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XYZ: A Close Look at the Suns’ Zipper-Fly Shorts

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Who’s that in the Phoenix Suns uni? Give yourself a gold star if you recognized that player as none other than Pat Riley, who played for the Suns during the 1975-76 season — his final year as an active player.

But what interests me about this photo isn’t Riley’s barely recognizable face under all that hair — it’s his shorts. They appear to have a zipper fly!

Early basketball shorts were zippered, because they were also belted. But by the 1950s and ’60s, everyone had switched to elastic waistbands with center seams replacing the flies — or so I thought. I was astonished to see that photo of Riley wearing a zipper for the Suns in the mid-1970s.

Was it just Riley? Nope. I did some photo research and discovered that other Suns players — and, I’m pretty sure, all Suns players — were going zippered in the mid- and late 1970s (for most of these, you can click to enlarge):

What’s interesting about those shorts, aside from the zipper, is that they didn’t have the typical “crinkly” elastic waistband. Instead, they had snap buttons, much like the sansabelt baseball pants of that same era. (The snaps aren’t evident in the Riley photo, because his jersey obscures the waistband.) I had no idea that the NBA — or at least one NBA team — used that same format.

And get this: The Suns didn’t just use zippered/snap-buttoned shorts in the mid-1970s — they continued doing so at least into the early 1980s! We can see that from these photos featuring the NBA 35th-anniversary patch, which was worn during the 1980-81 season:

And that wasn’t the end of it. Here’s a shot of Larry Nance Sr. wearing the zippered/buttoned shorts in a game that Getty Images says is from Jan. 28, 1984:

Now, I’ve learned from experience that Getty isn’t a reliable source for old dates, so I’m not sure that photo is really from 1984. But Nance’s rookie season was 1981-82, so we know the Suns were still using these shorts at least during that season. (Update: The photo has now been confirmed as being from ’84!)

I haven’t been able to pinpoint exactly when the Suns switched to more conventional zipper-free shorts, but they definitely appear to have made the switch by 1987. Still, I’m stunned to learn that they were using zippered shorts into at least the early 1980s. And using the baseball-style snap buttons — I had no idea!

Who was manufacturing these shorts? I poked around and found an old auction listing for a pair of game-used Suns shorts from the mid-1970s. Sure enough, they had a zipper fly and snap buttons — and were made by Spanjian (which was a big uni manufacturer in those days). Here’s another auction listing, this time for a Suns gamer from the early 1980s — again, we see the zipper, buttons, and the Spanjian label.

Here’s a closer look, taken from auction listings:

Did any other NBA teams wear shorts like these? What about college teams? If anyone knows more, feel free to enlighten us in today’s comments. This feels like a whole new branch of potential Uni Watch inquiry!

I have to say, after covering this beat for well over 20 years now, I love that there are still new things to learn, new things to geek out over, new ways for my mind to be blown.

(Big thanks to Chris Michel, who spotted the Riley zipper and thus sent me down this rabbit hole.)

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Bulletin reminder: In case you missed it on Tuesday, I’ve ranked the 35 best green uniforms of all time for this week’s Bulletin column (just in time for St. Paddy’s Day!). This was so much fun, I can’t believe I didn’t think of doing it years ago, and I don’t mind saying it’s one of the best things I’ve worked on in some time. In addition to the usual suspects you’d expect to see from the Big Four pro leagues, the rankings also include entries from college football and basketball, soccer, lacrosse, cricket, boxing, golf, tennis, auto racing, horse racing, rugby, the Olympics, and more. Even if you don’t like green as much as I do, I think you’ll really like this one! I hope you’ll check it out.

This piece has already generated a lot of good comments and discussion. My Premium Subscribers can read it here. If you haven’t yet subscribed, you can do that here, but you’ll need a Facebook account in order to pay. If the Facebook requirement is a dealbreaker, email me and I’ll let you know about non-Facebook payment options and possible workarounds. Thanks!

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Play for the name on the front back of the jersey: Highly unusual situation in last night’s First Four men’s game between Texas A&M-Corpus Christi and Texas Southern, both of which had TNOB (although you can barely read it in Texas Southern’s case). How often does that happen — during March Madness, no less?

Texas Southern won and now advances to face Kansas, which most assuredly does not have TNOB, so we won’t be seeing a repeat of this phenomenon.

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Softball or football? This is interesting — one of Southern Illinois’s softball uniforms looks more like a football uni, complete with a logo on the side of the batting helmet instead of on the crown. Don’t think I’ve ever seen a softball uni like that before. Lots of additional photos here.

(My thanks to Dave Sikula for this one.)

