Inside the Art of NBA Jersey Swapping

Swapping jerseys isn't limited to collecting those of retiring superstars like Dwyane Wade and Dirk Nowitzki. In recent years, it's become a growing trend for players throughout the NBA.
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Jan 10, 2019; Miami, FL, USA; Boston Celtics guard Terry Rozier (L) and Miami Heat guard Dwyane Wade (R) trade jerseys after the Miami Heat defeat the Boston Celtics at American Airlines Arena. Mandatory Credit: Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports

Terry Rozier made sure it was going to happen.

Before last season had even started and Dwyane Wade’s last dance had ever begun, Rozier voiced his intentions. “I told [Wade], I need that jersey,” the former Boston Celtic, turned Charlotte Hornets guard says nearly a year later. Wade agreed. But once it became clear that the Heat legend was exchanging jerseys with players after nearly every game, Rozier followed-up, reiterating his request. “I’m a fan, I’m doing it for no publicity or nothing like that. I’m really a huge fan,” he texted Wade still weeks before the Celtics played Miami.

January 10, 2019 was the date the two players were set to cross paths. So, following Miami’s 115-99 win over Boston, Wade approached Rozier confirming that they were still going to swap. “I was like, yeah, of course,” Rozier says.

“It means everything,” he adds, reflecting on the exchange. “All the jerseys that I had before, it doesn’t amount to this one.”

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For NBA players, trading jerseys, whether it’s with a childhood friend, idol, teammate or opponent, remains meaningful. “It’s the story of your career,” free agent guard Devin Harris says.

“I know I had a vision when I first came into the NBA that I wanted to hold a lot of memories that mean something to me,” Memphis Grizzlies forward Jae Crowder adds.

Rozier was proactive in asking for Wade’s jersey. But after interviews with a number of Wade jersey recipients, getting a jersey from a peer is more of an art than a science.

Requests are sometimes made days in advance in the form of calls or texts. Other times, players ask during layup lines or even during the game itself. How well you know a player of course matters too, as asking for a future NBA Hall of Famer’s jersey seems to follow a different protocol than asking for a college teammate’s uniform.

So for Hawks guard Kevin Huerter, he was already walking off the floor following a one-point loss when Wade motioned for the young guard’s attention and initiated the surprise of a lifetime. “It kind of hit me right there, what he was doing,” says Huerter, who grew up idolizing Wade, wearing his signature sneakers and No. 3 jersey in his honor. “For me that was a surreal moment.”

Despite being a 15-year veteran, Devin Harris didn’t exactly know how the Wade jersey swap worked. Harris, who is still training for another potential NBA opportunity, battled Wade during the duo’s college days when he played at Wisconsin and Wade was 75 miles east at Marquette. They faced off—“mostly at my expense,” Harris jokes—during the 2006 NBA Finals and again throughout the next decade-plus. When it was Harris’ turn to swap with Wade, he wasn’t sure if he was going to get a sweaty jersey or a clean one. But as he returned to the locker room following Miami’s six-point win over the Mavericks in late March, a ball-boy exchanged the sweat-soaked jersey for a fresh one, equipped with a personalized message and autograph.

Like with the Harris swap, the jerseys seen in photographs are frequently different than the ones players actually keep. To avoid players framing sweaty jerseys, Wade often times wrote a message on a second, clean jersey, giving that one away instead.

“I thought he gave you that game worn jersey. I was like how does he already have everything written on it already?” says Mavericks guard Delon Wright, who received his jersey last December while he was still a member of the Raptors. “But he wouldn’t give you a sweaty jersey.”

Whether they hang in a personal office, living room or man cave, a number of players have already framed and put up their Wade jerseys. But Wright, who has memories of talking to Wade as a “super nervous” 12-year-old, admits he has his jersey sitting in a drawer in Dallas and hasn’t had the time to put it up yet. “But he’s family,” the former Raptors guard says. “He knows how much I look up to him.”

Feb 13, 2019; Dallas, TX, USA; Dallas Mavericks forward Dirk Nowitzki (left) and Miami Heat guard Dwyane Wade (right) exchange jerseys after the game at American Airlines Center. Mandatory Credit: Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

The custom is more associated with soccer than any other sport. The New York Times notes that in soccer, the practice dates back to 1931 when France beat England for the first time. It was then that the overjoyed French players asked the English if they minded giving them their jerseys as mementos.

In recent years, however, it has spread to football and then basketball. Harris said he thinks the on-court tradition is now more popular than it’s ever been, in large part due to Wade and fellow recent retiree, Dirk Nowitzki. “I think it can only grow from here,” adds freelance photographer Michael Reaves, who captured countless Wade swaps for Getty Images.

But despite its relatively new introduction to the league, many NBA veterans have robust, highly personalized collections. Harris has stuff from Michael Finley, Kobe Bryant, Vince Carter, Shaquille O’Neil, Michael Jordan, Gilbert Arenas and Tim Duncan, to name a few.

Crowder, who swapped jerseys with Wade while he was with the Jazz, enjoys having guests over to his Florida home and telling all the stories that derive from his collection. His game room serves as his chronicle, displaying items from both his and his dad’s professional careers, placing their jerseys next to shoes from Nowitzki and Carter among others.

Just like one’s career, however, a young player’s collection can be slow developing. For starters, it can be a pricey endeavor for relative newcomers to the NBA to swap jerseys over-and-over again as some teams charge players the price of a new jersey to replace any that are given away. Though, as Huerter says, “you look back down the line at all the things professional athletes spend money on, and a couple thousand dollars on jerseys isn’t that bad.”

Having the right place or enough space to display your collection can also be an issue. Wright doesn’t have a full jersey collection yet—he said he used to collect signed dollar bills, a more space-efficient endeavor—but his home in Dallas is the first place where he’d consider starting one.

Frank Mason, a two-way player on the Bucks who received his Wade jersey while he was playing with the Kings, is more focused on trying to carve out a consistent role on an NBA team than become a jersey hoarder. “I also got a pair of signed Kobe’s, but other than that, that’s truly it.”

Like threading a patchwork quilt to show different stages of life, most players have a jersey swap wish list, wanting jerseys from different periods of their career. Many want jerseys from fellow members of their draft class and guys they competed with or against, whether that be in the NBA or AAU. Superstars too, Huerter says, “but those guys aren’t as quick to hand out their jerseys.”

The Maryland product has jerseys from most of his college teammates, a signed Kobe jersey and a number of his own, among other items hanging in his Atlanta apartment.

When people walk into his home, Huerter wants visitors to see a representation of his career. “I just want it to tell my story,” the Hawks guard says.

But despite being in just his second season, Huerter already has the most important jersey in his collection. The only way his assortment of jerseys will improve is in quantity. Mixed among the items on display is a Dwyane Wade jersey—the jersey of his childhood idol.

“It’s at the top,” Huerter says, ranking his prized possessions. “There’s no question about it.”