Pianist and general witticist Oscar Levant said, “There is a fine line between genius and insanity.” While it’s safe to say that he was not referring to NBA basketball jerseys (his follow-up quote was “I have erased this line”), there is perhaps no purer an example of this quote’s truthfulness. There have been dozens of jerseys worn by NBA players since the league’s inception in the 1940s. In all those decades, with all those different uniforms, there has likely never been a uniform universally liked.
So what does make a (near-consensus) good NBA jersey? There seem to be three schools of thought on this. There is the school of tradition and simplicity (think Boston Celtics or primary Chicago Bulls uniforms). There is the school of thought that a great jersey requires subtle alterations and wry subversions of a ‘classic’ archetypal jersey without abandoning the overarching framework (Memphis is a pretty good example of this, in some of the striping and coloration and font choice). Then there is the school of thought that in order to make a truly great jersey, bold and outside-the-box is the way to go. This third school is often the most divisive… as we’ve recently witnessed in the press and social media regarding the latest update of the Atlanta Hawks set.
For reasons that should be pretty obvious, it is that third school that most often generates the jerseys we wish we could pretend never happened. Boldness, in these situations, does not seem to be in short supply… only forethought, an understanding of how colors work best together, and far-sightedness. Many of the jerseys that are thought of as being the ‘ugliest’ cashed in too hard on the trends of the times; instantly dating the look via graphics or font or color choice or pattern.
A genius uniform or logo comes from boldness with an eye toward timelessness; an understanding that it’s just as important how the uniform is received today as 10 years, 20 years, 30 years, and more, from now. Milwaukee’s latest overhaul was instantly hailed as a classic because it did exactly that. It is with this in mind, that we examine 15 jerseys we wish we could forget:
29 Baltimore Bullets - Away Jersey (Early/Mid-70s)
For freakish sport nerds like the author of this article, it is a very unfortunate thing that the internet has yet to come up with a comprehensive NBA jersey database. As such, it was not possible to peg down a complete timeframe of when these uniforms were in use. It does appear that they began when the Baltimore Bullets (better known now as the Washington Wizards) moved to the suburbs and became the Capital Bullets… and followed them back to Baltimore for at least another season.
These jerseys ooze the 70s just as much as the afros of the players wearing them. The 70s were a decade of radical experimentation and questionable taste, and that is incredibly apparent in this uniform. The home version of this jersey (an inverse of the colors) is actually somewhat tenable as a basketball kit. The away version, however, looks like the franchise had a surplus of beach towels that they demanded be sewn into a uniform set. The uniform number veers too far inward, threatening to leap off its orange-red perch into the raging river of white and blue next door. The lack of different-colored piping at the collar, and the loose and billowy fit combined with the tightness around the shoulders, gives the illusion of the players wearing a vest with no shirt underneath… with a blue sash for good measure. The Wizards have brought back the look as part of the league’s Pride jersey initiative, but lucky for us some creative alterations to the original freakshow have created a look that is not abhorrent.
27 Orlando Magic - “Stars” Alternate Jersey (2016- Present)
This jersey has not even seen actual game time yet, and it is already one of the biggest failures of jersey design in NBA history. The uniform is set to be a 5th option for the Orlando Magic… taking a wordless logo and putting it smack dab in the center; traditionally a space reserved for the team or city name. The jersey actually looks to forego all wording save the player’s name and corporate logos in an attempt to let the iconography of the mediocre Magic logo do the talking.
They might as well call this one the Advertising Alternate logo as every move made in designing this top was made to maximize ad space… from removing the team/city name, to shrinking down and offsetting the jersey number on the front. The overall result of these moves isn’t that it looks minimalist, but instead looks cheap or unfinished or amateur. These uniforms look like they could be meant for their summer league team (who are not deemed deserving of a standard in-season jersey), a developmental minor league team, or for warming up before the game. The stripes, the only decoration on this misstep, terminate just under the armpits and will probably look completely bizarre from any angle other than head-on in-game.
