Whether they are the best-looking uniforms the Pacers have ever worn is a matter of opinion. What's certain is that they are the most distinctive, and bring out the best story.
Just mention “the Flo-Jo's,” and veteran Pacers fans immediately recall the uniforms worn from the 1990-91 through the 1996-97 seasons. Unique in their design, material and conception, they hold a special place in the hearts of many fans, particularly those who were at an impressionable age during that span. No other team can claim a design anything like them, or a designer like the one who created them.
The story behind the uniforms begins in 1989, when the worlds of Florence Griffith Joyner and the Pacers were merged by mutual interest. She was one of the world's most famous and glamorous athletes, just one year removed from winning gold medals in 100- and 200-meter sprints and the 4x100 relay in the Seoul Olympics. She owned world records in the two sprints that still stand today. The one for the 100-meter sprint was set at the Olympic Trials at the IUPUI stadium in Indianapolis.
Widely known as Flo-Jo, she was as famous for her striking appearance as her speed. She designed her own racing uniforms and warmups, sometimes wearing a “one-legged” one-piece suit that covered one leg all the way to the ankle, and completed her signature look with details such as extraordinarily long, colorfully-painted fingernails, fastidious makeup and long, flowing hair.
She retired after the Olympics, and announced a desire to become a fashion designer. The Pacers, meanwhile, were seeking a new identity. The team had finished 28-54 record in the 1988-89 season, one that had been ruptured by major trades (that would work out well in the long run) and an early-season coaching change. Heading into a new decade, with a frustrated fan base but a core of promising players that included Chuck Person, Reggie Miller, Rik Smits and Detlef Schrempf, it was the perfect time for re-branding.
Enter Rebecca Polihronis, an unpaid intern in the Pacers' front office. Having read about Griffith Joyner's designs on a career in fashion in a Sports Illustrated article, she created a photo montage of the star's various looks and introduced the idea of her designing Pacers uniforms to the front office. It was run up the chain of command and approved, as part of a makeover project.
The logo that had been used since the franchise's birth in 1967, with a three-fingered left hand resting on what looked like a tennis ball, was scrapped in favor of a more modern design. The colors were altered, too, most notably with the royal blue of the past giving way to a darker hue. The gold became … well, golder.
And, most notably, Flo-Jo was turned loose on the uniforms. She appeared for a press conference in a meeting room in the Pacers offices at Market Square Arena on June 29, 1989, where she told reporters she had already sketched out 13 possibilities, but planned nothing as revolutionary as what she had worn at track meets.
“The first reaction of a lot of people is that it will be bizarre,” she said. “They might be a little hesitant about it. But it won't be something really outrageous. I wouldn't design something like that for basketball players. No. 1, they wouldn't wear it.
“No one-leggers or lace,” she added, smiling.
“We made an agreement that what looks good on Florence won't necessarily look good on Greg Dreiling and LaSalle Thompson,” general manager Donnie Walsh said.
The chosen submission was unique, and not only for its design. It also introduced a V-neck jersey, longer shorts, and a more comfortable stretch fabric. It looked like nothing before it, and like nothing that has come along since. It had flair, but, as Griffith Joyner had promised, was in no way outrageous. It was formally introduced to the public on Jan. 23, 1990 – a photo of the uniform appeared on the front page of the USA Today sports section the following day, in the lower left corner – and was put into play the following season.
PHOTO GALLERY: First Look at the New Flo-Jo Jerseys »
The new look met with positive reviews from fans and players alike. Person said at the time he liked the darker tone, deeming the previous blue “a slower-looking color.” His teammates liked it, too, although their opinions might have been colored by their opinion of the designer.
“The guys were enthusiastic about it because it was Flo-Jo,” recalled Kathy Jordan, the Pacers' director of community relations at the time. “She was beautiful. And she was the sweetest person. She was as sweet as she could be. All the guys were falling over themselves.”
The uniform would become ingrained in the minds of fans who recall the teams of the early- to mid-Nineties as a symbol of the Pacers' breakout from a decade of struggle for relevancy. It was the uniform they wore when they extended Boston to the full five games of a first-round playoff series in 1991, and the one worn by Miller when he produced those now-legendary moments in playoff games in Madison Square Garden against the Knicks – the 25-point fourth quarter bombing raid in 1994 that was punctuated by choke signs to Spike Lee, and the miraculous eight-points-in-8.9-seconds flurry in 1995.
PHOTO GALLERY: Reggie Miller in the Flo-Jo Jersey »
The Pacers made two trips to the Eastern Conference Finals in the uniforms, easily the highlights of the franchise's NBA history to that point. When the world outside of Indianapolis discovered the Pacers, the Flo-Jo's helped make a favorable first impression.
Time marched on, though. Polihronis a native of Lowell, Ind., graduated from IU in 1990 and went on to become the community relations director for the Chicago Cubs. After seven seasons in the Flo-Jo's, the Pacers switched to pin-striped uniforms coinciding with Larry Bird's arrival as coach to start the 1997-98 season. It was a less distinctive look – it had been popularized by the Yankees in baseball, and the Orlando Magic had been wearing similar uniforms for a few years – but it was the uniform the Pacers wore in their only NBA Finals appearance in 2000. Perhaps for that reason, Miller considers it his favorite, followed by the Flo-Jo's.
Person, who's now an assistant coach at his alma mater, Auburn, favors the Flo-Jo. He has his full uniform framed and displayed on his wall at home, along with Miller's pinstriped Pacers jersey and the Spurs jersey of his San Antonio teammate, David Robinson.
“I loved them,” Person recalled by telephone. “The shorts were longer, for one thing. And the celebrity that Flo-Jo brought with it was exciting for a team that was trying to develop a winning culture.”
Griffith Joyner died in her sleep of an epileptic seizure in September of 1998, at age 38. She is best-remembered for her sprinting career, of course, but her role as the designing woman for the Pacers represented one of her greatest off-track accomplishments. It expanded her boundaries and brought recognition in a new field, while helping bring a modern identity to the Pacers.
“It was a win-win for everybody,” Polihronis said.