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Basketball Uniforms are Getting Sleeves

Assessing a sports sartorial shift


Basketball uniforms have gone through lots of changes over the years. The shorts have gotten longer, the socks have gotten shorter, and old-school cotton cloth has given way to high-tech performance fabrics. One thing, though, has stayed the same: Basketball jerseys don’t have sleeves.

Until now, that is. In the NBA, the Golden State Warriors have worn sleeved jerseys for a handful of games in February and March, and more NBA teams are expected to follow next season. Meanwhile, three college teams -- Baylor, UCLA, and Louisville -- have unveiled sleeved jerseys for their recent conference tournaments. It's an odd visual effect, not so much because there's anything objectively wrong with it, but because it's not how a basketball uniform is "supposed" to look. It just doesn't compute.

All of which brings up an obvious question: Why don't basketball uniforms have sleeves? Mainly because there's no need for them. The game is played indoors and the players get super-sweaty, so why bother with extra fabric? Think of other men's sports played in indoor gymnasiums: wrestling, volleyball, gymnastics -- athletes competing in those sports usually don't wear sleeves either.

There have been exceptions, however. An early pro basketball team, the Sheboygan Red Skins, wore sleeved jerseys in 1941. So did the 1946-47 Boston Celtics and a smattering of college teams. For the most part, though, sleeved jerseys have been a seldom-seen novelty on the basketball court.

So why are we suddenly seeing sleeves now? Simple: Jersey retailing has become a huge revenue stream in the sports world, and there are lots of fans who'll gladly buy and wear football or baseball jerseys but will think twice about wearing a tank top. By offering a basketball jersey that's basically a glorified T-shirt, teams should see a lot more action at the cash register.

Sleeves also open up a lot of design possibilities. The problem with basketball uniform design has always been that there's so little real estate to work with: There are no sleeves, no long pants, no headwear, and you're required to put a uniform number on the front and back, which limits your visual options. But once you add sleeves to the equation, you can add stripes, patches, logos -- basically all the stuff that shows up on other sports' uniforms.

And yet, and yet… it just doesn't look like a basketball uniform. Part of it is that the players normally wear sleeved practice shirts (also known as shooting shirts) for pregame warm-ups. So when you see the sleeves, your brain instinctively thinks, "Okay, don't take this seriously, it's just warm-up time, not an official game." It doesn't exactly help that the new sleeved jerseys have all been paired with pajama-striped shorts, which makes it hard to take the whole package seriously.

Still, maybe we just need to get used to the idea. After all, basketball shorts used to be short, a look that most fans now view as being ridiculous. Maybe we'll one day be saying the same thing about tank tops.