When Dana Barros returned home from the 1995 NBA All-Star Game, he barely took his jersey off for the next two days. he couldn’t. It was that special.
The vibrant purple, the splash of orange in a Dali-esque five-sided star, the green cactus. Barros would have been happy to be an All-Star anyway—it was the only appearance he’d made in his 15-year career—but he was elated that the Eastern Conference was the road team that season. That meant that, as a guard for the 76ers, he could wear that jersey.
“It was great,” Barros said. “I thought it was something different and something unique. It wasn’t the same old East-West color scheme. The cactus represented where you were. The purple colors and the orange color scheme… I thought that was cool to see.”
More than a quarter of a century later, Barros has no shortage of love for that jersey. He is not alone. Among the dozens of NBA All-Star Game uniforms, ranging from drab to aggressively boring to 2014 jerseys, those from a two-year stint in the mid-1990s remain adored. Not only for its aesthetics but also as avatars of that time.
Colorful, cheeky and idiosyncratic, the 1995 and 1996 jerseys are fan favorites. They are player favorites. They engender love on social media with every mention, and to some, as a wistful juxtaposition of how bland modern All-Star jerseys have become.
“I thought it was a good uniform,” future Hall of Famer Scottie Pippen told the Chicago Tribune in ’95. “When I held it up, I thought it was a Phoenix Suns uniform. … It’s a nice color. And it suited me too.”
The 1996 jersey, with its turquoise and fuchsia chili canvas stretched across the torsos of Michael Jordan and Penny Hardaway, is an all-time classic for its distinctive ode to San Antonio, that year’s host city. Appears as a dance party at Lumon Industries.
This season’s Nike City Edition Spurs Kit is a tribute to those All-Star Game party jerseys. Jesse Alvarez, Nike’s director of men’s basketball product, called them an “iconic” design.
“Just think about the players that played in those games,” he said. “A lot of people refer to that as the golden age of basketball. You just think about all the former players and then how that jersey is always one of the ones you see on athletes, off the pitch. So you know that’s a big part of why that jersey is so important.”
Seth Rollins’ crown in #RoyalRumble a tribute to the legendary jerseys of 1996 #NBA All-Star game played at the Alamodome in San Antonio. pic.twitter.com/3WslszAojT
— Mr. Wrestling VI (@wrestling_VI) January 29, 2023
Those jerseys were the gateway to a new generation of possibilities. Prior to the mid-1990s, All-Star uniforms had either been subtle paeans to the host city or were mostly red, blue, and white, and white, red, and blue, and so on, mixing those colors over and over again. time every year.
That began to change in the early 1990s when the NBA hired Thomas O’Grady as its first creative director. O’Grady came from FCB, an advertising agency, and would be the mastermind behind the league’s uniforms for the next 13 years. Before he came along, O’Grady said, team owners or anyone appointed to the job would choose jerseys from a catalog of different sources and options, with a few exceptions. The creative process was barely creative; O’Grady eventually built an entire team.
The All-Star Game became a perfect place to experiment and test the limits of what jerseys could look like. The game was a once-a-year event, and if the jerseys didn’t work, any glitches would be gone the next morning.
The steady trickle of innovation began with the 1992 game in Orlando, when the NBA incorporated some of the Magic’s colors on jerseys and a logo with five colors instead of two. In 1993, in Utah, the NBA used the Jazz as the base colors for the game’s color scheme.
The jerseys, however, remained basic: white for home and blue for away, with a large star in the center. O’Grady wanted to get away from that by 1995.
He designed the logo first and then took it apart for the uniforms. The logos were meant to look city-specific, to have a parochialism to the marquee weekend of a national sport. Jerseys from 1995, when the game was in Phoenix, featured Aztec motifs along the sides and a sunbeam behind the green cactus (the clay-red gecko in the logo did not survive). The 1996 jerseys featured metallic silver stars as a tribute to the Spurs and a party trim on the jersey and shorts.
The colors and combinations were striking and unlike anything that had been done before.
“Going to that idea was revolutionary,” said Chris Tripucka, the NBA’s director of quality control for licensed products and equipment. “Everything you saw in baseball’s All-Star weekend is basically a takeoff of what we started. We were the first to make secondary uniforms. Now all other leagues have secondary uniforms. The All-Star uniforms and changing them, this was a big thing. We didn’t realize how popular it was going to be. We thought it looked cool.”
