*Editorial ~ Sample 1
The following editorial feature first appeared in BUCKETS: Issue Zero (2015)
While researching the topic of N.B.A. identities for SLAM magazine’s (excellent) annual sneaker bible: KICKS, it occurred to this particular cultural critic that the subject was worthy of additional exploration, hence the following editorial feature was developed following the KICKS piece (to serve as a deeper dive into the waters where the N.B.A.’s respective logos feed and breed). To make it easier to consume, this extensive strobe light has been broken down into two parts… 1. The Current State of N.B.A. Identities… and 2. Brand New: Milwaukee.
As creatures who place a premium on our sense of sight, visual identifiers are an important aspect of communication. Separate from the on-court product, a team’s visual identity – in the N.B.A. that includes primary, secondary and tertiary logos; the home, road and alternate uniform systems; and the actual court design – can trigger religious-like devotion or provoke strong rejection.
In the same way you don’t have to be a marathon runner to recognise Nike’s swoosh (designed by Carolyn Davidson) or an avid cinema patron to identify the Warner Bros. crest (crafted by Saul Bass), the N.B.A.’s respective franchise logos cater for, and have been created for, both narrow and vast usages. Regardless of whether or not one thinks a team’s identity happens to be dashing, garish, goofy or sophisticated, the measure of a quality logo is non-fan recognition.
During the Showtime era, the Los Angeles Lakers minimalist, script based logo worked because its slanted typeface (Bodoni Italic) and motion lines captured the spirit of the team’s playing style. Couple that with Gold (representing sunshine / sandy beaches) and Purple (the traditional color of royalty) and all of a sudden you have a near perfect visual encapsulation of an era – even though Lakers have been anything but run-and-gun over the past few seasons and their nickname continues to have zero application to the region. Still, Los Angeles’ original N.B.A. franchise has not only embraced its past (unlike say, Oklahoma City), it has built a deep, rich tradition since relocating, thus reconciling with any identity flaws is rather easy. It’s also an inoffensive slice of visual communication, unlike say, whatever the Utah Jazz are peddling.
Christopher Arena, the N.B.A.’s Senior V.P. of Identity, Outfitting & Equipment, informs me that the process – between the N.B.A., the design agency hired to create an identity, the team’s ownership and the league’s apparel partners – is collaborative. Usually conducted over a two-year period, Arena notes the initial design phase will inevitably bring up discussion points from all parties involved. As he outlines, all parties “work towards a common goal to deliver the team an identity that represents its goals and objectives”. In other words, the people who know what each team identity needs best provide constructive advice and assist in a number of helpful ways.
Whenever new franchise ownership enters the fray they often like to reenergise their fan base with a makeover that suggests “change of culture”. In this regard, Vice Sports’ Andrew Helsel said it best when he wrote, “logos have nothing to do with performance” but “plenty to do with performance goals.”
Visually speaking, the world is an over-crowded space so each N.B.A. franchise has to try and craft a unique brand experience that embodies whatever traditions or values they deem fit. Logos also have to operate as weapons for consumerism but what exactly makes for a memorable sporting club logo?
Todd Radom, Creative Director at Todd Radom Design and editorial contributor to the Sporting News, has been crafting event and team identities for a quarter century. He believes, “there are two components to any team logo – aesthetics and structure.”
“Aesthetics are subjective, of course, but a memorable logo should be timeless,” says Radom. “While structure is more about adhering to classic design principles.”
Teams go to great expense (and lengths) to sell a rebooted identity but offering fans the right look requires more than buzzwords, just ask Detroit. In 2005 they retooled their logo to resemble the franchise’s more hellacious days but forgot that the basketball’s lines (from the 1979 edition doubled as the butterfly flaps on a supercharged engine’s air scoops. So they kept the brand’s popular colors but removed the relevance. The Pistons primary insignia now features an arched typeface hovering in front an inauspicious basketball that offers no direct connection to the Motor City – their alternate Navy Blue with Red uniforms act as another reminder of what’s essentially absent.
Although Detroit returned to their spherical logo five years before Golden State, it wasn’t until the Warriors unleashed their disk in 2010 that a orbicular renaissance was born. By electing to revisit their past – their 1969 “The City” emblem – the Dub’s created the new N.B.A. standard. The merchandise in turn has been a runaway success, helped along by the team’s growing popularity and the rise of Stephen Curry.
Coincidently, five franchises (Atlanta, Milwaukee, Philadelphia, Toronto and Washington) have all reintroducing themselves with circular badges. The Los Angeles Clippers, meanwhile, opted for floating text (with extra thin highlights) and a pair of curved lines. Everyone was expecting pizzazz, the Clips instead showed up to the party wearing items borrowed from 2006. These six identities exemplify the very best and worst of contemporary branding.
A team’s objective isn’t always to create an identity that’ll last 50 years. However, the best sports logos live on because they’re bottled lightning. When it comes to N.B.A. logo design, there are two constants: 1. Not all athletic club emblems are created equal… and 2. Logos rarely last forever.
There have been, by my count, 81 different primary logos since the N.B.A.-A.B.A. merger (and that figure discounts mere color upgrades, basic shape modifications or minor typeface refinement). That translates to roughly three facelifts per franchise… or a reset every 14 years.
Edward O’Hara, designer of the now-obsolete Nets logo that was instated from 1997 until the team’s relocation to Brooklyn (2012), once said the 90s was all about three- dimensional, disruptive design with success based on how “in-your-face” an identity could be. In the 90s, short term gain mattered most, that’s how we ended up with the Hawks, Pistons, Raptors and Rockets all subjecting fans to identities that in retrospect are both easy to discredit but remain as true time capsules.
One of the most eagerly anticipated rebranding efforts ever (because Hip Hop superstar Jay Z was supposedly designing the franchise’s new logo), the Nets’ reimagined mark was eventually met with mixed reviews. The typography, inspired by subway roll signs from the borough’s Dodgers era, placed on a shield (carryover from their New Jersey days) was a refreshing and minimalist approach that team C.E.O. Brett Yormark hoped would become a “new badge for Brooklyn”. The no frills approach however was conceptually uninspiring and in its attempt to be different, it appears to be somewhat egotistical, especially given the measuring stick for any Black / White sports logo is the N.F.L.’s Raiders who only reached pop-culture reverence because they won, a lot, while also being embraced by seminal Hip Hop artists N.W.A. – a counter culture bonfire if ever there was one.
As far as brand marks that have lasted 50 years or more, the lone star for the N.F.L.’s Dallas Cowboys, designed by Jack Eskridge, remains in use. America’s (best marketed) team indeed. Yet when it comes to memorable emblems, everyone is chasing the New York Yankees’ interlocking “N” and “Y”. Designed by Louis B. Tiffany in 1877 and adopted by the Pin- stripe’s in 1922, the logo has been able to transcend sports. Now synonymous with the city it represents, its simplicity helped it to become a beacon of both tradition and triumph. That’s why Complex.com’s Nick Schoberger once wrote, “logos play an important roll in America’s sporting history.” They aren’t just representations of sport, they’re often how we like to remember the state of things.
When it comes to N.B.A. logos, the Chicago Bulls, not the Boston Celtics, epitomize the best in graphic design. Created by Theodore W. Drake, the floating bull face hasn’t changed since it was first introduced in the late 1960s. Thanks to Michael Jordan’s reign, the Red / White bovine is the perfect memory trigger. Catch a glimpse of the icon and one automatically thinks of Basketball even though there’s no mention of the sport or any visual signifiers. The Bulls logo is N.B.A branding at its best: evocative and able to stand for something that has nothing to do with the actual aesthetic. However, as Radom noted in one online interview, “design for sports is different from design for any other consumer brand because sports fans are the most ardent, passionate brand loyalists on earth.”
That means it isn’t good enough for a logo to simply be clever, clean and contemporary, N.B.A.’s emblems need to double as (work)horses that pull profit carts too. Because branding is business based, consumer appeal is paramount – and it’s why Golden State’s blue plate worked. That means there’s pressure on ownership groups to create an identity that’ll appeal to, and ideally will be loved by, their paying fan base. Designers tasked with delivering the visual solutions also walk a tightrope because as Radom note, “there’s untold billions of dollars attached to revenue directly derived from team identities.”
He adds, “how a new look will play in the marketplace is a huge consideration. Brand activation – taking the core look of a team and extending it – goes far beyond licensed goods.”
From Mitchell & Ness throwbacks to New Era snapbacks, there are a number of tangents that link back to the respective N.B.A. identities. Sneakers, especially Player Editions (P.E.’s), can act as an extension of uniforms, thus color and a team’s logo matters. Athlete’s mightn’t always wear matching kicks but footwear producers make sure they’re always available.
