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Wizards making fashion statement

- The Washington Times - Friday, October 20, 2006

Scoring points and grabbing rebounds are great in basketball, but what does it matter if you don't look great in the process?

The Washington Wizards last night offered fans a glimpse of the team's most recent contribution to the NBA fashion landscape, unveiling new alternate jerseys featuring bronze-toned tops and black shorts.

The uniforms, to be worn periodically this season in addition to the traditional home and road attire, are a striking departure from the bright blue or white commonly donned by the team.

"It's a good look for us," forward Caron Butler said after modeling the uniform with teammates in front of several hundred fans inside Verizon Center. "I like the black shorts. ... I just gotta get some shoes to go with them."

The Wizards will wear the uniform Nov. 18, when the team plays Cleveland at home.

The Wizards' new uniform is their first new alternate uniform. The team has worn three "throwback" uniforms, including a 1978 Washington Bullets uniform during select games of the 2002-2003 season, and has shown off Baltimore Bullets uniforms each of the past two years.

"In recent seasons we've celebrated the franchise's history by wearing 'throwbacks' to past seasons -- including the championship season of '78," team president Susan O'Malley said. "After celebrating where we've been, now we want to enjoy the moment and highlight a new generation of stars in Washington. I think our new uniforms will help our great players look even greater."

The uniforms feature black and white stripes and stars on the shoulders and the bottom of the shorts, an homage to the old Bullets uniform.

"To be compared to that team ... that's big," Butler said.

Alternate uniforms are en vogue across the NBA. The Charlotte Bobcats introduced new alternate blue uniforms in August. Last year, the Boston Celtics unveiled an alternate dark green uniform accented with black. And this year, the Toronto Raptors are wearing new red road uniforms inspired by an alternate uniform from last season.

Alternate uniforms aren't exclusive to the NBA, either. Baseball teams, including the Pittsburgh Pirates and Oakland A's, began wearing alternate uniforms in the 1970s, and NHL teams introduced new designs in the 1990s. Some jerseys have proven to be wildly popular; the Washington Capitals, for instance, unveiled an alternate jersey in 1999, and now use it as part of their permanent road uniform. Other jerseys have been busts; the St. Louis Blues once introduced a vibrant third jersey that was rejected by the team's coach and general manager.

The NFL was late to the alternate jersey party, adopting a third-jersey rule in 2002. Several NFL teams now have all-black or all-red alternate uniforms. The Redskins introduced an alternate 1960s-style uniform for the 2002 season, but do not currently have a third alternate. Some NFL teams including the Chiefs, Rams and Buccaneers do not have alternate uniforms but sell alternate jersey designs to fans.

To some observers, the introduction of new alternate jerseys is often a clear attempt by teams to sell more merchandise.

"My own feeling is that the only thing that should dictate what we see on the field is what looks good there, as opposed to saying 'What can we sell, OK that's what they should wear,' " said Paul Lukas, a frequent commentator on sports uniforms, and operator of the "Uni Watch" Web log. "Obviously, it's a business and marketing decision, and it gets fans to buy a new jersey."

But, Lukas said, teams often use the uniforms to test fans interest in making a change.

"It's also about testing the waters to see if fans will respond to different extensions of your brand," he said.

The Wizards new uniforms were generally well-received by fans.

"I didn't know what to expect," said David Roberts, a Frederick, Md., resident who attends several games each year. "I think they're pretty cool -- flashy."

Javon Middleton, a season ticket-holder from Hagerstown, Md., said he couldn't wait to buy the jersey when it become available in stores.

"It's pretty nice, I like it a lot," Middleton said. "It's going to turn [the fans] out."

Lukas said the Wizards' new alternate uniforms are unique in the NBA, because the shorts and jersey are different colors.

"I am intrigued by this alternate because the idea of mismatched jerseys and shorts is very old-school," he said. "I'm very curious how this will be received by the fans. It's very different."

Whether the alternate uniforms have any effect on the team's performance will remain to be seen. But team officials see the new color scheme as symbolic of something great.

"The color gold has a connotation of excellence, and that's what we're striving for," O'Malley said. "We now have our white home uniforms, our blue road uniforms, and this striking black and gold alternate uniform that joins a great lineage of uniforms worn by this franchise."