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Antoine Walker & the Return of Kentucky’s Denim Game Shorts

Last Updated: October 27, 2022
Learn how the on-court jorts from the 1996 National Champion Kentucky Wildcats are finally returning as a proper retro.

When the Kentucky men’s basketball team opens the season against Howard on Nov. 7, Big Blue Nation will see the Wildcats clad in their usual elite offerings from Nike.

27 years ago, their hometown team looked far different.

via Getty Images

“We were a Converse school,” Kentucky legend Antoine Walker told Boardroom. “Coach Pitino had a huge deal with Converse so they really laid it all out for us whether it was sweatsuits or shoes.”

Boasting nine future pros and often putting up over 100 points a night, the ’96 Wildcats lived up to all hype, going 34-2 while steamrolling through the NCAA Tournament.

Better yet? They did it in denim uniforms.

Crafted by Converse and worn for a single season, the Levi’s leaning look has evaded fans and collectors for a quarter century.

Wednesday night at 8 p.m. ET, 19nine is bringing back the decorated denim shorts in authentic home styling.

So, how did the shorts return to market and how did Employee #8 land in Lexington? Boardroom found out.

Walk Hard

Growing up in Chicago, 5-star forward Antoine Walker dreamt of wearing baggy shorts and black socks at Michigan.

Enamored by Steve Fisher’s pace of play and the path paved by local legend Juwan Howard, Walker’s serious skills and fun-loving attitude meshed perfectly with the Fab 5‘s flair.

“We all were following Michigan,” Walker said. “The impact they had with the baggy shorts and the black shoes? The whole culture and swag that they came with was something we gravitated towards.”

Having a handle despite power forward stature, an Ann Arbor arrival appeared perfect for Walker’s vision both culturally and on-court.

“I really wanted to go play point guard,” Walker said. “I played it on the AAU circuit and I was seeing who would recruit me as a point guard. Michigan had Jalen Rose at 6’8 so everything was geared towards them.”

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Instead, Walker followed in the footsteps of another unicorn.

“Jamal Mashburn was one of my favorite players growing up,” he said. “When I saw his style of play at Kentucky and their system? It just suited me more.”

Paying homage to his pro comp, Walker chose the Cats and wore Mashburn’s No. 24. Playing in Pitino’s pressing system was tough from the jump, but the Chicago kid quickly acclimated.

By the second half of his first season, he was playing big minutes, eventually earning SEC Tournament MVP honors.

“Everything took off from there,” Walker said. “Then going into the second year, there’s nine pros on the team. That summer we had our European trip to practice and build team continuity.”

After stamping his passport abroad, Walker and his teammates returned to Lexington.

via Getty Images

“You talk about nine or ten pros? Our practices during the season were better than the games,” Walker said. “Competitive, shit-talking, pushing each other. But the goal was to win an NCAA championship.”

Entering his sophomore season, Walker and The Untouchables were all about bringing a title to Big Blue Nation.

While it was Walker’s second season with the Cats, it was the team’s first full year decked out head-to-toe in Converse.

Previously, the heritage hoop company had acquired Apex One, outfitting the team in integrated looks that featured loud uniforms with shoes set to their school colors.

After Apex quickly folded under Converse, the Chevron-branded company looked to leverage total control of Kentucky’s rich history and promising talent by placing them in something disruptive.

Rather than rocking mesh tanks or durasheen shorts, they outfitted The Untouchables in all-over denim.

“It was dope, it was new, and it was unique,” Walker said. “Converse tried all types of stuff with us.”

Upending the sportswear space, The Untouchables danced all through March Madness in their unorthodox uniforms.

By defeating John Wallace and Syracuse, the powerhouse program won its first National Championship since 1978. Walker went pro along with Tony Delk, Walter McCarty, and Mark Pope. The next season, Pitino returned Ron Mercer, Derek Anderson, and more, once again reaching the NCAA title game.

While stars returned, the shorts were shelved.

Decades later, a company three hours away from Lexington is bringing back the denim threads that haven’t been seen in ages.

Recreating a Cult Classic

When 19nine creative director Matt Breivogel was tasked with producing 1-to-1 authentic game shorts less likened to dazzle durasheen and more in line with Lee Dungarees, he had to dig deep.

