- Paul Lukas
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By now we've all gotten used to pink uniforms, camouflage uniforms and all sorts of other unconventional uniforms. But the people attending the FANS Retro Classic high school basketball tournament in Nashville last Friday and Saturday saw something that hadn't appeared on a basketball court in half a century.
Hume-Fogg High School, which played Friday, and Hunters Lane High, which played Saturday, were both wearing jerseys covered in black and orange polka dots:
Those uniforms, as odd as they may seem, are actually rather tame compared to the design that inspired them. That uniform was worn about 50 years ago by a Nashville high school that no longer exists, Madison High. As you can see in the slideshow below, the dots on the Madison uniforms were larger and more numerous, and they spread to the team's shorts and socks, making it look like the players had the measles. It's arguably the most unusual uni design ever to appear on a basketball court:
The story behind this design, and how it was resurrected this past weekend as a throwback (albeit in a somewhat watered-down form), is the capper to a feel-good story that has helped bring together several generations of Nashville sports fans while raising money for the city's scholastic sports programs.
First, some quick background: Like many large school districts, the Nashville educational system has consolidated in recent years, with several schools being merged out of existence. So Mark North, a local attorney and the founder of the Foundation for Athletics in Nashville Schools (FANS), came up with the idea of a throwback basketball tournament with current schools wearing the old uniforms of schools that are no longer operating. As North envisioned it, this would accomplish three things: It would provide a trip down memory lane for local alums of the schools that have been closed; it would teach today's student athletes about their city's athletic history and heritage; and it would raise funds for Nashville sports programs. A win-win-win.
The result was the FANS Retro Classic, a two-day tournament that took place Jan. 4 and 5. It's a nice idea, and it probably would have remained a local story if not for one thing: those crazy polka dot uniforms, which are sort of famous in Nashville.
"I attended Madison High School in the 1980s, and I was on the basketball team," said North. "The polka dots were long gone by that time, but we knew about them -- everyone did. It was part of the local history." So when North came up with the idea for the throwback tournament, reviving Madison's polka dots was a no-brainer. (He decided not to include the polka dot shorts and socks, though, because that would have been too expensive.)
"I've talked to some of the old players from those days," North said. "I'd ask them, 'Didn't you feel sort of silly wearing that thing?' And they'd say, 'Not when we were winning!' And the fact is, they were pretty good for most of that period."
The polka dots, which were worn from about 1960 through 1962, were the brainstorm of Madison's coach at the time, Bill Brimm. The party line is that he simply wanted his team to "look a little different" and maybe help put his program on the map. He certainly achieved that -- shortly after the polka dots debuted, the uniforms were the subject of a small piece in Sports Illustrated.
Bill Brimm is now 89 years old and still lives in Nashville. Speaking in a deep Tennessee drawl that sounds like the aural equivalent of bourbon mixed with tobacco, he comes off like a courtly Southern gentleman straight out of central casting. Except most Southern gentlemen don't spend much time talking about polka dots.
"I'm very proud of that uniform," he said. "I wanted my teams to look better than anybody else's teams. And let me tell you, it got a lot of recognition around town. People would pack the gymnasium just to see those polka dots."
But wouldn't other teams and their fans give the Madison players a bit of trash talk?
"Oh yes, they would do that," he said. "In fact, some teams would say they wouldn't play against us, because they thought the polka dots were too distracting and gave us an advantage."
Hmmm. And was that the idea all along?
Brimm chuckled. "Actually, it might have been." Although we spoke on the phone, I could almost feel him winking.
Brimm isn't the only character from this story who spans multiple generations. Incredibly enough, the man who produced the original spotted uniforms half a century ago -- Joe Bingham of Nashville Sporting Goods -- is still working, and he produced the throwback set as well.
"For the throwbacks, we screened the dots on," said Bingham. "But for the original set back in the ’60s, each dot was individually sewn onto the jersey. And let me tell you, it took a long time for the people at the factory to get through their skulls that we really wanted polka dots on there."
There have been a few speed bumps along the way. The design would violate today's high school uniform regulations, for example, so FANS had to get a waiver from the Tennessee Secondary School Athletic Association.
And there was another issue to consider: What would today's teenagers, who like to have a uniform that looks "tight" and intimidating, think of a uniform that looks, well, sort of twee?
"Actually, their main concern was about the shorts," said David Givens, the coach at Hume-Fogg, one of the two schools that wore the spotted throwbacks. "'The shorts, coach, what are the shorts gonna be like? Are they gonna be short-shorts?' And I told them they'd be more modern, so they were glad to hear that. I don't think they worried too much about the polka dots." (Sure enough, according to this article about the tournament, the players seem to have been surprisingly OK with the jerseys.)
In the end, the FANS Retro Classic raised about $3,000 and helped forge a uniform-driven connection across generations. "There was a grandfather there who was wearing his son's letterman jacket, and a girl wearing her father's basketball jersey," said Mark North. "Actually, my daughter was wearing my high school football jersey."
And there was one very interested observer on hand: Bill Brimm, the originator of the polka dot uniform. How did he feel when he saw that design on the court again after all these years?
"Well, I was a little disappointed, because the uniform wasn't quite like mine," he said, referring to the shorts and socks. "I thought mine was a little better!" Then he paused, and I could feel him winking again.
"I'm just kidding," he said with a chuckle. "It really was great to see those polka dots out on the court again. It brought back a lot of memories. But I'm a little prejudiced about my design, you know -- I thought my version looked better."
(Special thanks to Mike Organ, Jeff Hunter and High School Glory Days for their invaluable research assistance on this column.)
Paul Lukas has never owned an article of clothing with polka dots. If you liked this column, you'll probably like his daily Uni Watch web site, plus you can follow him on Twitter and Facebook. Want to learn about his Uni Watch Membership Program, be added to his mailing list so you'll always know when a new column has been posted, or just ask him a question? Contact him here.