Last year for Black History Month, the NBA launched its “Dream BIG” campaign, a series of digital and broadcast productions starting on Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. A highlight of the campaign was a shooting shirt bearing a design conceptualized by future Hall of Famer Ray Allen which featured the traditional NBA logo along with pictures of King, Bill Russell, Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass in the background.
However, considering that (although the NBA logo is a silhouette of Jerry West) Black men are the prevailing identity of the League, shouldn’t there be more done to honor their heritage during the month designated to do so? New York City designers Jah Meke Rodriguez and Duane Rowe sure think so.
Our heritage has built the NBA and I feel they need to celebrate African culture more.
Years ago, while watching a Knicks game one night, the two thought that African kente cloth would look good in the orange of their uniforms. They went on to create a design for that jersey along with several more patterns for other teams. “Imagine using these for Black History Month and the impact it could have,” they thought.
The NBA has shown that they're open to altering jerseys to honor other cultures. There aren’t a whole lot of Irishmen playing, but every team rocks a Kelly green variation of their uniform for St. Paddy’s Day. Every March, teams in cities with heavy Latino populations (the Spurs, Lakers, Mavericks, Bulls, Knicks, Suns and Magic) don jerseys with “El” or “Los” in front of the team name for “Noches Latina” or “Latin Night” to honor the NBA’s Hispanic players and fans. This year, the Warriors and Rockets will don specialized uniforms to celebrate the Chinese New Year...while Jeremy Lin (born in Torrance, California) remains the only Asian player currently in the league. Rodriguez and Rowe wonder: Why not special jerseys for Black History Month?
Last month, Rodriguez and Rowe started a petition on Change.Org for the jerseys and began spreading awareness through social media. Their campaign also features a dramatic PSA showing pivotal moments throughout Black history. The petition itself outlines the team’s mission to “celebrate the legacy of African-Americans by having players wear these commemorative jerseys." It also provides a historical perspective, highlighting the breaking of the NBA’s (then known as the Basketball Association of America [BAA]) color barrier in 1947 by Asian-American Wataru Misaka for the Knicks, as well as the league’s first Black player, Earl Lloyd (Washington Capitols), who played his first game on Halloween, 1950.
There are currently kente designs for every team in the League and prototypes of them; t-shirts and accessories have also been produced. The designs have been well-received, so Rodriguez and Rowe felt that they had to take their initiative one step further. “We’re both very ambitious people,” says Rodriguez. “Once we came up with the idea and the impact it could have and saw the support from friends and family, we decided to run with it.”
The jerseys are not only meant to be stylish, but to carry an educational component to them, too. Each one is dedicated to an iconic figure in Black History. For instance, the New York Knicks’ jerseys are dedicated to Black nationalist Marcus Garvey for the work he did in the Big Apple. The Utah Jazz’s are dedicated to jazz great Duke Ellington for his contributions to American music. The Sixers' jerseys honor W.E.B. Dubois for his dealings in Philly. “It’s not just the designs. We’re trying to educate people through the jerseys,” says Rodriguez.
Would wearing kente cloth-trimmed jerseys be awkward for non-Black players in the League? Rodriguez doesn’t seem to think so. “I feel that they shouldn’t have an issue,” he says. "Afro-American culture has gotten the NBA to where it is. I feel that them wearing the jerseys would be paying homage to that.”
Obviously, it's late for this year and it is unknown if the petition will, in time, influence the NBA to implement the new jerseys for Black History Month. They would certainly send a message, though.
“I feel that right now, they tried to make an effort," Rodriguez says. "But I feel like they celebrate other cultures pretty heavily and those demographics are nowhere near what African Americans have been to the NBA. We’ve been the overwhelming majority. Our heritage has built the NBA and I feel they need to celebrate African culture more.”