Roman Mars: This is 99 percent invisible I’m Roman Mars.
RM: On a March afternoon in 1996, the Toronto Raptors, a brand new team in the NBA at the time, were playing the Chicago Bulls. (basketball game plays in background) The Bulls were the best team in the league; and the Raptors were pretty terrible.
Whitney Jones: 36,000 fans showed up that day; and the Raptors actually beat the Bulls, but it was a mostly meaningless game at the end of the season.
RM: This is reporter, Whitney Jones.
WJ: And what’s so interesting to me about this game isn’t who won or how the two teams played, but the way they looked. There’s the Bulls, who are just classic NBA. They’ve had the same logo since 1966, they’re wearing their red away jerseys that look basically like every Chicago Bulls jersey ever. It’s red with the word “Bulls” written across the front in black and white lettering. It’s simple. Classic. But then, there’s the Toronto Raptors.
(synth music plays)
RM: The team is wearing their white home uniforms, which have jagged silver and black pinstripes as if they were cut by slashing raptor claws, and then across the whole front there’s a giant red basketball-playing dinosaur, who himself is wearing sneakers and a uniform (a totally different uniform!) and he’s dribbling a basketball.
WJ: And that was just their home uniform. Their road jerseys that year were even more fun…they were bright purple!
RM: All of this – including the Raptor’s name had been inspired by the velociraptors in the wildly successful movie, Jurassic Park.
WJ: But these jerseys got compared to a different, much friendlier 90s dinosaur.
MUSIC: “Barney is a dinosaur from our imagination, he’s big and tall and what we call a dinosaur sensation.”
Paul Lukas: That’s now known as the Barney design because their road uniform was purple.
WJ: This is Paul Lukas, uniform obsessive and writer of a column at ESPN called UniWatch.
PL: It just it looks so cartoonish and so ridiculous. You look at it it’s like, really that’s a professional like top level team?!
WJ: The Raptors jersey may have been particularly garish, but it wasn’t the only jersey of its kind. The 90s were this insane decade for NBA uniform design that produced some of the wildest jerseys that have ever graced a basketball court: Loud, wacky designs the likes of which had never been seen before and haven’t been seen since. Like the Atlanta Hawks red and black jersey with a fierce-looking Hawk swooping in across the entire front of it, holding a basketball in its little talons. Or, the Milwaukee Bucks green uniform with a giant picture of a purple stag. Paul Lukas called this one “great!”
PL: It was great in the sense that it was so awful it was great. They had this garish purple and green color pattern and it just looks ridiculous. But, it definitely all these designs definitely they pushed and extended the idea of what a basketball uniform could be or should be.
RM: And many of these designs can be traced back to one man.
TO’G: I’m Tom O’Grady. I joined the NBA in 1990 as the league’s first Creative Director.
WJ: Tom grew up in Chicago, sketching and re-sketching the logos of his hometown Chicago Blackhawks and other classic pro-hockey teams. Tom’s love for sports and eye-catching art made this new NBA gig a dream job.
TO’G: My first day at the NBA was just filled with excitement. I had always been a big sports fan, and I loved design, and had studied design here at Columbia College back in Chicago. And so when I walked in the door in June of1990, I kind of had to pinch myself because I really didn’t believe what was happening.
RM: Before Tom O’Grady joined the league, most NBA jerseys looked something like that classic Bulls jersey. They had simple two or three color schemes, with the team names across the front. There might of been a stripe here or there, maybe a cool font, but that was about it. And they weren’t designed by designers.
TO’G: The process of designing team uniforms was mostly left up to team equipment managers because they were responsible for getting the players outfitted to play the games.
WJ: Mostly this consisted of the equipment managers flipping through a catalog and choosing a design they liked with the right colors.
TOG: It was not a sophisticated business, let’s say that; and they were happy just to get uniforms on the players’ backs.
RM: But that was all about to change. Because in 1988, the Charlotte Hornets introduced a radical new idea. The color teal.
(Archival from Hornets Press Conference)
WJ: In this archival news footage from 1988, Hornets player Kelly Tripucka stands on a stage in front of flashing cameras and then rips off his teal tear-away warm-ups to reveal the Hornets new uniforms.
RM: Teal was not a traditional NBA jersey color.
TO’G: It’s not “NBA Red” it’s not “NBA Blue” it’s not “Celtics green” it’s not “Lakers yellow”…
WJ: Tom O’Grady had nothing to do with the teal Hornets uniform, but he took it as a sign that the league was ready for bolder designs.
TG: It was it was a kind of a leap of faith for the league to say you know this is not really something we’ve seen before, but as an expansion team we’ll probably let you have this one because maybe there’s something we can learn from this.
