The Definitive Uni Watch Guide to the NBA’s Christmas Uniforms
A look at the best special unis from Christmases past, and a preview of what to expect this year
Christmas is this Saturday, and you know what that means from a sports perspective: wall-to-wall NBA action (at least, pandemic willing, as of press time). The league routinely schedules a slew of games for the big holiday, and this year is no different, with five matchups on tap. And those games are spaced out throughout the day, so if your idea of a fun Christmas is sitting down with some eggnog to watch your favorite players on the hardcourt, the NBA should have you covered from about noon to 11 p.m. Eastern.
But for better or worse — maybe a bit of both — Santa once again failed to bring any special Christmas uniforms for this year’s NBA games, continuing a Yuletide uni drought that’s been going on for several seasons now. The teams playing on Saturday will just wear their regular uniforms, not holiday-themed designs. Humbug!
As longtime basketball fans and uni aesthetes know, it wasn’t always this way. From 2008 through 2016, the NBA used its Christmas Day uniforms as a shout-out to the holiday — first with strategic color matchups and then with new uni designs (some of which were definitely more successful than others).
So in the spirit of the holiday, let’s look at the ghosts of Christmases past by ranking the NBA’s six Yuletide uni approaches from 2008 through 2016, going from worst to first — or, to stay in the Christmas swing of things, from naughty to nice.
6. 2013: “Big Logo”
In a low point for Christmas in general and the NBA in particular, the league and Adidas decided to dress the players in sleeved jerseys with silver-ish chest logos and no uni numbers on the front. The program was called “Big Logo,” but it was more of a big lump of coal in everyone’s stocking, with the players looking like they were wearing novelty pajamas. Let the record show that the 10 teams saddled with these uniforms were the Nets and Bulls (shown above); the Knicks and Thunder; the Clippers and Warriors; the Heat and Lakers; and the Rockets and Spurs.
5. 2012: “Big Color”
In what apparently seemed like a good idea at the pitch meeting (although it’s hard to see how), the teams playing on Christmas Day wore graphics that matched the base color of their jerseys, making the team names, player names, and uni numbers virtually impossible to read from a distance of more than two or three feet. “Big Color,” they called it. Not as brutal as Big Logo, but still pretty bad. Unlucky teams that got stuck wearing these included the Lakers and Knicks (shown above); the Celtics and Nets; the Heat and Thunder; the Clippers and Nuggets; and the Bulls and Rockets.
4. 2014: First-Name Basis
No “Big [Whatever]” branding this time, thankfully. The gimmick this year involved putting the players’ first names on the back of the uniforms, and putting the names below the numbers on a contrasting nameplate. Why? The best answer anyone has ever come up with appears to be “Eh, why not?” Not a good slate of uniforms, but at least they were sleeveless and you could actually read the typography, so that was a plus. Participating teams: the Warriors and Clippers (see above); the Lakers and Bulls; the Spurs and Thunder; the Cavs and Heat; and the Knicks and Wizards.
3. 2008-2011: Green, Red and Snowflakes
Before the NBA and Adidas started coming up with separate holiday uniforms, the league spent several seasons trying to schedule red-vs.-green uni matchups for Christmas Day. They were never able to do it for the full slate of Dec. 25 games in any given season — there are only so many teams that wear green, after all — but it was a fun way to acknowledge the holiday. In addition, the NBA logo on the front of the jersey was given a snowflake treatment, even for teams that weren’t wearing red or green. (This was before the league logo was moved to the back of the jersey to make room for ad patches.) It all sounds very tame by today’s standards, and the red/green thing probably wasn’t a hit with deuteranopiacs, but it worked better than most of the Christmas Day uniforms that followed over the next few years.
2. 2016: Christmas Card Redux
Ah, that’s more like it. This was actually the second iteration of a design motif that had debuted the year before (we’ll get to that in a minute). All the uniforms featured classy jersey scripts that were inspired by old-fashioned Christmas cards. No sleeves, no gimmicks, no nonsense — just a simple, straightforward approach that actually felt appropriate for the holiday. Teams decked out in these included the Knicks and Celtics (shown above); the Clippers and Lakers; the Bulls and Spurs; the Warriors and Cavs; and the Thunder and Timberwolves.
