Iconic jerseys of the NBA then and now

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December 4, 2020
Hy Peskin // Getty Images

Iconic jerseys of the NBA then and now

NBA jerseys have been popular garments for decades, in both current and throwback variations. In the early 2000s, popular rappers made vintage jerseys the hot new trend and new audiences were introduced to players like George Gervin, Julius Erving, and Pete Maravich.

It is interesting how NBA jerseys change over time. Sometimes a team is looking for a fresh restart after years of mediocrity and squalor. Other times, a team relocates and necessitates a new look (although it's not uncommon to hang on to old colors from the past location for a few years). Plenty of trends have emerged—bright blues, stars, italicized letters, and even pinstripes, which are usually found on baseball jerseys. Some jerseys not only represent a team, but an entire era. The Atlanta Hawks' jerseys could have replicated an interior design of a trendy 1970s hangout, while the New York Nets jerseys oozed the style and individuality on which the American Basketball Association prided itself.

Stacker compiled a collection of photos showcasing the uniform history of each NBA team, plus images of their current jersey. Many teams now have several jerseys they wear throughout the year, as sales have become big business in the NBA. This allows for a variety of tributes and tests of new color combinations, but there are some teams who feel that less is more. For decades, a certain team from Boston has barely deviated from the script, adding a certain cachet to their simple two-color approach.

While you may have laughed or even cringed at some jersey styles of years past, some of those same beleaguered looks are making a comeback as what is old becomes new. Somewhere, Bryant "Big Country" Reeves is probably smiling, knowing that a 7-foot farm boy from the South maybe didn't look all that awkward in turquoise. Click through to see how other NBA jerseys have withstood the test of time.

You may also like: Iconic jerseys of the NFL then and now

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Focus on Sport // Getty Images

Then: Atlanta Hawks

The classic Hawks jerseys worn by Lou Hudson (pictured) and Pete Maravich were drastically different from what we know today. Green and blue in what only can be described as a truly 1970s design vastly differs from the Hawks' look of the past 30-plus years, which has been dominated by red. This blue style is also notable for including Maravich's nickname "Pistol" on the back, instead of his surname.

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Todd Kirkland // Getty Images

Now: Atlanta Hawks

The Atlanta Hawks unveiled a new uniform in July 2020 for the 2020-2021 season. The design features nods to team history, with colors that speak to the team's drive, commitment, and history stretching back to 1968.

[Pictured: New uniform released July 2020.]


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Then: Boston Celtics

Few NBA jerseys are as recognizable as the Celtics jersey. Home white with green piping, letters, and numbers have been the standard throughout the franchise's glory days, worn by Tommy Heinsohn (pictured), Bill Russell, Bob Cousy, Larry Bird, and several other Hall of Famers.

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Andy Lyons // Getty Images

Now: Boston Celtics

Although the Celtics now have a GE sponsor patch, not much has changed about one of the most classic looks in sports. Boston's green-and-white palate was ranked in 2020 by ESPN as the second-best NBA jersey ever, although the uniform that topped them won't sit well with many in Massachusetts (more on that later).

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Focus On Sport // Getty Images

Then: Brooklyn Nets

When the Nets played in Long Island and New Jersey, their jerseys screamed patriotism. Red, white, and blue with stars along the sides also make for a look that aligned well with the ABA, where the Nets franchise played before joining the NBA. The red, white, and blue ABA ball is one of the league's lasting images.

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Harry How // Getty Images

Now: Brooklyn Nets

When the Nets moved to Brooklyn from New Jersey in 2012, the team switched to black and white at its primary colors—a minimalist design that came with input from Jay-Z (who owned a small stake in the franchise at the time). The Nets also helped introduce a circular logo that, while not primarily featured on their jerseys, has been copied by several NBA teams since 2012. The team's alternate Notorious B.I.G.-inspired jerseys (pictured on Spencer Dinwiddie) have been popular with fans from every borough.

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Mike Powell // Getty Images

Then: Charlotte Hornets

The Hornets' original jerseys were unique for several reasons. They included pinstripes and a lot of teal, two items rarely featured in NBA jerseys before their inaugural 1988 season. Larry Johnson and Alonzo Mourning made the Hornets jersey a popular seller in the 1990s.

