Inside the rules that have allowed for a sneaker revolution in the NBA
We get green for St. Patrick’s Day, pastels for Easter and expect to see blue in February 2016 for Chinese New Year. And there’s plenty more, because the NBA may have rules about sneakers and sneaker colors, but the league also leaves ample room for individuality and the celebration of special events.
“In the last 10 years, we’ve simply evolved from a rule that required players to wear the same color sneaker—which was defined by the majority of a shoe being one color—to allowing players to embrace their team identities and allowing team colors on sneakers in any proportion,” Christopher Arena, NBA’s senior vice president of identity, outfitting & equipment, tells SI.com.
In short: much has changed.
The sneaker world knows well how Nike put Michael Jordan in a black/red colorway in MJ’s rookie season (1984) only to get informed that the shoe didn’t meet the uniform code. Back then, teams were required to not only use the predominant single color design, but also have their players in largely matching looks. Oh, how things have changed.
Let’s take a look at the current situation.
Players can wear “basketball footwear manufactured by the shoe company of their choice during NBA games,” the official rules say. The shoes must be “appropriate and designed primarily for basketball” and the left and right shoes must match in color and design. And, of course, please no flashing lights or “similar types of adornments.”
For the color options, players “may wear shoes containing any combination of white, gray, black and the colors with the team identity.”
That statement opens the door for quite a bit of individuality, especially with the possibility of two additional colors building on the base of white, gray and black—and in any combination.
“While we do encourage individuality, changes were primarily made,” Arena says, “to allow players to embrace and display the colors of their team as well as the colors of league and culture platforms.”
And that’s when things get even more interesting on the NBA hardwood. The league has about a dozen special cases that open up differing options beyond the base trio and team colors, dubbed “event games” in the official rules.
For example, players can wear any colors they choose during the preseason or the All-Star Game. On opening night, the defending champions can wear gold, also a color allowed during the NBA Finals in June. Halloween and St. Patrick’s Day open up the possibility of festive colors like orange and green. Veterans Day/Remembrance Day gives us red, white, navy and camouflage while Chinese New Year (February 2016) allows blue and gold. We all know about the pastels for Easter and the green, red and flat gold allowed at Christmas. The NBA is still working out the league-approved colorway options for MLK Day and Black History Month, but expect event colors then as well.
And while the league approves the colors, they do keep a close watch on what players choose, requesting that sneaker companies submit all colorations and material changes for approval, Arena says.
Whether pastel, flat gold or camo, NBA sneakers have enjoyed a colorful evolution.
Tim Newcomb covers stadiums, sneakers and training for Sports Illustrated. Follow him on Twitter at @tdnewcomb.