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Q&A: Mitchell & Ness designer Mike O'Shea on new Pioneers line

The new collection honors NBA pioneers Chuck Cooper, Earl 'Big Cat' Lloyd and Nat 'Sweetwater' Clifton.

Mitchell & Ness’ new Pioneers line of clothing shows love to a trio of players who helped lay the foundation for diversity in the NBA in the 1950s. caught up with Pioneers designer Mike O’Shea and talked to him about his passion and insights into the project.

The following 1-on-1 conversation has been condensed and edited.

What was the thought process behind the new Pioneers line?

Mike O’Shea: Our thought process behind the new Pioneers line was about recognizing and honoring the achievements of three players who paved the way for diversity in the NBA during the 1950s. Chuck Cooper, Earl “Big Cat” Lloyd, and Nat “Sweetwater” Clifton. These guys were game-changers, breaking through racial barriers and making a huge impact on the sport. With this collection, we wanted to bring attention to the significant roles they played in basketball history. We aimed to capture the essence of that era while giving it a modern twist that would resonate with today’s fans.

By showcasing these pioneers, we’re not just celebrating their accomplishments on the court, but also acknowledging their bravery in the face of adversity. It’s about paying homage to these legends and recognizing the ongoing fight for equality in sports and society.

As a designer, how did you go about designing this line?

My approach was twofold: honoring the historical significance of the players and era while also infusing modern elements to make the collection relevant and appealing to today’s audience.

I researched about the players themselves and understanding their stories, achievements, and the challenges they faced.

Throughout the design process, I kept the intended audience in mind, ensuring that the final products would appeal to both hardcore fans and today’s youth alike. Overall, the design process for this line was about blending past and present and tradition, to create a collection that not only pays homage to the pioneers of the NBA but also speaks to the spirit of progress. 

Did you have any involvement with the families?

Yes, I had the privilege of being involved with the three families during the design process. Lynn Bloom, our director of authentics and archives, set up a video call where we had the opportunity to connect with Chuck Cooper III, Jataun Robinson-Swopes and Kevin Lloyd. During this call, they shared insights into the important roles their fathers played when entering the league, providing us with a deeper understanding of their legacies.

They were actively involved in selecting the photography used in the designs and shared their favorite quotes from their fathers, which was a big part of the collection. It was a collaborative and meaningful process, and I look forward to continuing our partnership with the families on future designs.

Why is it important for Mitchell & Ness to come out with a line paying homage to the NBA barrier breakers?

Releasing a line dedicated to NBA barrier breakers provides an opportunity to educate fans, particularly younger generations, about the struggles and triumphs of these pioneering athletes. It helps raise awareness of the challenges they faced and the progress that has been made in terms of diversity and inclusion in sports.

Fans of both basketball and vintage sports apparel have a deep appreciation for the history and heritage of the game. Releasing a line dedicated to NBA barrier breakers allows Mitchell & Ness to connect with fans on a deeper level, tapping into their nostalgia while also celebrating the pioneers who helped shape the sport they love.

What kind of merchandise can fans purchase at the pop-up shop?

We actually have two different pop-ups in Indy. The Pioneers collection will be featured exclusively at the NBA Crossover event and we also have another pop-up at the Circle Centre Mall. In addition to the Pioneers collection, we will also be selling NBA All-Star caricature tees and crews and some heavyweight player tees.