Grant Hill Was an Icon of the Animated NBA of My Youth

The 2018 inductees to the Basketball Hall of Fame is a great cast of characters. There is Steve Nash, arguably the most to watch player in my basketball basketball-viewing life. There is Jason Kidd, who was my favorite player to root against not named Kobe Bryant. There is Ray Allen, who went toe-to-toe onscreen with Denzel Washington in a Spike Lee film, was a crucial part of the only Celtics title in my lifetime (and the feud between Allen and the other members of the 2008 Celtics just makes me sad, so my Hall of Fame post is about something completely different), and hit the most clutch, most season-altering three-point shot I have ever seen for the 2013 NBA Champion Miami Heat. Also, Mo Cheeks finally got in. He was before my time, and I assumed he was already in, and his is one of my favorite names in all of sports.

Then there is Grant Hill. The first Duke player to get into the Hall of Fame (aside from Christian Laettner, who was inducted as part of the 1992 Dream Team, but is the only member of that team not also enshrined as an individual), Hill was incredible at his peak, but was diminished by injuries, yet still reinvented himself as a role player and lasted in the NBA until he was 40. His career trajectory was not unlike Ken Griffey Jr.’s was in baseball (though I think Griffey would be higher up in a Bill Simmons-style Hall of Fame Pyramid in his sport than Hill would be): great in his 20s, had bad luck staying healthy and did not become the record breaker people were hoping for, but still had a long and productive career. And as hard to believe that it took until 2018 for a Duke Blue Devil to be inducted as a player, I was even more stunned when Griffey was inducted into Cooperstown, and was the first #1 overall draft pick to earn that honor.

My favorite think about articles about this Hall of Fame class has been all the pictures of those mid-1990s Detroit Pistons uniforms. I did not appreciate as a child in the mid-90s how delightfully cartoonish NBA uniforms had gotten during that period. Some experiments were bolder than others, and some were more effective than others. 

People forget how bad things were for the Golden State Warriors before they became the NBA’s unstoppable force. The current jerseys worn by the Splash Brothers look a lot like what Rick Barry wore in the 1975 Finals. The blue and yellow color scheme held through the Run TMC Era, but then things went dark. Latrell Sprewell choked his coach, Antawn Jamison played for the team with these weird lightning bolt jerseys dark blue and orange that they still had through Steph Curry‘s rookie year. They went back to the blue and yellow, and the Bay Bridge and they almost immediately became amazing. 

The Houston Rockets won back-to-back championships with tight red and white jerseys on the back of the great Hakeem Olajuwon, and immediately changed their jerseys to this pinstriped cartoon craziness that I will always associate with Charles Barkley. What James Harden wears these days is a lot more like the classic Rockets uniform.

Before they moved to Oklahoma City, during Kevin Durant’s rookie year, the Seatle Supersonics’ jerseys looked a lot like the ones they had in the late 1970s when Dennis Johnson was Finals MVP, but in the 90s, they changed their font and a basketball was the dot on the “i” and for some reason orbiting the word “Sonics.” See Gary Payton and Shawn Kemp in the 1996 Finals.

The original Charlotte Hornets (including Dell Curry) moved to New Orleans, and after years as the New Orleans Hornets, changed their name to the Pelicans. When that happened, it allowed the expansion Charlotte Bobcats to change their name to the Hornets. While they went back to the old name and colors, the haven’t recaptured the magic of the old uniform. The jersey Kemba Walker wears looks like it was created by a computer.

It’s fitting that Jimmy Butler and the present-day Minnesota Timberwolves have a marketing deal with Fitbit because head coach Tom Thibodeau has a reputation for running his players into the ground. But during Kevin Garnett‘s prime, their uniforms had the font of a flyer for a haunted house. Side note, you owe it to yourself if you haven’t already to Google Image KG. He always made the most intense faces.

Mike Conley Jr. and the Memphis Grizzlies today have fine uniforms, even if their name makes no sense since there are no grizzly bears east of the Rocky Mountains. While the NBA did not take off in Western Canada they way David Stern would have hoped, and the team was never good (I still think if they had drafted Vancouver native Steve Nash, the Grizz would still be in Canada), the Vancouver Grizzlies had the daring color scheme of teal, red, and brown, that has never been tried before in major professional sports. Here is Shareef Abdur-Rahim in that uniform.

The only thing magical about the Orlando Magic’s current uniform is their Disney sponsorship (and Aaron Gordon was the most famous current player I could think of off the top of my head because they have been so bad for this entire decade), but when they had Shaquille O’Neal and Penny Hardaway, it was truly Magic.

The Philadelphia 76ers are probably supposed to have red, white, and blue jerseys. That’s what they had when Moses Malone played for them, and Wilt Chamberlain before him. Joel Embiid and Co. follow in that tradition today. But my favorite Sixers uniform that has ever existed are the black ones from Allen Iverson‘s prime. It makes no sense except that it was an undeniably cool jersey for an undeniably cool player.

Everything is ridiculous about the basketball franchise in Toronto. Steven Spielberg’s lasting legacy will be that his movies were so popular that there is now a hockey team called the Sharks and a basketball team called the Raptors. Jurassic Park put raptors on the map, and that movie was so huge, Toronto is stuck with that name 25 years later. Their current jerseys (worn here by Kyle Lowry) are a little more muted, and a lot less fun, but the originals were purple and red and had a cartoon dinosaur on the chest. Here it Tracy McGrady in that uniform.

No change was more radical than the Detroit Pistons. Before and after, they were an ordinary red, white, and blue team. They had the Bad Boys of the 1980s, and that incredible, improbable, inexplicable 2004 championship over a loaded Lakers team. But in between those eras, there was the Grant Hill Era. The blue got a little lighter, they tried to look like the San Jose Sharks, I’m assuming, and they put a horse head on the jersey. I guess it has to do with horse power or something? I’m not really a car guy. I just drive one and get frustrated when it needs fixing. When I was a kid, I thought a piston was another word for horse because of the Pistons’ jerseys in the mid-90s. I mean, the NFL had the Broncos and the Colts, and they were both horse teams, but neither were called “The Horses,” right?

There is a reason the Boston Celtics, Los Angeles Lakers, Chicago Bulls, New York Knicks, Portland Trail Blazers, and San Antonio Spurs have barely changed their jerseys over the decades because they have a good thing going, but at the same time I admire the creative swings these teams took in the 90s. I had completely forgotten about the Detroit horse jerseys until last winter when, as part of my friend’s bachelor party, we visited a brewery in Portland, Maine, and in the lobby they had a bunch of sports action figures including mid-90s Grant Hill, and if I knew I would be writing about this, and if I knew at the time he would be getting into the Hall of Fame this year, I totally would have taken a picture.

At any rate, this was a fun trip down memory lane with the crazy basketball uniforms of my youth. I hope you had fun.

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