Skin is no longer in as basketball players embrace the tight look

North Carolina’s Cameron Johnson (13) drives to the basket against Pitt’s Terrell Brown (21) during the first half on Saturday, January 5, 2019 at Peterson Events Center in Pittsburgh, Pa. Johnson scored 15 points in the Tar Heels’ victory.
North Carolina’s Cameron Johnson (13) drives to the basket against Pitt’s Terrell Brown (21) during the first half on Saturday, January 5, 2019 at Peterson Events Center in Pittsburgh, Pa. Johnson scored 15 points in the Tar Heels’ victory.

Two answers emerge most often when college basketball players try to explain their affinity for wearing tights, though, to some, only one of those answers is all that believable. The first answer, and perhaps the most repeated, is some kind of variation of this:

“I feel like my legs are a lot warmer when I have my tights on,” said David Crisp, a University of Washington guard.

Over and over last weekend at the NCAA tournament first- and second-round site in Columbus, Ohio, college basketball players in tights said they wore them because they provided warmth. It was enough to make one wonder whether the games were indoors or out, played amid an arctic chill.

“I like to wear them sometimes because it helps keep my legs warm,” said Iowa’s Tyler Cook.

“It kind of helps keep your muscles warm,” said Cook’s teammate, Ryan Kriener.

“I started wearing them in high school because it keeps my legs warm, honestly,” said Jalen Johnson, a Durham native who plays for Tennessee.

And on it went. Until, at last, one player called into question that reasoning.

“A lot of guys may say they wear them just to keep their legs warm or whatever,” said Lamonte Turner, the Tennessee guard, “but I think it’s all fashion. Yeah, it’s all fashion, if you ask me. Because I know when I wear them, I don’t really feel any warmer or any colder, you know?”

By now it would be all but impossible to identify Patient Zero – the basketball player who first decided that it would be a good idea to cover his legs with tights, or leggings, during competition. What is known now, however many years later, is that tights are everywhere, covering legs on basketball courts from the east coast to west and throughout the American heartland.

The NCAA tournament, especially, has become a fashion runway of sorts for those players who wish to show off their legs – or, more accurately, their leggings. At the Columbus site last weekend, those players who chose to bare their legs were sometimes – oftentimes, depending on the game – outnumbered by those who covered them up. Skin, to many, is not in, as it turns out.

All the talk of warmth is “the big thing” when players explain why they wear them, said Shea Rush, a reserve guard at North Carolina who is also something of a fashion aficionado. Two years ago, Rush designed and made fedoras for the Tar Heels during their run to the 2017 national championship. Now, explaining why tights are so prevalent, Rush said, “It looks like you’re ready for battle.”

“And so a lot of guys like that look, as well,” he said.

That players are wearing tights is not new. Yet it has crossed the line from fad to trend to wardrobe staple, and one that doesn’t seem to be going anywhere. Five years ago, during the 2014 national championship game, only two of the players who started – one for Kentucky, one for Connecticut – wore tights. By the next year, five players – three for Wisconsin, two for Duke – wore tights at the start of the championship game.

Since then, an unscientific analysis comprised of simply watching the NCAA tournament suggests that tights have only become more widespread. The entire starting five at Washington, for instance, wore them last weekend in Columbus, where the Huskies’ season ended with a second-round defeat against North Carolina. After Washington’s victory in the first round, Crisp, the guard, was talking about tights when one of his teammates interjected.

“I started this,” said Noah Dickerson, a Washington forward.

“No,” Crisp said, laughing, “you did not start leggings.”

Dickerson insisted he did. Crisp howled in laughter and then one-upped his teammate.

“I used to wear my sister’s leggings in the fourth grade,” Crisp said. “In the fourth grade! If I’m going to be honest, I (saw) everybody wearing them. I used to wear long socks like up to my thighs. ...”

“I was committed.”

These days, tights have been a part of the basketball wardrobe for so long that some players can’t really recall a time when they didn’t wear them. Just about their entire basketball conscience is filled with players in leggings, or “compressions,” as some players call them, perhaps to avoid using the word “tights.”

Rush, from UNC, said he began wearing tights in high school. He can’t be sure nowadays, but he thinks he began wearing them after Kevin Durant, the NBA All-Star, made tights a part of his regular gameday attire. In Rush’s case, at least, there might be something to the argument about wearing them for warmth.

“When you’re sitting on the bench as long as I do,” he said with a laugh, “I like to have the extra warmth.”

Tights have become one of this generation’s defining characteristics of basketball style. They are the short-shorts of the 1980s – and the previous decades, for that matter – and the baggy shorts and jerseys of the 1990s and 2000s. These days, the rise of tights in recent years has coincided with a return to a more slim-fitting jersey.

Rush, who monitors these kinds of trends, said shorter shorts are “definitely coming back.” He has a head start, given that he said he rolls his shorts up “at least twice, or three times.”

“Coach (Hubert) Davis gives me a lot of flack for wearing my shorts that short, and I’m like, coach, your shorts were just as short as mine when you played,” Rush said. “Like, you can’t make fun of me for this. So we laugh about it a lot. But yeah, I’m a shorter short kind of guy.”

At UNC, tights are not as common as they are elsewhere. Only one of the team’s starters, Cameron Johnson, regularly wears them.

Johnson said he has worn them in all but one game this season, with the exception coming in a victory against UCLA in Las Vegas. Johnson played well enough that day, and finished with 14 points, but he said he felt a bit “naked” without his tights. That’s how it is for those who regularly wear them: when they don’t, something both looks and feels wrong.

At UNC and elsewhere, there is little flip-flopping between players who wear tights and those who don’t. One way or another, they’ve made a commitment.

“Certain guys, we joke around on this team,” said Brandon Robinson, a UNC junior forward who wears shorter tights. “They strictly wear long compressions and one practice they might not wear them and they come out, and we just kind of make fun of them, because your basketball swag doesn’t look good.”

And isn’t that what this is really about – the “basketball swag,” as Robinson put it? For as much as some players talk about warmth, the rise in tights is “more style-driven,” Robinson said.

Luke Maye, the UNC senior forward, is among those Tar Heels who doesn’t wear tights. When he explained why, he had some fun with the thought that a thin piece of fabric makes much a difference in warmth.

“I don’t wear tights because I enjoy being cold,” Maye said with a grin, shouting so that Johnson, wearing tights over in front of a nearby locker, could hear him. “And I feel like you wear tights because you don’t want to be cold or because of the look.

“And I’m not about the look and I’m not about wanting to be (warm).”

That said, Maye insisted he “could rock tights if I wanted to rock tights.”

How ingrained have tights become to the fabric of college basketball? Consider that the NCAA, which has rules for everything, also has rules for tights. During the tournament, these rules hang inside the locker room door, one of the last things players see before entering the hallway that leads to the court.

The tights, according to the rules, may be white, black, beige or the color of game shorts. One logo may appear on the tights, no more. The tights worn by members of a given team must all be the same color. And both legs must be the same length.

The rules are a reflection of the times. Fewer than 10 years ago, in the earlier part of this decade, tights weren’t often seen on a basketball court. For years now, though, players have sworn by their ability to keep their legs warm. And yes, some will concede if pressed, the look has something to do with it, too.