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Michael Reaves // Getty Images

Now: Charlotte Hornets

The Charlotte Hornets in November 2020 rolled out a "City Edition" uniform that plays up Charlotte's past. The mint-colored jersey is a nod to Charlotte's historic place as home to the first U.S. Branch Mint. Gold and granite pinstripes refer to the 19th-century Caroline Gold Rush and the state rock of North Carolina, respectively.

[Pictured: Charlotte Hornets' previous uniform ahead of the November 2020 redesign.]


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Focus on Sport // Getty Image

Then: Chicago Bulls

Most noted for being the jerseys worn in Michael Jordan's rookie season, the mid-1980s Bulls jerseys were infamous for the script lettering across the chest. The numbers on the lower side were another unique touch, usually seen on baseball jerseys. Before Jordan's arrival, Artis Gilmore (pictured) made four All-Star teams for the Bulls sporting these threads.

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Steven Ryan // Getty Images

Now: Chicago Bulls

The Bulls have introduced new alternate jerseys over the years (like the black ones seen here), but their main home and road kits have remained the same for almost 30 years. A Zenni Optical logo is the only noticeable tweak since Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen made the Bulls jersey a worldwide fashion statement.

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Focus on Sport // Getty Images

Then: Cleveland Cavaliers

The Cavaliers' unique block piping on their jerseys surely stood out on the court but didn't lead to many wins in the 1970s—the team only made three playoff appearances that decade. In the 1980s, the Cavs switched to blue and orange as their jersey colors, but reverted back to a wine/red and gold/yellow combo with the arrival of LeBron James.

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Jason Miller // Getty Images

Now: Cleveland Cavaliers

The current Cavs jersey is a mix of nostalgia and branding of sponsor Goodyear. A sword has long been incorporated in variations of the Cavs logo (seen on the alternate jerseys here) and the lettering the team employs "[is] inspired from notions of a defender and the forward-like motion of the sword," according to the team website.

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Then: Dallas Mavericks

Mavericks beat out Wranglers and Express as nicknames for the Dallas NBA franchise, and the team was introduced in 1980 with green as a major component of team branding. The distinct Dallas typeface was used on uniforms well into the 1990s and worn by the likes of Jason Kidd, Jim Jackson, and Jamal Mashburn.

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Ronald Cortes // Getty Images

Now: Dallas Mavericks

Shortly after Mark Cuban bought the Mavericks, he redesigned the team's logo and jerseys in 2001, influences still seen in the modern uniforms. On the primary blue road jerseys, navy lettering has replaced a silver typeface. At one point, the Mavs consulted with Diddy to design an alternate uniform.

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Then: Denver Nuggets

The Nuggets' early jerseys played heavily off a mining theme, with a pickaxe prominently featured on the chest. Shades of red, yellow, and blue would pop up throughout the team's history, which has been one of the more colorful journeys (jersey-wise) in the NBA.

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Jamie Schwaberow // Getty Images

Now: Denver Nuggets

The Nuggets underwent a huge facelift in 2018, focusing on two shades of blue, yellow, and red. By ditching their previous baby blue uniforms, the team said they were looking to represent an evolution.

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Focus on Sport // Getty Images

Then: Detroit Pistons

The 1980s Pistons jerseys scream two words: Bad Boys. The straight-to-the-point blue and red look was worn by Isiah Thomas, Dennis Rodman, and Rick Mahorn when Detroit won back-to-back NBA titles.

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Jim McIsaac // Getty Images

Now: Detroit Pistons

After sporting some of the most brash jerseys in NBA history during the 1990s, the Pistons paid tribute to their past with a fresh look in the early 2000s. The classic blue and red carries on to today, sported by the likes of Blake Griffin, who carries on the hard-nosed style of other famous players to wear the colors like Ben Wallace and Bill Laimbeer.

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Then: Golden State Warriors

The Warriors have a series of great classic looks. The jerseys seen here feature an outline of the state of California, with a star marking the team's location in the Bay Area. After Nate Thurmond (pictured) died in 2016, the Warriors wore a patch in his honor on their current uniforms.

