(Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)
SNEAKERS & FASHION

The Legacy of the Black Sixers Jersey

After a change in team leadership, Allen Iverson’s infamous Philly threads may be returning to the court. Learn how rebellious swag defined a city and continues to win at retail.

Earlier this week, the Philadelphia 76ers were the talk of social media amidst NBA free agency fever. The news had nothing to do with the contract of James Harden, nor MVP candidate Joel Embiid lobbying for movement. Rather, it was reports that the franchise’s famed black uniforms could be coming back.

Not only did the story from The Philadelphia Inquirer’s Matt Breen make noise during the loudest time of the NBA offseason, it cut through under the pretense that the beloved black uniforms may return. And not until fall of 2023, at that.

So, why would NBA Twitter and fans from Philly care so much about the off chance of an alternate uniform? Well, that’s because the Allen Iverson-endorsed threads were more than a moment.

They were quite literally a whole mood.

Born to Be Wild

In basketball, pundits often talk about talent born before their time. The ’90s three-point specialist who only attempted two deep balls a game. The ’00s stretch forward capable of covering four spots but demeaned as a tweener. While these analogies often focus on the hardwood, they apply to the front office just as much.

Meet Pat Croce.

An entrepreneur and self-help guru before social media, Croce embodied the evolving American Dream. Famed for his work with Charles Barkley and Julius Irving behind the scenes, the 76ers brought on Croce full-time in the early ’90s to assist Shawn Bradley.

Already accomplished thanks to selling his Sports Physical Therapists business in 1993 for $40 million, the touted trainer took his entrepreneurial spirit all the way to the Philly front office. In 1996, Croce came to be the 76ers team president and minority owner.

Owning his new role, Croce won the lottery that spring — bringing home the No. 1 pick in the 1996 draft. Taking a gamble on another free spirit who took an unconventional path, Croce selected Allen Iverson. In a matter of months, Iverson became the heart of Philly and the talk of the league. Croce had his guy, but the 76ers needed an aesthetic to match.

Image via Goldin Auctions

Croce’s counterculture instincts led him to abandon Philly’s patriotic pantones the team had toted since 1963. Playing off his Harley Davidson bike, Croce elected brazen black uniforms made metallic by platinum and gold accents. If Iverson brought big jewelry to the tunnel, Pat placed similar sentiments on the court. To bring it all into life, he called on then-NBA creative director Tom O’Grady to whip up something radical.

“Pat was definitely cut from a different cloth from a lot of the owners we would deal with,” O’Grady told Breen. “I think he kind of looked at the Sixers a little bit like Al Davis looked at the Raiders. I think he wanted this snarly, bad-ass, Philly’s-a-tough-town kind of idea.”

In Iverson’s sophomore season, he’d rock cornrows and wear the black uniforms for every road outing. Small in stature, huge in heart, he’d hear it all from opposing fans while donning the dark tanks. But that year, the 76ers finished with a losing record and traded franchise fixture Jerry Stackhouse.

It was easy to question both Croce and the Answer. As time revealed, both bets were right.

Crossover Success

In 1997, the league wasn’t ready for Iverson, and the Sixers weren’t ready to win. By the year 2000, all that changed.

Heading into his fourth season, the former Rookie of the Year was now an All-Star with a scoring title to his name. In 1999, Iverson led the 76ers to the playoffs for the first time since Sir Charles bolted to the Suns. In 2000, he did it again.

Allen Iverson with the 2000-01 Philadelphia 76ers (Bob Rosato/Sports Illustrated via Getty Images)

As the 2000-01 season approached, Croce’s confidence in his franchise player and franchise trajectory had proof of concept. Ahead of the home opener, the Sixers doubled-down on identity by amending the infamous black jerseys in the image of Iverson. The Harley Davidson design drifted from black leather to black top, taking on cut-off shoulder styling and dazzling durasheen.

It was a call to the culture, favored by Iverson from his days at Georgetown to his scissor-altered shooting shirts. Years prior, Jordan Brand brought the same flavor to Cincinnati, another team with tough guy appeal thanks to Bob Huggins and Kenyon Martin. Additionally, the new satiny Sixers shorts were both baggy and shiny, seeing the same swag as the Fab 5.

Shifting the style for the 2000-01 season proved perfect timing. In fortuitous fashion, Iverson took home MVP honors and the 76ers made their first NBA Finals since 1983. Additionally, Aaron McKie was named Sixth Man of the Year, Dikembe Mutombo earned his fourth Defensive Player of the Year crown, and Larry Brown became Coach of the Year for the first and only time in his career.

And just like that, one of the league’s most radical rebrands was validated.

The Blue Period

Following the 2001 Finals, in which the 76ers fell to the Los Angeles Lakers, Croce parted ways with the team. Though Iverson remained a fan favorite and perennial All-Star starter, tension with Coach Larry Brown continued to mount, with Iverson eventually becoming a Denver Nugget and Brown winning a championship with the Detroit Pistons.

Nevertheless, the uniforms endured. Around the world, fans of all origins bought black Sixers jerseys bearing Iverson’s name and No. 3. The sleeveless style stayed a staple for Philly up until the 2008-09 season when the team slightly shifted the cut. By that time, Bubba Chuck was long gone, with Lou Williams and Andre Igoudala carrying the torch.

In the year that followed, the team took it way back to the early days of the franchise, returning to red, white, and blue branding. “The Process” started, with losing for lottery’s sake killing the threads’ cache. On top of that, then-team president of business operations Chris Heck told Uni-Watch that he “absolutely despised” Croce’s concoction, saying they’d never come back.

All the while, the black Iverson jersey remained relevant in throwback life. On the likes of NBA Store and Mitchell & Ness, the 1997 and 2001 versions of the Iverson road jersey remain popular despite debuting decades ago.

Even over the course of the 2021-22 NBA season, Iverson had the highest-selling NBA jersey in the entire state of Pennsylvania. Outside of Philly, the appetite for early-2000s fashion makes said style a fixture in modern pop culture.

If Breen’s reports reveal a return to the black uniforms for the 2023-24 season, the nostalgia factor could captivate the city and prove a breadwinner once again. With Chris Heck now out of office, the David Blitzer-backed team has the chance to optimize the black jerseys on court and online. Because the NBA has licensing deals with Nike and Fanatics, the throwbacks could catch fire on players like Embiid, Maxey, and Harden, while still doing Mitchell & Ness numbers by way of Iverson.

More prophecy than process, Croce’s counter-culture decision to draft Iverson and invert the ethos of the Sixers is one that still resonates with fans. As the 76ers look to return to the NBA Finals for the first time since Iverson did it in the black jerseys in 2001, maybe a retro return is just the spark they need.

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