IT’S THE JERSEY that was worn in arguably the most iconic Game Seven in NBA Finals history, the jersey that defines the Cleveland Cavaliers franchise, and haunts the fans that sold-out Oracle Arena night after night in 2016.
It’s the jersey that made the Cleveland Cavs undergo a re-brand, replacing their traditional“wine and gold” for a jet-black and maroon color scheme that etched championship memories into their franchise’s branding.
The 2016 Cleveland Cavaliers were one of the most memorable teams in modern NBA history, for their consistent, tense drama, their ability to play at a historically-dominant level one night, and appear to be a G-League team around LeBron the next.
And among the facts, relics, and stories surrounding those 2016 Cavs were their memorable jerseys, a narrative which has been lost in the euphoria of a 3–1 comeback, one of the greatest shots in NBA history, and the most memorable defensive play in all of sports.
This is the story of the black, sleeved jerseys that were donned in the 2016 Finals — which became arguably the most iconic modern NBA jersey, competing with the likes of the Raptors’ purple and red of the 2000s, the “Chicago” script donned by Michael Jordan, and the showtime gold of the L.A. Lakers.
But first, before the Cavs designed their now-symbolic sleeved jerseys before they made the 2016 Finals, and before LeBron James even returned to Cleveland, our story begins with the birth of the sleeved jersey itself.
IT WAS 2011, and the NBA was in a lockout.
Players and owners couldn’t agree on the salary cap, luxury tax, and revenue percentage, among other issues.
Meanwhile, amid this debate, David Stern, as he is known to do, was looking to expand his league and gain even more revenue. Remember, Stern is the same individual who invested millions to expand his league to the untapped potential of the Chinese market, ruthlessly would fight for the league’s big market teams to make it to the NBA Finals, and publicly opine that he hoped that big market teams got the top prospects in his draft lottery.
One issue he found: a decent sample of his merchandise-purchasing population found buying T-Shirts a more affordable and practical alternative to purchasing the league’s authentic, sleeveless jerseys.
In the time between the 2011 lockout and the beginning of the 2013–2014 season, the league looked for solutions. In mid-2013, rumors ran wild about the league trying to place advertisements on their jerseys, which were vehemently denied by the NBA. Still, there was a clear implication — the NBA wanted to increase its merchandise revenue, by any means possible.
Fast forward a few months later, and Stern, along with Adidas, the league’s official apparel producer, found their solution: creating jerseys that appeared to be the T-Shirts that fans so clearly loved.
And thus, the sleeved jerseys of the NBA were born.
It should be mentioned here that basketball is not like soccer, football, or any other sport with sleeved jerseys. Only a small fraction of players wore compression undershirts before 2013, yet, the league decided to go along with making the entire league adopt a jersey that was akin to a compression undershirt.
As it turned out, the results would not be pretty.
IRONICALLY, IT WAS the Golden State Warriors who introduced the sleeved jerseys with a bright gold shirt that had white and blue stripes along the sides and a huge logo of the Golden Gate bridge on the front.
To the passionate fan, perhaps these flashy, bold colors were eye-catching and looked from a TV screen or the nose-bleeds. To the players, however, they were just plain ugly.
After losing to the Chicago Bulls, Stephen Curry called the jerseys “ugly.” Dirk Nowitzki backed him by calling the jerseys “awful,” on Christmas Day no less.
Speaking of Christmas Day, the Miami Heat and L.A. Lakers took the court in the supposed primetime matchup of the holiday. And though the game turned out to be much closer than expected, the Heat still won without much fear of a Laker victory.
What the average fan remembers from this game is the two lobs thrown by Dwyane Wade to LeBron. And they were two incredible displays of athleticism that captivated the Staples Center crowd.
But what history doesn’t remember, however, is the fact that James, who enjoyed the three best shooting seasons of his career in South Beach, went 5/9 on free-throws and 0/4 from three-point range while donning the special-edition, sleeved jerseys on that Christmas Day.
Even in the All-Star game, with virtually no defense being played, LeBron struggled on all shots outside of the paint, going a horrific 0/7 from three.
In fact, only Kyrie Irving, the All-Star game MVP, and Carmelo Anthony, a player who has occasionally worn compression undershirts throughout his career, shot well in the 2014 All-Star Game.
