Why Did NBA Basketball Players’ Shorts Get Longer?

Basketball is a sport of strength and skill, but style plays a massive part in the game. The way players wear their jerseys, shorts, and shoes has impacted the pop culture scene, from the rise of the Converse Chuck Taylor sneakers to the length of NBA players’ shorts. It was once commonplace to have players hike their shorts up as far as the thigh would allow. Now, that style choice is typically laughed at. 

But when did that trend change in the league? In other words, why did NBA players’ shorts get longer? And when?

Sit back and take a trip down memory lane while we summarize basketball short length through the years. Enjoy!

The Shorts Of Yesteryear

As a 38-year old hoops fan, I can remember watching NBA games during the late ‘80s and early ‘90s and thinking how silly the players looked rocking the tight shorts on the court. It was almost as if each team made a pair of shorts the length of current-day boxer briefs. 

However, these lengths were nothing compared to what hoopers wore in the ‘50s and ‘60s.

During the 1920s, basketball players actually wore padded pants down to the knee, which looked similar to American football pants. Their jerseys were also more football-esque in style and fit.

Once they shifted to more breathable materials and game conditions improved, uniforms changed. Players scraped the padded pants and baggier jerseys for a more form-fitted look. In the ‘60s, players wore shorts with a three-inch in, seam not leaving a lot of room for the players in terms of movement space. 

The ‘70s and ‘80s were no better, although that all changed when one star requested an adjustment.

Michael Jordan: Basketball Shorts Trailblazer?

Jordan will always be known for changing NBA basketball for the better. Many Jordan fans may not know how big a role he played in changing basketball uniforms in the process. 

There were a couple of different reasons cited for MJ’s need for a longer short. The first was that he was tired of continuously having to pull his shorts down while playing defense. The game was getting more demanding and physical, and Jordan didn’t believe the uniform he wore was conducive to his style of play. Being the star that he was, the Bulls’ uniform manufacturer, Champion, accommodated His Airness. 

The second reason was superstitious: Jordan wanted to wear his University of North Carolina shorts under his Bulls shorts for good luck. The shorts were too snug initially, but the adjustment in short length made it possible and made Jordan a happy hooper.

The Fab Five

In 1993, the Michigan Wolverines fielded a starting 5 of all Freshmen for the first time in NCAA history. They became basketball and pop culture phenoms that saw the game as an expression of their lives. While many old-school fans didn’t approve of how the Fab Five carried themselves, they couldn’t deny their impact on the game.

Those freshmen were brash, arrogant, and passionate on the court, which intimidated their opponents. But they walked the walk, making two back-to-back NCAA Final Fours. In fact, they were one colossal mistake away from a possible NCAA title. 

Another thing they impacted was how ballers wore their uniforms. They wore slick Nike Huarache sneakers, black Nike socks, and the baggiest shorts any b-ball fan had ever seen.

Sure, the Fab Five weren’t an NBA team, but the entire basketball world saw what was happening and hopped on the bandwagon quickly. 

The “Death” of Short Shorts

Many cite 2003 as a pivotal year in the lifespan of short shorts. This was the year Utah Jazz Hall of Famer and short-short enthusiast John Stockton retired from the NBA. He had a storied 19-year career defined by his ability to simplify the game while displaying his shiny white thighs as much as possible.   

Stockton was old school, so it made sense that he didn’t break down any barriers in the world of fashion. He is the NBA leader in career assists, but he will never be on any passing highlight reels: most of his dimes were simple drive-and-kicks or pick-n-roll pocket passes to Karl Malone.

This picture with fellow Hall of Fame running mate Karl Malone shows the length at which Stockton would go to ensure those tight shorts didn’t creep too low towards the knee.

Out Of Control: Short Lengths in the 2000s

Photo courtesy throwbackstore.com

While most of us would agree that basketball shorts were too short in the “old days,” many probably didn’t expect it to go to the lengths (literally) that they did in the 2000s. By this time, the inseam of basketball shorts had skyrocketed to eleven inches. It was not uncommon to see a player with their shorts all the way down to their shin.

As someone who wore shorts like those in late high school and early college, let me tell you: they were problematic. I would have to roll the waistband once or twice to shorten them while playing to avoid in-game mishaps.

Ultra-long shorts were a momentary fad—and like most fads from your childhood, you can’t help but chuckle when you see them nowadays.

Ironically, while the shorts got longer, the jerseys actually tightened up. This was a smart move. The tighter a player’s uniform fits, the less it gets in his or her way. 

Short Shorts: A Comeback?

The recent short-short renaissance has sent a breath of fresh air (pardon the pun) among many NBA fans. The long, baggy look had its time; everything is cyclical. Even founding Fab Five member Jalen Rose acknowledged in 2016 that it had been quite a while since the Michigan crew revolutionized basketball fashion.

It’s no coincidence, either. Many pop-culture experts couldn’t help but notice the short-short comeback mirroring a shorter, tighter fashion trend of late. 

But fashion isn’t the only reason behind the move to the high-and-tight look. Athletes are always studying ways to improve their game. Long, baggy shorts and jerseys are simply not a very aerodynamic approach to playing a sport of inches like basketball. 

Many players have cited comfort and security as reasons behind the switch. Kelly Oubre Jr., a six-year NBA veteran, said he “doesn’t have anything swinging, moving around” while on the court, which helps his game.

In the most high-profile shorts switch to date, LeBron James entered the 2015-16 season with a more form-fitting jersey and shorts look to “present a more professional appearance.” When this generation’s GOAT makes the switch, the masses listen. Shockwaves were heard all across the basketball globe. High schoolers, college players, and several NBA guys decided to follow suit.

Here is a list of all of the players in the league who have rocked, or still do rock, the short shorts. Check them out at an arena near you:

  1. LeBron James
  2. Kelly Oubre Jr.
  3. Tyler Herro
  4. Kent Bazemore
  5. Gary Trent Jr.
  6. Jaylen Brown
  7. John Collins
  8. Russell Westbrook

Final Thoughts

The way you wear your basketball uniform may say more about fashion rather than functionality. Nevertheless, shorter shorts for performance reasons is a good move for players in the league. My guess is that you will continue to see the game’s younger talent enter the NBA with their high school and college uniform look. That means we’ll probably see some throwback John Stockton shorties. Who’s getting the last laugh now?

Be honest: do you rock the short-shorts when you play ball? Let us know your preference below in the comments!

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