By Paul Lukas
Special to Page 2

Uni Watch tries not to get too worked up about All-Star games. Pageantry blah-blah awesome skills blah best on the planet blah-blah -- the games are still just scrimmages, and their uniforms are essentially disposable. Still, it's worth taking a closer look at the NBA, which has taken an unusually circuitous route from the plain, wordless All-Star unis of 1955 to the sharp-looking duds displayed on Sunday.

"In the '50s and '60s, it was very basic -- red, white, and blue, big 'EAST' and 'WEST,' lots of stars," says Christopher Arena, the NBA's senior director of apparel. "Then in the '70s, we started basing the design on the host team's uniform." Uni Watch liked this approach, which yielded results ranging from straightforward (when the game was hosted by the Lakers in 1972) to subtle (Suns in 1975 -- note the sunburst pattern on the shorts, kids) to, well, not-so-subtle (Bullets, 1980).

"In the '80s, the Magic-Larry-Michael era, we used the NBA letters across the front," says Arena. This design, which was revived as a throwback uni for the 2003 game (but way baggier, natch), has always struck Uni Watch as looking too much like a corporate billboard. Still, it's better than what happened in the mid-1990s.

"We kind of went off the deep end in Phoenix in '95 and San Antonio in '96," admits Arena, a hint of shame in his voice. "Those uniforms were very indigenous to the market, or at least that was the idea -- the Phoenix design had a cactus on it, and the San Antonio design had a jalepeņo pepper. They were a little crazy. So then we scaled back and had the players wear their own uniforms for a few years."

As for this year's design, Uni Watch likes it -- it's clean but not sterile, sharp but not flashy. And textile geeks (you know who you are) will like Arena's description of the fabric: "The front is flatback mesh, which is a fabrication used throughout the league, and the back is what we call Metallic Stretch Air, an open-hole mesh that breathes a little differently, to minimize sweat accumulation. We've always used uniforms with multiple fabrications, but usually the front and back are the same and the inserts are different, so this was a big change. One of our teams is considering something like this for next season, but I can't say anything more about it yet."

Yes, well, we're all breathlessly waiting to see how that turns out. But there are other matters to occupy our attention for now because the NBA isn't the only league that recently hosted all-star festivities. A week earlier was the NFL Pro Bowl, such a perennial aesthetic train wreck that it holds a certain warped fascination, sort of like watching lemmings dive off a cliff. Of course, nobody has actually tuned in to watch the Pro Bowl since about 1987, so you probably missed the landmark uni designs showcased in 2004, 2001 and of course 1996 (which was such a big hit on the comedy circuit that it was used again in 1997).

Compared to those past visual carnivals, this year's uniforms were relatively tame. Even the obligatory Hawaiian-themed coaching garb was more sedate this time around -- or maybe it just seemed that way because for once Andy Reid wasn't coaching the NFC squad. Fortunately, there was still plenty of comic relief, beginning with the Arena Football-esque blizzard of jersey patches. And Uni Watch hereby offers a beer and a handshake to whoever had the brilliant idea of putting a Pro Bowl logo patch just above each player's butt.

But the Pro Bowl's biggest problem -- this year and every year -- is that the AFC always wears red and the NFC always blue but the players wear their regular helmets, which leads to some serious color-coordination problems. As usual, the most trenchant analysis comes from Uni Watch attache Ruth Wedes, who proposes a solution based on the game's Hawaiian locale: "They should all just wear a helmet with a pineapple on it."

As it happens, the Pro Bowl used to feature its own helmet designs. Uni Watch's go-to guy for this kind of thing is near-omniscient Curtis Worrell of Helmet Hut, who breaks down the Pro Bowl's headwear history like so:

1954-64: Navy helmets for the NFL's Western Conference; red helmets for the Eastern Conference.

1965-69: Gold helmets with the NFL shield logo and blue-white-blue striping for the Western Conference; the same design but with red-white-red striping for the Eastern Conference.

1970: Same as above, but with the NFL's 50th anniversary logo substituted for the NFL shield. This was the last Pro Bowl before the NFL/AFL merger.

1971-78: White helmets with a blue "N" for the NFC; red helmets with a white "A" for the AFC.

1979-present: Regular team helmets.