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Santiago Mejia/The San Francisco Chronicle // Getty Images

Now: Golden State Warriors

In 2010, the Warriors ditched a cartoonish look for a fresh, simplified blue and gold ensemble, which combines a nod to the past and Northern California history. These jerseys have become synonymous with success, as Steph Curry, Klay Thompson, and Draymond Green have led Golden State to five straight NBA Finals appearances in those colors.

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Then: Houston Rockets

The slanted font gave the Rockets jerseys a bit of a futuristic look, a theme the team would constantly replicate over the years. These versions lasted well into the 1990s, and were worn when the Rockets won their first NBA title behind Hakeem Olajuwon in 1994.

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Tim Warner // Getty Images

Now: Houston Rockets

Like the Warriors, the Houston Rockets underwent a major revamp after ditching a cartoony design. The current red and white colors arrived shortly after Yao Ming was drafted by Houston in 2002. In recent years, the Rockets have also used yellow in alternate designs, which harken back to their mid-1990s title teams.

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Then: Indiana Pacers

The jersey seen here is one of the rare times the Pacers had a scripted wordmark across the chest, as the team primarily has had capital letters spelling out their nickname. Billy Knight (pictured) was named an NBA All-Star during the Pacers' first season in the league, in 1976–77.

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Andy Lyons // Getty Images

Now: Indiana Pacers

After ditching pinstripes in the 2000s, the Pacers have kept a sleek look with nods to the state's racing history. Dark blue and yellow (or gold) have long been Pacers staples and remain prevalent throughout the current style, which the team described as "Home Grown."

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Then: Los Angeles Clippers

Before sailing out west, the Clippers franchise was known as the Buffalo Braves. The light blue of the team's time in Upstate New York remained in a move to San Diego, but was later mostly ditched once the Clippers relocated to Los Angeles.

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Ezra Shaw // Getty Images

Now: Los Angeles Clippers

The Clippers have gone through several jersey changes, including script across the front of their jersey, capital letters, and an abbreviation. In 2015, the team introduced black to their jerseys, but red, white, and blue have always been predominant colors. The threads sported by Kawhi Leonard here are a new alternate version.

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Then: Los Angeles Lakers

Although Lakers fans are known to bleed purple and gold, there was a period where the team was all about blue. The Minneapolis Lakers incorporated a lot of blue in their look, and so the first jerseys worn once the team arrived in L.A. kept that inspiration.

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Harry How // Getty Images

Now: Los Angeles Lakers

LeBron James' arrival in Los Angeles came with new jerseys for the Lakers. The uniforms resembled the Showtime Lakers style, ditching side panels, but with different hues of purple and gold.

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Harry How/Allsport // Getty Images

Then: Memphis Grizzlies

When the Grizzlies played in Vancouver, their jerseys became some of the most polarizing in NBA history. The light blue base echoed a trend in new jerseys at the time, but this was unique with the comic book-style font and Pacific Northwest collar. Shareef Abdur-Rahim (pictured), now represents a new G unit, as president of the NBA's G League.

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Ronald Martinez // Getty Images

Now: Memphis Grizzlies

The latest Grizzlies jersey iteration resembles a version worn throughout the 2000s, but without much yellow. The minimalist look goes well with the franchise's history as a blue-collar team, previously embodied by the likes of Zach Randolph and Mike Conley.

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Then: Miami Heat

The original Heat jerseys featured an italic capitalized font, with a flame on the tip of the "T." Later in Miami history, Alonzo Mourning and Tim Hardaway sported these jerseys as the team emerged as a regular playoff contestant.

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Michael Reaves // Getty Images

Now: Miami Heat

For almost 20 years, the Heat have deployed a similar look with italicized block letters and red side panels. These are the jerseys Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh, and LeBron James wore while winning two NBA titles together. However, fans have gone gaga over the team's fluorescent "Miami Vice" edition jerseys.

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Jerry Cooke/Corbis // Getty Images

Then: Milwaukee Bucks

The Bucks are the only team to have primarily featured red and green together on jerseys. Over the years, the team switched between green and red letters, and won one championship in this style in 1971, led by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (pictured) and Oscar Robertson.

