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Nike and the Transformation of the Basketball Uniform

I don't recall exactly how I came across this Sole Collector interview with the Nike brain trust behind the strangely-printed uniforms Duke and some other schools sported this past season, but it's really fascinating. I wasn't a fan of Duke's jerseys, which basically looked like the players were sweating through their backs before the game even started, but they look a little better on, say, Pitt's road uniforms. The style began with the Beijing Olympics team, and the fabrication process seems kind of neat, but there were a couple of other things that jumped out at me:

That was huge for us, and then, the aerographics got to be so popular that we started to incorporate them for some of our elite colleges. We had to really take a risk in doing it, because the NCAA has massive regulations. Duke was one of the first schools that rolled out aerographics. We took a historic building on campus, and had to get involved with the administration to make sure we could use it. Some people were really mad about it, saying, "Hey, that's a church, what are you doing using that on a uniform?" So we had to be very direct in saying that we don't commercialize that exact image, and it's not going to be sold. When you get past that, the coaches and athletic directors came back to us and said, "You really captured the soul of the school on our back. It's great."

Interestingly enough, Duke does have a strict policy (PDF) related to the chapel, saying "Images of the Duke Chapel may not be used on apparel, or other products unless such products are to be used specifically for Duke Chapel functions, or by Duke Chapel staff." So you won't be seeing the sweaty backs on a replica jersey any time soon. Duke Chapel never struck me as a particularly immune from commercialism, however. It's in almost every commercial for the university and plastered all over the school's website. I just though of it as Durham's equivalent of the Old Well.

More interesting to me is the decrease in weight:

Then, last spring, we came out with the Hyper Elite uniforms, and that was a big shift for us. That's where we literally changed the fabrication of shorts for the first time ever. As long as we've lived, shorts have been some sort of satin or mesh, and they've always been heavyweight. We used to have a saying and think that "weight is value." You wanted to be able to pick something up and say, "Ok, I'm holding something substantial." Now, it's not always about heavyweight and it's not always about lightweight, it's more about right weight. You want something to feel authentic and real. We've changed fabric to a woven synthetic now, so we're no longer a knit. It's not rocket science that wovens are generally lighter than knits, but it was a major difference in how basketball players think.

Woven shorts have been around forever in soccer shorts, but to most basketball players when we first started showing them, they kept saying it didn't feel like a basketball short. What allowed us to make that big shift was base layer. That changed everything. When guys play ball for pickup, a lot of people might just wear boxers, but for these shorts, everybody has switched over to some sort of compression base layer. It might be padded or not, and we prefer that they're in Pro Combat of course [laughs], but we started to look at how they could work together. At first, it was strange for people because the shorts are so lightweight, but once they put them on and had their Pro Combat on underneath, guys were really falling in love with it. Kentucky was one of the first teams last year to get into it. They're a great barometer because they're very open and honest -- brash even.

My athletic purchases of late have all been geared towards running – I shaved a good three and a half minutes off my 10K PR on Sunday – so basketball seems behind the curve in the transition to lightweight fabrics. Also, I wouldn't be surprised to see compression shorts being built into the uniform in a couple of years, also a trend in running gear. The more tailored fit is also something long overdue, especially since jersey-grabbing in the paint is a time-honored defensive move. Of course, this leads to the contrast between the guys wearing the jerseys on the court and the much larger market of fans Nike would like to sell to, alluded in the piece by the interviewers mention of unathletic bloggers not being the best fit for perforated shorts. Nike has always made some questionable decisions when it comes to adapting items for retail; I bought a UNC sleeveless tech tee online to run in only to find that the interlocking NC logo was sewn into the shirt. It kind of defeats the purpose to have a fancy sweat-wicking shirt if you then plaster the chest with a chafing patch. I'd love to have a decent piece of UNC gear to run in, but they're nearly impossible to find.

The big question, however, is whether UNC is going to be sporting the sweat-back look any time soon. Nike is rolling it out everywhere:

NDP: Is the plan to keep the upper tier teams outfitted in the Elite uniforms, or will we see teams across the board wearing it at some point?

Nakel: The plan is certainly to spread it to everyone. If you're a promo team and you get uniforms issued to you from Nike, we'll plan to outfit you in Elite uniforms, definitely. We're also working to make it available to high school teams.

Bush: Christ The King is already jumping right into the Hyper Elite uniforms.

Nakel: Some of the high schools get treated almost as well as our colleges. [laughs] The fundamental shift is also trickling down into our retail line, and kids get it now. There was a period where people were saying, "Is this a board short?" [laughs] USA Basketball and all of our federations went to it as well at last summer's World Basketball Festival.

...but Carolina has always been a little special where this is concerned. Despite Michael Jordan's relationship with the company, UNC basketball didn't start being sponsored by Nike until the early nineties – as I recall, the rep for Converse was a Carolina basketball alum – and the school at large has always chafed a little at the relationship, with the soccer program sticking with Adidas until 2000. Add to that the fact that Alexander Julian has been designing UNC's basketball wear since introducing the argyle in 1991, and you're never sure when Nike's design changes hit Chapel Hill. Which I'm perfectly fine with, because again, the aerographics can look pretty bad from a distance.

Apropos of nothing, Julian has also redesigned the graduation gowns, because he didn't want his son walking in what he felt wasn't the true Carolina blue.