If nostalgia is a drug, then Tom O'Grady is Albert Hoffman. A scientist that unknowingly set an entire generation's minds on fire. O'Grady's laboratory was the NBA league office, where he served as the first creative director from June 1990 through early 2003.
There were no creative services, no in-house design, or branding. Before sports design was an actual industry, O'Grady reported to only two bosses - Rick Wells and commissioner David Stern. O'Grady and his team created the best uniforms the league would ever see, which stand the test of time.
If O'Grady is the chemist, Mitchell & Ness is Ken Kesey. The company has exploded in popularity thanks to fans enduring love of throwback uniforms and authentic apparel. I had the great pleasure of speaking with the mastermind behind so many of our favorite uniforms.
What was it like to work with David Stern?
"David Stern was tough. Sometimes I referred to him as the 'Vince Lombardi of Commissioners' because he threw F-bombs around like your best trash talker, or he could bring wisdom to the equation like no one else. But I always say about David; you were always smarter when you left the room than before you walked in."
"Yeah, he was special and tough. You never had to figure out where you stood with David. You'd have good meetings and not-so-good meetings. I think that made us all better. We had a joke at the NBA, if you don't show up on Saturday, don't bother showing up on Sunday. That's how hard people worked then. It was a grind. We knew we were changing the face of the NBA, so everyone bought in and pulled together."
Do you have any of those team identity sheets from that era?
"Those are, like, phew, like scribes now. We used to have stacks of logo sheets for every team, and then over time, those got discarded as we went digital."
Alright, that's disappointing, but I get it.
"I can visualize these long beautiful file folders we had in Secaucus, where my office was. You could pull out a drawer and see a stack of Sacramento Kings outtakes, sketches, logos, and all this stuff. That's for every team we ever did. That's really a treasure. I don't know why the league doesn't let us open up pandora's box sometimes and allow somebody to do a documentary about this. Twenty-five years later, a retrospective of what could have been.
There was no interest back in 1995. People didn't really care that much back then. There was no social media to hype it, so when a uniform would launch, it was just some old crusty sportswriter with a cigar or a message board with 35 people commenting on it, and I was like, 'Oh my god, that's really good.' Today you unveil a uniform, and it's like World War III."
But all the uniforms look alike nowadays.
"You're right. A lot of these uniforms are pretty cookie-cutter. To whoever is overseeing that now, it has to be by design. It can't be accidental, especially when you see all the - I don't mean to brag - but all the love for the retro uniforms.
Although those are hard to do because you walk a fine line between fantastic and foolish, there's a real fine line in there as compared to doing arc-lettering on the front and back with a little trim. There's not a lot of feedback either way because there's not a lot to respond to."
Yeah, usually not too controversial.
"No, it's hitting the short irons. Whereas we were hitting drivers over the trees back then. We were pushing, and we could. That's a testament to David Stern. He was allowing us to do these things because nothing got into an owner's hands before David signed off on it."
I got to know about the Hawks in the 90s, with the big bird and everything.
"That was just going for it. The Hawks would apply every year for new uniforms."
"Every year! We would do something pretty cool and if you ever want to have a lot of fun, just type in, 'Dominique Wilkins Starting Lineup Figurine 1988 or 1989.' The figurine has a uniform that was never worn. There's another classic example of the process that must have been broken because it should have never been given out to licensees. They were just following one of the many outtakes we did over the years for the Hawks that somehow got out. That one got through the cracks, and I love that. I have that figurine somewhere around my house."
Why were the Hawks coming back and asking for new uniforms all the time?
"They never could get it right. The Atlanta Hawks were one of the interesting teams because they were caught in .500 hell. They were one of those teams for about 8 or 9 years. So they were stuck in mediocrity.
So they were trying to figure out, 'Okay, we're playing in the OMNI; now we're moving to Philips Arena, so we need a new uniform. Or now we have a new owner, so we need a new uniform.' They would just plow at it and plow at it.
If you look at that span, they were in and out of uniforms like crazy. It's almost like today. There were a few that were really kind of nice. The Kevin Willis one with the stripes on the side, and we put numbers on the pants.
So the big hawk, we designed the logo, and from there, we had to make it a super graphic. We had to figure out exactly where it fell and make sure it didn't cover up the Hawks' ball underneath the shorts. The gradients are scary. They're very dangerous. Somehow we put this wing thing on the side of the pants. That was just a mistake. We shouldn't have done that. It should have just been red to black or whatever."
How did you feel when they brought back the giant hawk this year for Nike City Edition Uniforms?
"I'll just say it; it's sloppy design. The wings don't come to the back. They're all like the same length, and there are too many of them. They didn't make the hawk big enough. It's kind of ugly. That wasn't designed to be on a yellow background. If anything to go back to 96-97, just put it on black like the replicas."
Did they ever consider going back to blue and green? Other than maybe a one-off throwback.
"That was never in the conversation. I think the people in there at the time, Lee Douglas and Arthur Triche - great guys, they didn't like that uniform. A lot of people in Atlanta didn't like that uniform. They had an identity problem. Maravich played in that green uniform, and he played in the uniform with the little pinstripes - that was kind of slick."
How about today?
"I think their regular uniform looks the most like an NBA uniform of any team. It's just like we're going to use the arch font, big wide stripes on the pants, and use the Knicks number font. But at least it looks like an NBA uniform. Because that volt thing was hideous."
You didn't like it?
"Oh no! That was one I didn't like because it had all these triangles that didn't make any sense. What was the triangle tied to again? It wasn't like they played in the pyramid or anything."
Which was your least favorite Hawks uniform you designed?
"We got dulled down into that one that was after the big hawk. It just said., 'Hawks,' and it was pretty simple. It looked like you got it at Dicks Sporting Goods, and it didn't have any of the pizazz. It was nothing like the Spud Webb or Dominique uniforms. It was pretty safe, and I think they just got exhausted with all the creativity that was flowing for a decade. That was one that short of having a gun to my head; it was like, 'Okay, this is what they want. Do this.' and we cranked that out."
So was the Hawks logo influenced or meant to look like Pacman?
"Yeah. A very subtle tribute to him because he had seen better days. Then, of course, they brought him back. But they made him look like a hawk instead of the more abstract back then."
Last question, which is your favorite of the current Nike City Edition uniforms?
"Let's see, Peachtree, MLK..."
Or are they all trash?
"They're not trash. In fact, I love the idea of the MLK thing. There's a fine line between purposeful and pandering. Martin Luther King is so important. I would have stopped at the logo with the stained glass. I would have been like, let's play in Hawks logos or play in a Martin Luther King signature on the front of the jersey. I don't know. It's like when we see everybody playing in camouflage uniforms, which, again, I think is pandering. That should be more sacred, I believe.
Then the other one, the Peachtree, makes sense. The font got real chunky. When I think of a peachtree, I think of something really light and something cleaner. Maybe a thin font where you can barely see it. There's a peachtree street there, right?"
About ten of them.
"So that might have been a detail they could have done. I don't know. Atlanta is a great city, so there's a lot to choose from. But I think the MLK court was the best thing about how all that worked out."
Since leaving the NBA, O'Grady has started his own company, which works closely with professional sports teams and leagues. Gameplan Creative is a brand agency comprised of a multi-talented team of corporate branding agency professionals with extensive creative and technical skills in sports design, advertising, animation, brand identity, graphic design, marketing, and video production. Huge thanks to Tom for his generosity, candidness, and gift to the game.
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