RM: And it turned out fans LOVED the teal Hornets jersey. It looked fresh and different.
TG: It was really very popular, they soon became known as the “men of teal” and all of the sudden the Charlotte Hornets had gained great recognition before they’ve ever played a basketball game.
RM: When Tom O’Grady was hired as the NBA’s first creative director two years later, in 1990, he wanted to push jersey design even further. Not the just the colors, but the designs on the uniforms.
WJ: Until the early 90s, there had been real limits to how wild you could get these designs. Because all of the details: the numbers, the names, the logos, had to be sewn on. To do any kind of complicated graphics, it would have taken a massive amount of embroidery.. All that thread would have added additional weight and made the jersey hotter to wear.
RM: But soon after Tom O’Grady joined the NBA, he would get some new tools to work with. Computer programs like Photoshop and Illustrator helped him dream up new logo designs, and there was a new technique to get those drawings onto a jersey. It was called Dye Sublimation.
TO’G: Sublimation changed everything.
RM: Sublimation is a process of printing dye directly into the fabric.
WJ: Now for the first time you could design something in Photoshop, you could make it big, and you could add a bunch of different colors, then with sublimation you could basically print that design straight onto the material, without any embroidery or any extra weight.
TO’G: So, it allowed us to start to take things we would never normally even consider doing on a jersey and we started doing more outrageous uniforms and stuff because we could.
RM: We can, so we will!
WJ: Tom’s first big design was for the the Phoenix Suns, who were celebrating their 25th year in the league. They were moving into a new arena, and they wanted a new look. And so Tom met with the team owner Jerry Colangelo.
TO’G: Jerry was great. He was a fellow Chicagoan and so as soon as he heard my chicago accent and he says, “I think we’re going to get along—us chicago guys kind of get this.” He goes, “here’s what I want to do…” I want to have a logo that’s going to last for the next twenty five years I don’t want to have to change it, so I want something futuristic but classic.
WJ: So Tom and his team start in on the Suns redesign. They come up with this big basketball that’s also a sun. It has these long red-to-orange gradient sun-rays coming off it, and then they print this and a bright purple background onto their new jersey.
RM: It’s not exactly what I would call classic, but bold! Definitely bold!
WJ: As luck would have it, the Phoenix Suns made it to the NBA Finals that year, and the whole country got to see that bright purple jersey, with its blazing basketball sun, all over national TV.
TO’G: We got exposure for that uniform that was priceless. That changed everything for us. We were able to do things with uniforms that we could not imagine even two years previously.
RM: Like a teal Detroit Pistons jersey with a flaming horse head logo! Or a pinstriped Houston Rockets jersey featuring a cartoon rocket with an angry face on it!
WJ: Over the course of the decade, 2/3 of NBA teams got new uniforms with new logos and new color schemes. There was a lot of teal and purple. 3D lettering and oversized graphics were everywhere.
TO’G: We look back on it and say, “Wow, some of this stuff was pretty outlandish.” But that’s okay because that’s was what was happening at the time. The technology let us go wild.
WJ: And Tom’s boss, NBA commissioner David Stern, gave him the freedom to keep pushing the designs further.
TO’G: He said, “You know if this is what’s selling, and if you’re telling me this is what will work at retail, count me in.”
WJ: Before the 90s, the NBA wasn’t doing much with merchandising. If a fan wanted to buy a jersey, they had to pay the full cost of a genuine, stitched NBA game jersey, which was sometimes over $200 But with all these popular new designs, Tom and others at the NBA got thinking.
TO’G: Why don’t we, you know, have a jersey that we can sell for about $45-50 that looks similar to the game jersey?” And we saw this business explode. You know, in five years it went from almost like a baseline of nothing to a multimillion dollar business largely on the jerseys that we were designing.
WJ: The era of outlandish NBA uniforms reached its apex in 1995 with that Jersey we talked about at the beginning, that one from from Toronto; the one some people call the Barney design.
TO’G: We were told directly by the team owner at the time John Bitove, “I would like the Happy Meal box of uniform designs.” and we kind of looked him puzzled like, “What did he mean by that?” he said, “I’m not going to wear this uniform forever, and you know, kids don’t eat out of a Happy Meal box forever but if you can get the kids into your store, you’re going to win em over.”
RM: If “Happy Meal design” isn’t a term yet, i’m making it one right now.
WJ: The goal was to convince hockey-loving kids in Toronto that they should care about this new basketball team.
TO’G: So we created this purple uniform with these jagged edge claw pinstripes that look like a raptor had come and ripped it.
WJ: And then they slapped a big dinosaur right in the middle of it, and made it red, because…Canada!
TG: He wanted a red raptor to represent Canada, which made all the sense in the world.