Tripucka said that when he revealed the jerseys to the players for the first time, before practice the day before the game in Phoenix, they freaked out. The 1996 kit was also a hit with the players due to the jock tag; It read “1996 NBA All-Star Weekend” which gave it a unique style.
After the game, Tripucka said, players called to try to get more. The replica jerseys, which Tripucka said were not big sellers in those days, actually sold well. Today, Mitchell & Ness still sells them.
Tripucka’s only concern with those jerseys was that they were made with twill for the letters and numbers, which made them heavier but felt more authentic than regular screen printing, but that wasn’t a problem. Neither was the fact that they had to do smaller numbers than usual at the front; when he presented that for his approval to NBA executive Rod Thorn, he said he was met with apathy.
Perhaps it was even more surprising that all this happened during the David Stern regime. Stern, the longtime NBA commissioner, had a reputation for being occasionally heavy. O’Grady said that Stern was a product of the classic 1970s look and the New York Knicks’ timeless uniform designs.
But Stern always appreciated O’Grady’s work and his effort to push the boundaries. The same goes for Rick Welts, the league’s head of marketing at the time. They wanted to put on a show and let O’Grady take his chances, and he returned the affection for both of them.
“They always remind us that we are competing for the same dollar that a blockbuster movie competes against,” he said. “We are competing against Disney. So (Stern) said don’t forget we had to be in the entertainment. We were just in the basketball entertainment business. We are the first artists, and he always reminded us of that.”
Tripucka also credits O’Grady. It was with O’Grady as its creative director that the NBA began releasing many of the jerseys that still resonate today, and that the league and its teams are now reviving as throwbacks.
The teal Pistons jersey, Jordan-era Wizards uniforms, timeless Sonics jerseys, early Raptors and Grizzlies uniforms all debuted during O’Grady’s tenure. “It was fun,” he said. “We were breaking a lot of rules.”
The NBA began using sublimation to make jerseys during this time. The process, which involves transferring an image onto a white garment at a high temperature, was not new — it had been used to make dog leashes, Tripucka said — but it was new to the league. It allowed them to incorporate new colors and designs.
“Tom was amazing,” Tripucka said. “It was great working with Tom. It took him… a little bit of time to understand that some of the things he put on paper couldn’t be done at the time.”
The 1995 and 1996 jerseys are also memorable because they were made by Champion, a dominant brand of the 1990s. They represent that generation almost as much as Shaq or Charles Barkley or Patrick Ewing. But Champion threw the NBA into tantrums on occasion.
The company handed out the uniforms at the end of each year, Tripucka said, and team managers across the league complained. It bothered Stern enough that he went to Tripucka to tell him to find a new supplier; instead, after eight years in the league, Tripucka joined Champion as equipment manager and worked on the NBA account.
The company regularly lobbied the league to increase its signage on jerseys. He had the rights to have his logo on the shorts and waistbands, but he also wanted it placed near the NBA logo on the jersey strap. Tripucka pushed him because he thought it was a fair request. Stern pushed back.
In 1997, Champion lost its exclusivity as the NBA jersey manufacturer. Nike and Starter went in and took 19 of the 29 teams between them. Today, Nike dresses the entire league, as it has done since 2017 when it took over from Adidas.
The 1997 All-Star Game saw the end of that renaissance era of jerseys. The NBA changed to having each player wear their own team’s uniform in the game.
It was a novel look, offering each NBA team represented in the game some national exposure at a time when there was no League Pass or the ability for fans to see as much basketball as there is now. Even O’Grady admits that it made sense. In 2003, the league returned to the East and West jerseys with a throwback 1980s design.
None, however, have popped up like the ones O’Grady and Champion developed, or become as instantly recognizable with a time and place in their fandoms. That two-year period is believed by many to have spawned the best All-Star jerseys the NBA, or any other sport, has ever produced.
They live in keepsakes and cupboards and drawers all over the country. When Tripucka looks at photos of those All-Star teams, it’s clear what an impact those jerseys had and how cool they were.
“It looks amazing compared to the team photo in the basic NBA jerseys,” Tripucka said. “It is night and day. My God.”
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(Illustration: Eamonn Dalton / the athletic; photos: Andy Hayt, Scott Cunningham, Nathaniel S. Butler/Getty Images)