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Sun worshipper: Uni Watch HQ is on the ground floor of a house and has a porch, which means we get terrible natural light. But we do get a few shafts of sunlight coming through in the mornings this time of year, and Uni Watch girl mascot Caitlin always finds them. Awwwwww — li’l cutie!

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The Ticker
By Lloyd Alaban

Ukraine News: Dover Speedway’s Monster Monument will be lit with the colors of the Ukrainian flag each evening for the remainder of the month (from Christopher Hickey). … AC Milan has unveiled a retail jersey modeled after its 2003 Champions League uniform, with proceeds to support the Italian Red Cross’s mission in Ukraine.

Baseball News: Nationals C Riley Adams will wear No. 15—the same number as former Nationals 1B Matt Adams. So if you already have a Matt Adams jersey, you won’t have to throw it out! (From Brock Jackson.)

Football News: Vernon Hills High School in Illinois has a very Van Halen-esque helmet logo (from @lolo_phynarski).

Hockey News: G.I. Joke warm-ups for the Caps last night (from our own Jamie Rathjen). … Panthers G Spencer Knight debuted a mask in honor of Teddy Balkind, a Connecticut high school player whose neck was cut by a skate during a game in January. The incident inspired a nationwide hockey movement called “Sticks Out for Teddy” (from Noah Berger). … Mono-white, including white pants, for the FPHL’s Columbus River Dragons this weekend (from Jack Patterson). … A Top Ten List on a 1987 episode of Late Night with David Letterman misspelled the Buffalo Sabres as “Sabers” (from Ferdinand Cesarano). … Here’s the Ireland jersey for the upcoming Development Cup (from Michael Regan).

Basketball News: Yeshiva men’s G Ryan Turell is hoping to go pro, which would make him the NBA’s first yarmulke-clad player. … Here’s what the Men’s Final Four court will look like (from J.A. Scott). … You’re going to see a lot of Nike during this year’s March Madness men’s games. … Here’s a new one: It looks like Xavier’s men’s team, which is playing in the NIT, has inbounds plays mapped out on the inner waistbands of their shorts (from Andrew Green).

Soccer News: Barcelona has sold the naming rights for its historic Camp Nou stadium to Spotify (from Jacob Gibb). … PSG’s new home shirt has leaked (from Michael Zerbib). … Lionel Messi has hundreds of shirts on deck each time he plays for Argentina to give away to fans, players, and coaches. … USL League One’s Greenville Triumph is starting a team in the USL W League. They’re revealing the new team name and logo on March 24 (from our own Jamie Rathjen). … Atlético Madrid’s new home shirt has leaked (from Mark Coale). … The next few items are from Kary Klismet: New kits for Phoenix Rising of the USL Championship. … New away kits for Orange County SC. … New kits for the Pittsburgh Riverhounds. … Düsseldorf will wear one-off kits this weekend designed by a local artist. … New home kits for Unión de Santa Fe and new away kits for Atlético Tucumán of Argentina’s Primera División.

Grab Bag: When you think of Ralph Lauren, you don’t necessarily think of HBCUs. But the fashion brand is nonetheless partnering with HBCUs on a new line of sportswear-inspired apparel (from multiple readers). … Okemos High School in Michigan has unveiled new logos to accompany the recent change of its team name to “Wolves.” … Here are the finalists for Rhode Island’s new license plate design, all of which feature an ocean theme. … In a related item, here’s a huge infographic showing every state’s license plate from 1966 to 2016. Click to enlarge (from Clarke Hall). … Here’s a breakdown of this season’s F1 car numbers (from Russ Flynn).

Comments (36)

    I don’t know if it’s wrong, but I kinda love those Southern Illinois softball jerseys and helmets with the logos on the side! At the very least I like that its different, but there is something striking about it!

    “Salukis” is in my opinion the best nickname in college sports.

    There are enough “bulldogs” and “huskies”. More teams should be named after dog breeds.

    University of Richmond Spiders are the 12 seed in the midwest this year! They play Iowa tomorrow.

    St. Louis Billikens. I love when March Madness rolls around and they are in the tourney.

    Also, the name “Salukis” is regional in a way. Carbondale is – well obviously – in southern Illinois. That part of the state is known as “Little Egypt” for apocryphal reasons. And the saluki “royal dog of Egypt.”

    In looking through the Suns’ silver anniversary book it look like 1986-87 is the last season they wore shorts with zippers (there is a picture of Rafael Addison wearing a pair and he played for them that one season). I then went looking for pictures of James Bailey, who played for them in (only) 1987-88 and he was not. So it appears that 1987 may have been the year they changed over.

    The zippered shorts were officially retired for the 1986-87 season, when Sand Knit became the exclusive uniform outfitter – I suspect Addison was wearing an old pair of shorts.