RM: I don’t know how much sense that made, but that jersey? It sold!
TO’G: I think it was the top selling expansion team logo we ever did, even today. The sales were through the roof.
WJ: Before they ever played a game, before the team had even signed a single player, the Raptors were 7th in the league in merchandise sales.
RM: But as the 90s came to an end, change was a foot. And stuff was about to ge a lot more.. boring.
WJ: By the early 2000s the NBA, had become a booming global industry, and wealthy business people were suddenly interested in team ownership. People like Howard Schultz who had turned Starbucks into a multi billion dollar business. In 2001, Schultz bought the Seattle Supersonics; and he came into the league with a whole laundry list of changes to make: He wanted to replace the hip hop you’d hear in the arena on game night with jazz. He wanted his team to “stick to the fundamentals”, less flashy dunks and showboating. He favored “team basketball” over individual stars, which was actually really bad for the team because it pissed off their actual stars.
RM: Also, Schultz hated the Sonics 90s look that had been designed by none other than our pal Tom.
TO’G: We were able to take this kind of basketball spinning around the Space Needle and kind of have this Superman font, and added the word Sonics in there.
WJ: And they changed the colors from green and gold to dark green, red, and a metallic bronze.
RM: Old Howard “jazz instead of hip-hop” Schultz was not a fan. And so he hired Seattle design firm Hornall Anderson to completely remake the Sonics graphic identity: jerseys, warmups, logos, everything.
Andrew Wicklund: I shit my pants I was so damn excited.
WJ: This is Andrew Wicklund, who was the lead designer on the project
AW: I hated what the Sonics looked like at that time too, and a lot of other teams frankly that had been rebranded in the 90s so yeah, it was it was like kid in a candy store.
WJ: The direction they were given was clear…immediately go back to the old classic green and gold color scheme and do something “iconic.”
AW: Howard’s words were “I want this to be something that nobody would ever want to change. I want it to be the Chicago Cubs, the New York Yankees, the Green Bay Packers.” Those are solid shapes, simple shapes. They are simple color palettes. It’s simplification is its strength.
WJ: By the start of the 2001 – 2002 season, everything was in place. Green and Gold. No 3D anything. No giant logos across the chest. The uniforms looked like an update of the ones they’d started wearing in the late 70s.
RM: But if Howard Schultz was committed to making the Sonics an iconic franchise with an iconic look, his commitment didn’t last very long. In 2006 he sold the team, and the new owners moved the Sonics to Oklahoma City.
WJ: But Schultz’s aesthetic vision rippled throughout the league. Throughout the aughts, one team after another, slowly returned to the old color schemes and lost their big graphic jerseys.
RM: Even the Raptors look has completely changed. This year the two main jerseys were Red and white, and they just say Raptors on the front in a simple font. No crazy claw marks, no dinosaurs.
TO’G: It’s like, I’ve seen better intramural jerseys at a college.
WJ: Here’s Tom O’Grady again.
TO’G: They’re just there’s nothing to them. There’s a zero. They’re lifeless. And I don’t get it.
RM: Say what you will about Tom O’Grady’s jerseys, but they were not lifeless. His designs are mostly gone from the NBA now, but they live on in blog posts, and listicles of people’s favorite jerseys from NBA history…or their least favorite. In their 2015 list of the ugliest basketball jerseys of all time, Sports Illustrated wrote “The Toronto Raptors cartoon dinosaur logo is one of the worst in all of sports. Thankfully, it will soon be extinct.”
WJ: But Tom doesn’t mind when people call his designs garish, or even ugly. He’s proud of that Raptors jersey.
TO’G: It was meant to be provocative. It was meant to be kind of eye catching. We could have taken and started out with you know, 72 point Helvetica that says Toronto and a big number on the back and call it a day; but I think that would not have been a memorable identity nor a great way to introduce a new team into a new market.
WJ: And if people are still talking about it, then he did his job, right?
TO’G: I’m fine with the criticism about people thinking it’s the worst thing ever because it certainly says, “Hey you know, we noticed it, we have an opinion about it, we have a strong opinion about it, but we remember it.” And I think that’s great.
WJ: And the Raptor’s original plan to hook kids with the Happy Meal of NBA jerseys, love it or hate it, you could argue that it worked. Today Toronto has a loyal fanbase, and over the past 5 years have some of the highest attendance numbers in the league.
RM: And as for those bold 90s jerseys, they haven’t actually gone extinct. There are now entire companies that produce retro jerseys ,and many of the designs Tom O’Grady and his team came up with are really popular. And one of the top sellers is a bright purple jersey with the jagged claw-cut pinstripes and a red dinosaur, dribbling a basketball.