Gilded jerseys inspire the lost art of winning

Crappy franchises get new daily reminders that they weren't always crappy

by on July 24, 2014

The Milkwaukee Bucks and the Philadelphia 76ers might be to struggling to gain any lick of respect in the NBA, but next season they will be served a constant reminder that they were once great.

Beginning in the 2014-15 season, based on information from a leaked adidas catalogue, teams that have won an NBA title will sport a small golden tab on the back of their jersey. It is in line with the traditions of International and European football clubs to add a new tab for every championship earned, but instead of adding a new band each time NBA teams will have the number of championships pressed onto the tab.

While this adjustment to NBA jerseys may be aesthetically small, the ramifications of this tiny gold rectangle have been larger than expected.

For a Sixers team coming off a historically bad season and the somehow worse-than-historically-bad Bucks, the juxtaposition of where they are to where they have been is glaring. The Bucks are one of seven active franchises that have won a single NBA championship, and one of four (along with Washington, Portland and Dallas) that have remained in the city where they were victorious.

The ’77 Blazers and the ’10 Mavericks can confirm that championships often come and go before they can be appreciated. In 1971, in their third NBA season, the Milwaukee Bucks traded Flynn Robinson and Charlie Faulk to the Cincinnati Royals in exchange for Oscar Robertson, having already been a 9-time first team All-NBA player. The year prior they had drafted Lou Alcindor, the three-time champion center for the UCLA Bruins, and a player so good they changed the rules to make him less effective (and somehow he became more effective). With two of the greatest to play the game, one at the beginning of his career and the other at the end, the Bucks went on to win a then record 66 games, including a then record 20 games straight. Oscar only averaged 19/8/6, no doubt deferring to Alcindor and his MVP-worthy 32/16/3 on 58% shooting. In the playoffs, the Bucks would only lose two games before sweeping the Baltimore Bullets in the Finals.

As quickly as the Bucks came together, they came apart. Oscar Robertson would never be an All-NBA player ever again and would retire two seasons later. The day after winning and being named Finals MVP, on May 1, 1971, Alcindor adopted his Muslim name, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and three seasons later he would request a trade to Los Angeles where the 7’2” gentle giant would take his game and his new name to legendary heights.

The point of this is that all of this happened even though the Bucks have been a punchline to a joke no one watches on League Pass. Oscar and Kareem occupy a space in NBA mythology because of their play in other places — Oscar’s mind-boggling statistical seasons where all in Cincinnati, and Kareem would go on to play 13 seasons and win five championships in Los Angeles — but for Bucks fans and NBA fans alike, a championship 33 years ago is something still worth celebrating in some small, memorable way. An NBA championship is permanent. Banners hung in arenas exist to be those reminders, gilding jerseys of title teams brings that pride to the court level, perfectly visible in broadcast HD. After all, winning is the point of this whole get together. Champions be celebrated with permanence. Rubbed in, if necessary.

Fans of truly crappy teams quickly forget that winning can ever be a possibility. With eight champions in the past thirty years, and even with efforts put forth in collective bargaining to create competitive parity in the NBA, there are still never more than five to ten teams who can expect to have a reasonable shot at an NBA championship in any given season. (Realistically, that number is usually around three.) Fanbases of the league’s most forlorn franchises have barely sniffed anywhere beyond the first round of the playoffs and there are generations of fans with zero expectations for success. Suddenly, the Bucks and Sixers, and also the Lakers, Celtics and Pistons, get a constant reminder of the point of it all every time they step into their locker room.

So far in his tenure as commissioner, Adam Silver’s M.O. does not appear to be rewarding failure with reward. In short, he wants to create parity but by having teams work for it. Some of the innovations coming from summer meetings and committees haven’t made the news cycle like others have, but bolstering the D-League as a true avenue to develop readily available talent for each team and discouraging tanking by evening up draft odds among the league’s non-playoff teams are both small means of achieving parity without resorting to charity. During David Stern’s tenure, it was a dirty, obvious secret that upwards of 80% of teams had no hopes of winning a championship, and in turns teams were able to tank in spectacular ways without derision or judgement. The start of a rebuilding process was less about actually building a better team and more about a general manager’s sense of self-preservation and buying a few years or so from beleagured fans before they lose interest entirely. Adam Silver sees the problem here and is attempting to bring the NBA back towards a meritocracy, and part of this is to find more ways to recognize winning. Separating past NBA champions and from franchises with nothing to show for their history is a small but ideologically important act.

