicking fabrics induces yawns from most fans. Sleeves, though—sleeves are unmissable and unforgettable.   

“We looked at the landscape of basketball and we saw players playing in t-shirts everywhere,” says Chris Grancio, Global Head of Basketball Sports Marketing at adidas. “We saw fans on the streets wearing them. [We saw] NBA players in practice wearing them. We thought it was a great opportunity to introduce something new and innovative.

“Ultimately,” adds Grancio, “making athletes better is our No. 1 goal.”

*** 

The All-Star Game, for casual fans, might very well be the first time that they see sleeved uniforms worn in a televised basketball game. If you’re a real head, however, you know February 16 will be far from a first. 

Exactly 12 calendar pages ago, in February 2013, the Golden State Warriors debuted adidas’ version of the sleeved uniform. Harrison Barnes, then a rookie, was hyped. “I couldn’t wait to wear it in a game,” he said at the unveiling. “I love the fit and style the sleeves give me on the court.”

The Warriors would wear the home uniform three times, to much accompanying internet chatter, during the second half of the season. For a few months thereafter, all was quiet on the sleeves front. The rumbling began again this past fall, as the Los Angeles Clippers showed off a sleeved uniform, in a blue that paid homage to the franchise’s roots in San Diego, that they would be wearing during 2013-14 Sunday home games. 

If that wasn’t a major enough movement, all 10 teams that played on Christmas—including the Chicago Bulls, Miami Heat, New York Knicks and Oklahoma City Thunder—donned sleeved uniforms. In total, leading up the All-Star Game, 12 teams have rocked sleeves at least once, some in multiple colorways, during the ’13-14 season. 

The sleeved initiative adidas is starting doesn’t just roll to a stop there. When it comes to preps, every participant in the 2013 McDonald’s All-American Game, played last April in Chicago, wore a sleeved uniform. And on the collegiate level, Baylor and UCLA tested the unis in March. Louisville did too, in the perfect way, putting the look on the map by beating Michigan in the National Championship game. 

“I liked playing in the short sleeve jerseys at Louisville,” says Peyton Siva. The 6-0 guard starred on ’Ville’s National Title team, before being drafted by the Detroit Pistons this past June. “They were comfortable, and once I started playing I didn’t even realize a difference from our regular jersey. Plus, I won a championship in the them, so what’s not to like?”

Not every player has won a title in sleeves, and, to keep it 100, not every player is supportive of the extra material on their arms.

Darren Collison, a point guard on the Clippers, says that not all of his teammates were initially comfortable with the idea of sleeves. The same sentiment has been whispered, publicly and privately, by a smattering of players around the suddenly fashion-conscious league. The general gist of the dissenters: (a) The sleeves don’t look cool; and (b) they make it harder to shoot.  

During a recent conversation, Collison, who boasts career averages of nearly 12 points and 5 assists per game, offered a player’s perspective on the sleeves as well as an explanation for the decidedly mixed reviews.

“I didn’t like it at first. But after wearing them for a couples games, I actually like them,” Collison admits. “Change is different, and people are scared to be different. As we get accustomed to these new uniforms, I think people will like them more.” 

A member of the team behind the invention of the sleeved jersey, Sumiko Kalish, agrees wholeheartedly with Collison. Kalish, the Design Director for adidas Basketball Apparel, says, “There’s lots of conversation with anything that’s new and different to uniforms, and I definitely think this is different.” 

Collison and Kalish proffer a sound argument. Just think: When Allen Iverson started wearing headbands over a decade ago, the commonly held opinion was that he looked ridiculous. Within months, players, rappers and fans were all crossing over with sweat soaked bands. Another example: When Kobe Bryant transitioned to a low top, skeptics were abound. Meanwhile, in the past five years, lows have become so prevalent that no one bats an eyelash when they see them on the floor.  

The point being: People question first, and join the bandwagon later. That’s why adidas is going with the slow rollout, and that’s why they’re tying their future wagons to it. 

Truth is, these aren’t your grandfather’s t-shirts. Heck, these aren’t the short-sleeved uniforms that the Boston Celtics, pre-NBA, wore in 1946-47, [pictured above.—Ed.] nor are they the ones Jerry Sloan, the fourth overall pick in the 1965 Draft, wore at the University of Evansville. These are, rather, innovative sleeved uniforms that are three years in the making. These are uniforms that are dozens of sketches in the making. These are uniforms that are hundreds of hours in the lab in the making. These are uniforms that are thousands of hours of wear testing in the making. These are uniforms that, adidas hopes, are the best thing out to play in.

“We worked with our innovation group,” says Kalish, “and we pretty much looked at our current jersey, our short-sleeved jersey, and we combined the best armhole shape, the best stretch material, the best ventilation, to come up with what we have right now. So it’s clean and classic, but is definitely high-performance.”

Not to get too techy, but what makes the sleeves unique is the usage of 360 degree stretch fabric for the arms and a gusset engineered to make the sleeves help and not hinder arm movement. All this means, players won’t feel resistance when they shoot; players won’t have to worry about a snug fabric tugging at them when they dribble; and players won’t have to worry about coming up with alligator arms on blocked shot attempts.

“It took us a long time to make sure it performed the way we needed it to,” says Grancio. “We spent a tremendous amount of time with the League and with several teams while developing it. And now it plays and feels just like a regular jersey.” 

Says Collison, who wore a shirt underneath his uniform while at UCLA: “ If you feel comfortable out there, you’ll play comfortably out there. If you’re not always constantly worrying about your jersey or your shoes, you have a good chance about playing well. You want to minimize as many things on your mind as possible while playing.” 

*** 

On the evening of February 16, when 10 of the best basketball players in the world take the floor in New Orleans Arena for the 63rd NBA All-Star Game, a few firsts will catch fans’ eyes like a pair of fresh Jeremy Scotts. 

There will be new players. There will be few centers. And there will be a ton of embellishments on the jerseys. Namely, there will be a large fleur-de-lis taking up the whole front and center of the uniform, as well as purple and green and metallic colors, all of which scream “New Orleans!” Additionally, the players will be wearing woven shorts designed to minimize weight and maximize comfort.

Ultimately, though, nothing about the All-Star Game will be more of an eye-catching first than the sleeves. 

“We’ve had sleeves as an idea for a long time,” says Kalish, “and we’ve obviously seen how players wear t-shirts underneath their uniforms. So we just kind of thought it was the right time to combine both of them and see it on-court.”