Sports brands also need their identities to survive on a variety of surfaces – timber, plastic, foam, ice, grass, etc. – and they need to be visible at extreme sizes. When asked if application has any effect on identity approval, Arena informs me that, “logos with a lot of detail, for instance, may have trouble executing in embroidery or in a small space on social media.” Radom echoes this point, stating, “designers need to think about what a logo looks like on broadcast, on the web, in print, big, small, the whole deal.”
N.B.A. diehards may differ in opinion from those inside the creative fraternity but from a design perspective, Portland’s original pinwheel logo, designed by Frank Glickman (cousin of Trail Blazer founder Harry Glickman) is, in and of itself, an elegant interpretation of the game and should never be retired. Likewise Denver’s 1976 logo that features a cartoony, Red-bearded miner doing a jumping-jack while holding a basketball and a pick-axe is spirited, the right kind of kitsch and not in any way serious, which aptly reflects the role sports should play in our lives (but that’s another topic altogether).
The ‘76 logo only narrowly beats out the Nuggets’ “Rainbow City” (Tetris-like) mark from 1981. The accompanying uniforms are never far from conversation and now that same-sex marriage has been deemed legal but the U.S. Supreme Court, it would be fitting to see these unis rocked in a show of solidarity. Point being, both identities put Denver’s current branding to shame – minus their secondary logo which is actually a perfect piece of design (and should be elevated to primary status).
All over the N.B.A. there are franchise’s with designed marks that have been clumsily updated while other identities straight-up refuse to be anything but be all about what is happening right now. The Seattle SuperSonics’ skyline logo (1975 – ‘95) is superior to the Thunder’s current logo but hell would probably have to freeze over before owner Clay Bennett ever let his team reference their messy divorce. And that’s the other contentious thing, owners can be real conservatives when it comes to identity change.
Radom notes research is key because it informs what shape the “front-end visual audit of all contextual influences that drive logo development” will take. That’s why it’s always better to do more homework than not enough. That explains why the Hawks spent 12 months asking their constituents whether or not the they should reinstate the Pac-man.
First conceived in 1972 but made popular in 1980s (thanks to Dominique Wilkins), Atlanta’s alternate emblem has over-taken the soaring bird of prey. Now Georgia’s Basketball Club has a shiny new primary badge along with three modish, fluorescent green accented uniforms that we all hope don’t strain our retinas when they’re broadcast in High Definition. Speaking of secondary logos, they aim to serve multiple purposes. When they work (think the Knicks’ subway token or Philadelphia’s Benjamin Franklin dribbling a basketball), they enhance the brand’s overall appeal. Able to act as an extension of the primary logo, bridge eras or provide variety / flexibility to marketing exercises, a team’s secondary shield can be pure decoration or a crest for team loyalists.
When it comes to adding a touch of uniqueness to the look and feel of an identity, few have succeeded like the Charlotte Hornets. Their 1988 logo – an overweight insect dribbling a basketball – and uniform set were sadly lost to New Orleans when the team relocated in 2002. Well versed in the power of branding, thanks to a 30-year partnership with Nike, owner Michael Jordan rightly reinstated the moniker in 2014 but their updated identity lacks the initial courage of Alexander Julian’s Teal with Purple garments. And it’s worth noting, that 1988 instalment forever changed the course of N.B.A. merchandising.
There’ll always be instances where small modifications beat out major overhauls. Minnesota’s primary logo could top Memphis’ if only they’d remove those six trees (thus allowing for a larger wolf head). Then there’s the situation in New Orleans where the organization isn’t allowed to rescue the Jazz from Utah despite years of it being chaining up in a basement with a gag-ball and a gimp. As a result, the Crescent City has been forced to fly its B logo: the Pelican. More so, their designers should’ve known better than to book-end the letters of their wordmark. And as meaningful as touches like the Fleur-de-lis and wrought iron elements are, they clutter an already crowded emblem. As a third example (where minor amendments could help), the Miami Heat should seriously consider removing the flame element rising from the crossbar of their “T”. Changing their name to the more appropriate “Fireballs” probably won’t happen so they should at least correct the typeface.
Sports teams are constantly searching for marks that stand up to the competition. Yet fierceness can only get you so far. At the end of the day, athletic club emblems need to resonate with their consumer base (above all else). Whether they’re meant as projections of masculinity or simply built to serve a specific elite sporting ethos. Logos – and the identity packages to which they belong – should always be about the revitalisation of inclusive sports culture. Logos are, after all, about marketing, human psychology and perception. That’s why it’s easy for groups to develop romanticised views of era specific identities. Which neatly brings us to the Toronto Raptors.
Franchise founder John Bitove Jr. apparently requested the McDonalds Happy Meal of N.B.A. logos back in 1994 following the success of Steven Spielberg’s Jurassic Park. Like the team from Washington D.C., Toronto have since ditched their 90s emblem but refuse to part ways with their nickname. Instead of a flawed but easily identifiable Barney-colored carnivore, they now have a nondescript basketball with claw marks and sans-serif font housed inside a dark disk. While their revised colors are more consumer friendly – and in line with Drake’s tastes – the team has dropped a couple of notches on the lucid scale. But to their credit, at least the Raptors have retained some visual connection to their nickname.
Washington changed their moniker in 1997 for P.R. reasons (in tandem with synchronising their colors with the N.H.L.’s Capitals). In April this year, the Wiz made their W-shaped icon disappear but oddly kept the conjurer tag. Their logo is now all about the Capital’s Monument and even though it successfully resembles a political campaign button their appellation is at odds with their branding. Now they’re Wizards, sans wizard.
Grantland.com’s Zach Lowe isn’t afraid to dedicate editorial space to his geeky love of court design – from Cleveland’s skyline to New Orleans’ stained timber pelican silhouette – and while the N.B.A. has sanded back its gaudy ways (circa 1996), courts are becoming canvases again with maple wood patterns or staining (to the high-gloss polyurethane coating) now as varied as the logos themselves. With competition for viewers growing more brutal, the N.B.A. is allowing its teams to create distinctive experiences and this movement can be traced back to Robert Indiana, the Godfather N.B.A. of court design. His MECCA Arena floor design once set Milwaukee apart but now it’s just another look. In today’s N.B.A., floor aesthetics aren’t just viewed as gimmicks, they create fan currency.
Connectivity, especially in the social media age, shapes behaviour. That’s why the unveiling of a new logo identity or uniform set can turn into a forest fire just as quickly as the arctic winds of discontent can freeze all interest. The Clippers unfortunately felt the most chilling effects of disapproval when they presented two-thirds of their new identity in 2015.
Once Steve Ballmer took over from Donald Sterling, many had hoped the Clippers would change course – a literal and symbolic departure from their troubled past. Excitement surrounding the team’s new identity was genuine and palpable (then images of their new personality disorder were leaked). The new primary logo, appearing as though it was copied from the cover of EA Sports’ NBA Live 06, isn’t very appealing (compared with other logo designs). The general response online wasn’t kind either, many on social media blasting the Clips with comments not safe for print. When asked about the Clippers’ red sign, Radom said, “what does this new identity say? I’m not sure. L.A. is one of the most dynamic and unique places on earth. This [identity] has absolutely no sense of place… it’s kind of clunky and static.” Radom even went as far as to call the logo “an airball”.
Radom believes the N.B.A.’s identities have real endurance because they perfectly “represent the tribal aspect of sports.”Yet even if the team’s new identity is viewed as ho-hum, the true measure of success isn’t measured by online comments, its about what happens at the cash register. Because the owners aren’t running charities, purchasing product sends a signal as clear as boycotting does. And to have a successful identity, team’s need to find ways to appeal to folks regardless of geography. The dream scenario? An emblem (via garments, headwear, etc.) isn’t just adopted by select celebrities, it’s endorsed at the street level as the natty standard
While the Clips might’ve lost this battle of the business cards, attitudes towards team hieroglyphs shift over time. At their most effective, N.B.A. logos do more than simply inform us about who’s competing or where the franchise is from. They evoke specific feelings, govern moods or remind us of certain philosophies. The N.B.A.’s respective primary logos help us recall specific contests, eras, players, performances or streaks (for better and worse). As fans, we might be involuntarily entangled in each franchise’s identity but that doesn’t mean we can’t assign cultural value to specific logos and by default, shape what’s important to the N.B.A. experience. The best ownership groups continually listen to their patrons and look to employ designers who know what’ll work.
N.B.A. identities are about more than territory or shared property, they’re created to supersede players, transcend rosters and outlive coaching styles. Billionaire owners may have all rights reserved but it’s the fanatics who inevitably help turn a team’s visual chattels into ceremonious costumes. At their best, N.B.A. logos become a common language with regional dialects. As Arena informed me via e-mail, “a team’s identity is a critical factor in creating a strong connection between the team, its fans and its city [or state].” He also notes, “fans wear merchandise not only to show support for their team but also to show their pride in their hometown.
