The most polarizing period history for NBA jerseys, and thus the most difficult period to navigate for those planning on giving hideous NBA jerseys as gifts, is the brief, lurid, relentlessly teal years of the late 1990s and early 2000s. This explosion of gaudy color schemes, outsized cartoon monsters loosed goofily from early-days Photoshop, and beyond-corny WordArt graphic fonts could only have taken place during the pre-Y2K peak of the dot-com boom. It was an optimistic time. A very teal time. A very, truth be told, laughably awful-looking time.
This is, mostly, not up for dispute: the era’s gaudier jerseys are widely reviled among NBA fans, for mostly obvious reasons. The NBA, however, has a different view on these large-logo’ed, dinosaur-afflicted jerseys, and plans to bring back several of these jerseys, both on the court and in the NBA Store, for this year’s version of Hardwood Classics night.
This suggests many things, none of them terribly good, about the people making decisions like this in the NBA. But it proves that, with enough distance, anything can be used as a source for nostalgia. The NBA fan in your life will be glad to know that there are plenty of these jerseys available on eBay. He or she may be less glad to receive those jerseys as gifts, but the holiday is rushing up, and these jerseys aren’t going to give themselves.
The Pistons’ 1997 teal makeover was, in large part, fueled by a desire to separate the nascent Grant Hill era from the several-years-gone Isiah Thomas era. Hill had proven through his first two NBA seasons that he had superstar potential, and the Pistons decided to get out in front of their new would-be dynasty by launching a new look to differentiate it from their past. There are Jerry Stackhouse jerseys of this vintage that you can buy on eBay, and various Stack-related reasons why you might want to buy those. But these particular jerseys are so closely tied to Hill’s tenure in Detroit that there’s truly only one viable option if you want to rock the Motor City teal.
Amazingly, these Pistons jerseys aren’t even the defining teal-based uniforms of their era. The creation of the Vancouver Grizzlies in 1995 represented the NBA’s bold expansion into Canada, and also the league’s bold expansion into teal. The iconic Vancouver Grizzly is, naturally Bryant “Big Country” Reeves, who (the legend goes) was himself part grizzly bear, albeit a bear with bad feet and a far worse haircut. Naturally, Reeves’ jersey is difficult to come by online. Still, this Shareef Abdur-Rahim replica more than delivers the teal-n-pinstripe goods.
Giant Cartoon Creatures of Varying Scariness Division
The NBA’s other Canadian expansion team went the opposite direction with their uniforms, following the trend of cramming every bit of blank space on the front of the jersey with an oversized cartoon monster. In the case of the Raptors, who named their team through a public vote at a time when everyone was way too into Jurassic Park, that monster wound up being a goofy basketball dinosaur.
The Raptors’ dinosaur wasn’t purple, but their uniforms were, and the association of “purple” with “dinosaur” didn’t necessarily make for a menacing combination. Because of this, these uniforms are both the most absurd and most frankly incredibly awesome of their era. Fortunately, you have plenty of buying options. Raptors legends Vince Carter and Tracy McGrady are staples and it’s tough to go wrong with either, despite their ubiquity. If you want something a deeper cut that delivers similarly a similarly garish colorway/logo confluence, you can rep the early careers of Damon Stoudamire and Marcus Camby.
The Bucks and Hawks were much more successful in their efforts to make their giant jersey creatures menacing. In some ways, their level of competence at this has contributed to the fact that their mid-‘90s uniforms are much harder to come by than the more outwardly comic Raptors. Still, you could do worse than to rep this Vin Baker Bucks classic or this timeless (and ambiguously aged) Dikembe Mutombo jersey.
Outsized Name-Focused Graphics Division
Because they wore them during their two NBA Finals appearances in 1997 and 1998, the Jazz’ giant mountain spread is present on some of the most iconic images of Karl Malone and John Stockton, even though their primes largely unfolded while both sported a more traditional look. (Traditional, that is, if you choose to overlook how batshit it is that there’s a team called “The Utah Jazz”) If you can somehow track down a Greg Ostertag jersey in this style, you will receive 500 Internet points, redeemable via TwitPic and virtual dap. Unfortunately, no such garment exists currently on eBay. Malone and Stockton jerseys are both solid and widely available options.
The most notorious giant name graphic jersey, however, is Houston’s cartoon-rocket-orbiting-a-basketball-with-a-sci-fi-font get-up. How you feel about these jerseys is probably indicative of how you felt about the broader NBA jersey scene of the late 1990s. Their introduction in 1996, and their replacement of the more classic look that the team had worn during its glory years, ushered in a highly disappointing era of the Rockets franchise. The two cornerstones of their 1994 and ’95 title teams, Hakeem Olajuwon and Clyde Drexler, were nearing the end of their primes by the time the new jerseys arrived. The two superstars they brought on to continue their dynasty-that-wasn’t, Charles Barkley and Scottie Pippen, were never able to put them back over the top.
This reversible home-and-road Barkley jersey is not only the most obvious gift option, it’s also sort of era-defining. I’m actually stunned that more teams haven’t tried to sell reversible jerseys since then. Could you imagine, say, a combination of the Miami Heat’s new all-white Christmas jerseys and their all-black alternates? Could you imagine it with an outlandishly large version of the Heat logo crowding the uniform number down around the navel? Could you imagine Kelvin Cato wearing it? Now you're imagining too much. Stop imagining that.
The Worst Jersey in NBA History Division
I should probably mention that I love all the jerseys I’ve mentioned so far, as well as most other jerseys every other NBA fan hates. I’m a huge fan of the Thunder’s controversial new dark blue alternates, for example; I can defend the acid-wash/tie-dye New Jersey Nets jerseys of the early-1990s if cornered. So it means something that even I can’t ride for the Sonics’ green-and-red jerseys from the late 1990s.
Part of my disdain for these jerseys is because the classic Sonics uniforms they replaced are my favorite NBA kit of all time. The color scheme, too, was perfect and memorable and cool. But even putting all that aside, these are just…no. No thanks. No thanks to these stupid cartoon pajamas.
There are plenty of Gary Payton and Shawn Kemp jerseys available in this style, but I won’t even link them because anyone willing to wear one of those out, even in the most extreme ironic-sartorial move, would be a disgrace to NBA fans, and would insult the league’s better sartorial angels. So here’s a Desmond Mason one.
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Sean Highkin is a staff writer for Hardwood Paroxysm, an affiliate of the ESPN TrueHoop Network. He contributes to the TrueHoop blogs Portland Roundball Society and Magic Basketball, as well as ESPN.com's Daily Dime NBA coverage. Follow him on Twitter at @shighkinNBA.