With engineering degrees from Carnegie Mellon and Stanford and a comfortable house in Greenwich, Conn., Johnson looks across a social chasm at Reuben Harley, albeit with admiration. "Rube is an organically grown kid from Philly who lit the match," he says. "The gas leak had started already, but he made it explode."
At the same time the nexus with hip-hop culture leaves Johnson unsettled. "In basketball, marketers try to glamorize [playground stars and drug casualties] Earl Manigault and Joe Hammond, and as a result, that's how far back a lot of black people want to go. It's as if we got rescued off the playground. A lot of older black players have told me they didn't realize they were part of basketball until the NBA came along. Well, Black Fives is like saying we were on the Mayflower, and that resonates with people.
"I'm not a politician or a sociologist, just someone who thinks it must have been pretty cool to have been involved in basketball then. We're letting people see that there's something really attractive about that time. No clutter, just refined, clean lines. Look at the logos. There's not a rocket ship among them. I don't want to go back to 1910 and get lynched, but there is something worth recapturing from the old days. My jerseys are an excuse for a father to have a conversation with his son, as opposed to an argument over why anyone would spend $350 on a friggin' Nolan Ryan jersey." (The average price of a Black Fives jersey is $225.)
Even today, history can illuminate some surprising things. Two players thought to be among the NBA's most incorrigible—Iverson and Rasheed Wallace—have been the most conscientious in using fashion to nod toward the game's past. Iverson will wear jerseys of Bill Russell and Oscar Robertson in press conferences and make clear that he's honoring them for having paved the way for him. Wallace, meanwhile, wears Air Force Is in games.
We shouldn't kid ourselves: It's unlikely that either player would be making such a fashion statement if the gear didn't also help him stand out. Listen to Jacksonville Jaguars defensive tackle Marcus Stroud, who cites World B. Free's Cleveland Cavaliers jersey as his favorite simply because, as he puts it, "I haven't seen anyone else with that one." Indeed, in Bobbito's book there's a dorky publicity still of Free himself, circa 1974, when he was Lloyd Free, a Brooklyn-bred gunner for Guilford ( N.C.) College. He's wearing mismatched Chuck Taylors, one high black and one low black, and practically screaming, "You've never seen anyone else in these!"
That hey-look-at-me urge seems to be primordial. Which suggests that, as long as there's fresh product in the pipeline, someone will wear it, if only to set himself apart, to collect on Reuben Harley's solemn promise: "Every jersey we make, you're gonna get a comment." At the same time, Jay-Z's farewell record, The Black Album, includes a cut called What More Can I Say, and some culture vultures wonder if one line—and I don't wear jerseys I'm thirty plus—may signal the beginning of the end of retro fashion.
In any case, now that we're lousy with retro shoes and retro shirts and retro caps and retro sweats and retro headbands, it's impossible not to wonder if someone will fill the lone niche remaining. We're talking, of course, about true retro shorts. Mention this to Big Rube, and his face registers discomfort, contempt and every emotion in between. (Is it John Stockton he's picturing? Isiah Thomas? Bob Kurland in satin Marilyn Monroes?) "I call 'em coochie cutters," Harley says, shaking his head emphatically. "No. The culture wouldn't accept it."
It's the culture, after all, that leaks the gas. Long before a Reuben Harley or Bobbito Garcia or Claude Johnson puts a match to it.