The Evolution of Basketball’s Short Shorts


Basketball has always been deeply connected to fashion, music, and pop-culture in general. One has influenced the other and vice versa. One example of this ever-fluctuating counterplay are basketball-shorts, specifically their length and fit. Currently, we are experiencing the rebirth of (extremely) short shorts, mostly in high school basketball and at the collegiate level of the sport. Therefore, I welcome you to the rise and fall...and rise of short shorts.

Looking back to the early days of basketball, very unusual looks were the norm. Pictures from the early 20th century of players wearing short with belts or pants resembling current NFL gear might surprise or even confuse modern fans of the game.

During an era, in which the NBA turned into a popular spectacle, basketball athletes were known for wearing incredibly short and mostly tight shorts on the court. Images of Bill Russell, Wilt, Bob Cousy and even Larry Bird or Magic Johnson will come to mind. These shorts, revealing most of a players' thighs, are a trademark of the 50s, 60s and 70s and are not only a representation of this era's basketball uniforms, but of the state of fashion in general at this particular moment in time.

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And then the 80s rolled around...

A former North Carolina Tar Heel named Michael Jordan entered the league during that decade. While attending university, MJ was able to accomplish a college basketball players' greatest feat: winning the national championship. Hoping it would help him reach similar success in the NBA, Jordan wanted to wear his UNC shorts, which he wore in college, underneath his Bulls shorts. Having difficulty wearing two pairs of identically fitting shorts at the same time however, Mike tried wearing bigger, and therefore longer, Bulls shorts.

Obviously, being arguably the greatest player of all time, teammates as well as opposing players started emulating not only his game but also his on- and off-the-court appearance. So gradually players were switching to bigger, wider, and longer pairs of shorts and rejecting the short-shorts-look of past decades.

When Michigan's Fab-Five - a phenomenal starting five at the collegiate level at the University of Michigan, carried by the likes of Chris Webber, Jalen Rose and Juwan Howard - began to sport even baggier shorts during the early 90s, the length of basketball shorts at any level of play became borderline absurd. Shorts were now reaching over the knees - even beyond.

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With a fashion craze around baggy and oversized clothing emerging, the look kept getting more and more popular. Especially players like Allen Iverson are considered to be pioneers when it comes to baggy apparel on the basketball court. The functionality of this look may have been in question, but its comfort and popularity appealed to players at the time and made them completely ignore its obvious drawbacks - for example, they are heavier and mess with an athlete's aerodynamics.

Still, the preference towards bigger shorts held up for a long period of time. Around the mid-2010s basketball shorts at the NBA-level might have finally been categorized as "normal" (again).

Now, short shorts are re-emerging. We are not yet at a length that is comparable to the measurements common in the 60s and 70s but they seem to get gradually shorter and tighter again. However, the origin of this development is difficult to identify.

It would be natural to assume a trend like this is caused by personalities at the top - the top being the NBA. An assumption justified as NBA players have become extremely influential celebrities and even fashion icons. Athletes are as accessible ever as the media covers their every step and platforms like SLAM's @leaguefits showcase the players' looks and outfits.

For example, the occurrence of LeBron James shortening his shorts and tightening up his uniform around 2015 is generally seen as the tipping point of the on-going short-shorts-revolution. Allegedly, King James was aiming at establishing a more professional on-court appearance.

But what if the epicenter was located somewhere else? Like high school and AAU basketball?

High school phenoms nowadays are trying to differentiate themselves from the rest of the competition and social media has helped many teenage athletes establish themselves and generate an enormous following. Names like 2021 lottery prospects Jalen Green and Josh Christopher pop into mind, who presented their short-shorts-aesthetic during high school and are now displaying it respectively in college and the G-League.

Ironically, current Golden State Warrior Jordan Poole prominently wore short shorts during his tenure at the aforementioned University of Michigan, where the Fab-Five revolutionized the baggy on-court appearance.

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At first, guys like Jalen Green, Josh Christopher or Dior Johnson were mocked and ridiculed for wearing their gear the way they did. Some states even had (or still have) rules at the high school and amateur level concerning short length or regulations prohibiting the rolling of a player's shorts.

But recruits like Christopher, who allegedly started sporting the rolled up look regularly out of superstition, kept wearing shorter shorts and rolling up their shorts' waistband multiple times in order to make them appear even shorter. Not surprisingly, it caught on with the opposition and high school players all over the US - males and females (for example, girls' basketball top recruit Hailey Van Lith) alike - started hooping in short shorts, carrying over to the collegiate level and even the NBA. Manufacturers like Nike, for example, have also started shortening and tightening their products in an effort to adapt to the current demands and trends.

Therefore, the arguably "more athletic look" is not the exception anymore in 2021, it is the norm. Rolled up waistbands and exposed thighs are visible at every level of basketball right now. I have to admit that even I am guilty of rolling up my shorts and preferring a shorter alternative on the court.

Many claim comforts and a more agile feel are the intentions behind it. Undoubtedly (and to the displeasure of "old heads" and coaches), fashion and the urge to be different also have a say in the decision of what shorts to wear. Since all your teammates and your favorite players do it, why shouldn't you? Basketball has been about appearance, looks and attention for decades. And just like in fashion, one person starts doing something and the rest follows. Some adaptations are here to stay, while others hardly last a month. From wearing a t-shirt underneath your jersey in the 90s to sporting leg-sleeves in 2021, trends come and go...and come back sometimes.

As a consequence, nobody can predict for how long the short shorts craze can hold up. The counterplay of basketball and culture is an ever-changing and unpredictable process. Who knows if in a few years basketball players will again stumble around in oversized and baggy ball shorts?

author: Daniel Hahofer
title image by Vu Huy Hoang Chu (