25 Los Angeles Clippers - 2014 Christmas Jersey (2014)
In the year 2015, the NBA finally figured out how to do a Christmas jersey correctly (after having done a different design each Christmas since 2012). Unfortunately for these jerseys, they came out a year before the league figured out what to do.
The template for all 10 teams that played Christmas 2014 was the same: move a small version of the team’s secondary logo (if they didn’t have a secondary, they could use a primary logo) to the center of the front of the jersey, just above the uniform number. On the back, instead of the last name of the player being above the jersey number, a contrasting panel below the number would feature the player’s first name. The only conceivable reason for this would be to sell jerseys for the holidays based on a kid sharing the same name as a player (although just how common of a name E’Twaun or Norris is, we couldn’t say).
The worst looking of the bunch (it was a numbskull concept through and through, but some jerseys looked better than others) was the Clippers version. The Clips never had had a good primary logo, but their secondary logo was especially uninspired. Lost in that sea of red, the logo looks as though we are missing something; that there is probably some element of the logo the same color red as the rest of the jersey that makes the rest of it look incomplete and off-balance on the jersey tops. That the bright white primary logo is so eye-catching and large on the shorts, does the ensemble absolutely zero favors. The most egregious offense on the jersey, however, is the contrasting nameplate. The bright white with blue lettering on a red back gives the illusion that these players have signed up for some sort of fun run and, as such, have to wear a nametag so people can keep track of them.
23 Detroit Pistons - Red Alternate Jersey (1997-2001)
The 1990s were a wretched time for NBA jersey aesthetics. The league seemed to be concerned only with courting the under-13 demographic with all design decisions. There were a number of teams that changed uniforms and team colors during the decade. The Detroit Pistons were one such offender that went full-bore 90s.
The Bad Boys were not walking through that door, so to speak. Detroit had a new era of players they were touting: Jerry Stackhouse, Grant Hill, Theo Ratliff, and Lindsey Hunter. The team was young and hungry and promising (although they still carried the aged Joe Dumars and Rick Mahorn as vestigial remembrances of their glory days). Instead of phrasing this new crop as an evolution of Detroit basketball, the Pistons changed course completely and abandoned both the all-time classic Pistons jersey (so classic that even the current iterations look like a cheap pretender to what a Pistons jersey should be) and the blue, white, and red color scheme that’d been with the franchise since the 50s… in favor of teal, burgundy, and mustard. You know, that ageless color combination. These burgundy alternates (their primary aways were teal, just like the Charlotte Hornets and the Vancouver Grizzlies during that era), had the distinction of being the only time that shade was featured on the hardwood. But sometimes there is a reason teams haven’t used a certain color; in this case, it’s because it looks like a red jersey was aged in the folds of a smoker’s couch.
The color changes to the Pistons didn’t last long; only 4 years. That flaming-horse-that-looks-like-a-chess-piece and tail pipes logo, however, lasted an additional 3 years (just in Pistons blue and red for that extra time).
21 New Orleans Hornets - “Mardi Gras” Alternate Jersey (2010)
When George Shinn owned the Hornets in New Orleans, he was desperate to boost attendance, ingratiate the team to the city, and make New Orleans a viable franchise location even nearly a decade after having moved the team from Charlotte. The Mardi Gras-themed jersey is perhaps the most innovative, interesting, and visually nightmarish of his attempts to do all that.
To be fair, there is a certain charm to these clown outfits… and they are rooted in symbolism and color choices that all evoke Fat Tuesday in The Big Easy. The garishness of the uniform, however, just didn’t jibe on the hardwood with all the relatively traditional jerseys of the era. The front panel and back panel were different colors, but the purple front panel was continued in a low-hanging swoop on the shorts that gave it all the appearance of the players wearing some fusion of a smock and chaps. The yellow side panels featured ornate embellishment meant to invoke the ironwork of the French Quarter, but instead wound up looking like Gam Gam stitched together the uniforms from scraps she had laying around.
