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The Broadside (Transcript): Purple, teal and the rise of basketball fashion

Anisa Khalifa: 35 years ago in Charlotte, North Carolina, an iconic fit made its debut.

Unidentified Speaker: The Washington Post headline was my most memorable and said, Hoop couture: Julian designs pro uniforms and is paid in pork. And it just, you know, went everywhere and everybody was so excited about it when the team finally came out. They just went crazy.

Anisa Khalifa: I’m Anisa Khalifa. This week on The Broadside, we explore a pivotal moment in fashion history when purple and teal ruled the world — and we'll trace the connection between international clothing trends and one of America's most successful cultural exports: basketball.

Dear listener — today we are taking you back to 1988. Ronald Reagan was president.

Ronald Reagan: My fellow Americans, this week was the start of the eighth year of my presidency…

Anisa Khalifa: Greed was good.

Unidentified Speaker: An Oliver Stone film: Wall Street.

Unidentified Speaker: Greed, for lack of a better word, is good.

Anisa Khalifa: And the very first computer virus began to spread on the early internet, a full year before the world wide web as we know it would even exist. But here in North Carolina, the biggest news was the arrival of professional basketball. On November 4th, 1988, the Charlotte Hornets made their debut in the NBA.

Like most expansion sports teams, they were overmatched — and frankly… kind of terrible. They lost that first game by 40 points. And things wouldn’t get much better. The Hornets finished with the second-worst record in the league that year. But they looked incredible while doing it. Purple, teal, and pinstriped. The jersey and shorts they wore that year were the work of one visionary…

Alexander Julian: In ‘81, I was the youngest inductee to the fashion Hall of Fame at the time. You know, I beat Calvin Klein for the first Cutty Sark menswear award. I'm given credit for bringing tasteful color into modern American Menswear.

Anisa Khalifa: In the late 80s, Alexander Julian was a young fashion designer having big success. Along with folks like Ralph Lauren, he was at the forefront of bringing high fashion to the masses — and one of the icons of preppy style. But he was also a major college basketball fan.

Alexander Julian: I was born and raised in Chapel Hill. If you don't like basketball, and you're born and raised in Chapel Hill, they leave you on the edge of that town over there called Durham.

Anisa Khalifa: As the Hornets prepared for their NBA debut, they needed to find someone to design their jerseys. And they wanted to make a splash. So instead of going to a sports apparel company, they chose Alexander — a North Carolinian with high fashion cred.

Alexander Julian: And so I was the first professional fashion designer to design NBA uniforms. It was completely unheard of. It was revolutionary.

Anisa Khalifa: When George Shinn, the owner of the new team, initially reached out to Alexander about the project, he didn’t offer much guidance. But he did ask if it would be possible to incorporate some of the colors that architects had chosen for the new team’s arena. As Shinn ran down the list, one jumped out…

Alexander Julian: And I said teal. And he said yeah, teal. I said, teal is one of my signature colors. Teal and purple are two of my signature colors. I use them because they look good on every skin tone. And they were not in the NBA at that time.

Anisa Khalifa: He quickly got to work on the prototypes. Along with his trademark colors, he added a few other Alexander Julian touches: pinstripes, knitted into the jerseys...

Alexander Julian: And then I did the world's first pleated basketball shorts.

Anisa Khalifa: That’s right. Pleated… basketball shorts. The bold colors were already a big leap, but the shorts were a major change from what was popular at the time, in more ways than one.

Alexander Julian: I was influenced by Michael Jordan, as a as a Tar Heel and and you know, it was playing in the NBA and was wearing oversized shorts, and nobody else was. And so I, you know, increased the length of the shorts and and the circumference of the legs so that it was a longer, baggier short.

Anisa Khalifa: Now, he says they were baggy, but you can watch the dramatic unveiling of the original uniform on YouTube, and I will just say — these shorts are very short and quite tight. Still, there were a lot of nerves about how it would all go over. And a lot of eyeballs were following the story.

