Wayback Wednesday: Alternate Jerseys & Retro Gaming

Wayback Wednesday: Alternate Jerseys & Retro Gaming

This is Wayback Wednesday, your midweek blast from the past! From retrospectives of basketball games and their interesting features, to republished articles and looking at NBA history through the lens of the virtual hardwood, Wednesdays at the NLSC are for going back in time. This week, I’m reflecting on using the alternate jerseys from yesteryear whenever I’m retro gaming.

One of my pet peeves with the modern NBA is the new approach to jerseys that was adopted when Nike got the uniform contract back in 2017. Sure, we saw the end of those terrible sleeved jerseys that adidas brought in, but it also resulted in a major shakeup to uniform designation and nomenclature. Instead of dedicated home and away jerseys, we have Icon and Association uniforms, with teams choosing which to wear at home and on the road. There are so many alternate jerseys these days from City to Earned Edition uniforms, with designs of varying quality.

What bugs me the most about the current approach to alternate jerseys is that they’re often worn as frequently as the Icon and Association uniforms; or at least, it certainly feels that way. That makes them less special than when they were Sunday uniforms, or otherwise only worn for a handful of games as a change of pace. Given how often some teams wear their City or classic jerseys, it makes you think that maybe those should be the primary uniforms! Grumpy grumbling aside, this approach has given me more of an appreciation for some of those old alternate jerseys, to the point where I’ll frequently use them when I’m retro gaming. Let’s take a look back…way back…

I’ll start with NBA Live 10. The selection of jerseys in that game was actually one of its selling points, particularly the inclusion of retro uniforms for the first time on that generation. It’s something that NBA Live should’ve never dropped with the leap to the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3, though it joins a long list of blunders in that regard. In any case, by including throwbacks, the main alternate jerseys, and the St. Patrick’s Day and other special event uniforms, there were plenty of ways to change up a team’s style on the virtual hardwood. While some of the contemporary home and away jerseys are now nostalgic in their own right, I am drawn to the alternates.

Houston Rockets Red & Yellow Alternate Jerseys

Of course, when it comes to NBA Live 10, one of the alternate jerseys that I favour wasn’t actually a real uniform! I am of course referring to the “Gold Standard” jersey for the Golden State Warriors, which was the winning design in a contest to create a fictional alternate that would appear in NBA Live 09. The developers kept it for NBA Live 10, and the oddity of it being a fictional jersey in a sim game makes it fun to use. The Hornets’ Valentine’s Day jersey is another rarity that I enjoy selecting, but the “normal” alternate jerseys that were introduced during the 2000s are appealing to me. Even some of the more questionable jersey designs are quite nostalgic nowadays!

Take the Houston Rockets’ red and yellow alternate uniform that debuted during the 2010 season. It was meant to be a throwback to their old red and gold uniforms, but as many fans observed, the choice of colours made it look more like it was inspired by McDonald’s branding. That was a fair jab, but all these years later, I do appreciate it. Funnily enough, stepping outside the primary colour scheme and drawing inspiration from past uniforms is something that teams are now frequently doing with their City jerseys. Indeed, it’s why I’m not completely against teams thinking outside the box with those designs, because alternate jerseys have historically taken some liberties.

In fact, the Utah Jazz’s first alternate jersey – introduced in the 1999 lockout season and worn until 2004 – is a great example here. Although it kept the purple of the “mountain” uniforms they’d adopted ahead of the 1997 campaign, it was primarily black with the brownish red (or possibly reddish brown) from their regular jerseys’ trims being featured far more prominently. The removal of the mountain range and those different trims meant that it wasn’t just an inversion of their primary jerseys’ colours. It stands out as an alternate uniform, so it’s a real novelty to put the Jazz in that jersey whenever I’m playing a video game from the seasons in which it was worn.

Seattle SuperSonics Mid 2000s Alternate Jersey (NBA Live 08)

Mind you, a good alternate jersey doesn’t necessarily need to be radically different from the primary design. While I do like that the aforementioned Jazz alternate was more unique, the secondary road uniform they had during the mid to late 2000s – which swapped the dark and light blues and introduced a throwback wordmark – was great too. I naturally associate it with their 2007 Playoff clash with the Golden State Warriors, who also sported a great alternate during the 2000s. That orange Warriors alternate jersey actually kept the same design as their away uniform, but effectively swapped the colours around for a style that was familiar, yet still fresh and appealing.

