Being a sports fan is like being a parent — it doesn’t come with a rulebook. Some aspects are self-explanatory: rooting for the home team, cheering for exemplary displays of skill and athleticism, sarcastically calling for the insertion of lineup-worst scrubs into the game once the game’s outcome has been decided. But much of the territory is grey, open to interpretation and occasionally susceptible to abuse. And one of the hardest areas to define etiquette for is at-game jersey wearing.
Most of the time, of course, this practice is simple enough — you wear the jersey of your favorite player from your team of choice, and everybody wins. But for a variety of reasons, this most-direct of routes is occasionally eschewed for something more esoteric, either due to issues of practicality, chronology, or the desire to make a statement more complex than mere fan support of team and player. But how far can one stray from the beaten path, without straying so far that the practice loses all meaning?
Here, I will define as many feasible instances of borderline jersey-wearing practices as possible — using the New York Knicks as the example home team — and come up with a verdict on whether this practice ultimately is or is not OK. Of course my word on these matters is by no means the final one. Rather, I hope that this article will serve as a jumping-off point for further discussion within the NBA fan community, as we attempt to eliminate the confusion and intolerance too long attached to this subject.
(And for the record, if your personal take on all of these is “Don’t wear jerseys at all, what are you, 16?” Well, fair enough, and you’re certainly entitled to your opinion, but for argument’s sake, let’s shelve that line of thinking for the time being.)
Case #1: Home Team Jersey for Well-Liked Player No Longer on Team
Example: David Lee Knicks Jersey
Probably the most frequently seen case of the borderline jersey, one so accepted into common practice that it might not even be borderline. You buy a jersey for your favorite player on the team while he’s on the squad, and he gets traded or signs elsewhere. Happens all the time, and it shouldn’t preclude you from still being able to wear the jersey, as a tribute to the team on the front and to the legacy of the player on the back. You might not want to overdo it with this, lest you seem stuck in the past — why insist on the David Lee jersey when the Knicks now have plenty of jersey-worthy players? — but in principle, it’s fine.
Verdict: Very OK.
Case #2: Home Team Jersey for Disgraced Player No Longer on Team
Example: Stephon Marbury Knicks Jersey
This is sketchier. In the case of a player like Marbury, who represented all of the worst excesses of the Isiah Thomas era in New York, representing for him could be seen as needlessly antagonistic to fellow home fans, and in certain cases could be seen as even more of an affront than wearing a jersey of the opponents. Nonetheless, it is still a home-team jersey, perhaps the only one owned by the fan, bought before said player proved himself so unworthy. Ultimately this must be taken on a case-by-case basis, depending on the player and infractions committed, but I would tend to err on the side of caution here.
Verdict: Rarely OK, avoid when possible.
Case #3: Home Team Jersey for Well-Liked Player Currently Playing for Opponents
Example: Nate Robinson Thunder Jersey (Home Game Vs. Thunder)
A complex situation, no doubt, since to less-knowledgeable home fans you will seem an enemy supporter, and to more-knowledgeable home fans you may seem a star-chasing bandwagoner. However, I tend to approve of this as a measure of showing next-level appreciation for a player who did his home team proud when their soldier, and has since moved on — possibly due to circumstances beyond his control, as with KryptoNate. It lets them know that they will always be loved for their years of service, and will be welcomed back into the fold at any time.
Verdict: OK, but take the time to explain your motives to others, and be patient if they disagree or don’t understand.
Case #4: Previous Team Jersey for Well-Liked Team Player
Example: Amar’e Stoudemire Suns Jersey
Once again, this raises the question of what’s more important about a jersey, the team or the individual player represented. But as a player proponent myself — otherwise, you may as well just go with a hat, or get a shirt from the gift shop that says “Knicks” on the front — I find this highly permissible. To me, it just shows a willingness to acknowledge the history and roots of your favorite player, and would be little different than wearing a Pixies t-shirt to a Breeders concert. (Though of course, concert t-shirt etiquette is an entirely separate beast — and in many ways, the inverse of basketball jersey logic — but that’s another article.)
Verdict: Generally OK.
Case #5: Opponents’ Team Jersey for Well-Liked Team Player
Example: Amar’e Stoudemire Suns Jersey (Home Game vs. Suns)
This is too much. Ultimately this will just hurt the heads of everyone in your section, incite one if not several fist-fights and greatly confuse any nearby time-travelers from the not-too-distant past. It’s not worth it.
Verdict: Not OK. Don’t be a wiseass.
Case #6: Mocked-Up Home Team Jersey for Coveted Player Not on Team
Example: LeBron James Knicks Jersey (c. March 2010)
A decidedly modern trend in today’s world of in-season, often times years-in-advance, fan-player recruitment. I would hesitate to do this on a team with superstars already in place, but in a case like the Knicks’ last year — where the entire season was but a prelude to the activity of the summer and the team itself was highly fungible — I have no problem with it. In fact, it shows a willingness to go the extra mile for your home team, not just in the time it took to make the fake jersey but in the willingness displayed to try to assist with the recruiting process. Hey, maybe if LeBron had seen you in that orange-and-blue No. 23 James jersey, it might’ve been the thing to flip the switch for him. Who knows?
Verdict: OK, but use discretion.
Case #7: Current Team Jersey for Coveted Player Not on Team
Example: Carmelo Anthony Nuggets Jersey (c. Jan 2011)
This one actually came up in my real life, as my roommate wore this very jersey to a Knicks game recently against the Hawks. Though I respected his outside-of-the-box approach and was appreciative of the conversation piece, I ultimately concluded that I did not approve of the statement being made. At least with the mocked-up home jerseys, you’re still repping team colors, not straying too far from the course. When you’re willing to go so far as to wear another team’s jersey to represent a player that may end up never having anything to do with your home team, it’s just too much of an insult to those currently on the squad for my tastes. You’ve got to draw the line somewhere.
Verdict: Not OK, unless your team is in the top .01 percentile of all-time unlikable teams. And even then, use discretion.
Case #8: Current Team Jersey for Player With No Immediate Connection to Home Team or Opponent
Example: Kobe Bryant Lakers Jersey (Home Game vs. Bucks)
This decision makes no statement aside from “I like basketball,” which may in fact be the case, but frankly is neither here nor there. It smacks of either trying way too hard (“I don’t even care what teams are playing in this game, I’m post-team rooting.”) or not trying nearly hard enough (“Wow, can you believe I still have that Kobe jersey I bought when I was in high school?”) and is guaranteed to embarrass anyone unlucky enough to have to attend the game with you. Wearing no jersey at all is infinitely preferable.
Verdict: Not OK.
Case #9: Personalized Home Team Jersey for Non-Existent Player That Was Probably a Father’s Day Gift From Your Kids or Something
Example: “Stankovich” Knicks Jersey.
Tell your kids to get you a new fishing rod next year instead.
Verdict: Disgusting and Not OK.
Well, that’s about all I got. Let the open-air discussion begin.