The 2015 rendition of Milwaukee’s logo is the team’s first overhaul since 1993 when the Bucks put Matt Kastelic’s loveable, sweater wearing, 1968 caricature (who’s spinning a basketball on one hoof) to sleep so they could awaken a hulking Purple and Green Pecora. Created to celebrate the team’s 25th anniversary, the former logo remained unchanged through the Glenn Robinson-Vin Baker-Ray Allen years before it was refined (rather than redefined) in 2006.
That reconfiguration saw the Purple replaced with red while the type treatment was chiselled and strengthened. That version outlasted the Michael Redd-Andrew Bogut- Brandon Jennings epoch and remained the face of Wisconsin’s pro Hoops team for another nine seasons. In 2014, longtime owner Herb kohl sold the franchise to hedge-fund billionaires Wesley Edens and Marc Lasry. That changeover brought with it a revised branding and marketing strategy, one that would required a complete identity makeover. Milwaukee may never be home to the N.B.A.’s most popular team but that doesn’t mean it can’t be an award winning lodge, or host of the game’s most visually appealing identity.
The agency entrusted with masterminding the new identity was Doubleday & Cartwright, a multidisciplinary creative firm that specializes in sports branding and design. Based in Brooklyn, N.Y.C., the company’s summary states that their most original and engaging work has stemmed from collaborations where the client wasn’t afraid to take risks. Having produced a wide variety of work – from animation and garment design to custom publications and websites – and all for a range of noteworthy clients, including E.S.P.N., Nike, Red Bull and Sports Illustrated, the agency, unbeknownst to the N.B.A. at the time they were contacted about the Bucks assignment, received little opposition once their initial concepts were presented.
Fast forward a few months and their Bucks identity isn’t just inspired design work, it doubles as one of the finest decentralised logos out there. and as one the longest tenured N.B.A. franchises in their founding city, it’s a fitting scene that the Bucks now have an emblem that satisfies their needs. Powered by their dynamic duo (Giannis Antetokounmpo / Jabari Parker), a talented young backcourt (Michael Carter-Williams, Khris Middleton), microwave ballers (Jerryd Bayless; O.J. Mayo) and reliable pivots (Greg Monroe, John Henson), the Bucks have every opportunity to be a top five Eastern Conference squad in 2016. When they next step out onto the BMO Harris Bradley Center timber, the Bucks won’t just be dressed to kill, they’ll be representing a new age of Milwaukee Basketball.
Paul Lukas rates their new uniforms as “definitely in the top 10” while the N.B.A.’s first Creative Director, Tom O’Grady informed Sports Illustrated that he didn’t believe the inclusion of Cream was a wise move because he’s not sure it’ll be a hit with consumers. Todd Radom believes “the Bucks got a lot of stuff right” because “the Green is the glue that binds the visual D.N.A. of the franchise” but he stopped short of calling their new look visual perfection because he’s concerned the new logo “might be seen as trendy” and thus will appear “dated in five years or so”. regardless of opinion, there’s one constant: everyone is keen to see what the Bucks are all about – be it from top to bottom, head to toe or start to finish. Before that occurs, the BUCKETS mag team wanted to discover more about the creative minds, their agency and the decisions behind one of the strongest rebranding efforts in recent memory. speaking with Kimou Meyer, a native of Geneva, Switzerland, via skype, we got the intel on how this Knicks season ticket holder and one of Doubleday & Cartwright’s founding partners, was able to solve one of designs most complex puzzles in record time.
For those who may not be familiar with Doubleday & Cartwright’s story, can you tell me a little about yourself and how the creative + strategic agency started?
Sure thing. The agency started in 2009 with Christopher Isenberg, Aaron Amaro and myself [Kimou Meyer]. Chris is a journalist with an English Literature background who has become our go-to guy for copy writing and strategy. He also just happens to be a sports aficionado. Chris and I met at an amateur softball league game where we’d spend time talking about varsity inspired design. He later started a brand called No Mas (that we’ve dubbed “garment reportage”). It features commemorative t-shirts and art based on different sporting figures and events.
Aaron is also from the world of academia only his skills are in advertising. After completing his studies in California, Aaron worked in London before moving to New York City where he worked for Wolff Olins. He’s the most advertising / branding savvy of the founding three.
As for me, I’m originally from Switzerland but studied Design & Communications in Belgium. Even though I studied classic and formal graphic design approaches (Think minimal Swiss design – ED.) I was fascinated by North American culture, specifically Basketball, Hip Hop music and skateboarding culture. In 1999, after concluding my studies in Brussels, I was offered an opportunity to live and work in the U.S..
Parallel to this, I was becoming very involved in the streetwear scene through a boutique fashion store named Alife where my wife worked. During this time, I led a double life (alias Grotesk) where I’d balance my time between corporate or minimal fashion design and completing illustrations for streetwear magazines, producing t-shirt graphics, etc.. I also met people like Shepard Fairey and others who’d help revolutionize what’s now referred to as street art. After a stopover with Echo Unlimited, I became the Creative Director at Zoo York. Long story short, I became a specialist in sports based graphic design, creating apparel lines and garment embellishment.
In 2008, Aaron, Chris and I started talking about forming an agency like Voltron. We had a copy and strategy expert who was passionate about sports, a garment and design specialist who knew how to manage a clothing line and someone well versed in branding, campaigns and layout. In our first year we only had three employees but now we have 25 people on staff with offices on both coasts.
That definitely helps explain why the Bucks approached D&C. If you can, tell me a little about the process of securing the Bucks’ identity gig…
It all started when Nike invited us to the Barclays Center to see the Knicks play the Nets on Christmas Day. During that game, one of my friends, a guy named Scott Williams, who was an intern when I worked for Zoo York, asked me ‘what would be your dream project?’. I informed him that ‘designing an N.B.A. team identity would be a dream come true… but highly unlikely’. Usually, that level of corporate design involves a lot of politics or a bigger agency. Six months pass and then I received a random phone call from Scott. He reminds me about our conversation. Then he asks, ‘are you down to receive a call about redesigning a team?’ I thought to myself, yeah right! But it turned out he was serious. He said that ‘someone from the ownership group will call you tomorrow’ and true to his word, I received a call from Alex Lasry – son of owner Marc Lasry – who’s now the Team President of Strategy and Operations for Bucks Basketball.
Wow. That’s so cool. Alright, lets talk logo specifics. How did you craft each, what was the thinking involved?
The short version is we needed to create three marks that interacted with one another. The longer version is obviously a little more interesting… The owners said they wanted the deer head to remain but everything else was fair game. And let me just say this, creating an aggressive looking deer is not easy. It’s not an attacking animal, it’s a herbivore. It’s often the one being hunted, that’s not the cliche in sports. And a deer isn’t naturally mean. The challenge was how to make it appear determined or menacing without it becoming a satanic goat that’s possessed by an evil force. At the other end of the spectrum, we had to make sure people didn’t associate the new logo with Bambi. We had to steer clear of that as well.
We also had to consider scale. It was important to make sure the character and details were visible as a thumbnail but they also had to work on a billboard. That determines the success of a brand mark, how many situations it can be applied to. That was a conscious aspect of the approach, we needed to developed a brand system that could be applied to print, work well on screen, be printed on textures (plastic, wood, etc.). Whatever the medium, it had to be bullet-proof.
I believe the team did close to 200 sketches. From there, we selected the best attributes from each illustration and built Frankenstein’s monster. I then took the designs home, sat on them for a few days, refined it, then handed them over to someone else to view (with fresh eyes). They took a turn refining it and we eventually landed at the right place. It was an exciting and satisfying process to be a part of.
As for specifics, the Primary logo now features more antler points. Now there’s 12 tips, a reference to the number of players on the game-night roster. The other cool thing is there’s a basketball in the negative space of the antlers. The chevron neck also doubles as an “M” that we used in the secondary logo. We also swapped the old triangular backdrop for a disk, so now the juxtaposition of the typeface and logo curvature is able to represent the union of rural and urban Wisconsin.
The Tertiary logo is about state pride, not just city pride, which was an important requirement from ownership. It’s the outline of Wisconsin and has a collegiate feel to it, which we liked. The basketball in the bottom corner also marks the city’s place on the map. This is also the only logo with all three brand colors.
Glad you mentioned it. Lets talk about the identity’s color scheme. I was rather surprised to see Cream included. Why Cream? Why this particular palette?
We knew we needed to have sound color theory at the logo’s core because in our experience, as N.B.A. fans, we always side with the classic looks because the merchandise that’s created from it is usually more soulful. As designers, we’re taught that if you start with something simple you can build on it but if it’s too complicated, you end up creating a Christmas tree that’s overly decorated.