    A Fly is that piece of flap that covers the connectors that hold the fabric together. When buttons switched to zippers, the word fly, the piece of cloth, soon became the word for a zipper on pants.

    Nice use of former Suns player and coach Danny Ainge in his Toronto Blue Jays uniform.

    Great article today! This is Uni Watch at its best for me. An inconspicuous unique feature under our noses for who knows how long, with expert crowdsourcing to confirm details on the timeline. Love it!

    Agreed. What an amazing find. I am flabbergasted that I/we never noticed this before today!
    The Suns were a successful & covered team in those years. The Larry Nance dunk contest win over Dr. J in 1984 is pretty legendary. Those photos are commonly shared online or social media to this day. Especially in recent years when his son has been playing & competed in the dunk contest (I believe Jr. even wore a Suns uniform & replicated his dad’s dunk). How is that possible within this group it took this long to unearth this detail?

    The PBJ article about Nike unis lists Colorado, my alma mater, as one of the teams in “the tournament,” but they didn’t get a bid. They did, however, just lose in the first round of the NIT (FFS!). Are NIT teams considered “tournament” teams now? I always thought they were distinct.

    The story of the 15 year-old in CT dying in the hockey accident is beyond tragic. The protection of the neck/throat areas has been well established in youth hockey from the dangers of both the skate and the stick blades. Why the neck collar is not mandatory at all levels of hockey is rather apalling to me.

    Treasure trove today. Great find on the Suns zipper fly. Grew up with those Suns unis through the 80s. I finally came around to the switch in the 90s that coincided with the Finals run. I miss both those sets. Suns unis have been a stinker since.

    And as someone who grew up in the 80s…Vernon Hills May be my new favorite high school team! I didn’t know I needed that box checked until I saw it. A Van Halen football helmet!

    Fly or no fly, those are some great uniforms in general. Have they brought them back in some fashion amidst the million different uniforms NBA teams wear now?
    Between that set and the set worn throughout the 90s Phoenix has had some really great looks. Why go away from those?

    In the first picture of Caitlin, the sun on her whiskers almost makes them look Photoshopped. :)

    Great stuff today, Paul! I knew the Suns had worn those zippered sansabelt-style shorts in the ’70s, but didn’t realize they’d worn them well into the ’80s, too. What a fascinating anachronistic look for a team that wasn’t even around when basketball shorts with zippered flies were in their heyday.

    Speaking of zippered shorts, I know that the Lakers wore them at least into the early ’70s:


    You’ll notice these shorts have the “crinkled” elastic waistband, unlike the Suns’ smooth sansabelt-style waistband. However, you can distinctly make out two snaps at the waist and the crease of the fly down the front of the shorts.

    The Vernon Hills helmet logo is fantastic.
    Many HS teams near me have borrowed or replicated classic pro or college logos. My hometown was a G (also green & white) so of course we always had the Green Bay looking helmet & uniforms. I have often seen the Bears style “C” or Wisconsin motion W. Then on the mascot side plenty of Ram horns, Eagle wings, or Bengals stripes. Not to mention a few USC Trojan heads or Sparty, even the FSU spear is seen in school & youth leagues.
    Love the fact this team was different & leaned in on the VH with a classic rock logo. Hope to see a some more… please let there be some regional or charter school out there with an ACDC acronym

    The state license plates info graphic got me looking….80% of license plates are still made by prison inmates.

    Definitely one for the “today I learned” file!

    Spanjian was a big player in the 80s… they made the “football shorts” that were similar to the button/snap/sansabelt but has laces like football pants. They were very popular back in the day.

    The Adams/Nationals thing is reminiscent of Will Clark wearing number 22 with the Giants after Jack Clark had worn it. Also, the Nets’ Joe Harris wears the number 12 that had formerly been worn by Lucious Harris.

    Then there’s Ken Griffey, Sr. and Ken Griffey, Jr. both having worn number 30 for the Reds. But that’s too easy. Likewise, the Reds gave Pete Rose, Jr. number 14 during his brief stay there.

    Let’s not forget both Randy Johnson and Cliff Johnson wearing number 41 with the Yankees, which is nice even though the Yankees don’t mess up their uniforms with player names.

    Paul ~

    Thanks for sharing the cat photos today. Rough times in my world made better by sunshine from yours.

    Did Jerry Seinfeld maybe inspire the Suns’ change in shorts? “If there’s a part of my wardrobe that I don’t need sharp, interlocking metal teeth..”

    Though Vernon Hills’ jerseys are derivative of Ohio States’, only blue, I think they’d look good on the Detroit Lions.

    I had no idea about zippers on basketball shorts.

    Great story, as always Paul.

    Hope all is well.

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