When we talk about NBA style, we’re typically talking about one thing: the advanced outfits players wear to the games. LeBron’s matching sets. Kelly Oubre’s post-hardcore stylings. P.J. Tucker’s outrageous sneaker collection. But outside of…P.J. Tucker’s outrageous sneaker collection, there just aren’t that many ways to flex on the court. What was once Allen Iverson’s beguiling, transgressive arm sleeve is now just…an arm sleeve.
Which made Wednesday’s bubble matchup between the Utah Jazz and Memphis Grizzlies so stunning. This was, comfortably, the best-looking game in recent NBA history—and it had nothing to do with the perfectly good personal style of the folks playing in it. Instead, the joy was rooted in the teams’ decision to wear throwback ‘90s uniforms, spiking an otherwise humdrum game—true dads Joe Ingles and Mike Conley keeping the Grizz without a bubble victory—with a dose of serious nostalgia.
The Jazz wore the majestic “Purple Mountain” jerseys Karl Malone and John Stockton rode to second-place finishes in the late ‘90s; the Grizz rocked the Pacific Northwest-inspired teal unis the team wore back when they were from Vancouver. The whole thing was a fever dream in purple and green, the sporting equivalent of a sugar rush. Or maybe something a bit less edible: when Ja Morant rose for a dunk in traffic, it looked sort of like a TidePod had exploded.
But basic color theory only explains why the whole thing looked cool. It felt cool for a whole host of reasons. Chief among them the feeling, for which I’m sure there is a German word, of seeing something that you loved against your better judgment as a young person become cool as an older person.
It bears noting: these were not cool jerseys in their initial lifetimes! “We hated those uniforms at the time,” ‘90s Grizzlies star Shareef Abdur-Rahim told the team’s site last year. “We liked the home white uniforms, and then a couple of years later, we had some alternate black uniforms that we liked. We didn’t like the turquoise ones because they were turquoise!” Same goes for the Jazz: those purple unis looked ridiculous on Jerry Sloan’s boring, adult, deeply competent teams.
Time, of course, heals all wounds. The unthinkably ugly becomes impossibly cool. An Abdur-Rahim jersey, rejected by #3 himself, becomes the perfect Lollapalooza outfit. (As one colleague put it, Wednesday’s game was “basically Coachella NBA jerseys in a real game.”) And then Urban Outfitters starts selling teal Grizzlies shorts. Elsewhere, the fashion industry develops a deep interest in all things ‘90s. Everybody in Soho starts dressing like this. And then Morant, who was born four years after the Vancouver Grizzlies played their first game, calls the jerseys “fire.” Time is a flat circle. Pastel tones are cool again. The dream of the ‘90s will never die.