And then there's Flozell Adams of the Cowboys, who had a different sort of headgear problem: He couldn't play because his helmet got lost in the mail, or his dog ate it, or something. At least that's his story -- maybe he just didn't want to be one of the lemmings.

More Masked Men
Sharp-eyed readers spotted a glitch in Uni Watch's recent survey of hockey goalie masks, in which mask artist and Painted Warrior webmaster Dennis Simone said Corrado Micalef was the last goalie to wear an old-style fiberglass mask. As several readers have pointed out, that status actually belongs to Sam St. Laurent of the Red Wings, who was wearing a Jacques Plante-style mask as late as the 1989-90 season.

"I should have known that," says a contrite Simone. Uni Watch should have known, too -- big thanks to Scott Murrell, Doug Norris and everyone else who wrote in to set the record straight. Meanwhile, with the NHL season now officially kaput, hockey fans can console themselves by clicking through the excellent mask history sequence that begins here.

Thanks also to those who've responded to Uni Watch's call for pix of masked baseball players. We now have a solid photo gallery of such players, including Ellis Valentine, Gary Roenicke, Kevin Seitzer, David Justice and Charlie Hayes (who wore two different mask styles -- this one with the Rockies and this one with the Yankees). A big tip of the Uni Watch cap -- which includes its own facebars, natch -- to all who helped out with this scavenger hunt, especially Dan Herr, Thomas Clark, Grant Beaudette, Bud Leno, Ron Ruelle and Andy Chalifour.

Still MIA: photos of Dave Parker from 1978, when he wore a football-style facemask after breaking his jaw. And here's an intriguing subplot, courtesy of Walter Graham: "Before Parker went with the facebar, he had a hockey goalie facemask molded to his helmet. I believe he used it for only one game. I recall seeing a picture of it in the Boston Globe during the '78 season."

The good news is that the estimable Tom Shieber at the Baseball Hall of Fame turned up an old Sporting News article confirming that Parker did indeed make one plate appearance wearing "a mask similar to those worn by hockey goalies"; the bad news is that Uni Watch spent the better part of an afternoon poring over old Boston Globe microfilm at the library in a fruitless search for the aforementioned photograph. (Memo to Walter Graham: Next round's on you.) If anyone has any tips regarding photos of this particular mask, which is shaping up as Uni Watch's personal Great White Whale, please send up a signal flare.

Meanwhile, in a related item, John Katricak contributes the following tidbit: "Notre Dame is primarily a football school. So, what do members of the baseball team do while recovering from face and jaw injuries? Attach football facemasks to their batting helmets, of course." True enough, as can be seen here and here.

Still more mask news: One of the small oddities of the past NFL season was that the the big helmet painted on the RCA Dome's turf still had a blue facemask even though the Colts had changed their facemasks from blue to gray. That incongruity should be corrected next season, because the Colts have just announced plans to install new turf, which presumably will include an accurate helmet illustration.

And in the last word (for now) about the University of Michigan's endlessly adaptable football helmet design, Nicholas McAlister points out that current Michigan goaltender Al Montoya has come up with the ultimate interpretation: His mask mimics the winged helmet logo and depicts a wolverine.

New Math
The topic of players bartering for coveted uniform numbers (recently the subject of an unusual lawsuit) has been raised again by reader Alexis Neeson, who writes:

"In European soccer, there is a trend of using tape [on a jersey] to create plus signs, to get your desired number if someone else already has it. For example, Clinton Morrison of Birmingham City wanted to wear No. 10, but this was taken, so he took No. 19 and used two pieces of tape to make a plus sign between the 1 and the 9. Ivan Zamorano did the same with No. 18 when No. 9 was taken."

The great thing about this is that it opens up the door to all sorts of other mathematical symbology: division and multiplication signs, fractions, square roots, pi, infinity, exponents, factorials, maybe even that weird squiggle thingie that gave Uni Watch so much trouble in 12th-grade calculus. Don't give up on wearing 51 just yet, Randy Johnson -- it can still be yours, with a bit of creative annotation.

Paul Lukas finds it nearly impossible to say, "Metallic Stretch Air" with a straight face, and would like to think most of his readers can't do it either. Archives of his pre-Page 2 "Uni Watch" columns are available here and here. Got uni-related feedback for him, or want to be added to his mailing list? Send him a note here.



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