The Green, which has been called “Good Land Green”, is the traditional color of the Bucks. That’s the foundation. Everything starts with Green. Milwaukee’s nickname is Cream City because Cream colored bricks were the most common building material used in the city during the 19th century. That’s why we adopted “Cream City Cream” as the secondary color. The state of Wisconsin is also dairyland which helped convince us Cream was a wise choice. It also distinguishes the new Bucks identity from the old. They’re now the only team to feature that hue. As for Blue, we named that “Great Lakes Blue”. That element represents the state’s flag, Lake Michigan and the many rivers that run through the region. Black and white were added as accent colors. The plan was to create a strong identity. We believe we’ve done that.
How about the custom typeface? How did you arrive at that solution?
With more and more games being watched on hand-held devices there was a need for clean, clear, crisp type. We didn’t like the bevelled font so we crafted a flush, industrial inspired, custom-made block typeface. The font style was inspired by the kinds of type you’re likely to see in a factory setting. The type is friendly and legible from a distance, which the N.B.A. liked. We made sure the typeface would be suitable for all three logos, all the uniforms and whatever merchandise was created. It also translates well to broadcast, an important wrinkle that now needs to be heavily considered when redesigning an identity.
From a design standpoint, was it difficult to balance the needs of the team with the kind of forward looking aesthetics that ensure the identity doesn’t have a limited shelf life?
Our team’s expertise, from animation to branding; from merchandising to retail experiences, all contributed to the final destination, which is to say, we designed a logo that could be applied across the board. That was important. There’s boat loads of product, ranging from hats to sports bags; from t-shirts to jackets. It all needed to be considered. Applying logo’s in different places or settings is something we enjoy doing. It has been a part of our process for years. We even went to the trouble of mocking up an additional six-pages of logo applications. We included things like caps, coffee mugs, hoodies, stickers, etc. so we basically built a make-believe merchandise plan for the Bucks to see how well their new logo worked in a variety of scenarios.
I’m curious, what level of research went into the creation of the new identity?
In our Brooklyn office we have somewhere between 300 to 400 jerseys, t-shirts and patches ranging from Minor leagues in Puerto Rico to autographed N.B.A. singlets. That archive, as it turns out, helped immensely. Plus, I’m personally obsessed with Basketball. The stats, the Draft, it doesn’t matter, I passionately follow the game all year round.
As someone who grew up in Europe during the 1980s, I fondly recall the times when my brother and I would wake up in the middle of the night to watch the N.B.A.. And once I arrived in the U.S. I became obsessed with collecting vintage jerseys and patches from different sports and teams. And like many other fans, I’ve wondered from afar: who designed the Celtics’ clover? Who customized the Lakers’ script? I often think about who’s responsible for certain logos.
Prior to the Bucks’ identity, our agency had designed campaigns for Nike, including work for Carmelo Anthony, Kobe Bryant, LeBron James and Chris Paul. So we know Basketball. That’s how we’ve been able to gain the respect of bigger agencies and these global brands. We were also well equipped to produce the Bucks’ uniforms because the D&C team had already created plenty of t-shirts, jersey patches, baseball scripts and the like. So unlike some other agencies, we also know there’s a huge difference between outcomes for print or web versus design for garments. Having done hundreds of apparel items and patches over the years, and understanding the limitations of machinery, we knew the logo would work even if it was sent overseas to a factory to be applied to the uniform’s shorts or wherever. It can take multiple rounds to get apparel or patchwork right. We didn’t need to research that side of things as much, that has become our speciality.
Looking back, what were the more challenging aspects to the project?
The reduced time frame was the biggest challenge we faced. Ownership really wanted a new identity for the next [2015-16] season so we only had a few months to complete the redesign or they’d be force to wait another year before anything could be unveiled. We had less than a month to put our first ideas together and during that time we got really excited. It was really nerve-racking because we’re such big fans of the N.B.A. so we wanted to get it right but in terms of managing and delivering the project, we’ve designed for so many clients that for us, it was more about showing the world what our agency could do.
As a creative agency, we didn’t just think this was as amazing opportunity, we believed the short turnaround brought everything into focus. It sharpened our approach and removed any chance of flip-flopping, from either side. The N.B.A. has such a wide variety of needs for merchandising that they usually require a six month window to go from prototype to market ready product. We knew from the outset it would be tough but we wanted to help the Bucks and in the end we met the Labor Day deadline.
What was dialogue with the Bucks and the N.B.A. like during development?
We had a direct line to Dustin Godsey (V.P of Bucks Marketing) as well as Alex, the owner’s son. We’d send them updates knowing the owners would view our work inside 24 hours with feedback inside of 48. No one likes it when a deck is sitting on someone’s desk for a week before they take a first look at it. The owner’s passion removed any bodyguards or administrative walls. As an agency, we love to work with the decision makers.
We were nervous before meeting with the N.B.A. because we didn’t know how many layers of approval we’d have to endure. In our experience, it’s no fun dealing with too many people because that delays things. Thankfully, there was none of that. The process was very smooth. First the Bucks’ ownership and then Christopher Arena and his team at the N.B.A. liked most of what we created. From there, it was a collaborative effort to refine everything for the final designs.
We’d get constructive suggestions like, ‘can you make the eyes less robotic?’ Or, ‘can we try a more rounded nose versus an angular one?’ Once we nailed the core, it was simply a matter of cleaning the edges and performing surgery on the details to ensure the best result.
How narrow were the creative aspects of the brief? Specifically, were you told certain guidelines had to be meet?
All new N.B.A. identities have the same requirements. The brief asked us to design the primary, secondary and tertiary logos. Teams are now expected to have four uniform sets: home, road, alternate and pride (t-shirt), in addition to special occasion or themed uniforms. In our brief from the owners they mentioned how they’d like to see the deer aesthetic appear tougher but younger. They also mentioned that they liked the simplicity and effectiveness of Brooklyn’s logo. The owners were keen to see a basketball element in the new identity set too. One key request they needed honored was the removal of Red from the old logo. The team’s ownership also challenged us to introduce an accent color that aptly reflected the heritage / environment of Wisconsin. They also mentioned that Milwaukee was an industrial city with blue collar workers and that the state was surrounded by water, that’s how we knew Blue – the identity’s third color – would be a safe choice. Ownership was also adamant that the new identity had to be about more than Milwaukee. To them, the Bucks are about state pride.
Once all the Non Disclosure Forms were signed, I assembled an in-house team and the creative process got underway. After 20 years in the [creative] field, I can honestly say that the Bucks were a delight to work with. Our final identity was possible because of initial their vision.
As a designer, what are your thoughts on some of the other identities that now represent the other franchises?
The Oklahoma City Thunder had a clean slate from which to work because that area had no N.B.A. history to draw from. They could pretty much design whatever. The Nets were essentially in the same boat. I feel New Orleans’ logo lacks soul but that’s just my opinion. I mention the Pelicans identity because we wanted to avoid what feels like a disconnect between the team’s past / present and its city. And In my personal experience, fans from smaller markets are often more attached to their team’s because there’s often less to do or talk about.
Was localizing the identity of the Bucks a key component and were there any fears, from either the N.B.A. or the team, that fans may reject the inclusion of Cream?
Because the owners are from New York City they believed it would be a huge plus to have someone on the design team who was from Milwaukee. And It just so happened that our 34-year-old managing creative director, Justin Thomas Kay is from Wisconsin. He’s a well educated gentleman who also grew up a cheese head (following Wisconsin sports teams, namely the Green Bay Packers and Milwaukee Bucks). He provided us with intel on what the locals would go for, what appeared too foreign or out of touch and he really helped us create an identity that would be accepted by those in the region that it’s meant to represent.
As far as the uniform coloring goes, we knew the cream would work. The N.B.A. wasn’t opposed to it but we’ll have to wait and see if the fans take to it. We knew from the outset that we wanted to include the Irish rainbow (gradient of green) that ran vertically on the team’s vintage uniforms. Once we knew that, it was just a matter of seeing if it clashed with the Cream. We really feel the new palette pays tribute to the Bucks’ history and makes for a distinct identity that can be worn with pride.
So you meet with the N.B.A. and received initial approval on the identity. Were there any other concerns from their end?
The N.B.A. is a very well oiled machine so the Bucks ownership, who were keen to commit, had to convince them that hiring us wouldn’t backfire. We felt like we had to prove ourselves but that’s nothing new for our agency, we enjoy being able to surprise people. Meeting with the N.B.A. was helpful. They provided us with clear guidelines about what could and couldn’t be included on the uniform sets. Again, that protocol helped to eliminate certain decisions and it made the process a little more focused.
The N.B.A. has strict rules regarding all uniform colors and the styles of typeface used based on what works best for broadcast (because of athlete speed). The N.B.A. told us they’re constantly looking at ways to enhance the optical experience for all fans, so they offer sound advice on what colors and fonts translate best to broadcast. We were able to learn a lot about what they need an identity to do and the kinds of tasks they need an identity to perform.
