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Alexander Wolff
December 22, 2003
A streetwise Philly marketer, with some juice from hip-hop stars, has turned the throwback jersey into a big-bucks fashion frenzy
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December 22, 2003

Rokin' The Retros

A streetwise Philly marketer, with some juice from hip-hop stars, has turned the throwback jersey into a big-bucks fashion frenzy

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A season ago only eight NBA teams suited up for games in retro uniforms, and then only for one night apiece. This season a dozen teams will pull on the old stuff, some of them six times each, on what the league calls Hardwood Classic Nights nights. These events are designed to drive the sales not only of Hardwood Classics merchandise but also of new mass-produced apparel lines from Nike (NBARewind) and Reebok (Fresh Retro), which are less faithful to the originals but cost only a quarter of the $175 to $350 that M&N charges for most of its items.

The newcomers cross classic designs with names and numbers of the moment: PHILA graces the front of a Sixers Jersey circa 1966, but a surprise IVERSON and 3 cover the back. ( Larry Brown never could turn AI into Hal Greer, but a piece of clothing seems to be trying.) Consumers who regard that shirt as apostasy can always turn to ABA retros (you can have your Pittsburgh pro hoops in either Pipers or Condors), college retros ( George Gervin's Eastern Michigan, Jerry West's West Virginia, Fennis Dembo's Wyoming), high school retros ( Darryl Dawkins's jersey from Orlando's Maynard Evans High), Rucker League retros (Westsiders and Uptowners) and even Jewish amateur team retros. (Be the first at your bar mitzvah in a Philadelphia SPHAs or a Second Story Morrys.)

Fashion is a remarkably accurate cultural barometer: Flapper dresses in the Twenties heralded the loosening mores of that era; the gray flannel suit summed up the uptight '50s. Does the vogue in retro basketball fashion point where the on-court hoops culture is headed? It's too soon to say for sure, but in the NBA, at least, some teams have already shifted from one-on-one basketball to the more team-oriented old school approach marked by the New Jersey Nets' Princeton offense and the fluid attacks of the Dallas Mavericks and the Sacramento Kings.

"I don't know if I can handle another kid wearing an Alex English Nuggets jersey," says Russ Bengtson, editor-in-chief of Slam, "but considering how low the scores have been, people do look back kind of wistfully at the Nuggets' 140-point games. The bubble has to pop soon, though. When is too much too much? You take it to the next level, and the next, and the next, and pretty soon you run out of levels."

For now the elevator is still ascending, stopping at every sport. For its home opener against North Texas on Aug. 30, Oklahoma pulled on uniforms from the '40s and '50s, the Bud Wilkinson era. Once again, The Duke footballs are spotted on the line of scrimmage at NFL games. At the NHL's Heritage Classic in Edmonton last month, Montreal Canadiens goalie Jos� Th�odore wore a knit toque along with his mask, a la Jacques Plante, and touched off a frenzy across Canada for the logoed and tasseled ski cap. Basketball nonetheless leads the way, accounting for the largest share of M&N's business, and there was something symbolic about the fact that the sport's dauphin, LeBron James, temporarily fell from amateur grace as a high schooler last season by accepting a couple of free throwback jerseys.

"It's an all-sport thing, but guys identify with basketball players more than anybody," Harley said last month. He was sitting in the M&N corporate offices on Philly's South Broad Street. Moments before, the rap artist Freeway had bopped over from the retail store to get a moment's face time. The two had agreed to meet in Manhattan that evening at a Jay-Z concert at Madison Square Garden for which M&N had designed the ultimate prop, a huge jersey in Knicks colors that would be raised to the rafters, as at an NBA immortal's farewell ceremony. "Besides, basketball is the hood," Harley went on. "Pick up your ball, show your style. Baggy shorts, bigger jerseys—that's the culture. Basketball players want to be artists, and artists want to be basketball players. That's never gonna go away."

Indeed, ballplayers have cut rap records for years, and hip-hop artists have rhapsodized about basketball shoes since at least 1986, when Run DMC spat about My Adidas. Now Reebok is selling Jay-Z's hugely popular signature shoe, a stylistic descendant of the 20-year-old Nike Uptown, and the company has just brought out a model for rapper 50 Cent. What we're witnessing isn't merely a convergence of sports, fashion and music but a smoking, twisted three-car pileup.

Why retro is happening now—and primarily in basketball, the most cutting-edge, next-obsessed sport of all the majors—is something of a mystery. But consumers across the demographic spectrum, by snapping up P.T. Cruisers and merchandise from Restoration Hardware, seem to be saying that their forebears kept it more real than anyone does today. Inner-city youths have the additional motivation that hooked Harley: the desire to differentiate themselves through bold, high-end style. Baby boomers, and even Generation Xers now pushing into early middle age, wish they could stay young, but if they can't, they seem willing to settle for looking the part, and retro fashion helps in the self-deception.

Moreover, in an age in which news about the Lakers often comes with an Eagle, Colo., dateline, many fans simply don't want to take the chance of wrapping themselves or their kids in the gear of some clayfoot. Why not pull on shoes from a time when the worst thing to hit the papers was the allegation that George McGinnis had sneaked a ciggy butt in practice? Or, if you're David Stern, why not costume your potential miscreants in Hardwood Classics?

"Both history and style are driving this," says Hyman of Distant Replays, where few days go by without some athlete or rap artist ducking in. "We've got customers who won't leave the store because they want to fill your ear with sports trivia. But if some like [the clothes] because they look good, we've got to work that angle, too."

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