Professional basketball is pitching fans on place with its latest special-edition, locals-only jerseys.
Basketball, as you probably know, is the best sport. But if you need more evidence, here’s the proof: the fourth and final installment of Nike’s special-edition NBA team uniforms.
The previous releases had loose themes begging for some interpretation (“Association,” “Icon,” and “Statement”). This one is straightforward: “City.” All 30 teams are unveiling jerseys with logos and emblems that reference the place where they play. The new designs are loaded with details that only a local will get. The Cleveland Cavaliers jersey, for example, boasts “THE LAND” across its breast—another nickname for The CLE. The notes get subtler: The jersey also features a chevron whose shape hails from the giant Guardians of Transportation statues that grace the Lorain-Carnegie Bridge.
Nike gave the Milwaukee Bucks a Cream City jersey whose colors match the city’s famous local brick. There’s Buzz City for Charlotte and Rip City for Portland and Motor City for Detroit—pure honey for a certain kind of homer. (Incredibly, the Toronto Raptors jersey isn’t just a silhouette of court-side reporter Drake messing with a lint brush.)
The Memphis Grizzlies might have gone in a couple boring bear-related directions, or just given the shirt over to the Bongo Lady. But instead the team decided to go with a bold political statement: The minimalist black-on-white logo reads “Memphis” in the same underlined typeface as the “I Am a Man” protest posters used for the 1968 Memphis Sanitation Workers strike.
Most of the jerseys cite something concrete about the city’s history, people, or geography. So what’s going on with Atlanta’s jersey? It’s almost like the Atlanta Hawks and the Oregon Ducks are locked in a competition to come up with the first jersey that can double as a Star Trek uniform. The piping, logo, and numbers look like a brand concept designed by the Romulan Star Empire.
The league even asked Migos to write the official theme song for All-Star Weekend in February. That’s an obvious move in one sense. Migos is the best-selling hip-hop group in years, the biggest cultural export from Atlanta since Outkast, and utterly ubiquitous on the radio. But it would shock me if they were invited to play a Super Bowl halftime show.
Some teams threw complete bricks. The Los Angeles Lakers opted for a horrifying black reptilian print to honor Kobe Bryant (the Black Mamba, get it?). Across town, the Clippers failed to memorialize their historic Emoji War with Dallas. The Mavericks, for their part, say that their jersey’s blue-and-green piping is a call-out to the city’s distinctive neon skyline; okay, but those are just the team’s colors. Maybe Dallas still feels humble.
Some cities that get no love still got none: The Utah Jazz missed an opportunity to say something, anything, about SLC. Some cities that get way too much credit were too cool to participate: It’s practically a design law that you don’t mess with the Boston Celtics’ look.
But a few franchises, like Memphis, seized the opportunity to call attention to their fans and their causes. The Washington Wizards got a rebrand as the District of Columbia, which stands in sharp contrast to the racist logo and team name of D.C.’s professional football team name. Phoenix changed its team name to Los Suns. Two teams got Chinese characters and symbols to honor their diverse fanbases.
Nike "City" Edition uniforms for Golden State, Houston, Indiana and Los Angeles Clippers pic.twitter.com/8HlBRjXgXG— Aaron Dodson (@aardodson) December 27, 2017
Maybe it’s a cynical seasonal ploy to fans of Portland or Cleveland or Philadelphia—fans of both city and team—to go out and buy more stuff. The NBA could certainly use the boost. The league set an overall attendance record for the third straight year last season, but attendance declined for more than half of its teams. That’s a problem stemming from a number of factors, including dismal parity issues in the game itself. A pivot to cities won’t solve a problem like the champion Golden State Warriors. Even the refs have jumped on that bandwagon.
But at a time when the President of the United States is engaged in a war with black professional athletes (and football team owners are doing little to defend them), the NBA is embracing its fans for being black, for being Asian, and for being Latino.
Professional basketball sometimes involves secret in-bound pass plays that take 15 years to pull off, and that’s amazing. Professional basketball also means a league that, in 2017, is conspicuously welcoming to all its fans. It’s a gesture that really ought to be the bare minimum—but it’s welcome nonetheless.
At the risk of making too much of a merch scheme, it’s refreshing. Other sports agree.