NBA AM: Why Home Whites?

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Few NBA stories have been as surprisingly fascinating this summer as the league’s transition to Nike-branded uniforms, a move that has provided plenty of conversation about all number of things. Most recently that has been the introduction of “Statement” jerseys, the new “alternate” jerseys that allow for variation from the typical swing between home and away uniforms.

Except now there are no home and away jerseys. Now there are, among other options, white or light-colored “Association” jerseys and primary-colored “Icon” jerseys that no longer will be worn primarily as home and away uniforms. The Chicago Bulls, for example, already have stated that their red “Icon” uniforms will serve as their new de facto home set, bucking the long-held tradition of wearing white at home, like almost every other team in the NBA.

Traditionalists may scoff at this trend, but the NBA never really had much of a reason to enforce the old uniform schedule outside of tradition for its own sake. NFL and NHL teams actually do the opposite, wearing primary colors and home and white on the road. So where did the NBA get the notion to do what Nike just undid?

The most logical answer is that basketball got the idea from professional baseball. According to Mental Floss, turn-of-the-century baseball teams often would have a hard time finding laundry services while playing on the road, so the darker uniforms became the road uniforms because they didn’t show dirt and grass stains as obviously as the crisp home whites, which could be laundered more frequently.

As far as anyone can tell, basketball borrowed the custom from baseball, which still does wear white at home and gray on the road most games.

Of course, this year isn’t the first time that a team has broken with tradition to wear something other than white at home. The Los Angeles Lakers were the first NBA team to do this all the way back in 1967. Prior to that, they always had worn navy blue, royal blue and white, but their rebranding resulted in a gold home jersey, which obviously have been very popular with fans for half a century at this point, but despite that popularity never inspired other organizations to break tradition.

NBA teams haven’t been actually required to wear white at home for some time. In fact, there was a huge spike in color-on-color games just this past season, resulting in quite a few games in which neither team wore white. The old “rule” for wearing uniforms stated, “The home team shall wear light color jerseys, and the visitors dark jerseys unless otherwise approved,” but it did not prove all that challenging to get that approval for special jersey occasions in recent years.

That probably is because the more diversified the uniform sets, the more jerseys the league can sell. The new system allows teams a lot more wiggle room to market all four of their new Nike jerseys, which should be good for sales. Since the home team chooses which uniform they want to wear, home teams still could choose to wear white whenever they wanted to, but with all the options this year there’s a much better chance we’ll see more variation on a nightly basis, including a whole lot games where both teams are wearing solid colors.

Pandora’s box has been opened, and with the change in uniform sponsor, now is as good a time as any to make the shift away from traditional home whites. They never really had much purpose in the first place, and the new looks are going to make the league a much more vibrant place.