THE EVOLUTION OF THE ALL-STAR JERSEY
The biggest weekend in the NBA calendar is upon us, as the who's who of the basketball world come together in Toronto for the 65th annual All-Star game. The three-day adventure - packed full of celebrities, future stars, skills, dunks and three-point shots - will culminate in a final appearance at the showpiece event for 18-time All-Star Kobe Bryant.
The Black Mamba will be the headline attraction on the day, but there's plenty of planning that goes into hosting the event. In fact, it has been three years of non-stop preparation, organisation and construction for the Canadian city after it was announced as the first hosts outside of the United States of America, in September 2013.
The buzz and excitement around the city has been palpable as the people of Toronto, and its businesses, prepare to give the NBA world the whole Canadian experience. But the preparation for All-Star stretches further, and wider, than the host city. Choreography, arena design and event organisation takes years as everyone involved in the three-day showpiece ensures every minor detail goes to plan.
Since the day it was confirmed that All-Star weekend would be branching outside of the United States' borders, the NBA design team have been making plans for the latest instalment of the eagerly anticipated annual collection of casual and sportswear attire.
As much as fans love to see superstars like LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and Stephen Curry on the same court, what they are wearing is equally important to a large number of viewers. Throughout the years, the All-Star uniform has become a huge part of the weekend. From the Rising Stars Challenge to Sunday's main game, the design of attire is a huge element of the atmosphere the league are trying to create.
One man, who plays a huge part in ensuring the All-Star collection lives up to expectation year in, year out, has overseen every single change in identity and outfitting for all 30 NBA teams over the past 18 seasons; the Senior Vice President of Identity, Outfitting and Equipment, Christopher Arena.
Since taking his position with the league, Christopher has been a central figure in every design element of the NBA, WNBA and Development League, and that includes the process of creating the annual collection for the star-studded event.
While the All-Star game is the pinnacle of the season - barring the Finals - it's also a time for designers to really showcase their talents. The All-Star collection is the most anticipated launch in the world of basketball merchandise and there are different elements that go into the process of ensuring the NBA and Adidas are suitably prepared.
"A lot of research goes into creating all the uniforms in the NBA, and the All-Star uniform is really no different. Research starts about three years in advance. Our partnership with Adidas started in 2006, before that it was Reebok," said Christopher. "We really work with their designers, who will go into a market where the game is being hosted and do a lot of research into the identity of the city; things that may be indigenous to the area, researching the team's history."
The process of creating an All-Star uniform has not always been so time-consuming. Throughout the previous 64 games, the design process has come a long way, and has seen a number of changes in direction leading up to the current process of paying homage to the host city and team.
Christopher, a self-confessed 'expert' on the history of uniforms - having spent close to twenty years building them - knows the past of the All-Star collection like the back of his hand, and has seen how far the process has advanced since the first game back in 1951.
"I happened to be at the Hall of Fame and I'm always reminded, when I go through the hall, of the history of our game and there are a lot of old All-Star jerseys there. When the NBA started out hosting All-Star games, the first twenty or so years, the uniform was red, white and blue. East versus West. Lots of stars. Probably no thought into it, but very nationalistic.
"In the 70s, there was a break off of that. What we started to do was design the uniforms based on the host city and the host team. In Los Angeles , the game was hosted by the Lakers, so the uniform was actually the Lakers' uniform, but they just took off the Lakers' marks.
"I happened to be at the Hall of Fame recently and I'm always reminded, when I go through the hall, of the history of our game and there are a lot of old All-Star jerseys there."
That was it, they did it in Milwaukee  and that was the idea in the 70s. I don't think they were paying homage to the city, but it was entirely possible that they believed the best and most efficient way to make the uniform was to put it on the host team to figure out."
Up until then, there had been little creative influence imposed on the jersey. But the 1980s saw the NBA begin to change the styles on a regular basis. The 90s saw the first significant move towards what we see on court today.
"As we get into the 80s and a little bit of the 90s, it is really back to that 40s, 50s and 60s style, which is basic All-Star: Red, white and blue, stars, and nothing else really. We had a little blip in the mid-90s where we really went deep into the host city. It was Phoenix and San Antonio, and those uniforms, they were purple and keel and had a cactus and a jalapeno on.