Lets talk feedback. What has reception to the identity been like?
One of the litmus tests [for us] was Paul Lukas’ UniWatch blog. He has become Mr. Uniform in the United States and thus his opinion matters (because it’s independent). When he gave us a glowing review we thought, ‘wow, if that guys likes it we must’ve done something right’. As far as the Bucks’ ownership, they sent us a very kind e-mail outlining how much they were glad they trusted us because now they look at the jersey and it’s set to become a massive success.
We knew going in that it’s impossible to please everyone but the N.B.A. and the Bucks told us that roughly 97% of people really liked our new team identity. Oh, and not sure if you’ve seen it but a High School in Wisconsin has appropriated our logo which is kind of cool to us. As the saying goes, imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. Not sure if they’ll get in trouble from the N.B.A. but to us it’s cool.
The Doubleday and Cartwright team are minor celebrities now, right? It is, after all, rare to know the names and faces behind a team identity…
Yeah. During the uniform unveiling Bucks fans would ask members of the D&C team to sign their t-shirts. Usually those responsible for the visual properties are anonymous so we’re happy to help give a face to the Bucks’ new identity. It’s also a little surreal to think we’re now part of the larger N.B.A. story. That’s huge for us. Our logo will now be seen on E.S.P.N. next to the other 29. To know you’ll no longer be a spectator but a participant is really quite a thrilling feeling.
Looking back, was the gig with the Bucks any different from your other corporate clients?
It doesn’t matter if it’s the Queen of England who asks us to redesign her country’s flag or a young Hip Hop artist who’d like us to design their logo, we put the same level of love into whatever project we’re collaborating on. For our perspective, so long as they client is open minded, we like the idea, the project or the people involved, we’ll always take the same approach.
The thing with the Bucks logo compared to other briefs, we put more people to work in the early rounds of design than we normally would. For example, with the deer head, we have a lot of talented illustrators in the studio but I asked everyone to take a stab at that. We knew that would be a challenge, way more than the jersey design or the typeface. With those, we had a vision from the outset.
Now that you’ve created an N.B.A. identity, has your views on what makes a great sports logo changed?
For me, this assignment was another reminder that it doesn’t matter how much money you spend, or if the brand wants to alter its logo, a team’s consumers will essentially determine if it likes what it sees. We were lucky in some regards because everyone knew the Bucks logo needed to be amended.
When you compare the Bucks’ uniform with, say, the new Clippers’ identity, you can see the difference in approaches, in the respective treatments of team history, in linkage to the city, etc.. When you read the Clippers’ backstory on how they arrived at the final design it’s not easy to connect the dots. The Clips say their new sets are inspired by a deep relationship to nautical culture but I don’t see anything nautical in the logo, much less the new uniforms. What they’re saying and what they’re showing doesn’t align.
Let me also add this, given our agency’s disciplines, namely Chris [Isenberg] and Dudley Versaci, another of our strategists, we were able to engineer a strong brand story. It wasn’t bullshit. We conducted the necessary research to make sure the new identity had deep roots in Milwaukee and it correctly represented the people of Wisconsin. We didn’t write our story after the fact. The story of our identity creation started with the owner’s desires and took place during the creative process. It may not be the case for other agencies but the story element was important to us.
And let me just add, as a fan, I also think it’s a shame that most team’s don’t share their stories. There’s almost no story behind a number of the other N.B.A. logos and uniforms. We wanted to change that. Hopefully we see more back stories in the future because they can be helpful to all.
I totally agree. Let me ask, has the Bucks assignment concluded or is there more to come?
Conversations are definitely ongoing, the relationship is far from over. The Bucks don’t have a merchandising budget to match the Knicks or Lakers but they’re keen to be something other than another run-of-the-mill franchise. I’m sure we’ll be collaborating on a number of items down the road. Doubleday and Cartwright will continue to provide consultancy and designs to the Bucks where and when need be. We also have cool Bucks related content in the works for later in the year. That’ll be appearing in our publication, the Victory Journal, so watch this space.
As an N.B.A. fan to the core, do you think there’ll come a point where you’ll geek out during the 2015-16 season?
For me personally, just seeing our logo and uniform on a Jabari Parker bobble-head will be super cool. I also can’t wait to see our logo in the new video games or on NBA.com. Oh, and on the Bucks’ foam fingers, can’t forget about those.
Lastly, would D&C like to redesign any other N.B.A. logos?
The Bucks project was definitely our biggest to date but in many ways it was also the most satisfying, so yes, we’d welcome the opportunity to take on another identity project. Especially now that we’ve had the training. It could be for another N.B.A. franchise or in another sport. However, I must add, I just can’t touch the Knicks’ logo or uniforms. Even if I was offered that assignment I would have to turn it down.
I hear that. The Knicks have a strong brand and it probably shouldn’t be messed with. Shame they can’t get anything else right.
Don’t get me started (laughs).
Thanks for giving me your time.
No, thank you for the support.
Kimou Meyer ~ @groteskito
Christopher Isenberg ~ @nomasnyc
Justin Thomas Kay ~ @justinthomaskay
Be sure to also check out No Mas (nomas-nyc.com) the heritage-in- spired sportswear brand… and Victory Journal (victoryjournal.com / @victoryjournal) a must-read large-format sports and culture publication. Thanks to everyone at the N.B.A. and Jon Bier (and his team over at jacktaylorpr.com) for the many assists.
*Editorial ~ Sample 2
The following editorial feature was originally published online via SLAM
This year saw a number of headline players return from injury (Paul George, Kevin Durant) and plenty more who decided it was time to exit stage right (Elton Brand, Shawn Marion, Kenyon Martin, Jason Richardson, etc.). There were firings (Tom Thibodeau, Scott Brooks, etc.) and new appointments (Alvin Gentry, Billy Donovan, etc.) on the sidelines while the respective general managers / agents made sure there was never a shortage of moving vans driving all over the country (LaMarcus Aldridge, DeMarre Carroll, Tyson Chandler, etc.). Sadly, a number of influential, likeable or highly respected people also passed away (Earl Lloyd, Anthony Mason, Moses Malone, Darryl Dawkins, Flip Saunders, Dean Smith, Dolph Schayes, Meadowlark Lemon, etc.), making the year a somber reminder that nothing lasts forever.
From a pop-culture standpoint, it was rather fitting that the Golden State Warriors ruled over the N.B.A. in the same way Star Wars Episode VII did the box-office. Both were throwbacks to previous game-changing trilogies, both tap into nostalgia and each is a story for a new generation that’s both a continuation and a complete rethink.
Elsewhere, be it with advertising (N.B.A.’s antigun violence campaign), fashion (take a Stance) google search terms (Lamar Odom!), gender equality (Female assistant coaches: Becky Hammon and Nancy Liberman), media (E.S.P.N. closes Grantland), movies (LeBron survives Trainwreck), politics (Daily Fantasy Sports is deemed gambling), publishing (Kevin Love undresses for The Body Issue), social media (N.B.A. surpasses one billion Vine loops), sneaker releases (Jordan Brand’s 30th anniversary; LeBron debuts new shoe on SLAM 192) or TV shows (Jeremy Lin guest star on ABC’s Fresh Off The Boat), 2015 was a mighty big year for Basketball.
Before commencing the countdown, there were five not quite honorable mentions but too large to be footnotes items that this humble author felt the need to include: Zach LaVine’s gravity defying night Brooklyn… Jimmy Butler sounding the Bull-horn… The Kentucky Wildcats’ almost perfect run… DeAndre Jordan double crossing Mark Cuban… and the quiet brilliance of Kawhi Leonard. With all that in mind, here are the 15 people who made the biggest difference to Basketball in 2015.
When Phil Jackson (Team President) and Steve Mills (General Manager) were seemingly forced to select Euro prospect Kristaps Porzingis with the fourth pick in the 2015 N.B.A. Draft, many feared the Knicks would end up with another flameout — think Yi Jianlian (2007) or Nikoloz Tskitishvili (2002) — not the second coming of a Euro saviour in the Pau Gasol or Dirk Nowitzki mold (and it’s worth noting the latter, now one of the six best point producers in NBA history, has publicly praised Kristaps for his early development).
Playing in the media capital of the world is part of the story but the hype and hysteria surrounding the SLAM 195 cover subject is less Linsanity and more harbinger for real hope — New Yorkers can be forgiven for fawning over the rapid adjustment made by Porzingis because his skill set appears to have the potential to carry the storied franchise back into the contender conversation. While part of his immediate fame is ballyhoo attached to Great White Hope marketability, all the celebration is made possible because he has started to deliver like Dominos.