To make matters worse (or better, depending on your sense of humor), there were two little decorative touches that are mildly inappropriate for a family-friendly sports league. The first is the side piping, which is meant to look like Mardi Gras beads. Again, this was a very logical use of symbolism in design elements. Unfortunately, it meant celebrating the idea of women flashing their breasts during the holiday festivities. The second little decoration is one that often gets passed over in the discussion of this uniform (it makes a lot of ‘worst uniform’ lists)... but the author has the mental complexity of an 11 year old, so it warrants all this mention and build-up. There is a conspicuously low patch on the back of the shorts (usually any small shorts patch would be up near the waistband). So low, is this patch, that it finds itself nestled right between the players’ cheeks. And what is this patch that finds itself on the fannies of all these giant men? The city’s nickname, Nola... and a trumpet. We can’t be 100% certain, but we do feel safe in saying that this is the only NBA jersey to have ever featured a butt trumpet.
19 Seattle Supersonics - Red Alternate Jersey (1997-2001)
Dark red is perhaps the most unsung ‘trend’ color of 90s sports thanks in part to the sheer saturation of teal and purple. This alternate jersey, a slightly different shade but not altogether dissimilar, lasted exactly as long as the Pistons’ alt.
The author went back and forth, debating whether this should make the list or not. In the end, it made the list not because it’s an awful jersey (but it is) but because of the legacy it abandoned. The Sonics got all comic book-y, and not in a good way, with their bold and swooshy wordmark. In its wake, the Seattle franchise left behind perhaps the greatest uniform of all-time (the little yellow and white/green arch on a field of green/white). You know the one. The author also learned a valuable lesson while debating this jersey: if you look at the word “Sonics” over and over again, it loses its meaning and looks really bizarre quickly.
17 Orlando Magic - Pride Alternate Jersey (2014 - Present)
Yes, another modern Magic jersey. To be perfectly honest, there haven’t been a whole heck of a lot of good Magic jerseys in their 25+ years. The early 2000s ‘stars all over’ jerseys (both home and away) only missed this list because we didn’t want the article to be called “Magic Jerseys We Wish We Could Forget”.
This decade’s fad colors are gray, black, and fluorescent yellow-green. The NBA’s Pride jersey initiative has yielded a couple good jersey, but has largely been an excuse for the involved teams to add a black or gray jersey. In the case of the Magic’s jersey, gray is actually the least of its problems. The pinstripes, unlike the gorgeous Shaq-era uniform set, are horrendous. It is unfathomable how a professional designer or design firm could think that pinstripes that wander off like they failed a sobriety test were a good idea; let alone make it all the way to three different jerseys (home, away, and Pride). The blue-and-white wishbone collar makes it look like the player is wearing a novelty necklace purchased with tickets won from skeeball. Lastly, and worstly (not a word, but it should be), are the blue shoulder stripes. If the team wanted a sleeveless jersey, just make it sleeveless… don’t just give the illusion of sleevelessness. The end result, because there’s no change in shade from the trunk of the chest to the sleeves, is that from the front every player appears to be wearing a cute little blue backpack.
15 Los Angeles Clippers - 2012 Christmas Jersey (2012)
Christmas only comes once a year; bad news for kids, but good news for our eyeballs. Apart from last season, when the NBA designed jerseys that have a cute vintage Christmas card vibe and this season where they’ll be riffing on the same theme, the Christmas game uniform promotion has been a total bust. The worst year, however, was the inaugural year of 2012 (before that, teams would just wear patches that had the NBA logo on top of a snowflake). The concept behind the 2012 Christmas uniforms was to go monochromatic: that the jersey, the team name, the uniform number, the shorts, and any logos would all be the same color. The only way to pull that off was to use another color as a faint outline for the logos, numbers, and team names. This managed to accomplish two things with nearly all of the jerseys: make them impossible to read on TV or from anywhere not on the court, and accentuate the little airholes poked into the middle part of the jersey top.
Some of the 2012 Christmas uniforms came off better than others; Brooklyn, Miami, and Denver all looking not awful (a combination of clean and bold writing and bold contrasting colors). There were also 4 real standout atrocious uniforms that day amongst the 10 teams that participated; the Thunder, Knicks, Rockets, and Clippers. The Clippers jersey was chosen over the other 3 because, while the others were nearly completely illegible, the Clippers script wordmark gave off the appearance that someone had simply peeled off the white patch of their team name… leaving only the stitching. Moreover, Clippers red is the kind of color your eyes need a break from once in a while. Without that oasis of white and blue writing on the chest, our eyes are all left to burn unendingly.
