Basketball shorts can be worn both on and off the court. They've been a staple in fashion for years, but drama has always followed them. 

They're unique, and everything different is bound to be in the spotlight. But what makes them a trendsetter is that instead of changing throughout the years because of new performance innovations for players, it’s because the style around them has changed.

As a brief history, before the 1920s, players wore knee-padded pants. Hey, it might have picked up the ladies then, but maybe not now.

When the '20s rolled around, basketball shorts got shorter and shorter. Eventually, they stopped at only 3 inches in the 60s. 

However, it wasn't until the 80's that these shorts began to take on a life of their own.


When people played basketball in the '80s, the usual short was around 5 inches. By then, basketball fashion and the growing hip-hop genre were starting to intertwine. In 1984 Kurtis Blow had his hit "Basketball." NBA players were a source of inspiration for music and vice versa. 

Cue the legend we all know and love, Michael Jordan. Besides being an all-star, he's the one who started adding extra inches to basketball shorts. 

There are two legends to this legend. The first story goes that he kept tugging on his shorts when he joined the Chicago Bulls. So he asked the team's manufacturer to make the shorts longer. 

The other story is that he wore his old college shorts under his Bulls uniform for good luck. But it made his shorts too tight on the court. So he decided to take matters into his own hands and start the trend of baggy and long shorts! His popularity and style influenced others, like college teams!

College players were pulling their shorts down to around their hips, but their shirts wouldn't stay tucked in. So universities ordered shorts 2-4 inches longer. They were immediately a hit.


By the '90s, people had started wearing 8-inch shorts that were loose and baggy. No more tiny and tight shorts!

College players were hooked, and none so much than the Fab Five: Jalen Rose, Chris Webber, Jimmy King, Ray Jackson, and Juwan Howard. 

These college kids wore their shorts longer and baggy as MJ did! Specifically, their shorts went below the knee. They started a national movement that even caught on in the NBA. Their style influenced others and was inspired by what was around them. 

A lot of basketball style was determined by none other than the Fresh Prince of Bel Air. His loose shorts, loud graphic prints, and turned-up caps became the print for players’ street style.

Like we said before, though, there was drama. In 1997 the NBA introduced a rule that shorts had to be at least one inch above the knee. Anyone who wore shorts styled like The Fab Five would get fined.


Shorts kept getting lower and lower, even despite the (thankfully revoked) rule. Shorts now were a standard 11 inches, which was 4 inches below the knee! They looked great on the court, but while playing, they were heavy and messed with a player's aerodynamics.

Like we said before, basketball shorts changed based on style. Not on performance!

Here's the thing, though the shorts were getting longer, and the 1997 code was revoked, people kept trying to police players' fashion. 

The year is 2005, and commissioner David Stern has just implemented a dress code. It mandated that players must wear business casual attire with team or league events. This means no more casual shorts off the court. The style, which was influenced by Hip Hop, was now suppressed.

It was a censure of identity which effectively targeted black players. It limited their expression, and the rule was criticized for being rooted in racism. Something to think about when you see your favorite players courtside in suits.


In 2014 David Stern's Rule was relaxed. But by then, the mindset of the NBA players was shifting. It wasn't about expressing yourself but how can you market yourself. 

Basketball shorts started to be on the rise, literally. After that, shorts hit around the mid-thigh. Though this was a far cry from the 3-inch shorts players used to wear, the shorts started to get shorter! Although, players in 2010 still layered long leggings under their shorts.

Practicality started to be a significant player in trends. 


This brings us to now: Lebron James is promoting shorter, skinnier shorts. What goes around literally comes around. The trends are cycling, but looser shorts are still at large.

Will Lebron be the one to change the trend as Michael Jordon did before him? Who knows.

Basketball shorts are ever-changing, from the graphic basketball shorts inspired by the Fresh Prince of Bel Air to old retro ones that were 3 inches long. Players and fans are finding their style and stride as the seasons continue.

October 24, 2022 — Jeremiah Oglesby