While it’ll be another 24 months before the true quality of the 2015 Draft class is known, Porzingis has done enough over the early stages of the 2015-16 season that there appears to be life beyond Carmelo Anthony. That sort of (contagious) optimism gives the Blue and Orange a significant piece to finally build around. It’s easy to dismiss Porzingis as “flavor of the month” but over the second half of 2015 few have matched the Latvian’s foreign exchange rate (which has climbed from modest to money in the bank).
Both Google and Facebook decided to give their respective logos a facelift in 2015 and while no singular NBA team carries as much weight as either tech giant, that doesn’t mean that even the slightest franchise identity change isn’t met with the same intensity by fans, be it backlash or praise.
As yours truly highlighted in SLAM Presents: KICKS 18, there has been a noticeable and somewhat dramatic change to a large portion of N.B.A. franchises in 2015. With more and more fans viewing games / highlights via their smart phones, the League has consciously tailored uniforms, courts and branding to fit with consumption. It has been the job of department captain Christopher Arena (and his crew) to oversee the transition from the traditional one-size-fits-all, road and home uniform systems to autonomy / flexibility based on team desires. White (or in the Lakers’ case, Yellow) is no longer the prerequisite for the host just like limiting uniforms to dual sets has become a ghost of the N.B.A.’s past.
The Atlanta Hawks (fearless fusion of eras / errors), Los Angeles Clippers (nautical theme sans nautical theme), Milwaukee Bucks (masterclass in decentralized rebranding), Philadelphia 76ers (losing never looked so good) and Toronto Raptors (goodbye Jurassic Park, hello Jurassic World) all introduced new identities in 2015 with varying degrees of appreciation or animosity. Wherever you looked in 2015, be it Dallas (fan designed skyline jersey), Indiana (30th anniversary “Hickory” get-ups), Memphis (ABA Sounders set), New Orleans (purple and green “Mardi Gras” uniforms), New York (1950’s throwback), Oklahoma City (Sunset alternate) or Sacramento (Baby Blue retro), the N.B.A. wardrobe was expanding at a rate never seen before. Between Christmas Day, Latin Nights, Chinese New Year, St. Patrick’s Day and whatever other occasion team’s wish to emblazon on their players, there’s certainly no shortage of outfits to fill the Association’s shiny new Fifth Avenue store.
While Stance socks were added to the on-court system and the inclusion of a sponsor’s logo on all 2016 All-Star uniforms is a step closer to Advertmageddon, it was the ongoing invasion of sleeves that dominated jersey chatter. In 2015, certain sleeved offerings worked (white edition by Denver, Buzz City tees in Charlotte, racing stripes in Washington DC) while others offended good taste (Chicago and Houston in grey?!?). Dirk Nowitzki spoke out against the t-shirts in late 2013 but it wasn’t until LeBron James ripped his that the disdain threatened to disrupt the Adidas x N.B.A. agenda.
In an ideal world, the major storylines / stars of the W.N.B.A. wouldn’t need to be clumped together but as long as the League remains the N.B.A.’s little sister, reality defeats wish. Powered by the highly popular triptych of Brittney Griner, Skylar Diggins and Elena Delle Donne, the W.N.B.A.’s 19th campaign — it hasn’t even been around as long as Kobe Bryant — show tremendous progress even though its blemishes were visible Diana Taurasi sidelined, Isiah Thomas’ ownership desires, etc.. If nothing else, both sides of the W.N.B.A. coin served as a reminder that the Lady’s Association is worthy of your attention even though it still needs advocacy.
Maya Moore: In Game 3 of the 2015 W.N.B.A. Finals, Maya Moore hit what could become the W’s signature shot. Her dramatic, top-of-the-key triple against Indiana (as time expired) has been compared to another No. 23’s heroics but what she has done over the course of her first five pro seasons (four Finals appearances, three champagne showers) is reminiscent of Bill Russell’s Celtics, who owned the N.B.A. in the 1960s. There’s a reason why Michael Jordan hand-picked her to endorse the Jumpman and in 2015, the world was treated to another reminder that we might be witnessed basketball’s version of Serena Williams.
Elena Delle Donne: On September 16, 2015, Chicago shotmaker Elena Delle Donne was named the W.N.B.A.’s 11th M.V.P. (after averaging 23.4 points — fifth-highest scoring average in league history — 8.4 boards, 1.4 dimes, 1.1 steals and two blocks per). The Sky won 21 of 31 regular season outings with Delle Donne in the line-up and went 0-3 without their 6-5 dynamo. She might’ve registered a pair of 40-point outings and finished top three in both rebounds and blocks per but her showing from the charity stripe (95% accuracy) meant defenders had a better chance of surviving an encounter with Daenerys Targaryen’s dragons than stopping Delle Donne in 2015.
Diana Taurasi: Imagine Mixed Martial Arts without Ronda Rousey. That’s what the W.N.B.A. was without its marquee name in 2015 (only it was capitalism, not injury, that kept the mighty Diana away). Instead of defending her W.N.B.A. crown, Taurasi’s Russian employers, U.M.M.C. Ekaterinburg, made her a Godfather offer to the tune of $1.5 million (for just a few months “work”). Financially speaking, it would’ve been irresponsible for Taurasi to turn down the foreign employment offer… but the bigger dilemma remains: the W.N.B.A. – and to an extent, its deep pocket parent – will need to figure out ways to curb more lucrative leagues from ransacking its talent. Whether the W.N.B.A. liked it not, Taurasi’s absence was noticeable, preventing the season from being near perfect.
The longer he plays the more gifted he appears (compared to his playmaking peers) and the worse he seems to be cursed (another year, another early postseason exit or team collapse). Appearing in all 82 games for the first time, CP3 was later betrayed by his body in the conference semis but managed to return from a leg strain in time to help the Clippers lose Games 5 (!), 6 (!!) and 7 (!!!) to Houston. That series defeat — another on a long line in a career that’s now reminiscent of Tim Hardaway’s over Isiah Thomas’ — instantly erased memories of CP3’s opening round heroics and that impossible shot over Tim Duncan that helped Steve Ballmer’s boys advance.
Once it appeared as though DeAndre Jordan would depart for Dallas (only to return) because he was unhappy with the situation in Los Angeles, all the long brewing criticisms of Chris Paul finally surfaced, many given justified airing. Salty, difficult and demanding, CP3’s reputation wasn’t painted with flattering remarks but N.B.A. fans are always won over/back by winners, even problematic ones, so all is not lost for Chris Paul — Isiah Thomas wasn’t well liked but having rings alters how he’s viewed. Still, CP3 remains a hard figure to digest partly because his prickly artistry has been overwhelmed by complaints.
Now 10 years into his pro career, it’s safe to consider Chris Paul one the 10 best point guards ever — he is, after all, a career 19-10 guy (with two steals per) and top five on both the career assists and thefts per game leaderboard. Yet his ticket to the Greatest Five club expires soon and once it does, the only way CP3 can guarantee entry to the prestigious lounge is to reach the Finals.
In early 2015, all eyes were squarely fixed on John Calipari, the eventual Naismith Coach of Year, and his stacked Kentucky Wildcats. While JC’s crew attempted to chase down the perfect season, Duke University’s 68-year-old hardwood zealot Mike Krzyzewski became the first D1 Men’s coach to collect 1000 victories (following his Blue Devils’ win over St. John inside M.S.G.). He squad might’ve started fourth on the Associated Press’s pre-season poll but when all was said and done, Duke won yet another N.C.A.A. tournament — this time by blowing out Michigan State (a surprise Final Four entrant) before narrowly beating Wisconsin, 68 – 63, inside Indianapolis’ Lucas Oil Stadium.
Throughout the memorable run, Krzyzewski carefully prepared freshman pivot Jahill Okafor for college basketball’s main course (March Madness) and the delectable centerpiece was rewarded with an All-American selection. Coach K also served up the right amount of Tyus Jones and Justice Winslow, two perfectly portioned side dishes to complete one of the finest meals of his tenure.
In 2015, Coach K also joined the late, great John Wooden with the most Final Four appearances (12) in D1 tournament history. Now a five-time NCAA Champion (1991, ’92, ’01, ’10, ’15), Krzyzewski’s employers mightn’t be well liked but this tactician, trainer and timber tutor is rightfully revered. In 50 years from now, when we think back on who cut down the nets in 2015, it’ll be Krzyzewski’s gleaming smile and his Blue Devils’ (not-all-that) surprising triumph.
Had it of been Dennis Rodman who was found unconscious inside the Love Ranch, a brothel 80 miles northwest of Las Vegas in Crystal, Nevada, no one would’ve been all that surprised. Yet when news broke in October that former N.B.A. Sixth Man of the Year recipient Lamar Odom was hospitalized, the story quickly turned into a global conversation piece. The Odom incident became a highly publicized story primarily because of its linkage to the so-called “reality” television monstrosity that is the Kardashians but aside from being custom made for supermarket checkout gossip rags, Odom’s epic fall from grace showed the frailty pro athletes can mask.
