What makes a great NBA uniform?
Fifty-five days after a sad-sack roster and its accompanying staff walked off the court in Charlotte, N.C., to end the worst season in NBA history, the Bobcats trotted out their three highest-profile players in a move meant to signify a fresh start.
Positioned in front of a white photographer's backdrop, Kemba Walker, Gerald Henderson and Bismack Biyombo wore uneasy grins and, for the first time, Charlotte's new home and away uniforms for the 2012-13 season. Gone were the pinstripes the trio had worn in 23 consecutive losses. In came a new color scheme, a new font package and a new look.
The franchise's design crew had taken much care in crafting a fresh identity -- one more bold and less Bob-y.
But real change takes more than a fresh coat of paint -- or even a grayed-out cat with a basketball attached to its face.
In the NBA, like most other professional sports leagues, identity is everything.
This team is defensive-minded; that one tries to outscore opponents. This team pushes the tempo; that one slows it down. This team is from a small market; that one is from a big market.
This team's a loser; that one's a winner.
And everyone can identify a winner.
The Celtics and Lakers, with 33 titles between them, aren't the easiest to peg. Through some cocktail of market size, shrewd management, competent ownership and requisite star power, these franchises have earned legacies as two of sports' preeminent winners. Along with that reputation comes a nostalgic lure to the team-specific aesthetics cultivated through years of heightened attention.
The Celtics' Irish imagery. The fancy mood lighting at Staples Center. The Garden's parquet floor. And, of course, the jerseys.
Both teams have widely celebrated looks -- so much that their attire has, for the most part, received only minor tweaks over the past several decades. But the jerseys weren't created equal.
While the Celtics deviate on occasion, thanks to the alternate-jersey fad, on most days they stick to the simple, green-and-white garb that pops visually -- especially at home, on the lighter parquet -- and serves as a nice nod to the city's cultural roots. A real beauty.
The Lakers are a bit more radical, using a purple-and-gold combo that, out of context, seems like an unsightly combo. But it works for them.
A large part of that is because the team is located in Los Angeles, a city associated with glitz and glamour. Stick this color scheme on the Milwaukee Bucks and it would be out there and ill-fitting. But these jerseys feel right on the Lakers mostly because it's really the only look we've seen them in for generations. The franchise kept the blue-and-white duds it brought from Minneapolis for its first few years in L.A., but it was well into its purple-and-gold stage once the championships began to funnel in. For the vast majority of the NBA-loving population, these are the Lakers.
A similar effect seems to be happening with the Oklahoma City Thunder. In a vacuum, the Okies have, by far, one of the worst looks in the league. The double-decker city name on the away tops, the bizarre black/blue/dark orange/light orange color scheme, the logo with the pointy & things sticking out of it -- it's all pretty rough. But many of us have grown so attached to this team in its accelerated leap from plucky upstart to Finals runner-up that it may be strange to see Kevin Durant & Co. in different shades. It sure isn't pretty, but it is the Thunder.
Charlotte is certainly among the admirers. Less than a decade after the Bobcats rebooted the NBA in North Carolina with orange-engulfed home jerseys, they now use orange only as an accent in a color scheme dominated by blue, one that looks pretty similar to the look sported by OKC. If that wasn't enough, the script on Charlotte's sharp, elongated font bears a strong resemblance to the one used by the Dallas Mavericks.
The Bobcats had good intentions, at least. While winning helps most matters that ail a franchise, including uniforms, finding the right fit for an aesthetic identity can be accomplished by drawing from cultural surroundings.
To wit: The Hornets, a fairly average club since moving to New Orleans, may not seem to have a particularly outstanding outfit. The pinstripes don't exactly mesh with this incarnation of the team, and they seem to be trying too hard with those newfangled side panels. But their locally inspired font and Mardi Gras-honoring alternates are tasteful ways to incorporate the city's flavor and culture. (The "Nola" alternates are garish, but, hey, it fits the locale.) The team's identity is its city, and the designers captured it nicely.
The Cats attempted to do the same, giving Carolina blue a prominent role in their new jerseys. But the ensemble as a whole looks lifeless, as if it's trying to be something it's not.
Actually, that look may fit the Bobcats' identity after all.
Justin Verrier is a writer/editor for ESPN.com's NBA section.
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