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Jamie Schwaberow // Getty Image

Now: Milwaukee Bucks

Teams often introduce new jerseys to indicate a new era, and the ascension of Giannis Antetokounmpo signaled a change in Bucks history. The current jerseys, introduced in 2015, are heavy on green, but lack another dominant secondary color, which gives the uniform a sleek look. Previously, the Bucks wore jerseys accented with purple or red.

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Mike Powell // Getty Images

Then: Minnesota Timberwolves

The first Timberwolves jersey wasn't all that flashy, despite the franchise coming into the league around the time of other teams like the Orlando Magic and Charlotte Hornets, who chose more trendy styles. This jersey is noticeable for not featuring the full team name, just "Wolves," and was later worn by Christian Laettner and Kevin Garnett.

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David Berding // Getty Images

Now: Minnesota Timberwolves

The latest Timberwolves jerseys somewhat resemble soccer kits, and are one of the few uniforms in the NBA to utilize horizontal stripes. Green, blue, white, silver, and black have been featured in past jerseys worn by popular players like Terrell Brandon. The versions sported here are alternates and are a nod to a style worn by the Minneapolis Lakers.

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Lisa Blumenfeld // Getty Images

Then: New Orleans Pelicans

The first New Orleans basketball jerseys were very much inspired by the Charlotte Hornets, as that franchise relocated to Louisiana in 2002. New Orleans' basketball team was renamed the Pelicans in 2013, and the Hornets' team history was returned to the reincarnation of the franchise that currently plays in Charlotte.

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Jonathan Bachman // Getty Image

Now: New Orleans Pelicans

Basketball teams in New Orleans have had a varied history of uniforms. When the Hornets franchise played in the city, they kept their teal and purple but added a dash of gold. Since the Pelicans debuted in 2013, the team went for less flashy colors, giving New Orleans a unique colorway in the NBA. However, with Zion Williamson representing a new chapter in team history, don't be surprised if the Pelicans go for a newer look in the years to come to signal this changeover.

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Then: New York Knicks

The Knicks have always had simple jerseys, with white, orange, and blue staples (those colors can also be found on the flag of New York City). The versions seen here do not feature an outline color.

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Patrick Smith // Getty Image

Now: New York Knicks

The Knicks jerseys have remained largely the same over the past 50 years, minus an occasional addition of back or side panels. The current look harkens back to a look popular in the 1980s, when Patrick Ewing was the focal point of the franchise.

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Stephen Dunn // Getty Images

Then: Oklahoma City Thunder

The first Thunder jerseys were an interesting mix of light blue, orange, yellow, black, and white. The team later used these colors to make an alternate jersey in honor of the state's Native American heritage.

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Omar Rawlings // Getty Images

Now: Oklahoma City Thunder

The Thunder have kept the same jersey style since their inception, except for some alternates, like the ones pictured here. With their three most iconic players now in different cities (Russell Westbrook, Kevin Durant, and James Harden), perhaps a new look is in order to signal a changing of the guard.

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Focus on Sport // Getty Images

Then: Orlando Magic

The early Magic jerseys featured pinstripes and a star replacing the "a" in Orlando. Young stars Shaquille O'Neal (pictured) and Penny Hardaway sported these unis as they carried the Magic to the NBA Finals in 1995.

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Tim Warner // Getty Images

Now: Orlando Magic

The Magic have stayed with blue, black, and white throughout their existence, although they've fluctuated between the team name and logo across the jersey front. The current look is more classic than some of the gaudier themes in team history, which included shinier blues and lots of stars.

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Focus on Sport // Getty Images

Then: Philadelphia 76ers

Based in the City of Brotherly Love, the 76ers have mostly kept to a patriotic motif in their uniform history. These jerseys, along with the Nets' ABA style, are among the only to feature stars down the side. The lettering on the jerseys somewhat evokes a Pac-Man font.

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Lachlan Cunningham // Getty Images

Now: Philadelphia 76ers

In 2015, the Sixers channeled the roots of their glory days, going with a full-on patriotic theme. The late 1990s and early 2000s saw lots of black and even gold in the Sixers uniforms, but these stand out with the stars returning along the side panels.

