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How Michael Jordan's March Madness Shorts Changed the Apparel Business

While Jordan’s effect on footwear is impressive, it’s not the only multi-million dollar fashion trend he set.

Dan Lewis, author of the daily newsletter Now I Know (“Learn Something New Every Day, By Email”) joins us Wednesdays with surprising facts about the world of business.

Ask virtually anyone who the greatest basketball player of all time is, and they’ll reply with the name Michael Jordan. His legacy is astounding; even Magic Johnson, an all-time great in his own right, has been quoted as saying “There’s Michael Jordan and then there’s the rest of us.” And his effect on the game of basketball is undeniable, as fans and players alike aimed to emulate him. Certainly, the ad campaigns featuring him encouraged this.

Most explicitly, Gatorade released an ad in 1992 called “Like Mike” in which a chorus of voices sang of their desire to emulate His Airness. A Nike ad hawked his trademark Air Jordans sneakers with the catch phrase, “It’s gotta be the shoes” as a tongue-in-cheek reason that Jordan was such a good basketball player.

While Jordan’s effect on footwear is impressive, it’s not the only trend he set in fashion. He also changed the way we think about gym shorts.

Jordan played college basketball for the University of North Carolina from 1981 to 1984. And as seen above, the shorts he wore were, colloquially, “short shorts.” These were the common garb of the era, and for a generation or two earlier, exhibited by Larry Bird and Magic Johnson, Julius Erving, and even Wilt Chamberlain. Jordan’s shorts—at least the UNC ones—were of particular importance to him. According to Jordan’s official NBA biography, when he made his way into the NBA, he wanted to keep his college experience close, so he wore his North Carolina shorts under his NBA ones.

This decision, per the NBA’s website, had an interesting side effect: Michael Jordan’s UNC short shorts wouldn’t fit under his Chicago Bulls short shorts, so he had to wear baggy, knee-length Bulls shorts instead, as seen here. In doing so, he broke the mold set forth by players before him. As proof, in the “It’s gotta be the shoes” ad, you’ll note that at the 0:13 mark, Mars Blackmon (played by Spike Lee) asks if the secret to MJ’s game “is the extra-long shorts.” Even then, the shorts were still considered a deviation from norms of proper basketball apparel.

Soon, these extra-long shorts became the favored style. By 2003, almost every single NBA player had jettisoned the short shorts for the longer variety (with future Hall of Famer John Stockton being a notable holdout). Looking back, it is clear that Jordan had a lot to do with this change in basketball fashion trends. In 1991, the University of Michigan’s Fab Five, featuring two future NBA All-Stars in Chris Webber and Juwan Howard, wore the same type of shorts as Jordan did—ESPN, in a documentary about these five Michigan freshman, featured their shorts on a promotional poster. And in that same documentary, the Fab Five explained why they wore the long shorts:

They wanted to be like Mike.

Bonus fact: The fifth floor of the Supreme Court of the United States has a gym—one which includes a basketball net. It’s jokingly called “the highest court in the land.”

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