Alexander Julian: We had incredible national press before they played the first game. And part of it is because of my payment choice.

Anisa Khalifa: As we’ve already established, Alexander is a proud North Carolinian.

Alexander Julian: I’m a Tar Heel born and a Tar Heel bred, when I die I’m a Tar Heel dead.

Anisa Khalifa: And that led him to come up with one of the most unusual contracts in American history.

Alexander Julian: I went [on] my first trip down to Charlotte, to work on these. And George said, you know, am I gonna be able to afford you to design these for me. And I said, George, it would be my honor to design these free of charge, I'd be honored to do this. But if you sell copies of these uniforms, I'd like my usual 5%.

Anisa Khalifa: But due to complicated rules about profit sharing within the NBA, Shinn claimed he couldn't give him a cut of the sales.

Alexander Julian: So I said, Well, let me think about it. So, you know, I was living in Connecticut. And, it occurred to me early one morning you know, what good is more money if you can't buy Carolina barbecue in Connecticut, you know? So I called him up and I said, George, I got a deal for you. What is it? I said, I'll trade you ownership of the Hornets uniform design for five pounds of Carolina barbecue a month, FedExed to me in Connecticut. And you know, I think he was rather pleased, shall we say, that he had been able to pull that off.

Anisa Khalifa: With attention and pressure mounting, the Hornets finally unveiled the uniforms at a press conference featuring Alexander and player Kelly Trepucka. The reaction was strong.

Alexander Julian: It was a major heart-in-your-throat kind of thing to see if people were going to go for that. And they went for it in a huge, huge way.

Unidentified Speaker: Hello again everybody. Along with Steve Jones, Skip Carray, welcoming you to another night of NBA basketball.

Anisa Khalifa: Despite the fact that the Hornets lacked a superstar player, it was one of the most popular jerseys that the NBA had ever seen.

Unidentified Speaker: This is the hottest ticket in a long time in Charlotte…

Anisa Khalifa: And they flew off the shelves.

Alexander Julian: So I traded my usual 5% for five pounds of Carolina barbecue and you know they sold 300 million, so I basically — George got rich and I got fat.

Anisa Khalifa: The influence of the design was widespread and unmistakable. According to the sports fashion blog Uni Watch, of the 22 new or renamed major North American sports teams in the 1990s, 11 used at least one of Alexander's signature colors. Two used both purple and teal. But they all owe a debt of gratitude to Alexander Julian and the 1988 Charlotte Hornets.

Alexander Julian: You know, it's a sign that you did the right thing. It's flattering, and yet at the same time, consterning a bit, because you take a huge risk to bring out something new, and it's scary as can be. And then it goes over big. And it goes over so big that everybody copies it.

Anisa Khalifa: Coming up after the break, we’ll dive into the lasting impact of this iconic fit and find out how the design launched a worldwide sports fashion craze, along with a little help from another famous North Carolinian.

I'm Anisa Khalifa, and we're back with the Broadside. The Hornets jersey signaled a global movement that changed basketball -– and fashion — for good. And that's a story writer, filmmaker and fashion maven Crystal McCrary McGuire is working on telling, in a forthcoming docuseries called Tunnel to Runway: The History of Fashion in the NBA. Crystal has a unique and personal connection to the topic.

Crystal McCrary McGuire: I would say my closest introduction to basketball fashion, quite honestly would be when my former husband played for the New York Knicks in the 90s.

Anisa Khalifa: And I want to focus on that time period because the catalyst for this conversation is the 1988 Hornets jersey, which was one of the first pieces of NBA apparel to really start a broader fashion trend. But you can’t talk about that era without mentioning another figure who also came out of North Carolina—Michael Jordan. So how did his emerging star power impact how people viewed sports fashion?

Crystal McCrary McGuire: Right, well, well, one of the things about Michael Jordan coming out of North Carolina, going to UNC — my son Cole Anthony, who plays in the NBA now for the Orlando Magic, he also went to UNC, you know, go Tar Heels! I gotta get that in there. Um, the influence and impact and reach of the NBA grew exponentially under the marketing opportunities that came about because of Michael Jordan. You know, this singular, you know, once in a in a two generation player who was so extraordinary on the court, but also just incredibly marketable off the court.