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Focus on Sport // Getty Images

Then: Phoenix Suns

The Phoenix Suns once employed lettering somewhat like an Old English typeface, which helped accentuate the idea of the sun. During the 1976–77 season, twins Dick and Tom Van Arsdale both suited up for Phoenix.

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Alika Jenner // Getty Images

Now: Phoenix Suns

Compared to other Suns jerseys, the current look is quite minimalist. Other versions prominently featured the sun (or at least an illuminated, sun-shaped basketball).

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Focus on Sport // Getty Images

Then: Portland Trail Blazers

The Trail Blazers' old jerseys prominently featured a script font on the chest and red on their away uniforms. They also wore one of the few NBA jerseys with numbers on the left side, similar to the Bulls' early iterations.

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Alika Jenner // Getty Images

Now: Portland Trail Blazers

The Blazers jerseys have rarely changed looks over the past 30 years, except for the occasional font tweak. The current unis feature Portland on the front, while earlier versions instead had the team nickname featured across the chest. The jerseys seen here are alternates, which resemble a look from the mid-1970s.

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Focus on Sport // Getty Images

Then: Sacramento Kings

The Kings, formerly the Cincinnati Royals, had a truly unique look with the team nickname running vertically down the side of the jersey. The prominent placement of the numbers also made this Royals version stick out, but was scrapped shortly after the team moved to Sacramento.

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Thearon W. Henderson // Getty Images

Now: Sacramento Kings

Big bold letters in a universal size set these Kings jerseys apart from others, which had the team name in a script or arched font. Since the mid-1990s, the Kings have largely stuck to purple, white, silver, and black, which deviates from their early days of blue, red, and white jerseys.

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Focus on Sport // Getty Images

Then: San Antonio Spurs

The Spurs have just about always stuck to black and white (with some silver). These jerseys, worn by George Gervin, notably feature San Antonio arched across the front, which would be discarded in future versions.

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Jason Miller // Getty Images

Now: San Antonio Spurs

The Spurs sport one of the more traditional looks in the league, rocking their current specs for over 30 years. The jerseys pictured are alternates, and incorporate the rare style of numbers on the right chest. There was a period, though, when the team incorporated flashier, southwest-inspired colors on its floor design and warm-up jackets.

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Mitchell Layton // Getty Image

Then: Toronto Raptors

The Raptors did not hold back with their inaugural jerseys, mixing the unique combo of purple and red, while featuring a unique font and a dinosaur prominently placed on the front. Also note the numbers tucked under the nickname and to the side of the dinosaur. Vince Carter wore a simpler iteration of the purple jersey when winning the 2000 Slam Dunk Contest.

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Michael Reaves // Getty Images

Now: Toronto Raptors

By mid-November 2020, the Raptors released a sneak peek of three of the team's five new uniforms for the 2020-2021 season. The jerseys thread the needle between multiple past uniform designs to create a bold new look.The chevron emblazoned across the chest indicates the north and charts forward momentum.

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Focus on Sport // Getty Images

Then: Utah Jazz

The early Jazz uniforms featured purple, green, and gold, colors normally associated with Mardi Gras. That made sense while the team played in New Orleans, but seemed a bit incongruous when the Jazz relocated to Salt Lake City.

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Alex Goodlett // Getty Images

Now: Utah Jazz

The Utah Jazz have run the gamut of jersey colors, and the current style draws inspiration from the 1980s. Yes, the nickname Jazz might not fit Utah, but the mountains the team sported on their uniforms in the 1990s weren't winning any style awards either (a recent alternate jersey pays tribute to that look). These alternates pictured also pay homage to the topography of the American West.

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Focus on Sport // Getty Images

Then: Washington Wizards

The Baltimore/Washington Bullets went with lowercase letters on the front of their jerseys, eschewing traditional style. Notice the different shape of the Ls? In later years, a ball would be added in between, to resemble a tip-off.

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Patrick Smith // Getty Images

Now: Washington Wizards

The Wizards, like the Timberwolves, employ vertical stripes on the sides of their primary uniforms. The jerseys somewhat resemble a version worn 30 years ago, when the team was still called the Bullets. The team was renamed in 1997, to disassociate with firearms.

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