First, it was countless hours of photo-matching game shots on Getty Images. Next, it was reviving saved searches on eBay in hopes of finding an archival pair from the Converse collection.

via 19Nine

Then, he got desperate.

“I went to Hobby Lobby to get my hands on every type of denim,” Breivogel said.

Sending samples to a perplexed factory, Breivogel was able to include an authentic Walter McCarty jersey from the ’96 season for pattern and material matching. Attaching imagery and a broader vision, the creative director and manufactures were able to align the vault ethos of the heralded home shorts with slight shifts in stretch for wearability.

“We wanted a more modern aesthetic because the players said they wore pretty heavy denim on these back in the day. We went with a lighter weight denim with a bit of stretch that will wear a little better, lay a little nicer, and feel more comfortable.”

For those keeping track at home, the Legacy look for the ’96 Wildcats shorts serves as a sequel to 19nine’s replica road rendition from August.

As 19nine VP and co-founder Josh Barnett told Boardroom, the Evansville-based brand acquired Kentucky licensing rights in 2021. From there, the team began producing iconic looks dating back to the days of Jack Givens, Rex Chapman, and Mashburn.

However, it was all a warm up for the return of the denim look worn exclusively by The Untouchable team in 1995-96.

via 19Nine

“This was a different challenge for us because in all of college basketball history, one time someone has tried to put denim in the shorts,” Barnett said. “Literally, once.”

By bringing back a sublimated salute to the blue jean shorts, the fanfare was felt in Lexington and far beyond with pairs selling out instantly.

Still, purists pined for the Real McCoy.

“The first pair was great, but it still left people wanting more,” Breivogel said.

Salute Your Jorts

When it comes to college basketball folklore, few know it better than 19nine.

When it comes to The Untouchables, few can hold a candle to their dominance on court.

“I believe we have the greatest college team ever,” Walker said. “When you look at the margin of victory and the number of guys that were successful making it to the NBA? I feel like we were arguably the best team to ever play.”

via Getty Images

That’s what 19nine will be saluting Wednesday night when the shorts go live.

“We sold out of our sublimated pair in August,” Barnett said. “They were a great seller for us and it was a big deal. But the number one comment we got was, ‘Real denim?’ Now we can say, ‘Yes.’ Wear your Kentucky jorts proudly.”

In any other instance, the look would prove as hard to get as it was to recreate. Thanks to the goodwill of 19nine and the excitement surrounding college basketball’s season tip-off, they won’t be.

As a part of 19nine Madness, a kickoff event taking place on the brand’s site and social all week, the shorts will be available for a whole day via presale.

“There’s a 24-hour buy-in period for these so that everybody who wants a pair in whatever size they want? They can get it,” Barnett said.

Set to ship in the coming weeks, this launch sees storytelling through gold tipped drawstrings inscribed with Untouchables.

It’s an attempt to connect with Kentucky’s core base as well as the cult following 19nine has built in recent years through their own passion surrounding hardwood fashion and folklore.

“These are mythical shorts in the college basketball world,” Barnett said. “We know that even if we brought out 1,000 pairs, what if 3,000 people wanted them? That leaves more people wanting them than who got them.”

Fulfilling all fans, the Kentucky classic headlines another season for 19nine.

It also draws back to a statement season for the Wildcats and their former sponsor.

“Converse needs a lot of credit for putting an alternate uniform in play like that,” Walker said. “We were the first team to step out of the box a bit.”

via 19Nine

For the team down the road in Evansville, the work that went into these was similar to those competitive practices and just as much a journey when it comes to winning it all.

“That’s the challenge but also the really cool part of being part of 19nine,” Barnett said. “Yes, it’s a shit ton of work. Yes, there are a lot of headaches and a lot of back and forth. Yes, you find yourself at Hobby Lobby going through 18 different denim samples.”

“But when the product comes out and you nailed it like Matt [Breivogel] did? It makes it all worth it.”

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About The Author
Ian Stonebrook
Ian Stonebrook
Ian Stonebrook is a Staff Writer covering culture, sports, and fashion for Boardroom. Prior to signing on, Ian spent a decade at Nice Kicks as a writer and editor. Over the course of his career, he's been published by the likes of Complex, Jordan Brand, GOAT, Cali BBQ Media, SoleSavy, and 19Nine. Ian spends all his free time hooping and he's heard on multiple occasions that Drake and Nas have read his work, so that's pretty tight.