And he was this, essentially, this brand ambassador for the NBA, a global brand ambassador. I mean, here you have a Black athlete on a cereal box, that families of every color, every ethnicity, every religion would, you know, would see this, you know, Black man's face on their cereal box in the morning and in advertisements across, you know, multiple brands. And that sort of being the backdrop of this Charlotte Hornets jersey just was an expansion, and a continuation, again, of the boldness, and the reach of, you know, anything within the NBA ecosystem. But that's how much Michael Jordan became a part of the zeitgeist.

Anisa Khalifa: Connecting the dots to today. How would you define basketball fashion? What is basketball fashion?

Crystal McCrary McGuire: Well, basketball fashion today, 2024, has really obviously evolved for a host of reasons. But I would say now, it's inextricably linked to a player's personal brand, a player's personal sense of identity, which varies from player to player. You know, we see players now who use fashion for protest. Whether they're wearing — remember, they were wearing the "I can't breathe" t-shirts, after Eric Garner's death by the police in New York. And the NBA has come on board with that as well, understanding that social justice and criminal justice reform is something very important to their players. And so of course they have to reflect what is important to their players.

But then I've also seen, you know, players now with their personal brand expressing themselves, fashion through their hair, fashion, through body art and tattoos, fashion through their jewelry, and of course, high fashion, because you now have players that over the last decade-plus that are fixtures at New York Fashion Week. Fixtures at Paris Fashion Week, you know, sitting next to Anna Wintour. Players like Russell Westbrook, who's sort of like the maverick of NBA, the modern day era of, you know, the NBA fashion icon.

Top professional athletes from around the world but in particular, NBA players are a part of the fashion canon around the globe. And they've really expanded on their brands beyond just what they're doing on the court, beyond just the sneaker company that they may be endorsing. So I think more than anything, fashion today in the NBA, it's of course tied to the culture, which varies from player to player, but it's really tied to their individual brand.

Anisa Khalifa: And do you think you know, outside of the basketball world, outside of the fashion world, for people who aren't closely connected or who aren't fans, has it changed the way we dress? Has it changed the way that people relate to fashion in any way?

Crystal McCrary McGuire: Well, I think it's similar with any sort of celebrity, public figure, icon. You have people looking to what they're wearing to, you know, imitate it. Which is, again, which is why they're so sought after, whether you know, it's a shoe company or you know, a high level designer that wants the because their influence, you know, they have swag, they're looking to — with any of these, you know, in the fashion space, they're looking to capitalize on the following and influence of the NBA players that have this massive fan base, domestically and globally.

Anisa Khalifa: Today, players are style icons on and off the court. NBA teams, in particular, obsess over every aspect of their uniform designs, sometimes releasing 4 or 5 variations a year. And sports jersey sales are a big business that generates billions of dollars annually.

The world of sports fashion has come a long way since the debut of the Charlotte Hornets, but even way back then, fashion designer Alexander Julian could see a glimpse of the future. Whenever he’s asked about the impact of his iconic purple and teal uniform design, he’s reminded of a phone call he received in 1991 from Hornets owner George Shinn.

Alexander Julian: And he said Alex, I just went to China. And guess what happened? I was on an airplane in China. And there was a boy wearing a hornet's cap. And I got a translator. And I went over and I said, Tell me, do you love the Hornets? And the boy said, I don't know who the Hornets are. I just like the colors.

Anisa Khalifa: This episode of The Broadside was produced by me, Anisa Khalifa, and our editor Jerad Walker. Our executive producer is Wilson Sayre. Special thanks to Maria Villanueva for her help this week.

The Broadside is a production of WUNC–North Carolina Public Radio. You can email us at broadside@wunc.org. If you enjoyed the show, leave us a rating, a review, or share it with a friend! Thanks for listening y'all. We'll be back next week.