“I Keep Waiting to Be Told That This Is Anti-Gravity or Something.” Uni Watch’s Paul Lukas on Why the Sleeved Jersey Never Made It in the NBA

There’s no other journalist with such a deep body of work about first names on the backs of jerseys, chain stitching, or their distaste for the color purple.

Paul Lukas began his “Uni Watch” column for ESPN’s Page 2 in 2004, and has successfully cultivated a dedicated following of amateur aestheticians at his own website, Uni-Watch.com.

Aside from commissioner Adam Silver, there’s likely no one more qualified to answer questions about the NBA’s ill-fated sleeved jerseys than Lukas. So Green Label asked away.

You’re on the record as being pretty anti-sleeve.
You wrote that in your first note to me, and the truth is that I’m not inherently opposed to them. The first team that did them was the Warriors in February 2013, and I didn’t have a problem with that. They happened to pair that first sleeved jersey with some really awful shorts, and it wasn’t a good look, but the jersey itself wasn’t bad, and I wasn’t down on the sleeves per se. What I am now down on is that there are these stupid rules, like if you wear a “Pride” jersey, it has to have sleeves. There isn’t even a good definition of what a “Pride” jersey is, nor is there any explanation of why it has to have sleeves. It’s just this stupid protocol they’ve established, and that just seems absurd. There’s the most obvious thing: that it’s just a way to sell jerseys because people don’t want to buy tank tops.

And they haven’t even done anything interesting with it, like when they started I thought ‘Well they didn’t do it with that first Warriors jersey, but they’ll start putting stripes, or patches, or things that other sports jerseys have.’ And they haven’t really done that. They sort of dipped their toes there with the Christmas jerseys from I-forget-which-year that had a number on the sleeve instead of on the front [2013]. Those were not good designs–they looked more like pajamas or something–but the idea of using the sleeves to open the possibilities of what a basketball jersey could be was good. One of the problems with basketball jersey design is that you have very little real estate to work with, and some of that real estate on the front is taken up by the requirement that there be a number on the front. So, if you move the number off to the side on the sleeve then you’ve got more possibilities.

Aside from that they haven’t explored those possibilities at all. There haven’t been any patches, stripes, or memorial armband. It’s just a sleeve. It doesn’t seem like there’s any reason for it. I had hopes, or gave them the benefit of the doubt at the beginning, but i’m kind of disappointed with how it’s played out.

I know a lot of college teams, in the 20th century at least, wore sleeves. Evansville, most notably.
Yeah, they were the last holdouts before a couple years ago. It used to be common. There are college players who wear sleeved t-shirts underneath their tank tops, like Patrick Ewing famously used to do at Georgetown. That’s not allowed in the NBA for some reason, but you still see it occasionally in college.

Are there any sleeved designs that you find palatable?
That first Warriors one I thought was good. I’d have to think about whether there’s been others–probably one or two. Most of them seem pretty gratuitous.

It seems like part of the opposition to the jerseys is that they don’t offer a performance benefit, or in fact, inhibit performance.
Yeah, at a time when we hear at every uniform unveiling that This jersey is six percent lighter and ten percent more moisture-wicking. There’s no performance benefit being claimed for the sleeves, and as you say, it may be a performance-inhibitor. So that’s sort of unusual in this day and age. I keep waiting to be told that this jersey weighs zero, or that it’s anti-gravity or something. With the sleeves, presumably it adds to the weight, and there seems to be no benefit.

To be fair, on that point, so many players now do choose to wear leggings. So, they don’t mind, or apparently like, having an extra layer or extra weight, and they find a benefit in that. So it’s not that having additional coverage on your body is inherently an inhibition. But I haven’t heard a claim that sleeves enhance anything, and we’ve heard several players say that they don’t like it.

Do you think that if the players union had voiced complaints, that the league would have scrapped it?
I would say that the union does not flex its muscle on these kind of things–players wear what’s put in front of them, whether they like it or not. Now, when [a big star] is shown tearing the sleeves … the other week, I thought ‘That’s it, that’s the nail in the coffin.’

The way uniform production works these days, things are usually planned and locked in two years out. This is adidas’ next-to-last year before Nike takes over. Whatever is in place and planned, those production runs are already in place and the retail pipeline is already getting ready, the catalogs are already being printed, or if they’re online, they’re on secure servers. When Nike takes over, I think that’ll be the end of [the sleeves]. From what I’ve been told–and I’ve been told this off the record, so I can’t say who told me–the league knows it’s a flop, but the league didn’t want to scrap it too early because it’d look like they were admitting it was flop. They’re gonna stick it out and hold their nose, and an introduction of a new outfitter will provide cover to mothball the sleeve program.

It’s kind of strange how Nike has become the voice of reason for basketball design.
I guess. They’ve got their share of eccentric, not-so-great uniforms at the college level, but it’s true that adidas has been a little more…out there… and so has Under Armour. I think the impression, not altogether untrue, is that Nike does outrageous things, and that adidas does sort of cheap-looking, tacky things. There’s a difference between outrageous and tacky, and that is the perception, particularly in college football. In basketball, for all the reasons I mentioned before, it’s harder to be outrageous.

It’s important to remember that none of these designs comes about without the team or school’s approval. At the pro level, teams have a lot more input. The Atlanta Hawks’ design, I believe, was done by a third-party design house contracted by the Hawks, and adidas simply executed it and consulted on it, but they didn’t come up with it. So, we ascribe a lot of power to these outfitters, and it’s somewhat true on the college level where they do come up with a lot of designs. No outfitter, not adidas, Nike or Under Armour, has the power to unilaterally impose a design on a team or a school. They are vendors working with a client, and a client always has the last word. There’s nothing out there that wasn’t approved or signed in triplicate by the client. When we give credit or blame to one of these companies, it’s important to remember that they are not the be-all and end-all.

Image: Alex Kim

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