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Shaun Powell

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After sporting the short-shorts his first few seasons, Michael Jordan went to the long shorts look in 1989.
NBAE via Getty Images

Jordan's fashion move helps basketball grow into new era


Posted Jul 20 2011 11:58AM

There was once an NBA player, who shall remain nameless to protect him from embarrassment, who accidently put both legs through the same opening of his shorts as he was getting dressed for a game.

We mention this to clarify a few amazing facts:

One: Not everyone puts his pants on one leg at a time.

Two: The player's shorts were roomy enough to squeeze two legs through one opening without him noticing right away.

Had Michael Jordan not changed basketball fashion forever, this wardrobe malfunction would have been humanly impossible. The player in question would've suffered a potential career-ending injury had he tried that in the short-shorts days, pre-1988.

Basketball is once again tremendously indebted to Jordan for changing the game (or at least how players appear in games). You're more likely today to find an NBA player's arm without tattoos than to find a player in a pair of shorts with a one-inch inseam.

That's especially true now, considering nobody ever developed John Stockton's taste for nostalgia. Stockton, you may recall, was the lone stubborn holdover when baggy shorts became the norm. That seems about right, considering his game was straight out of the 1950s and he naturally had to look the part.

You've heard the old saying about how what was once popular will soon be popular again? Well, short-shorts are not boomeranging back. Never. Again. Jordan will make a comeback before short-shorts (did you see him, at 48, Video soar at the Bobcats' fantasy camp last week?).

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John Stockton (left) was the last player to go with the short-shorts over the MJ-inspired long ones.
Fernando Medina/NBAE via Getty Images

At least give the short-shorts their due: They outlasted most NBA fashion trends. The first shorts actually were fastened by a belt, which is the last thing you'd expect to see on a basketball player. There were other, now-outdated ideas, like knee-high socks with the multi-colored rings. There were white Chuck Taylors, 'fros, headbands (although those have come back) and wristbands.

And don't forget about gold chains. There was a time, in the 1970s, when the clanging of chains was noisier than the squeaking of sneakers. Darryl Dawkins wore so much gold around his neck, he deserved to be mined. The league eventually outlawed jewelry, and Tiffany's wept.

After Allen Iverson debuted his cornrows at the 2001 All-Star Game, everyone had to have a head full of twists. But now? They're all but gone, with players trending in the opposite direction and wearing their hair short-short.

But the real short-shorts stuck around until Jordan discovered he didn't have enough room to wear his University of North Carolina shorts underneath his Bulls shorts.

The legend about Jordan and the shorts is mostly true: In order to stay close to his alma mater, so to speak, he needed more space. So he approached Champion, then the NBA's apparel-maker and outfitter, through the Bulls and asked that his shorts be wider and longer. Plus, since Jordan tugged at his shorts when he tired, he risked pulling them down below his waist. Although, in a coincidental twist, this is the fashion rage today: teenagers wearing sagging pants which expose more than we're willing to see.

"It's just something that seemed more natural, more comfortable to me," Jordan said many years ago. "They felt great."

Jordan also appeared in several Nike commercials with Spike Lee wearing the roomy shorts. Jordan was emerging as an icon and trend-setter among kids both inside and outside city limits and the commercials caught on nationally. So did the shorts, albeit slowly, in the NBA.

For the 1989 season, Jordan was the only player with the specific-tailored shorts. Then his teammate, Scottie Pippen, requested a pair. That offseason, the idea caught fire.

"It was a league-requested change, based on feedback from the players," said Cathy Marchant, the senior marketing manager for Champion. "The equipment managers of each team requested new shorts."

The change was felt in college when UNLV went baggy, too. The Fab Five from Michigan took the idea a bit further, literally, when their shorts were worn at the kneecaps and flapped in the breeze when they jogged upcourt. Roomy shorts became street fashion, and cool was measured in inseam and rise inches. Other than when Stockton wore them, short-shorts have disappeared much like CDs and phone booths. Even women's teams began wearing long shorts.

And there's no sign of turning back.

Curiously, it's the jerseys that are now getting tighter. Last season the NBA issued uniforms made by adidas, the official outfitter, which are 30 percent lighter than the old ones and have a special pattern in the mesh that allows the jersey to breathe. Armpit holes are smaller and the jersey, although snugger-fitting, moves with the player.

As for the shorts? They're drier as well, but still roomy.

At this stage, the shorts are iconic. Lacrosse shorts are now baggy. Workout shorts in the NFL are baggy. Boxing shorts and even tennis are, too. Only Australian Rules football refuses to change with the times. And Speedo.

It all started when Michael Jordan wanted more room when he put his two shorts on, one leg at a time.

Shaun Powell is a veteran NBA writer and columnist. You can e-mail him here and follow him on twitter.

The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA, its clubs or Turner Broadcasting.

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