For anyone who enjoyed the southpaw’s style of play or his infectious, sincere personality, the Nevada event was a puzzling fixture, so much so that Lamar Odom became one of the most searched names in 2015. While a portion of that search engine traffic would’ve been housewives trying to find out more about the New York native hitting rock bottom, the fact that basketball was mentioned in almost every report meant publicity for the N.B.A.. While the Association never chased more visibility, it didn’t stop the headline hogging Kardashians from turning one man’s (much needed) recovery into television ratings.
In an interesting wrinkle, James Harden — who was dating Lamar’s ex-wife Khloe (the two filed for divorce in 2013 after four years of marriage) at the time — himself went into a funk after showing up out of shape to the Rockets’ season in tow of their break-up. Granted SLAM is hardly the forum to worry about lifestyles of the rich and famous but in this instance, a former cover subject was one of the year’s most talked about topics, thus, once the commotion reached fever pitch it made sense to study what was on the other side of the wall. The findings? One man’s critical situation created a TMZ-style circus with every media outlet jumping on the Odom story because it was linked to the Kardashians. Thankfully, Lamar is rehabilitating his life but for a brief time in 2015, his name was everywhere.
Despite the fact he was only in year three, Anthony Davis was able to pace the N.B.A. in blocks (2.9) and Player Efficiency Rating (30.8). Those averages in tandem with a host of other two-way performance measures saw the emerging star finish fifth in M.V.P. voting. More so, Davis hit the shot – a double-pump triple at the buzzer over Kevin Durant that doubled as one of the year’s best game winners – that effectively gave New Orleans their first postseason appearance since he joined the pros, courtesy of the tiebreaker over Oklahoma City.
All that production and elite understanding of the game (combined with his freaky genetics) meant predicting Davis to be the 2015-16 N.B.A. M.V.P. would be met with little resistance. Experts, including SLAM (193), looked favorably on the recent past and expected their to be more of the same in the immediate future… and yet Davis finished 2015 on uneven footing, leaving many to raise an eyebrow on what was supposed to be one of the surest bets in the pros. Still, he’s ahead of Dirk Nowitzki and Kevin Garnett after their respective third campaigns and it’s not insane to compare last season’s All-N.B.A. First Teamer to a young Tim Duncan (given his defensive prowess and offensive ceiling).
Even though there are growing pains to be had and a suspect supporting cast in the Big Easy, Davis has been elevated by the N.B.A. (and its legion of fans) because you never know what wonders his might display. There’s a good reason why the N.B.A. gave his team a coveted Christmas Day 2015 spot: Davis may play in a smallish local television market but he’s part of Basketball’s promising future. That rationale is also why he’s now a major fixture on Nike basketball’s agenda and it’s why the taxation preparation firm H&R Block have signed Davis to be their spokesperson — plus, someone has to help him manage that five-year, $145 million extension, why not the financial experts?
As Head Coach of the Golden State Warriors, Don Nelson tried to implement small ball in the early-to-mid 90s with a Chris Webber-Billy Owens-Chris Mullin-Latrell Sprewell-Tim Hardaway line-up. The concept, which was novel at the time, didn’t get a chance to prove itself because Webber was traded following his rookie run. The strategy was again employed by Nelson when he took the gig in Dallas but the effectiveness of small ball wasn’t fully realized, in its creators image, until 2014-15. The mismatches created by playing the versatile Draymond Green in the middle, especially once his three-point form vastly improved, was good enough to help the Dubs ruin LeBron James’ quest to bring Cleveland a title parade.
For 25 years, Basketball fans have seen various attempts to make small ball effective, and one could argue that the reason the 2013-14 Spurs extracted sugar sweet revenge on LeBron James’ Heat was due in large to Boris Diaw’s time at center. However, that (Gregg Popovich) property wasn’t nearly as much fun as Steve Kerr’s 2014-15 Warriors, thus Green’s defensive potency and willingness to do the dirty work helped to make Golden State as likeable as they are watchable.
Like Jackson Pollock, Green’s isn’t worried about perfecting the process, he’s more focused on the emotions stirred up by the outcome — but that doesn’t mean his compositions (on the court) haven’t caused many critics to concede his skillfulness. Once upon a time, it helped to be Catholic — in the broad-minded sense — when appreciating the beauty of Draymond’s artistry. Now? Well, he’s widely accepted as both the team’s spiritual leader and its cocksure kingpin. Conservative thinking has never been welcomed in the Bay Area and in 2015, the Green Beret played like the evolutionary Dennis Rodman (circa 1990) which became the perfect running mate to Steph Curry’s fearless sniper. (More on that in a bit.).
Bill Simmons (no relation) believes the Australian native is the surest college prospect since Kevin Durant in 2007. That’s some seriously high praise but given a survey of the 2016 mock drafts reveals one consensus: Simmons at No. 1. It’s no wonder people are buying up stock in the L.S.U. freshman.
On the surface, adulation for Ben Simmons appears every bit the tantamount to “Pistol” Pete Maravich, Chris Jackson (now Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf) and Shaquille O’Neal, all former Louisiana State University prospects turned top lottery picks who captured imaginations during their respective stints in Baton Rouge. Yet a deep dive on the kid suggests the skilled 6’10” forward could be everything Len Bias was supposed to be (if you replace Bias’ athleticism with playmaking)… and yet all that pro potential could go unfulfilled (think Derrick Coleman or Joe Smith). What happens tomorrow is unknown but what’s certain today is this: no other collegiate hooper has been as talked about in 2015 as young Ben.
Anytime a player is flagged “franchise saviour,” N.B.A. fans immediate show interest in hopes their general manager will get lucky at the lottery. Adding to the intrigue is the fact LeBron has given permission for commentators to make early comparisons and so long as Simmons continues to stand tall under the intensifying spotlight, he’s well positioned to be for Basketball what fellow countryman Liam Hemsworth is to the silver screen.
If N.B.A. honors were handed out like Academy Awards, Russell Westbrook’s 2014-15 tour de force would’ve won him Best Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role. While the other nominees — Anthony Davis, the year’s breakout star who’s capable of carrying an average feature film; LeBron James, perpetual favorite; Stephen Curry, a surprise lead of a box-office smash with never before seen acting range and James Harden, the year’s best villain — were all terrific, it was hard to argue against Russell’s scene stealing performance, especially because he turned a troubled script into a genuine N.B.A. thriller.
More hurricane than human, Westbrook somehow turned the Thunder’s 3-12 start into a 45-37 finish. He not only paced the League in scoring in the process but ended his campaign ranked second in steals per, fourth in assists and first among guards in rebounding… but none of that mattered to him because O.K.C. missed the postseason. Now that’s a hardwired competitor of the highest order. Away from the timber, the fashion-forward Russ — he’s as likely to be seen gracing the cover of Esquire or G.Q. as often as he does SLAM — released his first Jordan Brand shoe (Westbrook 0), opting for a signature lifestyle release over yet another performance product. Allen Iverson labelled him a “certified killer” but the folks at Mountain Dew, Kings and Jaxs, L.V.M.H. / Zenith watches, Subway and True Religion all hope he doesn’t do to their brands what he does to defenders. With a dapper style that’s straight from the gospel, according to Walt Frazier, Westbrook has become a lightening rod thanks to his fearless ways.
When thinking about the people who made the biggest impact on 2015, Russ ranks just outside the top five for one reason: his Tom Cruise-level dedication (pathologically competitive, driven by perfection) narrowly outweighs his Clint Eastwood coolness. Should that ever flip, there’s every chance Russ will be the N.B.A.’s brightest star. But as of right now, he lives outside the final five because the names ahead of him either carry more cultural clout, have been granted greater governance by the general electorate or they’ve stolen the spotlight with a poetic revelation.
While the majority of bearded bad guys (from Russian Street Fighter Zangief to Globex Corporation owner Hank Scorpio) are fictional, James Harden’s Basketball villainy is very real. After producing a memorable regular season, one in which No. 13 paced the N.B.A. in Win Shares (16.4), total points scored (2,217) and minutes played (2,981), Harden helped H-Town complete one of the greatest comebacks in playoff history before being voted M.V.P. by his peers at the inaugural Players’ Choice Awards.
Additionally, he dished out more assists than LeBron (565 to 511) and led all shooting guards with an average of 7.0 a.p.g. – the only player from his starting position ranked inside the top ten. Yes, he also turned it over a lot (321) for a variety of reasons, some his fault, others not so, but Harden also stole possession back 154 times. Along with teammate Trevor Ariza (registering another 152 swipes), the pair helped to give Houston one of the stingiest perimeter tandems in the pros, even with his matador impersonations.
