It all started with a snowflake on Christmas in 2008. Scheduling a slate of five games throughout that day for the first time ever, the NBA showcased their best and brightest stars on the hardwood, all donning jerseys with a simple white ice crystal design surrounding their iconic logo. Before then, the NBA only featured one or two games on Christmas, a practice that started in 1947. The teams involved would wear their usual uniforms with no nod to the holiday. But that changed in 2008, when an understated snowflake design first appeared on the upper left chest of the jerseys of the teams playing. And just in case the snowflakes were too subtle, the NBA also scheduled one game that year where opposing teams wore hallmark Christmas hues of green or red as part of their uniforms.
That was the standard holiday attire until 2012, when the league and its then-uniform partner, Adidas, took a dramatic approach to Christmas jerseys, spearheading the "Big Color" campaign. Sans snowflakes, 10 teams sported monochromatic versions of their unis that year. Bold, garish, and hard to read with tonal lettering, they were eyesores on HDTVs across the country. But those 2012 uniforms marked a significant change in how the league differentiated franchises worthy of balling in the Yuletide games.
“[The NBA] decided to introduce new Christmas designs as a merchandising gimmick,” explained Paul Lukas of Uni Watch. "New uniforms on the court, new product to sell at retail."
Every Christmas Day since 2012, Adidas tried out new jersey designs in hopes of securing the bag and finding something that resonated with fans. In 2013, superstars like Kevin Durant, then an Oklahoma City Thunder player, and James Harden of the Houston Rockets, wore sleeved jerseys with big team logos on the chests, but these "Big Logo" jerseys weren’t exactly popular. Steph Curry straight-up called them “ugly” after a loss that year, while Dallas Mavericks’ legend Dirk Nowitzki took to Twitter to deem the sleeved jerseys “awful.” Former Blazers’ big man Robin Lopez even called for “a mass burning of these sleeved NBA jerseys” on his social feed.
LeBron James didn’t co-sign them either, but his concerns were less aesthetic and more basketball-oriented. Days before his Miami Heat took the court on Christmas Day, James told journalist Joseph Goodman, "I can't have my shooters out there worrying about some sleeves and not shooting the ball.” Eventually, James’ frustration with the NBA’s Christmas uniforms peaked two years later when “The King,” by then back with the Cleveland Cavaliers, literally ripped the sleeves off his jersey during a primetime game to improve his shooting motion. "The whole sleeved thing, whether on Christmas or for any other game, never worked,” Lukas tells Complex. “Keep it buried."
The following year, Adidas cut the sleeved jerseys and scaled back the big logos, but added players’ first names on the backs of the uniforms. It was cute, but not quite what fans or players wanted. Still, in 2015, the NBA and The Three Stripes finally found a design that stuck. That year, players wore jerseys with their team names in old-fashioned script, recalling holiday cards of yore. That looked stayed for 2016, but once Nike took over the NBA's apparel contract in 2017, the mini-tradition of Christmas-specific jerseys ended without so much as a press release explaining why. The news basically broke on the courts as people tuned in for the Christmas games. And fans weren’t in a jolly mood. “Nike not having Christmas unis this year is wack AF,” said content creator and host of the Flagrant 2 podcast, Kazeem Famuyide, in a now-deleted tweet. And that pretty much summed up fans’ reaction to the lack of Christmas gear that year.
Even though Nike hasn't created uniforms for any of the last three Christmases, the company has pioneered its own holiday tradition of sorts, introducing "City Edition" jerseys in the weeks leading up to Thanksgiving. This year every team (minus the Memphis Grizzlies, who haven't explained why) unveiled snazzy new uniforms that incorporate city zip codes and cultural elements into each jersey. And they had the media and fans buzzing with excitement.
Some, like the Denver Nuggets' modern take on their classic ’80s rainbow skyline jerseys, were considered a drip and “just beautiful,” as Sports Illustrated gushed. OKC scored points for their social consciousness with uniforms honoring the victims and survivors of that city's 1995 bombing. Graffiti and hip-hop culture influenced both the Los Angeles Clippers’ Old-English Mister Cartoon-designed uniforms and the Brooklyn Nets' Notorious B.I.G. "Bed Stuy" jerseys, created by graf legend Eric Haze. Despite those successes, a few City Edition uniforms have been headscratchers. Let’s see a show of hands from people who knew that Milwaukee was called "Cream City.” And then there are the “WTF” uniforms, like the Dallas Mavericks' Fresh Prince of Bel-Air-style anomalies.
But sadly, outside of wearing special edition warm-ups on Christmas Day, which an NBA rep confirmed will occur this year, there will be no special jawns for the likes of Giannis Antetokounmpo, Kawhi Leonard, and the rest of the sport’s superstars to don by tip-off. Still, if there are special warm-ups on the horizon, they might be a sign that Christmas Day unis will be resurrected soon.
However, as it stands, that’s not officially in Nike’s or the NBA’s plans and that’s a real shame. No other sport competes with basketball on Christmas, so watching our favorite players in some exclusive ish just adds a special feeling to an already cherished day. Even though the concept was in its infant stages by the time Adidas’ apparel contract ceased, it became a beloved custom for hoops fans to look forward to, like spiked eggnog or walking the snow-covered streets with a mistletoe strapped to your head. Wearing City Edition unis, or any of the other standard designs, just doesn’t give off that “once-a-year” aura since teams will wear them throughout the season and the playoffs. Sure, a few designs from the past should be left there, but the way Nike has been churning out creative joints since teaming up with the NBA, there are likely no bounds to the flyness The Swoosh could add to some Christmas uniforms. But if they won’t do that, at the very least, please bring back the snowflake.