A T-Riffic Throwback
In the late 1980s and early 1990s, T-shirts featuring caricatures of NBA players were a fan staple. Now they are enjoying a nostalgic comeback across a variety of products.
FOR BILL FICKETT, it all began with a T-shirt featuring a charmingly goofy drawing of Larry Bird as “The Massachusetts State Bird.” The desire to produce similar portrait shirts led him to partner with screen printers Kyle Nagel and Keith Kennelly to form Salem Sportswear.
Salem’s caricature shirts — of both teams and individuals — became a staple of sports-loving kids’ wardrobes in the late 1980s and early 1990s, led by artist Bruce Stark. For years, NBA Finals winners wore championship shirts with their likeness. In October 1993, Kennelly and Nagel sold Salem, then a publicly traded company with licenses from the four major sports leagues, to Fruit of the Loom for $136.4 million.
The company is long gone. But the late Stark’s indelible images of NBA stars in action are now on seven T- shirts, the result of a partnership with Mitchell & Ness, the sports apparel giant. It’s part of a five-year deal with NBALAB, which Fickett co-founded.
Billi Kid, NBALAB co-founder and chief creative officer, describes NBALAB as “an incubator for the NBA.” It grants small and minority-owned brands licensing opportunities with the NBA and its players association. NBALAB, which is independent of the league, also turns its ideas into products, such as repurposing the wood from retired or championship NBA courts into collect- ibles under its NBA Reclaimed vertical.
As for the caricature shirts, Mitchell & Ness did a couple of drops, Fickett said, several years ago. The third time in early April this year was appar- ently the charm.
“They said it [the latest drop] was a success and one of the best that they’ve done,” said Eric Perugini, chief commercial officer for NBALAB. “The engagement on the social and any marketing they put out was extremely high. And the sell-through was really positive.”
Mitchell & Ness did not respond to interview requests.
The best-selling shirt by late April, according to Kid? Bird. Everything old is new again.
The caricature shirt reboot was partially spurred by this writer’s oral history on Salem Sportswear for RollingStone.com, said Fickett. “We went through vintage shops on Melrose, and we saw some of the shirts for like 150 bucks-plus,” Kid said. The newer shirts sell for a more manageable $45.
It’s not just shirts and it’s not just players from the past getting art. Ron Stark, Bruce’s son, draws contemporary NBA stars, which made their way onto Panini four-pack “mystery tins.” Fickett licenses the senior Stark’s illustrations from his family. Between 300 and 400 athletes in the four major sports are digitized and ready to use; NBALAB has illustrations of 41 current NBA players in its library.
There are other places for these images, Kid said, including poster prints and wallets. Kid wants to extend the Stark T-shirts beyond hoops. “We have four more years on our deal with M&N and definitely want to do a lot more,” Kid said.
“There’s a lot of clutter,” Perugini said. “But when you go back to the simplistic days of a well-made product with a really intuitive, fun theme and brand around it, I think people gravitate to that because it reminds them of maybe their adolescence or their childhood.”
What helps, he added, is “quality doesn’t fade over time.”
Pete Croatto is a freelance writer based in central New York.