That was certainly the common approach to many alternate jerseys from the late 90s onwards: switch the primary and secondary colours, change up the wordmark – a new design, or maybe use the name of the city instead of the team and vice versa – and perhaps add a small detail such as an alternate logo on the shorts. It works because it preserves a team’s recognisable identity and branding, while trying something new. There’s still room for creativity though, and I do like the alternate jerseys with more original and ambitious designs. As I said, what really made them special was that they weren’t worn in as many games, making it more of an event when teams sported them.

To that point, while their appeal is obvious, there’s some irony in me being so keen to select alternate jerseys when I’m retro gaming. After all, if their rarity is what makes them special, then treating them like they’re primary jerseys is doing exactly what I’ve expressed distaste for when it comes to today’s NBA! Even more hypocritically, I’ve set up some games where both teams are wearing coloured jerseys instead of one donning their home whites. In my defense, older NBA 2K games restrict the selection of home and away jerseys to home and away games respectively, even though teams would buck convention if the home team was wearing a uniform for a special event.

Nerlens Noel in NBA 2K14

Nostalgia and preference for those designs and how alternate jerseys were handled in the NBA of yesteryear are obviously factors here, but it’s not just that. When I was first getting into basketball and basketball video games, alternate jerseys weren’t as common. They also weren’t readily selectable in video games, either being randomly chosen for exhibition games, or designated for use in Sunday games during Season modes. Jersey selection was one of the cool new features in NBA Live 2003, which means there’s nostalgic novelty in being able to pick uniforms in games from that era. In other words, I’ll choose to have teams wear their alternates simply because I can.

This is not out of habit for me. When I was obsessed with listening to the commentary tracks on The Simpsons DVD boxsets, I often turned the subtitles on as well, despite the fact I didn’t need them. The option was there, so I chose it! Additionally, a number of alternate jerseys in games from the 2000s were unlockable, either by completing in-game tasks to earn points, or punching in a code that was released to coincide with their unveiling in real life. This makes them feel like extra content – more of a novelty than they actually are – when realistically, it was just an accurate representation of the team’s array of jerseys. Still, that semblance of extra content added to the experience.

Also, it’s not an option that I’d always select back in the day. Because alternate jerseys were worn more occasionally, I mimicked that approach in my sim-oriented style of play. Every so often I’d choose an alternate jersey or a retro uniform to spice things up during a franchise mode game, but I mostly stuck with the primary jerseys. Of course, that’s due to frequently using the Chicago Bulls, and loving the iconic uniforms of my favourite team. Using a variety of teams while retro gaming, I’m inspired to opt for alternates and throwbacks. Mind you, I wish that I could select jerseys in NBA 2K14 MyCAREER and wear any of the 76ers’ uniforms, as in newer iterations of the mode!

Dallas Mavericks Trash Bag Alternate

Finally, while I’ve mostly focused on great alternate jersey designs from yesteryear, there have absolutely been some quirky and downright bad ones as well. Even though time hasn’t made them look any better, ironic nostalgia is undoubtedly a thing, so it’s fun to select those weird and ugly alternates while retro gaming. The infamous “trash bag” jersey the Dallas Mavericks adopted (and then quickly abandoned) is a perfect example. Some of the Charlotte Bobcats uniforms would qualify here, too. Oklahoma City’s hilariously plain navy blue alternate is ironically memorable for its blandness, not to mention the fact that in NBA 2K13, their name was misspelled as “Thudner”.

The aforementioned fictional “Gold Standard” Warriors jersey is also an example. I don’t like using it because I think it’s an awesome design, but because it’s an oddity. Good or bad, alternate jerseys used to stand out, again because they were worn less frequently. Like a team’s primary branding, they’re now time capsules; as I like to say, they’re part of that snapshot of the NBA that makes old games interactive almanacs. We don’t always remember them as clearly as the primary home and away uniforms though, which results in a nice surprise when we revisit a game and discover a jersey we’ve forgotten about. How can you not select such a uniform when that happens?

Needless to say, retro basketball gaming is all about nostalgia for treasured games, and the NBA they represent. That encompasses everything from the gameplay and graphics to players and team branding. The alternate jerseys in games prior to 2017 not only represent a league that I’m fonder of, but also a time when those uniforms felt more special and less commercial (though merchandise was absolutely a thing back then, too). Also, despite the array of throwbacks in newer games, some alternates are missing, thus retro gaming is a way of readily enjoying them on the virtual hardwood. For all those reasons, I’m motivated to select those alternates whenever I go wayback.

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