Jump Shorts: A Long History of Basketball Shorts

Two men in basketball shorts
Image credit: Nicolas Steave on Unsplash

Real talk: I reckon everyone, including even the most orthodox of dressers, has some things in their closet that are completely out of keeping with their usual tastes or aesthetic. Be it a flashy accessory that feels like it’s wearing you or a sentimental item that doesn’t quite gel with contemporary tastes, I’d bet everyone has at least one or two items they like but can’t quite find a place for in their usual outfit rotation.

For me, the main offender is a pair of basketball shorts. Specifically, some Miami Heat trunks in the team’s Vice colours of pink and baby blue. These are without a doubt the least #meanswear thing I own. And yet they are one of my favourite pieces of clothing. In part, this comes down to them representing my favourite sports team, but it also stems from their comfort, attitude, and glorious gaudiness. When I wear them, I often feel I’ve wasted my life reading Bruce Boyer books and trekking to thrift stores when all this time I could have just been a mesh shorts guy. What a life that would be…

Flat-lay of Miami Heat Vice basketball shorts
My Miami Heat basketball shorts
Image is my own / All rights reserved

If you are a basketball shorts kind of person (God bless you, I might start from scratch to be like you) or if you’re just mesh-shorts-curious, this is the history of basketball shorts.

First off, it’s worth noting that basketball shorts are unique in the world of sports uniforms. Most changes in athletic wear result from product or player innovations, all done in pursuit of better performance and comfort. The aesthetic of B-ball bottoms, meanwhile, have long been determined by the trendy more so than the technical.

Moreover, basketball uniforms and shorts length, in particular, reflect one of the greatest things about the game itself: its openness to change. From its inception, back to when hoops were still literal peach baskets, basketball has always been a game in flux, defined by a willingness to accept variance and innovation. In that sense, the massive changes that shorts have undergone during the history of the sport act as a kind of microcosm of basketball itself. Whether short, long, baggy and breathable, or tight and techy, basketball shorts and the game they represent are always adapting to keep up with the times.

Kansas University basketball team 1899
Image credit: University of Kansas Medical Center / Public domain

When the first basketball game was played on 21 December 1891 at a training school in Springfield, Massachusetts, its maiden participants bore little resemblance to the players of our own era. For one thing, as described in Nick Greene’s recently-published How To Watch Basketball Like A Genius, the on-court participants were ‘scruffy college-aged men who were studying to become YMCA administrators’. As was the fashion of the time, and especially apropos given their Christian pursuits, they all wore beards of biblical proportions. And before you think that might well describe the hirsute likes of James Harden or Jonas Valančiūnas today, they also played the game in woollen undershirts and long, baggy, belted trousers. 

Vintage basketball game
Image credit: Austrian National Library on Unsplash

As the basketball gospel spread throughout the early 1900s, players began to wear woollen, knee-length tights or padded trousers not unlike the ones seen on American football fields. In the following decades, they would shorten further, reaching medium length by the 1920s. They also gradually switched to synthetic fibres like nylon and polyester and ditched belts altogether in favour of elastic waistbands. Between the 1940s to ‘60s, they shrunk all the way down to a 3-inch inseam. These shorts had a satin finish and were worn with tube socks; a look that survived all the way into the careers of Larry Bird and Magic Johnson. The 1970s saw the arrival of today’s pinhole mesh fabric and the mid-1980s marked the arrival of a man that would change the game of basketball forever, shorts and all.

If you’re after a measure of Michael Jordan’s cultural influence, you don’t even have to look further than his name. It has itself entered our collective lexicon to become literally synonymous with excellence (e.g. ‘She is the Michael Jordan of square dancing’ — an unlikely sentence, to be sure, but you see the point). Jordan would take the game of basketball to new heights, turning himself and the NBA as a whole into a globally recognised and beloved brand. In the process, he also changed the look of basketball shorts so thoroughly that they still show a hankering after Jordan’s ‘90s-era heyday some 30 years later. 

Accounts of exactly how Jordan’s signature baggy, knee-length shorts came about vary. Some say that when MJ went pro, he had a sentimental habit of wearing his University of North Carolina shorts underneath his Bulls uniform, so he opted for a wider fit to make such doubling up possible. Others reckon the design stemmed from Jordan’s habit of tugging at his shorts while playing defence, leading him to request a lower seam on his uniform. 

However it happened, what’s certain is that everyone wanted to be like Mike and so the rest of the league followed suit. If you watch something like The Last Dance, you can see Jordan’s longer shorts gradually take hold over the years until the point where they’ve dominated the entire league (the entire league, that is, except for John Stockton, who stuck with his OG short shorts until he retired in 2003). It wasn’t just in basketball either. Taking their cue from the NBA and its biggest star, just about every sports uniform got baggier in the ‘90s. Take as an example David Foster Wallace’s coverage of the 1995 U.S. Open:

‘The tentish tops and near-Bermuda-length shorts of M. Jordan and the NBA have clearly infiltrated tennis. Nearly half the men in the 128 draw are wearing clothes that seem several sizes too big, and on players as fundamentally skinny and woebegone-looking as [Pete] Sampras the effect is more waifish than stylish — though I have to say that weirdly oversized clothes aren’t near the visual disaster that [Andre] Agassi’s new chunky black sneakers (also imported from basketball fashion) are.’

David Foster Wallace

On Jordan, by contrast, his new style of shorts and sneakers alike looked so improbably good that you could hardly blame anyone for trying to imitate him. Much like when they banned Air Jordan 1s, the NBA briefly tried to buck the trend by mandating that shorts end one inch above the knee and fining players who broke the rule. As with Jordan’s namesake kicks, however, the rule was soon revoked and by the 2000s some shorts maxed out at an 11-inch inseam (which would be around 4 inches below the knee on most players). 

Mark Sanford in big shorts
Mark Sandford in some outsided shorts
Image credit: Catherine Cranston / CC BY-SA 3.0

At this point, things start getting not a little impractical as far as weight and aerodynamics are concerned, so it’s little surprise that eventually the game’s next superstar, in the form of LeBron James, would step in. In 2015 when he was playing for the Cavaliers, LeBron debuted a custom-made uniform that featured shorter shorts as part of a broader effort to encourage players and kids to pay attention to how they present themselves on and off the court. 

Consequently, since the 2010s, we’ve reached a kind of Goldilocks length that stretches to about the mid thigh on most players, many of whom now also wear leggings under their uniforms. It remains to be seen whether the current 5-inch inseam craze will hit the NBA. On my own Miami Heat squad, a young player like the rookie Precious Achiuwa appears to favour a slightly shorter fit, and even the team leader Jimmy Butler sometimes looks to be showing a bit more skin (though, not unlike Jordan, it could just be that any size is bound to look diminutive on his brawny frame). 

Ultimately, as has always been the case, some combination of practicality and the outsized cultural influence of key players will determine the next leg’s look and length. 

Wilt Chamberlain in short shorts
Wilt Chamberlain rebounding in short shorts
Image credit: Cliff / CC BY 2.0

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