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.
“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.”
There were no creative services available, no in-house design, and no branding. Before there was a sports design industry, O’Grady reported to only two people: Rick Wells and commissioner David Stern. O’Grady and his crew designed the league’s best outfits, which have stood the test of time.
What was it like to work with David Stern?
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.”
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.”
“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.” Yeah, usually not too controversial.