9 Feb 1997: Michael Jordan #23 of the Chicago Bulls walks on the court during the NBA All-Star Game at the Gund Arena in Cleveland, Ohio.The East defeated the West 132-120 .
SNEAKERS & FASHION

How the NBA Found its 50th Anniversary Style

As the Association goes all in on diamond branding to celebrate its 75th anniversary, we remember the golden makeover the league gave itself a quarter-century ago.

The 1996-97 NBA season was memorable for a myriad of reasons.

Starting in the summer with a draft that introduced superstars like Allen Iverson, Kobe Bryant, Steve Nash, and Ray Allen to a global fanbase, the campaign capped off with Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls bringing home their fifth title.

All this proved perfect timing for what was already planned: the celebration of the NBA’s 50th anniversary.

From patch placement to heritage homage, let’s celebrate NBA Jersey Day by taking a look back at how the league styled its golden year.

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A New Look for the Logo

While Jerry West spent the summer of 1996 courting Kobe Bryant, the NBA itself spent the summer mining new meaning at the core of the West Virginia native’s silhouette.

Kobe Bryant during his rookie season with the Lakers, 1996 (V.J. Lovero/Sports Illustrated via Getty Images)

Dipping the league’s logo in gold, each jersey for 1996-97 bore shiny, metallic branding, as did the shorts. In addition, player warmup uniforms and referee shirts sported the same logo with an expanded “NBA at 50” crest.

Not only did the players wear the legacy look on-court, but authentic jerseys and commemorative caps dropped at retail. To this day, merchandise made for the anniversary still strikes a chord with collectors.

“In the vintage community, that little gold patch is worth an extra couple bucks,” Michael Spitz, owner of Mr. Throwback, told Boardroom.

While the gold branding built the ethos for how the NBA adorned each item produced for the 50th anniversary, the league also paid homage to its rich history by outfitting historic franchises in threads from the past.

Turning Back the Clock

Before throwback jerseys were the toast of the hip-hop community and common cloth for ballers on and off the court, they were an experimental piece of the NBA’s 50th anniversary.

Over the course of the 1996-97 NBA season, historic franchises such as the Washington Bullets, Los Angeles Lakers, Philadelphia 76ers, Boston Celtics, and New York Knicks wore retro uniforms on-court.

Chris Webber as a member of the Washington Bullets, 1997 (Focus on Sport/Getty Images)

The Knicks were one of the few franchises who really leaned into the throwback look. For passionate fans of the team’s iconic history and apparel the same, they’re willing to go the lengths to score shorts and jerseys from that single season.

“I paid $1,250 for an Oakley jersey and have not seen another one,” recalls Spitz. “I met someone who got into the Knicks equipment manager’s house. They’re very plain, they’re blue with stripes on the side and the gold logo, they’re very minimal. There’s a pair on eBay now of the Sixers for $600. But it’s one year: 1996. So, if you want that gold logo? You’ll spend the money.”

The throwbacks on court allowed franchises like the Detroit Pistons the chance to pay homage to their Fort Wayne roots, while the Toronto Raptors told stories of their Huskies heritage.

Despite many of the retro looks being seldom seen in action that season, many of the jerseys made their way to market by way of Champion replicas released at the time, and Mitchell & Ness reproductions launched years after.

Holy grails for fans of Champion include the purple New Orleans Jazz Pete Maravich replica jersey released in 1996, as well as the very limited Champion pro-cut Michael Jordan cursive Chicago Bulls rookie authentic jersey. That MJ jersey saw only 200 units produced, sold exclusively at Carson’s department store in the Windy City.

Perhaps the most mysterious jersey made that season is the royal blue Kobe Bryant Los Angles Lakers jersey. Over the course of the 1996-97 NBA season, the Lakers only suited up in their throwback threads once.

That single occasion proved to be a rare DNP for the teenage rookie, meaning it never actually made it onto the court.

“That jersey is wild,” says Spitz. “That Kobe jersey right now is worth a ton of money. “

While the original Kobe jersey never saw a minute of NBA action, it does prove popular as a reproduction. Currently, Mitchell & Ness sells the gold logo version of the Mamba’s No. 8 jersey as a direct nod to the 1996-97 season.

The All-Star Apex

From a branding standpoint, the peak of the NBA at 50 was All-Star Weekend in Cleveland, Ohio.

Rather than rock uniforms in accordance with the host city, the league made the decision to have participants in both the Rookie Challenge and All-Star Game wear their gold-accented game uniforms for a colorful collage of talent on the court. Opposite the gold Jerry was an embroidered star patch with ’97’ inside of it.

Michael Jordan, Christian Laettner, Scottie Pippen, and Penny Hardaway at the 1997 NBA All-Star Game in Cleveland
(Brian Bahr
/Allsport)

At the time, it was strange.

Since then, it’s proven iconic.

In addition to the mismatching threads, the NBA brought together their list of the 50 greatest players ever, presenting them at halftime of the All-Star Game and decking them out in commemorative Jeff Hamilton-designed leather jackets.

The NBA’s 50 Greatest Players celebrate before the 1997 All-Star Game in Cleveland (Brian Bahr/Allsport)

As an encore, the league went on to release golden Champion replicas for active players who participated in 1997 ASW events.

The likes of MJ, Kobe, Iveson, Grant Hill, and Shawn Kemp were among those who saw their 1997-98 jerseys revised in gold mesh in replica form.

“They made the full gold jerseys which are pretty obscure and hard to find,” says Spitz. “They did Kobe, but no Shaq. Those are cool and they’re obscure for a collector. They did it for one year.”

In the time since, Mitchell & Ness has taken notes and paid homage. Recently, the throwback-based brand brought out golden swingman styles for the likes of Penny Hardaway, Scottie Pippen, and even Shaquille O’Neal.

Much of the buzz and bringback around the gold jerseys came from Drake, who famously donned a gold Jordan replica years after its debut.

Laying the Blueprint

For the 2020-21 NBA season marking anniversary No. 75, the league is looking to the future, while still continuing to be inspired by its past.

The diamond branding offers a fresh update to the gold logo look seen 25 years ago, while this year’s City Edition jerseys put throwback features in a blender for some remixed nostalgia.

Much of this has to do with Nike having the rights to NBA uniforms in 2021; Champion’s run as the official uniform provider for the entire league ceremoniously ended after the 1996-97 season. But as the NBA celebrates 75 years of excellence, it’s their half-century milestone that set the tone for the looks and logos that captivate the masses today.

And when it’s time to celebrate the Association’s 100th year, expect those golden days to have aged as well as ever.

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