They were deep into the indigenous elements of those host cities. That's where I think our eyes opened and we thought 'hey, we could really have some fun with this.'
"We took that and at some point right after that, the thought was to really celebrate the players and the teams and we actually used the uniforms that the players wore and put a patch on them. As you were watching, you could easily identify who the players were as they were wearing their uniforms."
It wasn't until the noughties that fashion really began to impact how the NBA, manufacturers and designers really began to include the trends that were being seen in the world of basketball fashion. Seeing the players in their own jerseys with East and West badges was well received by fans, but 2003 saw a change in the thought process and, from then, the design team never looked back.
"We broke off from that again, and the thought there was that at that point in time there was a craze of hardwood classic uniforms in the fashion world, so we went and did retro uniforms for 2003. That then got us into the mode of saying 'wait a minute, we've done so many different things in the span of this game we have to think about things differently'. That's when I think the idea of brand building and identity building, around anything, really came to the forefront, and Adidas were with us on that journey, whether it was LA or Denver. I think Vegas was one of the tipping points where we really didn't have a host team but we had a host city, and we had a lot of design elements that were related to Vegas.
"From there, we just started to ramp it up more and more. New Orleans and LA were a great example of that. 2009 in Phoenix had a lot of indigenous elements as did Dallas. We've been to a bunch of different places, but I think the most recent tipping point was Atlanta. Going retro. That really jump-started us into going deep into paying homage to the host city."
The past few years have seen some fantastic designs from the creative minds of the NBA and Adidas teams. The jerseys from 2015 featured a side panel of five stars that included the five different boroughs of New York; Queens' star was inspired by stainless steel rings of the Unisphere while a wave pattern repped the surrounding water of Staten Island.
The previous year in New Orleans saw the jersey sporting the bold colours of Mardi Gras along with the fleur-de-lis, the official symbol of Louisiana. But what is it specifically the designers are looking for when they begin planning a uniform for the host city?
"They are just looking for little nuggets of information that the design elements can be built around to create the uniform and off the court identity."
Those little nuggets of information are ideas that can make an All-Star jersey stand out. Like the legendary 1995 Phoenix uniform that threw up the iconic cactus on the chest in a cartoon style. But not all symbols of the host city are so easy to spot.
Sometimes a more subtle approach is taken, and that was certainly the case for 2016, as Adidas found a number of ways to pay homage to not just Toronto, but the first All-Star game to take place outside of the United States.
"They've done enough research. Sometimes the elements and visions they come up with are not something you are necessarily going to see from TV. Maybe you have to get a little bit closer. Maybe it's a close-up shot of the guy on the foul line or something like that.
"When you look at the uniform we have for this year's All-Star game, it has really bold colours. Red and white against white and royal - those are our Eastern and Western Conference colours - but, in years past, we started to accent. We have Conference logos, we have silver in the East and gold in the West and we've gone into hues of red and hues of blue.
"I think that the feeling was for this game just to keep it a little simpler. When you look at the Canadian flag, with the three lines and the gradient flag we felt that pure red and white and royal blue made sense.
"It is Toronto, but obviously, this is the first game we have hosted not on US soil, so there was an international flair to it as well as a Canadian flair, so if you look at the back of the jersey there's an etched out visual of the skyline of Toronto that is very subtle but I think you'll be able to see it certainly as the players are at the foul line or in the huddle.
"It is Toronto, but obviously this is the first game we have hosted not on US soil, so there was an international flair to it as well as a Canadian flair."
"The front has the tip of the maple leaf that is etched into the fabric, just below the words East or West. The fonts are very clean and are one colour, much like the Raptors have now in their new identity. In the neckline and the draw quarter of the shorts, there is a smattering of colours, which was inspired by the idea of the international theme and all of the flags of all of the countries coming together in one area."
Adidas have certainly adopted the idea of paying respect to the home city and team, and that has reflected in the All-Star uniforms they have created since taking over from Reebok as the NBA's official partner in 2006. This can be seen on the shorts of this year's uniform as they have perfectly merged the event with the host team; the Toronto Raptors.
"There is a blend of the maple leaf and what we call the star claw," Christopher explains. "The Raptors have their signature logo, the claw marks through the ball. We took those marks and applied them to a star, sort of marrying the All-Star dynamic and the team dynamic together.