13 Minnesota Timberwolves - Away Jersey (2008-2010)
The Minnesota Timberwolves decided to update their look in 2008 to coincide with the ‘Changing of the Kevins’ (from Garnett to Love). The former jersey was perhaps the pointiest in NBA history: a pine tree pattern lined the collars, armpits, waistband, and hem of the shorts. The font for the team name added spikes on top of other spikes (same for the jersey number). The logo and secondary logo were just beyond-pointy wolf heads.
The 2008 revision reduced the spikiness by about 400%. The pine trees still ringed the collar, but were abstracted to the point of just looking like arrows with a pear-shaped body type. Instead of a tree pattern all along the rest of the trim, the Timberwolves added side panels with abstract trees that appeared to create a ‘W’ on the shirt and an ‘M’ on the shorts. Sports uniform columnist Paul Lukas said of the jerseys that it was “a cool idea, except that the W is on top, which apparently signifies ‘Wolves Minnesota’... Textbook case of trying too hard to be clever.” It also should be pointed out that the trees, being as non-treelike in appearance as they are, appear to be arrows that essentially say “Look at my pits!” and “Look at my thighs!” The green was sparse and shocking on these uniforms and, because of that, lasted only one year. The current Minnesota jersey keeps the thigh/pit arrows, but has colored them white. The current set has also abandoned the pine collar. Both of these changes are positive ones, but the jersey still lives in that limbo between generic and wretched. It is reported that a new uniform is in the works for the 2017-2018 season.
11 Philadelphia 76ers - Home Jersey (1991-1994)
Gradients, or the gradual fading of a color to white or another color, in basketball jerseys are not a good thing. Just because you can do them, does not mean you should. Unfortunately for the 1990s, nobody told that to the decade.
The Sixers’ early 90s jersey was a gradient-fest: the shorts and shirt having opposite-facing gradient blue swooshes (apparently from how fast the word “Sixers” is traveling away from the rest of the jersey). The big problem with the swooshes was that because players wore their shorts so high during that era, it looked as though the team’s name had escaped from the players’ underwear. Inside the swooshes were a number of stars that featured a three-color gradient each of red-to-white-to-blue. In order to keep the blue of the stars away from the blue of the swooshes, a white outline was put around the stars which would have been fine… except that it wasn’t kept away from the white midsection of the stars.
The overall effect of the jersey was a visual mess (they also had the traditional “76ers”-in-a-ball logo large and on the opposite side of the swoosh on the shorts); somehow seeming cluttered and sparse all in the same go. To make matters worse, the stars inside the swooshes evoked a feeling of space or a cosmic-themed team and did nothing to further the patriotic motif of the Sixers (despite the colors).
9 NBA All-Stars - Western Conference Jersey (1995)
The cartoonification of the league during the mid-90s was a remarkable disaster for good taste. It brought us a dribbling dinosaur, an angry spaceship, a ghost deer with bushy eyebrows, and whatever the hell the Grizzlies had going on. This was very nearly an all-90s hatefest, despite the fact that the “90s are back” and people are dressing like fools again.
Of the Saturday morning cavalcade, the silliest jersey belonged to the Western Conference All-Stars in 1995. The All-Star game was held in Phoenix that year, and Phoenix decided to southwest the hell out of all the design for the game to let everyone know they were playing in Phoenix (as if the overabundance of seniors and racists weren’t enough of a tip-off). The result was a jersey with the same design and color scheme as a budget-priced airport coffee mug: a cartoony cactus inside a lopsided star, oversized purple letters and numerals ringed in teal, and a random smattering of smaller lopsided stars (that looked like cartoon explosions). The uniform numbers were pushed so high by the bevy of crap on the shirt that double digit numbers like Dikembe Mutumbo’s 55 actually overlapped the collar (the collar, it should be noted, is actually a very pleasant three-colored ring). For added measure, the striping up the sides is a Native American geometric pattern because somehow they decided the uniforms weren’t bold or busy enough.
