An entire basketball team these days might not combine to reveal as much leg as the short-short-wearing John Stockton, and certainly not 7-footer Wilt Chamberlain, who, depending on how high he pulled his socks, might have shown 3 feet of leg.
PORTLAND — In a game with so many tall people, you might expect a little more leg.
But basketball players increasingly cover their lower bodies, mostly out of fashion, partly out of protection, sometimes out of modesty. In a trend on full display at the NCAA men’s tournament, skin is concealed behind the triple protection of shorts hemmed below the kneecap, socks raised to the calf and a base layer of tights underneath.
An entire team might not combine to reveal as much leg as the short-short-wearing John Stockton, and certainly not Wilt Chamberlain, the 7-footer nicknamed the Stilt. Depending on how high he pulled his socks, Chamberlain might have shown 3 feet of leg.
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Today’s top players might show 3 inches, if any at all. California-Irvine’s 7-6 center, Mamadou N’Diaye, played Friday with white tights and a tiny gap of skin above his ankle.
Explanations offered by today’s players were broad — and suspect: leg warmth, sweat control, superstition and vanity among them.
“I didn’t like my knees,” said Arizona’s Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, who stopped wearing tights recently for reasons he cannot fully explain. “I got little legs, so they show a lot. I was hiding my knees.”
Ohio State point guard Shannon Scott could not explain the trend — “I guess we’re getting more conservative,” he said, smiling — but his teammate Amir Williams had a quick answer for why he wears tights tucked into long socks.
“When I start sweating, it’s uncontrollable,” said Williams, a 6-11 center. “These really help contain some of the sweat.”
A cover up
Whatever the reason, covering up is part of the long evolution of basketball fashion that has players wearing more and more. Thirty years ago, Georgetown center Patrick Ewing helped usher in the era of undergarments by wearing a T-shirt under his tank-style jersey that covered his shoulders and upper arms.
Eventually, basketball had a farewell to bare arms altogether, with the likes of Allen Iverson wearing skintight sleeves, whether for fitness or fashion, or a bit of both. Even today, among basketball’s rare sightings are the elbows and forearms of the Knicks’ Carmelo Anthony.
As if pulled by gravity, the cover-up trend moved downward. Players on the court, like starlets on a red carpet, prefer to bare their arms and hide their legs.
The skin between the hem of the shorts and the top of the high-tops has been shrinking for 25 years, since Michigan’s “Fab Five” teams popularized shorts to the knees. It spread to the NBA (to all but Stockton, it seemed), down to the YMCA and out to the masses. Knee-length basketball shorts are a trend that appears nearly irreversible, like denim.
St. John’s center Chris Obekpa is the rare player with shorts above his knee. His stop at midthigh — think of David Hasselhoff in “Baywatch” — but Obekpa’s legs made no appearance in the tournament. He was suspended for violating team rules that had nothing to do with breaking norms in the dress code.
The wearing of tights gained traction in the NBA a few years ago with the likes of Kobe Bryant and LeBron James. Now, the lower 2 or 3 feet of players are, like the blank bodies of paper dolls, an opportunity to mix and match. It has become the one part of the basketball uniform available for sartorial self-expression.
When Michigan State’s lineup took the floor Friday, nine of the 10 elbows were bare, but only one set of legs was visible — and even then, only a tease of a couple of inches below the knee.
Even when the tights match (they are supposed to), some lineups take the floor wearing five styles of socks, in different colors and worn to varying lengths: some pulled to the knee, others scrunched above the edge of their high-top shoes.
Williams, the sweat-producing Ohio State center, keeps his long legs completely hidden.
“My socks are extremely long because I have big feet,” he said. “I pull my socks all the way up and just tuck the tights into my socks.”
Arizona guard Gabe York likes to “show a little skin” when he wears tights.
“I would like to say it keeps my legs warm, but it doesn’t really have an effect,” he said.
Rules on numbers, necklines
The NCAA has strict rules about jerseys and shorts — numbers must be Arabic, a colored neckline cannot exceed 1 inch in width, jerseys must be tucked into what the rule book anachronistically calls “game pants” — but far fewer directives about the parts of the body not covered by them.
Section 23 of Rule 1 (“Court and Equipment”) covers undergarments. Undershirts must be a color “similar” to the game jersey and match those worn by teammates. Sleeves must be the same length and not extend past the elbow.
Below the waist: “Undergarments may extend below the game pants and shall be of the same color as that of the game pants, black, white or beige,” the rule states. “The same color must be worn by teammates.”
On Friday, most Kansas players wore white tights to the midcalf, leaving an inch or two of skin above the sock. Their opponent, New Mexico State, mostly wore black tights.
But Ohio State beat Virginia Commonwealth on Thursday with Scott wearing white tights and Williams wearing black. Officials said nothing.
Some of the game’s top players have joined, if not propelled, the trend, including Wisconsin’s Frank Kaminsky and Duke’s Jahlil Okafor, who tend to keep their legs covered with tights. Kaminsky often wears tights with soft, built-in pads to protect his knees, and shows just an inch or two of skin at midcalf.
Others have resisted. Arizona’s Stanley Johnson, Ohio State’s D’Angelo Russell and Utah’s Delon Wright are among those who opt for the stripped-down look, perhaps not needing to detract from their game or add anything superfluous to their reputations.
In the Georgetown locker room Friday, center Joshua Smith pronounced the trend dead, even though many of his teammates take the floor in long tights that meet their white socks. Smith plays with his knees covered in compression sleeves, insisting that they only look like tights, and bares a few inches of skin.
“It’s kind of played out now,” Smith said. “You see it all the time. There’s sometimes where you watch a game, and there’s nine dudes on the floor wearing tights.”
He pointed to the television hanging on the wall, showing one of Friday’s games, and started counting. Six players wore tights. Smith shook his head.
“We’ll see what the trend is in the next five years,” he said.