Twenty years ago, basketball was more physical. There was holding and grabbing. Play was slower, and more methodical. But then, the rules changed. Shifts to calls on illegal defense (stemming from deregulation of zone defense) and a reduction of allowance of hand checking meant that play got faster and more fluid. In step, players have adapted, becoming incredibly versatile and making quicker decisions. Teams started playing smaller lineups, and the wide-open offenses once unique to a few franchises have become the new benchmark. “From how the athletes move to the positions they play — even their body types are completely different today than they were five to 10 years ago,” says Kurt Parker, Nike VP of Apparel Design. “That’s why we wanted to dramatically evolve both the performance and look of the uniforms.”

This mission was top of mind when Nike's partnershipwith the NBA was cemented in June 2015. Nike designers went to work immediately building the new uniform with the goal to minimize distractions by keeping the athletes cool, dry and completely mobile — all in an updated sleek look. They had 25 years of institutional knowledge to build on and were approaching a once-every-four-years opportunity to get feedback from the world’s greatest athletes: the Rio games.

There, the players debuted the Nike Vapor uniforms that featured high-performance knit jerseys and shorts built with Nike AeroSwift technology. The kit was Nike Basketball’s most advanced to date. “Still, it was our starting point,” says Parker. “To prepare for the NBA, we had to re-examine every part of that uniform, and we’ve changed pretty much everything since Rio.”  

Nike engineers and designers focused their re-examination on three areas: movement, thermoregulation and fit. In terms of movement, third-party sport researchers gathered data that showed that no athlete moves quite as diversely as a basketball player. During an average game, a player may cover more than four miles with full-speed bursts that last about 1.6 seconds. An athlete can change directions every two seconds, totaling 1,000 per game. Some jump up to 42 times with an average liftoff time of .16 seconds. “Basketball is a game of transition more than any other sport,” says Parker. “A player will go from sitting on the bench to sprinting top speed to jumping as high as he can within seconds.”

To figure out exactly how to create a uniform that would run, cut and jump with each player, as well as to gather information on temperature regulation, the team put in countless hours of rigorous testing, including everything from snag and burst testing to pilling and wash testing, as well as creating atlas maps — a process that involves taking a digital body scan to evaluate sweat zones, contact zones and where basketball players need full range of motion. “We’ve used atlas mapping before, but this is the first time we've done it specifically for NBA athlete body types,” says Parker.

Designers overlaid the three atlas maps to understand how to design a uniform in three dimensions. For example, the maps indicated that the chest produces sweat and it's a cling zone. “You’ll see guys constantly trying to pull their jerseys off of their chest — LeBron does it all the time,” explains Parker. “So, we realized that we needed to figure out a way for the jersey to wick the sweat without it being too baggy or too tight.”

Because the team was working with an engineered knit fabric, they were able to program the knit structure to create a three-dimensional zone to allow air to flow through, and placed tiny nodes on it to help prevent it from sticking to the skin.