In college basketball, Nike’s been dominating the jersey game for decades. The jerseys and shorts from the mid ‘90s are some of the greatest ever designed because of their aesthetics and the great players who wore them, but Nike wasn’t always known for their jersey designs. It all started in 1993 when a new team at Nike known as Organized Team Sports (OTS) was tasked with designing jerseys for some of the biggest basketball programs in the country.
I caught up with former Nike exec Ken Black, who was the basketball product graphic designer on that team, to learn more about the early days of the Nike basketball jersey era – a time when they didn’t really know what they were doing, but had to come up with a plan quickly. Black gives us the inside scoop on how his small team came up with some of the greatest basketball jersey designs ever.
Drew: When did you join the OTS Team?
Ken: After graduating from the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, CA, I was hired by Nike in March of 1992 as part of the Sports Graphics Design team before becoming part of the original four-person startup OTS team in 1993. Sometime later that year (I think it was around November), I was working in my cube and could hear my boss’s boss, Angela Snow, and her boss talking in the office around the corner about how the sports marketing folks had just signed a bunch of college basketball teams and they needed uniforms designed ASAP.
As they walked out of the office, still talking and turning the corner past my cube, Angela said something again about needing someone to design these uniforms and meet with the coaches. As she was talking, I peeked over the top of my cubicle and we made eye contact. She stopped and her eyes got wide and she said, “You had basketball uniform designs in your portfolio, right?” I smiled and nodded. And then she asked, “Do you want to go on a trip to meet some coaches and design some for real?” I think the only question in my head was if I could call my dad and tell him what was about to happen.
Drew: What were the next steps after you agreed to join the OTS Team?
Ken: A couple days later, five of us went on the road to meet with the coaches at Michigan (Steve Fisher), Georgetown (John Thompson), Seton Hall (P.J. Carlesimo), and UNLV. Shortly after that first trip, we added Arizona (Lute Olson), Duke (Coach K), UNC (Dean Smith), Syracuse (Jim Boeheim), and others. Then it all exploded from there. More teams, more product. Soon after, they rolled Nike basketball and Air Jordan categories into our basketball design team. We were swimming in the best of hoops.
Drew: How did your team differentiate the Nike jerseys from the other brands designing jerseys at the time?
Ken: The previous year, Logo 7 (I believe) had just come out with the “cat scratch” Kentucky uniforms that used sublimation printing. They were hideous (which actually probably makes them amazing now). Starter was also trying to make some new-looking stuff that was just bad – basically new technologies were being developed, so companies were running amuck with bad designs simply because they could. I was a purist, so did not want to mess with the Michigan “M” or the Duke “D”, but rather elevate the beauty of those classic looks. So, we took a very refined approach – even working with Georgetown to give them a classic “G” for their identity program. (The original design had a basketball in the middle.)
Drew: What was the biggest design or logistical challenge?
Ken: We had never made uniforms. One of the reasons Nike wanted to get into the uniform business was to give credibility to the apparel we made. All of our footwear was worn on the field of play, which proved its performance and value, but very little of our apparel was actually worn in competition at that point in time.
We found companies that had a history of making uniforms and worked with them until we could make it all on our own. We didn’t yet have a labeling standard for uniforms, so I created the original Nike Team Sports jocktag. Another big design challenge was the really old, poorly drawn logos most of these teams wanted us to use. We felt like these teams had poor graphics to sew onto these performance pieces we were creating, so we got into the identity design business too – and that really opened everything up for both Nike basketball and football.
Drew: What was your favorite jersey to design?
Ken: I would probably have to say Georgetown – so much packed into that uniform. We wanted to give them something classic with real gravitas, so we pushed it to the navy and grey – with Hoyas on the grey and Georgetown on the navy. Coach Thompson wanted a strong cultural connection, too. I can’t remember which season we added the Kente print, but wow, it felt so important. (And even better when Iverson wore it with Jordan XI’s, which I had also worked on with Tinker.)
The Duke black jersey was another big one, and it was fun to make subtle tweaks to it over the years. The UNC uni was actually designed by Alexander Julian, who was an alum. So Nike basketball apparel designer, Janett Nichol, worked with him to connect the argyle and other details through the rest of the product. But the truth is that the jerseys actually didn’t give us as much flexibility as the shorts.
Drew: What were your favorite shorts to work on?
Ken: DUKE – we recognized immediately that the shorts Duke wore were ones that dozens of others teams copied, so we immediately changed the bottom of the shorts to match the shape on the inside of the Iron D logo. We framed that logo perfectly and immediately made it signature to Duke and identifiable to anyone if it was copied by another team.
Also Arizona – the second version of the shorts. The navy colorway with the fat stripe down the side, wide white double band at bottom. The circle “A” logo on one leg and vertical CATS on the other – I freaking loved these shorts. The mini-mesh gave it an athletic feel with an incredibly slinky and smooth finish and drape. It looked great and felt even better to wear.
Syracuse was fun too – those came later and I think they were one of our first real uses of sublimation on jerseys and shorts. We still tried to keep it classic and refined, but the sublimation allowed us to lighten the heavy trims and begin to explore more performance properties. Sublimation also allowed us to create that curved side panel to perfectly frame the Syracuse basketball logo we’d created for them. We still used twill numbers and twill-and-embroidered logos where we could, because it gave a nice weight that made the players feel it was made for gameday.
Drew: Were you part of the first Jordan jersey campaign in 1998?
Ken: That was right at the end of my run in OTS, but yes. I have an autographed photo of Jordan in the UNC uniform hanging in my office. This is when we started having real fun with the commercial side of things along with designing for players, teams, and gameday.
In 1998, I was Art Director of the Product Graphic Design team across NCAA (Hoops, Football, and Other Sports), Hockey (NHL and IIHF), NBA, and NFL. I left shortly thereafter to assume the role of Creative Director for Nike for the Sydney 2000 Olympics.
But that OTS startup era was magical!