The college basketball season is over, but changes in basketball fashion keep unfolding. We don’t mean fashion as in strategy or rules, but rather in the therapeutic approaches and clothing styles that move athletes but largely elude widespread attention.
Most of us notice changes in basketball fashion sporadically, if at all.
When, for instance, did we go from the common appearance of shaved heads on the court to the main sources of skull glare emanating from the TV broadcast booth? Some time in the past few years the rage among men’s players became hair grown ever thicker and higher and in more creative arrangements – largely without resort to restraint by headbands. Duke’s Grayson Allen was not entirely joking when he conceded in mid-March he could track teammate Marvin Bagley IlI for a lob by looking for the 6-11 All-American’s high-piled hair peeking above a crowd.
Trends sometimes shift in the seeming blink of an eye. Not that long ago T-shirts worn beneath jerseys were common. These days they’re all but gone, replaced by tank tops with and without built-in padding. Wristbands and headbands, all but gone. (Among men’s players, anyway.) Knee pads – rarities.
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And, not that you’d notice unless you’re a competitor, jockstraps are gone too, as obsolete as teams that disdain 3-point attempts.
What we do have are tights -- compression pants in solid black or white -- in short, medium and full-leg lengths. Some tights, which have supplanted jocks, come with padding built in for protection on hips and thighs. Undershirts come padded too. “It’s almost like you go out there like a linebacker,” says Shane Parrish, North Carolina men’s basketball equipment manager. “Nobody had long tights, and then everybody wanted them two or three years ago. Now it’s almost getting back to that group’s out and the next group doesn’t want them anymore. It’s really funny.”
Shifts in basketball fashion allow for a bit of individual expression within the confines of NCAA rules and coaches’ tolerance. Roy Williams isn’t a fan of head or wrist bands, so “I haven’t issued any of those in a long time,” Parrish says. But the UNC coach did allow guard Nate Britt, who played through 2017, to wear compression pants with one leg cut off. “It made no sense, but that’s just what he did,” the equipment manager says of Britt.
UNC’s Parrish is struck by a trend toward “tight-fitting (gear), everything shows every muscle they have and that’s how they like it.” Consequently, about half of the 2017-18 UNC squad members wore medium shirts, a size “unheard of 10 years ago.” Even extra-large shirts aren’t as large as they were earlier in this decade.
Dr. Erin Parrish, no relation to UNC’s equipment manager, is an associate professor of interior design and merchandising at East Carolina. “Most fashion starts at the runway and trickles down to Main Street,” she explains, then notes athletic fashion is different. Parrish, who holds a Ph.D. from N.C. State in textile and apparel technology management, sees technological change as a quiet factor in shaping sports fashion. “You have the new technology, that’s the fabric. It replaces things. Other things become obsolete.”
Parrish credits North Carolina textile research and development for advances in athlete comfort and performance. Garments that wick away moisture led to tank tops widely replacing T-shirts. Silver and other nanoparticles are increasingly built into fabrics for their antimicrobial properties.
Beyond technological development, ECU’s Parrish sees tinkering by manufacturers from Nike to Russell Athletic to Under Armour, as well as “peer influence,” driving basketball fashion. Of particular note is mimicry of notable pro athletes in the same vein they’re emulated for ostentatious end-zone celebrations or pointing skyward to mark a transitory achievement.
Improvements in conditioning and better scientific understanding drive fashion too. Remember cho-pats? Those are elastic straps worn below the kneecap to manage tendinitis, redistributing the impact absorbed by the patella tendon. Don’t worry if you don’t remember; strength and conditioning regimens have relegated cho-pats to the fringes of basketball fashion.
Instead we’re seeing more “kinesio tape” – adhesive strips cut to fit body contours, most often noticeable on shoulders, that create a compression sensation or accent swollen areas as a reminder to go easy on a damaged muscle or joint.
“Most of it’s fashion, I would agree,” says an admittedly “old school” Rob Murphy, associate athletic director and sports medicine director at N.C. State. “There is some science to it, but there’s a lot of pseudo-science to it. But it makes people feel better, so that’s all that matters.”
The only aspect of basketball fashion that’s attracted popular notice is the length of player shorts. The progression from form-fitting versions to baggy culottes was pioneered by the NBA’s Michael Jordan (supposedly to accommodate Tar Heel-blue boxers under his shorts) and Michigan’s Fab Five in the early 1990s. Their stylistic statements endured for several decades.
The welcome swing of the fashion pendulum in the opposite direction has drawn growing attention. Men’s wear expert Mark-Evan Blackman, an assistant professor at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York, told the New York Times the reintroduction of knees to public view was long overdue. “That’s the antithesis of fashion,” he said of baggy shorts. “I’m glad to say goodbye.”
Some coaches set limits on how voluminous shorts can be – for competitive, not aesthetic reasons. North Carolina’s Williams has a general rule that if a player loses the ball in folds of cloth while executing a between-the-legs dribble, the shorts are too big. “He’s definitely performance-based,” says UNC’s Parrish.
Top-down influence in basketball fashion arguably connects the return to less voluminous shorts to a preference shared by LeBron James in November 2015. Following his lead, more basketball players now choose briefer, slimmer shorts, or roll up waistbands for instant alteration.
Dr. Parrish cites “a natural cycle” at play in fashion, too. “Shorts length, skirt length, they ebb and flow,” she says. Basketball fashion has a spillover effect on what she called “athleisure” garments, affecting the shorts available to casual wearers along with the yoga pants and workout clothes she sees worn daily by her students. “
Actually, the professor offers regarding such garb, “that’s a step up from coming to class in pajamas.”