Given that history repeats itself, these facts would come back to add to the lore of the Cleveland Cavaliers’ jerseys.
IT WAS JUST the second home game of the Cavaliers’ 2015–2016 campaign, and LeBron James was struggling.
Through the team’s first four games, he made just 1 of his first 13 attempts from three-point range, he averaged a meager 22 points per game, and it appeared that an ailing back was sapping him of his explosiveness.
And perhaps it was a combination of these struggles and a nine-point deficit early into the second quarter against the New York Knicks that lit a fuse into James, causing the lowest point in the brief history of sleeved NBA jerseys.
After James missed a pull-up three in transition, the ball ricocheted out of bounds, with the possession going to New York. As the Cavs got back on defense, James was tugging at his sleeves.
Eventually, he tore through the compression shirt, tearing his black sleeves as his jersey drooped at his shoulders.
Up to this point, he was just 4/11 from the field and 0/3 from three-point range, yet another poor shooting night.
SO HOW IS it that the 2016 Cavaliers ever wore their sleeved jerseys again after their franchise player became the face of the movement to abolish the T-Shirt style sleeves?
Part of the answer lies in the nature of those LeBron-Kyrie-Love Cavalier teams.
See, for a veteran-laden, contending roster, the Cavs were one of the most maddeningly inconsistent teams in the league. One night, they could go toe-to-toe with the 73–9 Warriors or the Spurs (who were historically great in their own right), and the next night, they could lose by 30 points and stage a boycott against the coaching staff.
Thus, Cleveland needed something to hold them steady, something that signaled the time for them to “lock-in,” no matter the ups-and-downs of having to deal with a passive-aggressive LeBron, a hobbled Kyrie Irving, and a disgruntled Kevin Love.
Their choice: the black, sleeved “Pride” jerseys.
Perhaps it’s not surprising at all that one of the league’s most confusing teams would embrace their most disliked jersey as a signal to “lock-in.” All that remains in this story is the fabled 2016 Playoffs — where our iconic jerseys will make a surprise appearance in the most meaningful NBA Finals in recent NBA history.
THE CAVS LOCKER room was silent as they wound down after another crushing defeat.
It was Game 4 of the 2016 NBA Finals. After leading at half-time, including reintroducing Kevin Love into the rotation after he suffered a concussion, it appeared that the Cavs could tie-up the series heading into Game 5.
But after Irving and James took 33 of the Cavs’ 38 shots in the second half, while committing untimely turnovers and missing key shots, everything came crashing down. In Quicken Loans Arena, the scoreboard, in addition to the Home and Away point totals, has one more figure called the “Difference.”
And after a 108–97 loss, the “Difference” read “-11.”
Despite these circumstances, David Griffin, the Cavs’ GM at the time, felt a certain comfort in being down 3–1, a certain confidence that was irrational yet felt so fitting for his historically-great yet maddeningly inconsistent team.
In an email sent to every member of the franchise, he wrote:
WE HAVE SEEN NBA HISTORY IN THE MAKING EVERY DAY HERE. It’s not “why not us?” It’s “What the [expletive] else would we do?” We love it harder. We love it RECORD-SETTING. You know in your hearts and in your minds, we have been the NBA DRAMA KINGS since we came together. I bet you can, and I’d love for you to add to this HISTORICAL DATABASE. What else speaks to you about the RECORD-SETTING insanity that has been YOUR CLEVELAND CAVALIERS!
Let me be the first to tell you, NBA HISTORY HAS BEEN WAITING ON US. No one has done this, because WE have never been here before. We will become the first because that is all we have ever known how to do.
— David Griffin, via SI
As Cavs staff boarded the plane for Game 5, they took with them a copy of the email and a message from their coach, Tyronn Lue, who told his players to not board the plane if they didn’t believe they could win the championship.
Add in a late-night text from James, who was furious at the officiating and criticism surrounding him after Game 4, who claimed that the Cavs “have to go to Golden State for Game 5 and we have to come home anyway. So why not come home and play a Game 6. Let it go, play hard, be focused, follow my lead, and I’ll make sure you get home for a Game 6.”
But there was one last surprise from the Cavs that took everybody by surprise.