These are all really simple storytelling things that Adidas loves to do and it doesn't end there, that's just the uniform, but there is certainly the entire on-court collection, which has a lot those other nuances in as well."
The collection includes shooting shirts and warm-up clothing that play an equally important part in bringing the complete All-Star feel to the players' attire across the weekend. Adidas and the NBA have worked together to ensure the whole 2016 collection has to come together as one big celebration of the NBA, Canada, Toronto and the international influence.
"The designers, as they go through and build, they are thinking more about the entire collection and, so, while they're showing us jerseys, they are very much just as intent on showing off the warm-up clothing and everything that goes with it, because that is what the players wear as they take the floor."
The league has become a beacon for fashion as the popularity of the sport has continued to grow around the world. Players like Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant are seen as trend-setters away from the court and press conferences are often heavily focused on what the players are wearing as much as what they are saying. The NBA also has to stay ahead of the curve. Lifestyle is a huge part of this and the NBA’s casual, high-end wear often follows the trends of the fashion world.
"More recently we looked at the players taking the floor not being East and West, but all being All-Stars. With things trending more towards lifestyle, what you see in the jacket we've planned this year is more of that. When we jumped to the lifestyle thought, the idea was that the Raptors do a great job of having their red, silver and black colouration for the uniforms, but they have another alternate uniform inspired by Drake which has a gold flavour to it.
"Taking that lifestyle element from the team, Adidas wanted to enthuse that into the warm up jacket. So, you'll see the maple leaf sign in the logo in gold and black. And the team logos are in black and white on the back neck and the accomplishments are on the arm in gold.
Then, as they take that off, we start to reveal their Conference and you start to see the East and the West shooting shirts.
We are going to have some long sleeve t-shirts on there as well with the red and royal icons. So, it just starts to build up to the reveal that once their shooting shirt is off now you get the full uniform."
The player jackets have also become a celebration of the success held by the individual. After all, only the best of the best are selected to compete in the showpiece event. While the NBA are keen to have every player seen as an All-Star together, each star has been along their own path to get to greatness. Whether you're a center or a point guard, success is the name of the game at All-Star weekend.
The accomplishment badges have become synonymous with warm-up jackets over the past decade and it's something that has been a work in progress since the first sighting back in 2006. Take Kobe Bryant for instance, his jacket will be littered with his past success' – of which there are many – including his 18 selections for the biggest weekend of the year, and this celebration of past achievements show no sign of slowing down.
"We are always going to do something different and special every year. For the decades I have spoken about, the All-Star warmups were the players' franchise warmups. So as you were watching the players warm-up you'd see this rainbow of colours of all the teams that were represented, then when they took their jackets off, they were wearing an All-Star uniform. During the years of 1997-2003, they were wearing their own uniforms as well. But in Houston, 2006, that was the year that Reebok came to us and said 'there's so much attention paid to All-Star, it's the pinnacle of a player's career, so how do you honour that in some form?'
"They had the idea of putting the All-Star games they had previously played in as a patch on the jacket. There is a great photo of Shaquille O'Neal where he has his arms held out and he has got seven or eight on each side and it was crazy to see how many games he had been to. That was the idea – each year it has sort of been like an arms race of how are we going to top the greatest idea we did the prior year; making it even more special and unique. Over time, we've gone from the All-Star games they have played in, to accomplishments they've had, whether it is three-points, championships won, scoring leaders, league MVPs, rebound titles, scoring titles – whatever it may be that the individual has accomplished.
"We have done that in different ways, whether it be a patch on the chest, patches on the arm, stars representing the number of games; so that was it, it was really that 2006 Houston All-Star game, and it was one of my favourite intros we have ever had. The starting fives came up from under the ground, almost like they were taking off in a spaceship."
Every single All-Star weekend throughout history has been significant for one reason or another and Toronto promises more of the same. In reality, that's what makes the event so special; with the vast land of the United States and now beyond, there are no two cities that have the same feel and style.
Constantly pushing the boundaries is what the NBA as an organisation is all about, and for Christopher – a veteran in the world of design – the sky is the limit.
"All-Star represents the pinnacle of basketball. This is when everybody is watching basketball who is a fan of the game, it's the global stage. That's one reason why the All-Star outfitting is so special and so fun to do because we really do something special every single time and we are pushing our boundaries just a little bit and make people wonder just where uniform creation could be."