Thanks to his delicious 2015 showing, the Bearded wonder has joined an elite group of bad guys — Heavyweight boxer James “Clubber” Lang (Rocky III), Krypton warlord General Zod (Superman), Agrabah’s royal vizier Jafar (Aladdin), Istari leader Saruman the White (The Lord of the Rings), international terrorist Hans Gruber (Die Hard), Mongo tyrant Ming the Merciless (Flash Gordon), the grandiose “Macho Man” Randy Savage (W.W.E.) and the most dastardly gamer of them all, Billy Mitchell (King of Kong) — and appears set to continue his wicked ways in 2016.
While he remains bad news for defenders, Harden is certainly good for business. It’s why adidas offered the creator and shot maker a $200 million deal. A self-styled standout, Harden’s alignment with the Triple Stripe places him alongside Kanye West, a move that’s sure to enrage some and delight others. If nothing else, Harden has carefully created an NBA persona that’s one of his generations most memorable.
His offseason might’ve included the release of an eighth signature sneaker (in addition to welcoming both apparel brand Neff and media outlet The Players’ Tribune to an endorsement portfolio that features 2K Sports, Kind, Nike, Sprint, Sparkling Ice, Sonic and Unilever) but all anybody wanted to talk about was possible N.B.A. destinations Kevin Durant might find himself in once mid 2016 rolls around. The former M.V.P. grew tired of the chatter and eventually pushed back. Sick of the uncontrollable noise (made by fans) and distortion (media), K.D. let everyone know he’ll be stonewalling any questions on the subject until the time was right for him (because there’s a multitude of items that require his full attention prior to any free agency decisions).
In an age when it’s all about daily clicks, trolling, eyeballs and hot takes, the Fourth Estate didn’t necessarily turn away from K.D. because of spite but his reluctance to dance their dance made it easier for editors to overlook the Thunder and overload on Golden State. While the Warriors have earned the extra coverage, the Thunder still have two of the five best players in the game and with Durant healthy, their collective confidence grows stronger by the day.
Additionally, Durant made it clear during training camp that he was done talking about his injured foot. As far as he was concerned, the all-clear from his team’s medical staff meant he was back to full strength (and it didn’t make sense to live in the past). Through 25 appearances, Durant is averaging 27-8-5 — on 52-42-89 shooting splits — with a block and steal per in 36 minutes of action. Those are some impressive numbers and suggest that K.D. is all the way back– only fewer folks are talking about Kevin Durant now that Curry is on a crusade. But that’s okay with K.D., he’s paid to play, not provide content.
While Paul George’s return to the Indiana Pacers was just as important as Durant’s, his Eastern Conference counterpart isn’t nearly as popular (K.D. now has roughly 13 million Twitter followers, Paul George just 1.4 million), as revered by their peers (LeBron and Kobe both believe K.D. is otherworldly) or under the same microscope given the coaching situation or the uncertainty circling his future.
Once the most talked about N.B.A. player, the Durant allure has subsided temporarily because of his sullenness combined with refocused efforts on all things Steph but again, Durant is gunning for the one prize he covets over all others: a championship… and he knows from experience, the media is whatever you make of it and right now he’s keeping his distance but that has made him more fascinating than ever.
Before riding off into the Californian sunset, Kobe Bryant will embark on a season long retirement tour despite not wanting to ever make a fuss about his departure from the game. A cultural icon that will go down as one of the most popular, polarizing and proficient point producers to ever step into the N.B.A. arena, Kobe’s a Hall of Fame lock who was much more than a bridge between Michael Jordan and LeBron James.
While Kobe’s game has devolved of late — his play in the opening portion of the 2015-16 season resembled Arnold Schwarzenegger’s sad attempt to once again travel back in time via the godawful Terminator: Genesys — he’s managed to regain some form, an interesting addition to his resume given he hasn’t played much basketball over the past couple of years. Thanks to a personally penned poem that was first published on The Players’ Tribune, a digital platform that Kobe partly owns, the Black Mamba conceded that he’s a superstar player who refuses to go quietly even though his body broke up with Basketball long before his heart ever will. Still, as tribute for all he has done (and means) to the N.B.A. over the past 20 years, Kobe will be granted one final All-Star spot and possibly an Olympic team berth too (in 2016).
There’ll be no classic Hollywood ending for the NBA’s top individual earner ($25,000,000 this season), only a slow, sad march towards the retirement home but before he goes, the ruthless leviathan will travel the land and soak up the N.B.A. experience in a way that he has never allowed himself to before: as living legend.
When LeBron James decided it was time to return to Ohio, everyone expected there to be chemistry issues, teething pains (with Head Coach David Blatt’s system) and somewhat modest year one objectives. Once their deficiencies were addressed by GM David Griffin, LeBron’s cerebral stratum took care of bringing the Cavaliers up to speed, which meant they could jump head first into the 2015 postseason pool.
Playoff injuries to both Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving soured the summer fun but it wasn’t until Andre Iguodala, Draymond Green and Harrison Barnes started circling LeBron that everyone got that sinking feeling. Forced to swallow his fourth career Finals loss (from six appearances) LeBron was so valiant in defeat that his showing actually added to his legacy — it also didn’t hurt that his one-man army act resulted in averages of 35.8 ppg, 13.3 rpg and 8.8 apg during what turned out to be his fifth consecutive trophy round invitation.
For the year, Forbes had the King as the sixth highest earner — $65 million — and the N.B.A.’s top pitchman (when combining athlete salary with endorsement offerings). Then seemingly out of nowhere, James signed a new lifetime deal with Nike, the first such deal of its kind in the Swoosh’s storied history. While figures weren’t disclosed, the partnership could be worth as much as $1 billion given the power of LeBron, the success of his signature sneaker line over recent years, his cache in pop-culture, the value / structure of Kevin Durant’s recent deal and his philanthropic desires.
Basketball remains Nike’s most successful division and after Steph Curry slipped through their fingers, one can safely assume the decision makers in Beaverton were keen to have LeBron on side for life… and given how fruitful their arrangement with Michael Jordan continues to be, you can bet King James wants to build an empire all his own, one that’s all about the kid from Akron.
Like there was ever any doubt.
The fact that Steph Curry, not Kevin Durant, Anthony Davis or any other preordained talent, managed to created a movement that disrupted everyone’s hopes, plans and preferences (while fending off every challenger) is as impressive as it is inconceivable.
In 2015, Dell’s son didn’t just trump the likes of LeBron James on multiple fronts (2015 Finals, most popular), he showed the history books / conventional wisdom that a jump shooting team can claim the title (so long as their powered by a pair of marksmen that reside on the Steve Nash and Ray Allen end of the spectrum).
Just the fourth basketball player — following Larry Bird, Michael Jordan and LeBron James — to be named Male Athlete of the Year by the Associated Press, Steph was recognized by the news organization editors and directors because of the way he elevated the expectations for all future perimeter players whenever efficiency or long distance production is evaluated.
As Jalen Rose recently noted how “the best player in the N.B.A. usually is also physically opposing” but with Steph “we see him on a national stage be a son, a dad, a husband, a father, a brother.” That softening, harmful to any athlete who builds a name solely on their masculinity, has made Curry more endearing — a relatable David who contrasts the NBA’s vast collection of Goliath’s. But it’s a lie. Curry didn’t reach the pinnacle of his sport by remaining normal and yet, it’s because of his size (6’3″) and that reliance on a seemingly obtainable skill-set that Curry has connected with fans in a way that most never even dream possible. As a result, demand for his pre-game warm-up routine has changed NBA arena policy while his traveling band of ballers has garnered record television ratings. He plays golf with the (44th) President, has the best selling jersey in multiple countries, and best of all, Curry is now lending his name / time to advocacy.
Prior to 2015, Curry had a lone All-Star appearance and playoff series win next to his name. Then rookie coach Steve Kerr set him free. Not only did Curry collect the most All-Star votes while guiding the Warriors to the 10th best regular season record ever (67 wins), he was catalyst for the franchise’s first title in 40 years. Along the way, he won over hearts and minds leaving the media with no other choice but to reward Steph with the 2015 M.V.P. trophy. That made him just the sixth Point Guard, following Bob Cousy, Oscar Robertson, Earvin Johnson, Steve Nash and Derrick Rose, to receive the decoration.
And yet, Curry did it all on a below-market contract extension. To his credit, he never complained. While Steph may currently be the N.B.A.’s 60th (!) highest earner — collecting less than Enes Kanter ($16,407,500), Roy Hibbert ($15,592,216) and DeMarre Carroll ($13,600,000), among others — his popularity has seen a range of brands come calling. From 2KGames to E.S.P.N.; from Muscle Milk to Sony; from Unilever to Under Armour, Curry has quickly become one of the most bankable names in sport. It’s why in mid-2015 U.A. trademarked the saying “Slay Your Next Giant” shortly before they extend Curry’s contract until 2024.
He’s far from done but what Curry accomplished in 2015 makes him the Ultimate Warrior.