And now that King James has had his say, it’s a safe bet that NBA sleeves are on their way out. Not today and probably not tomorrow, but soon enough.
LeBron, who responded to a slow start on the floor Wednesday night by ripping open the sleeves on his Cavaliers jersey during Cleveland’s home game against the New York Knicks, later tried to be diplomatic, telling a postgame interviewer: “It’s OK. The jerseys are nice. We love the jerseys.” Then he followed up with: “I mean, if the fans love [the sleeved jerseys], I love them. That’s what it’s all about. I think our fans here in Cleveland and around the world and around the league love the uniforms.”
It’s nice that LeBron is trying to be a good company man, but his actions speak louder than his words. Moreover, NBA fans don’t love the sleeved jerseys. Ever since the league and Adidas introduced them in February 2013, fans have complained about them looking like T-shirts, soccer jerseys, or pajamas.
The sleeves have also been unpopular with many of the league’s players, including LeBron himself, who first complained about them more than a year and a half ago, when he was still playing for the Miami Heat.
But the NBA has continued to push the sleeved agenda, going so far as to issue a blanket mandate that “Pride” jerseys — an ill-defined category that encompasses everything from the Trail Blazers’ “Rip City” design to a new Nuggets alternate jersey that was unveiled last week — must have sleeves.
In fact, the Cavs jersey that LeBron tore is technically a “Pride” design, even though it’s unclear why a jersey rendered in black (which is not a Cavs team color) with an oversized team logo on the chest is more “Pride”-ful than any other alternate jersey. It’s also unclear what sleeves have to do with “Pride.”
This muddled state of affairs does little to mask a fairly self-evident truth: The NBA and Adidas were concerned that fans didn’t like to buy tank top replica jerseys (which, let’s face it, aren’t the most flattering look for many people) and were hoping to increase merchandise sales by introducing the sleeved format. This was a form of backward thinking from the start — your on-court program should drive your retail program, not the other way around. Meanwhile, the sleeves have alienated the league’s fan base, its labor force and now its best player. A lose-lose-lose situation.
Uniform trends often jump from one manufacturer to another. First Nike introduces a gimmick, then Under Armour copies it, then Adidas jumps on board and so on. But Adidas has had the sleeved look all to itself — not just in the NBA but also in the NCAA, where several Adidas-outfitted schools have experimented with sleeves in recent years while Nike and Under Armour schools have stuck with tank tops. With that in mind, many observers have assumed that NBA sleeves will quietly be mothballed when the league’s uniform contract passes from Adidas to Nike at the start of the 2017-18 season.
If that seemed like a safe bet before, it’s a near-certainty after LeBron’s sleeve-ripping display on Wednesday night. So whether you like NBA sleeves or loathe them, get a good look at them while you can — they won’t be around much longer.