It gets tricky for the three franchises that have won a championship while playing in a city that is no longer their home, as time and distance make it hard to maintain that connection. The St. Louis Hawks won the franchises’ sole NBA championship in 1951 and the Rochester Royals did the same in 1958, but these franchises now based in Atlanta and Sacramento are not going to honour those championships with a gilded tab. The success of teams from more than a half-century ago have little or nothing to do with the current identity of a team that has since been transplanted across the continent.

As you can imagine, the case with the Oklahoma City Thunder and 1979 championship of the Seattle Supersonics gets a little nastier. While they reap the benefits of players drafted by the Sonics and retain the rights to the Sonics franchise records and history, the Thunder have been reluctant to take on the identity of the former Seattle team.

In an interview with Christopher Arena, the NBA’s VP of outfitting, identity and equipment, he told The Oklahoman, “As of right now, they are not wearing it. … We have several teams who have a lineage that exists prior to the city that they’re in … Some teams embrace that past, some teams don’t. Whether it’s because of ownership changes or perhaps the lineage is too great of a distance or the team nickname changed or whatever it may be, that’s their decision.”

Back in Washington state, pride for their basketball team lives on: the Sonics may fade from recent memory but the wealth of knowledge about the team and its history grows deeper as they refuse to ever forget what they once had, including their lone NBA championship. Unlike the Hawks and Kings whose winning and moving come decades prior, a known history of linkages and connections exist today alongside fans who actively celebrate those Sonics teams. Players and coaches from that 1979 championship team — Lenny Wilkens, Jack Sikma, Dennis Johnson — are very much still part of the NBA community. It’s the conversation no one wants to have while both sides of this nasty break-up are in the room, yet when we have never been more aware of history than we are now, the link between the Thunder and the Sonics will always be more than a footnote.

In this glaring rejection of Sonics history, Oklahoma City are willingly joining the ranks of teams that will have to earn their own golden tab: Phoenix, Atlanta, Denver, Utah, Indiana, Brooklyn, LA Clippers, Cleveland, Orlando, Charlotte, New Orleans, Sacramento, Toronto, and Memphis.

Of course, simply changing a detail of the jerseys actually changes nothing about competitive parity in the NBA. The only tabbed jersey NBA teams are going to fear is that of the Spurs — their golden tab being very much a symbol of who the Spurs are currently, not who the Spurs used to be, and they are the only team able to make that claim. For the rest, it is a small psychological talisman that can matter absolutely or not at all. It might help some players keep their eyes on the prize during a long February road trip, the lack of it on their jersey night in and night out may propel a team to want it more, and some players — *cough* Dwyane Wade *cough* — might use it as a crutch or badge of recognition for services rendered.

This addition is more confirmation that the NBA desires innovation, and that they are open to anything. If gilding the jerseys happens this year, do they go the next step towards European football traditions and adopt a mid-season tournament? Things that seemed like they could never happen two years are suddenly a real possibility. I encourage more of this.

A small tab is a giant reminder that winning is not just some side effect of doing business, but should be the goal of even the worst teams. Right now the history of the NBA is still very much alive, but it won’t be forever. As the true legends of the NBA get older the time for the NBA to recognize them is now. Bill Russell has long been given the spotlight in high profile moments during these last few years, but gilding jerseys of title teams fills in some of the less popular parts of history. The Bad Boys Pistons live on, as do Bill Walton and Dr. Jack Ramsay, Oscar and Alcindor, Willis Reed, Hakeem, Dirk. The NBA wanted to respect the history of their game, and in turn also found a way to emphasize the dignity of the sport.

is the founder, editor and designer of Flagrant Fowl.

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