Enter the sleeved jerseys.
VERY QUIETLY, AFTER the ripped-sleeved incident against the Knicks, James found a solution to his lackluster performances in compression shirts.
Away from the public eye, he contacted Mark Cashman, the team’s Director of Team Operations, and asked him for help. “Cash-man,” as the team called him, in turn, contacted his friend, Becky Zielinski.
Zielinski was a seamstress who was employed by the Cleveland Browns. Over the years, she had to do many alterations for quarterbacks who wanted compression on their upper torsos, but flexibility in the shoulders to make passes.
Perhaps by chance or perhaps by Zielinski’s efforts, James was quietly much-improved with his altered sleeves after the New York debacle. In fact, the Cavs went 5–1 in the sleeved jerseys (James missed their only loss), and LeBron averaged 29.2 points, 7.6 rebounds, and 5.8 assists, on 54.4% FG overall in sleeved jerseys.
Twitter went into a frenzy mocking the Cavs picking sleeved jerseys to defend their season, but there was more to the decision.
First, there was the aforementioned “pride” behind these jerseys, which were a signal for the Cavs to “lock-in.” Facing insurmountable odds and a 3–1 deficit, there was no better time for Cleveland to “lock-in” than on the road in Oracle Arena, with their season on the line.
Reports came out later that it was James’ choice to wear the jerseys, which was a choice that was either made on a purely statistical basis (James is one of the most calculated athletes ever), or on the basis of the team’s “pride.”
No matter the reason, in Game 5, with his legacy on the line, he scored 41 points, 16 rebounds, and 7 assists, making 16 of his 30 shots and 4 of his 8 three-point attempts. Meanwhile, Kyrie Irving, who, as mentioned earlier, had performed well historically in sleeved jerseys, was almost as dominant as James, scoring 41 points of his own while making 5 three-pointers.
When Cleveland won Game Six after another historic LeBron performance, the decision was sealed: they would wear their sleeved jerseys again.
Athletes are notoriously superstitious, and while riding a two-game winning streak against the best regular-season team ever, there were no changes that were going to be made in between Game 5 and Game 7 in Oracle.
After a miracle chase-down block, an incredibly clutch three-point shot, and a Kevin Love defensive stop against a two-time MVP, it was finished: the Cavs made the most improbable comeback ever, and they did so in the most unlikely uniforms ever.
TWO YEARS LATER, the sleeves left the NBA along with Adidas, who was replaced by Nike as the league’s apparel producer. Even jersey sponsorships were introduced, replacing sleeved jerseys as a new way to increase revenue through merchandise sales.
And that leaves us here, where the sleeved jerseys may never return, and our last memories of them remain in “The Block, The Shot, and The Stop” among the other memories of those 2016 Finals.
The jerseys remain as just another story of those LeBron-led Cavs teams, but they like any other story that came out of the Cleveland locker room, it was filled with drama and suspense.
It’s hard to statistically prove if the sleeved “pride” jerseys had anything to do with the 3–1 comeback, but here are some facts which can be perceived and conceived in any way:
- From 2015–2017 (the first three years of LeBron’s return to Cleveland), the Cavs wore a navy-blue alternate jersey in each of their away games in the playoffs
- Against the Eastern Conference, they went a combined 19–3 in their navy blue jerseys
- Against Golden State, they only won 1 out of their 6 away games in navy blue before introducing the sleeved jerseys in Game 5 of the 2016 Finals and Game 2 of the 2017 Finals (they went a combined 2–2 in their sleeved jerseys in 2016 and 2017)
- In their (sleeveless) black jerseys which were worn at almost exclusively at home in the 2018 Playoffs, the Cavs went 9–1, including two Game 7 victories in the black jerseys
- Against Golden State in 2018, the Cavs went 0–3 in their black jerseys
So did the sleeved jerseys end up helping Cleveland? It’s possible, but the greater explanation would be that the 2016 Cavs were a sleeping giant that somehow had the individual ability to pull off a once-in-a-lifetime miracle comeback against the best regular-season team ever.
And now their sleeved jerseys live on forever.
Sports Illustrated: “LeBron James, David Griffin and the letter that sparked the 3–1 comeback”
Basketball Reference: LeBron James 2015–2016 Game Log