1. 2015: The Original Christmas Card
This was the first year of the Christmas card theme, and this time Santa really delivered. The difference between the these uniforms and the ones that followed a year later is that the 2015 designs all featured an off-white parchment tone (usually for the graphics, but sometimes as the uniform’s base color) that worked really well — better, in most cases, than the team colors that were used in 2016. This was the one year when the league and Adidas really nailed it. The teams lucky enough to wear these were the Thunder and Bulls (shown above); the Warriors and Cavs; the Pelicans and Heat; the Spurs and Rockets; and the Lakers and Clippers.
As it turned out, the last year of the Christmas uniforms — 2016 — was also the last year of Adidas’ NBA contract. When Nike took over as the league’s uniform outfitter in 2017, most observers expected — or feared — that the Christmas uni designs would get bigger, bolder and more over-the-top, because that’s Nike’s usual playbook for just about everything.
Instead, there were no holiday uniforms in 2017, as teams just wore their standard uniforms. “OK,” people said to themselves, “so maybe Nike didn’t have enough time to get everything set up for Christmas this year, but they’ll definitely have some dope Christmas jerseys next year.” But when Christmas 2018 rolled around, what we got instead was the launch of the “Earned” uniform program (the mostly awful “bonus” uniforms that teams get to wear if they made the playoffs the previous season), which had nothing to do with the holiday. New Christmas unis also failed to appear in 2019, 2020, and now 2021.
Nike and the NBA have both shown a willingness to flood the market with as many jerseys as possible, often for seemingly frivolous reasons, so why would they abandon the holiday theme? Neither the league nor Nike has ever provided an explanation, but the answer probably has something to do with this: Nobody knows which NBA teams will be playing on Christmas Day until mid-August, when the league’s schedule is released. But retailers have to place their orders for holiday product much earlier in the year than that. During the Adidas era, this meant that Adidas had to design Christmas uniforms for all 30 teams, just to be safe, and retailers then had to guess which teams’ Christmas jerseys to stock, sometimes ending up with Christmas product for teams that, as it turned out, weren’t even playing on Christmas. The whole thing became a source of stress and resentment for many retailers, which may explain why it was discontinued.
So what will teams be wearing on Christmas Day this year? Here’s a ranking of this Saturday’s uni matchups, once again going from naughty to nice:
5. Hawks (City Edition) at Knicks (City Edition), noon ET
Ugh — two teams wearing colors we don’t normally associate with them. Plus it’s a major wasted opportunity, because the Hawks could have worn their red uniforms and the Knicks could have dusted off their old green St. Paddy’s design. Pfeh.
4. Nets (City Edition) at Lakers (Association Edition), 5 p.m. ET
Not a terrible-looking game, but the Lakers never look right in white. Gold would be the much better option here.
3. Mavericks (City Edition) at Jazz (City Edition), 8:30 p.m. ET
Two fairly solid uniforms, plus Dallas’s design features lots of green trim and Utah’s gradient pattern includes a few stripes of red, so if you squint a bit you can almost convince yourself that this matchup is sorta-kinda Christmas-y!
2. Warriors (Association Edition) at Suns (City Edition), 3 p.m. ET
Here we have a very good-looking game featuring two of the league’s best uni designs. On almost any other day, this matchup would get the nod as your friendly uniform columnist’s top choice. But Dec. 25, of course, is not the same as any other day. Which leads us to …
1. Celtics (City Edition) at Bucks (City Edition), 1:30 p.m. ET
Now here’s a nice gift to find under the tree. There’s something appropriately festive about this uni matchup — it just feels right for the big holiday. Plus Boston’s design, with its green typography on the green base color, recalls the 2012 “Big Color” debacle, so there’s even a uni-nostalgia factor. If there’s only one game you can watch on Saturday, this is the one, at least from a uniform perspective.
And there you have it. Here’s hoping the NBA manages to revive the spirit of the holiday uniforms at some point down the road, even if it just means going back to red/green uni matchups.
Paul Lukas wishes everyone a healthy and happy holiday season. If you like this article, you’ll probably like his daily Uni Watch Blog and his weekly column on Bulletin, plus you can follow him on Twitter and Facebook. Want to learn more about his Uni Watch Membership Program, check out his Uni Watch merchandise, or just ask him a question? Contact him here.
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