7 New Jersey Nets - Away Jersey (1990-91)
It’s hard to know where to begin in making fun of or describing the Nets’ road jersey from the 90-91 season. A jersey like this is so bad, so very visibly horrendous, that it defies any attempts at humor and explanation.
The jersey, which was retired after one very humiliating season, was said to emulate the look of denim. Apparently in New Jersey, nobody can wear jeans without also standing next to partially closed blinds during the day. The visual effect on this uniform is stark and original and undeniable… but regrettably the phrase “any press is good press” doesn’t carry over into design choices. The best thing that can be said for these horrorshows is that the Nets wordmark is perhaps the most underrated wordmark of all-time and is primed for a comeback after Brooklyn ditches Jay-Z’s minimalism. The human race can only hope that no such comeback is in store for the gradient denim jerseys.
5 San Antonio Spurs - Pride Jersey (2013-2014)
San Antonio is a military town; they have a joint Army/Air Force base to their name. The Spurs have also long been seen as a militaristic team: from David “The Admiral” Robinson being their cornerstone to the dramatic emphasis on system and organizational culture. Longtime coach Gregg Popovich, too, has a military background.
This in mind, the Spurs decided to honor the military with their Pride initiative jerseys. The jerseys feature a digital desert camouflage pattern along with more traditional Spurs-ian iconography and palette choices. The result is an embarrassment of a jersey and a cheapening of what the military does for their country. Sean Highkin of USA Today said it best of camouflage jerseys after its unveiling, in that they “[have] never been a good idea for a pro sports jersey. Not once.” He goes on to say, “Well-intentioned or not, someone should have said no to these.” We couldn’t agree more, for everyone’s sake.
3 Sacramento Kings - Alternate Jersey (1994-1997)
Your guess is as good as ours as to how these jumped from the Pee-Chee portfolio of an unpopular 8-year-old in Elk Grove to Official NBA jersey. Okay, we made up the origin story… but if a child didn’t design this, then perhaps it was our earliest warning sign that things were wonky in Sacramento even before the Maloofs got there (they bought the team in 1998).
There isn’t a decade, a culture, or a subculture that could find these jerseys cool or good-looking. Two-tone is a bizarre concept for any kind of uniform, but could someone please explain why the two portions aren’t at least even? The purple side takes up about 54% of the jersey and so the whole crotch is purple, but only just barely. The black-and-white pattern on the side striping evokes a chessboard, but it’s obvious from the uniform that even checkers was beyond the scope of these higher-ups. Inexplicably, unless it was done to piss off the players or was part of an unmarked “Ironic Jersey Night”, the two-tone look was brought back for 10 games in 2013. According to the press release, the jersey was “Immortalized by fan favorites and team legends of yesteryear” and “remains an iconic piece of Sacramento Kings lore.” Take particular notice that the release never referred to the jerseys as good or tasteful… only that they were memorable. We would love to forget these, but the trauma just runs too deep.
1 Chicago Bulls - Chicago Stags Throwback Jersey (2005-06)
Honoring a franchise’s past is a commendable thing to do. However, when the past of a franchise is capable of making the fans in the stands queasy over aesthetics, a plaque will do. The Bulls marched out this calamity a total of 3 times during the 2005-2006 season to honor their predecessor in Chicago, the Stags of the 40s and 1950. So, to clarify, the Bulls wore these vomit-inducers even though the Stags are not the same franchise as the Bulls; they just happened to have played in the same city.
The uniforms themselves originally came at a time when games weren’t televised and color photography was not yet commonplace… and it shows. We have attempted to contact sources alive during this era to ask them if they also used to see in black and white, in hopes of understanding why someone could greenlight (or black-and-whitelight) these uniforms, but we have been rebuffed as of time present. It is pretty safe to say that mismatched jerseys and shorts should not happen. The two-tone look has very seldom ever come off even semi-decently, and even those instances had the built-in excuses of the 1970s and cocaine.
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