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Old School Gear

July 3, 2002 Columns No Comments

Old School Gear: For Those who Want To Be Like. . .Wes?

by Adam Shandler

Everything old is new again, at least on the sports apparel front. What, you don’t believe me? Did you happen to check out Kobe at the postgame conferences of every playoff game? The Lakers’ Number 8 flaunted a Jets’ Number 12, a Brooklyn Dodgers Number 42 and an Edmonton Oilers Number 99 (just to name a few) from his impressive wardrobe of old school sports threads. And how bout Sean “P. Diddy” Combs?” While on jury duty, the former Puffy used a New York City courthouse as his runway to show off his latest prize: a Number 41 (Tom Seaver) Mets jersey and cap. Then there’s Nike. Throughout the NBA playoffs, viewers were bludgeoned to death by the old school ABA-style commercials featuring Snoop Dogg and the P. Funk All-Stars. Yes, folks, it’s 1975 all over again. But why?

According to Andy Hyman, owner of Distant Replays, a retro sports store in Atlanta, rap culture is to thank for the surge in old school sports fashion. “(Atlanta rapper) Big Boy really started it all,” says Hyman. “One day, about three years ago, he bought 200 jerseys from me and started wearing them in his videos. Soon all the rappers started wearing them in their videos.”

Jerry Cohen, CEO of Stall & Dean, purveyors of the world-famous Ebbets Field Flannels, also feels that hip-hop culture has helped fatten the bottom line. “There has been a recent increase in popularity of retro sports items, particularly from a younger and more urban market than what we had previously been selling to.”

Let that be a lesson to all you fledgling retailers out there. Hip-hop is where it’s at. They have done for retro apparel what the Olympics did for Roots berets. But athletes have a played a huge part, too, in this retro jersey lovefest. We already touched on Kobe’s advocacy for the bygone-era sweater, but there are many, many others who’ve just gotta have that rare Virginia Squires gear. And even though some jerseys cost as much as $350 a piece, no price is too high for some players. Says Hyman, “(Houston Rockets center) Kelvin Cato is a big customer. He just spent $2000 on jerseys in one drop.”

According to Hyman, “Anything basketball sells very well. Everything from the Dr. J Nets jersey to Larry Bird, to the ’61 Jerry West Lakers jersey; (George) Gervin . . . I had a dozen Wes Unseld-Baltimore Bullets and a dozen George Mikan-Minneapolis Lakers jerseys and they sold out in two days.” But the most sought-after, must-have article? “Definitely the Nolan Ryan shirt from the Houston Astros.”

For some collectors, the trend is more visceral. Negro League and Latin League memorabilia has always sold well among buyers of those persuasions. At Stall & Dean, orders are piling up for a most unlikely throwback item. “Oddly,” Cohen says, “one of our hottest selling items now is the Philadelphia Hebrews 1930s-era basketball tank-tops.”

Does that mean that my #15 jersey from my Jewish Youth League days might actually be worth something? Hey, I can dream can’t I?

Here’s an indication of how hot the vintage sports apparel biz has become in the last few years. A little over four years ago, Hyman had a kiosk at a local mall that did well but “we had our tough times. I think I got in at just the right time though.” In 2000, when Distant Replays moved into a store with walls, they raked in a modest $450,000. Then, a growth spurt. 2001 blessed the retailer with earnings that eclipsed $1 million, and this year, the company stands to pull in close to 2.5 million. And you thought being a friend of ImClone was profitable. “I’m putting my nest egg aside now”, smiles Hyman. The proud owner currently houses his stock in an 800 square foot store, but is organizing a move to a 2500 square foot facility where one level will fulfill all web-based orders alone.

The funny thing about trends . . . they tend to fade out at some point, and Cohen’s and Hyman’s glasses aren’t completely rose-colored. Cohen has traveled the peaks and valleys of this business and believes that collectors will always yen for throwback apparel . . . even if they take a break every now and again. “I expect the current surge to continue for some time. However, since we started the company in 1988, we have seen vintage sports as a trend three times now.”

“I am confident that (this trend) will continue among collectors,” says Hyman. “We’ll always have the old time fans, the sports nerds, that just want to have some piece of the good memories they had growing up as a fan of a team.”

Not too long ago, Nike released the replica college jerseys of the NBA’s hottest pros. One could step into a Foot Locker and walk out with a Jordan Carolina, a Magic Michigan State, even a Chris Webber Michigan jersey. Those are good and all but are they true old school? Will they be enough to appease the voracious appetite of the old school fan that’s now able to find older and older school? Wouldn’t you love to impress your arrogant, all-knowing sports buddies by wearing Wilt’s Kansas jersey? Dr. J’s UMass jersey? How ’bout a Walt Frazier Southern Illinois jersey? (“Oh, Adam! You’ve gone mad!” you say?) “I would love it,” Hyman says.

Ah! And you all laughed at me!

“But NCAA licensing is done on a school-by-school basis”. Foiled, by the suit-and-tie naysayers again. Yet because of the surge in popularity of retro sports fashion, “small in-roads are being made.”

I decided to find out what all the fuss was about myself. Would a piece of wearable sports memorabilia really make me feel better about myself? Possibly, and I’d be keeping alive and respecting the history of one of the greatest components of American culture: Sports. I decided not go old school, but primary school. I picked up a t-shirt emblazoned with the Syracuse Nationals logo. The Nats existed from 1949-1962 (when the NBA on NBC was NBC radio) before heading to Philly to become the Sixers. I’ve been wearing the shirt proudly since it arrived (although not to jury duty) and when people ask me why I wear the shirt of a team that hasn’t been around for forty years, I become a tour guide of years past, rattling off names and stats and doing Marty Glickman play-by-play impressions and . . .

I guess I fall into that sports nerd demographic.


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