Jerry West, the model for the logo of the National Basketball Association, wore basketball shorts the length of loincloths. Michael Jordan inspired a major alteration when he appealed for a longer and baggier cut. Then a group of freshmen at the University of Michigan known as the “Fab Five” became a national sensation in the early 1990s in part because of their sartorial swagger, with shorts that dropped below their knees. For years after, the subject of inseams inspired older observers of the game to fret: How low could they go?
But now the hemline is creeping back up.
In early November, Cleveland Cavaliers superstar LeBron James declared he would wear skinnier and shorter shorts this season, his 13th in the league, because he wanted to present a more professional appearance. But while he is the highest-profile convert to the shorter short, he isn’t the first. The emerging generation of pro basketball players, one that came of age wearing tighter clothes off the floor, beat him to it.
Kelly Oubre Jr., a 20-year-old rookie for the Washington Wizards, rolls up his shorts — at the waistband and from the bottom — for almost every practice and pregame warmup routine, leaving them distinctly shorter and tighter than his peers. He takes a more conservative approach for games, folding only his waistband, but the alteration nonetheless hikes the bottom of the shorts a few inches above his knees, exposing more leg than most NBA players have over the last two decades.
“I just like wearing shorter shorts because I feel more comfortable on the court,” Oubre said. “I don’t have anything swinging, moving around.”
Oubre is part of a subtle countermovement. From high school ranks through college, basketball players have increasingly chosen short and skinny over long and baggy in recent years in keeping with off-court trends. The vogue is seeping into the professional level.
“The baggy shorts had its run,” Jalen Rose, an NBA analyst for ESPN and, as a member of the Fab Five, a forefather of baggy shorts. “It’s been 20 years.”
From Walt Frazier’s extravagant fur coats in the 1970s to the oversize throwback jerseys at the turn of the century, basketball and fashion have interwoven for decades. But never has the synergy percolated as it does today. Stars such as Russell Westbrook of the Oklahoma City Thunder and Dwyane Wade of the Miami Heat have extended their celebrity into the fashion world. They propel trends, their daring off-court attire analyzed as much as their spectacular in-game performance.
The luminaries are aren’t the league’s only fashion-conscious personalities. Oubre, whose haircut is a Mohawk-Afro fusion with a dyed splash in the back, garnered wide attention when he attended the NBA draft in June in spiked white dress slippers. And while uniform measurements are not as quick to change as the fashions modeled before and after games, history illustrates that they, too, are subject to deviations in taste.
“On-court fashion often reflects general fashion trends as well,” said Long Nguyen, co-founder of Flaunt, a fashion and culture magazine. “Basketball is always more a street sport. Therefore, the street fashion is more influential for the players, and a lot of players grew up on street fashion, and they know the changes in street fashion. It’s much more so in basketball than in any other sport. And during the hip-hop era, when jeans were really big, T-shirts were really big, jacket were huge, everything was XXL on the court.”
By the end of the 1990s, short shorts were taboo. They effectively vanished with the retirement in 2003 of Hall of Fame point guard John Stockton, the NBA’s final prominent displayer of upper-leg skin.
“Bigger shorts were the way to go,” Wizards point guard Ramon Sessions, an eight-year NBA veteran, said. “And if anybody had small shorts, they might’ve said something to you, like joking around about it.”
As knees disappeared, fingers began to wag, and an image-conscious league took steps. The NBA introduced a rule in 1997 requiring that shorts must not drop below one inch above the knee and periodically cracked down by fining players.
In October 2005, Commissioner David Stern made the NBA the first major pro sports league to implement a dress code, mandating that players wear business-casual attire to and from games and during official league events. The move was widely criticized as a racist dictate against a work force dominated by young African American players who favored hip-hop clothing staples such as baggy jeans, fitted baseball caps, jerseys and oversize T-shirts.
But by then, Nguyen explained, clothing in hip-hop was already undergoing a drastic shift from oversize to slim. It was only a matter of time before another off-court fashion development trickled into basketball.
“Those uniforms were never built for the athlete’s body,” said Nguyen, who added he believes basketball shorts will never grow as baggy as they once were. “It was almost contrary. If you see that from an aerodynamic perspective, those uniforms aren’t really conducive. It’s not aerodynamic at all. And now the fashion, for the last few years, really, has been going to the slim[-fitted]. It’s suiting. It’s jeans. Even for hip-hop guys.”
Some players attest to making the switch for practical reasons. In 2011, Will Cummings, then a freshman guard at Temple, began rolling up his extra-large shorts simply because they were too big on him. They settled above his knee, and he quickly grew accustomed to them. The following year, he downsized to a large but still rolled up his shorts.
“I really was just thinking, ‘Man, if I’m able to do a crossover through my legs without the ball hitting my shorts, I’m going to keep it like this,’ “ said Cummings, who now plays for the Rio Grande Valley Vipers of the D-League, the NBA’s minor league. “It didn’t even matter. I was just trying to get my shorts shorter so I can play.”
As Cummings’s college career progressed and younger players cycled through the program, teammates began catching on. By last season, his senior year, he noticed several opponents also wearing snugger shorts for fashion purposes.
Last season, NBA veteran Chris Douglas-Roberts requested size medium shorts when he signed with the Los Angeles Clippers, a choice that required a special order by the team. He explained that the shorter shorts, which he said sat six inches above his knee and displayed his compression shorts underneath, allowed him to move more freely laterally while playing defense.
Douglas-Roberts was an extreme example, but players around the league have requested uniforms a size or two smaller than in recent years, and warmups issued by Adidas, the league’s licensed apparel provider, now include tapered pants.
“If I could bring some of those old warmup pants in, man, them things probably going up to here right now,” the Wizards’ Drew Gooden III, a 6-foot-10 forward drafted in 2002, said while pointing to his chest. “It’s crazy. We were wearing them low, sagging. They were so wide in the legs. Now I got extra-large warmups. Before it was a 4XL [T-shirt] and all that.”
The movement toward short shorts is not universal, and those sported today are not nearly as revealing as those worn up through Stockton’s generation. Players often wear compression shorts to cover their upper legs, and some don full-length tights.
“I see LeBron shortened the apparel and his shorts, but he’s not going back to Isiah Thomas or John Stockton,” Rose said. “So they’re kind of cheating it. But it’s fine.”
Jared Dudley and other Wizards players admitted their shorts have shrunk in recent years but assured they wouldn’t play in anything too snug because they would feel uncomfortable revealing too much. Most placed the limit at mid-thigh.
“I also think it depends on your body type,” Dudley said. “Some guys can get away with it being chiseled up.”
Notions of masculinity are an underlying factor in the bend towards tighter, shorter and smaller clothes — but also, it seems, in setting limits on how tight, short and small. Oubre has received some lighthearted ribbing from teammates for his wardrobe choices for his less conservative look. He also said a fan heckled him for wearing his shorts high and tight during a pregame warmup session.
“I don’t care about what anybody has to say about my shorts,” Oubre said.
Oubre has yet to wear his game shorts at their shorter practice length but says he intends to. His style — on and off the court — is slim.
“I’m a lean guy, so I don’t believe in wearing baggy stuff,” he said. “It makes me look leaner and skinnier. I’m starting to get some leg muscles now that I’ve been in the NBA, so I’m just trying to show those off.”