The NBA logo is one of the most instantly identifiable images in the whole world of sports. The story behind it, and the controversy that it has begun to create in recent years, bear closer inspection. In this article, we will tell the story of the NBA logo and its creation 53 years ago. We will also look at modern attitudes to the logo and how it still courts (pun intended) a certain amount of controversy so many years later.
Before the eventual merger of the NBA and the ABA in 1976, the direction and flavour of Basketball in America were very much in the balance. The on-court show was vitally important but both sides recognised that it was also a case of style and intelligent branding.
THE NBA LOGO WAS CREATED IN 1969 BY CONSULTANT ALAN SIEGEL
It has remained a symbol of the National Basketball Association ever since.
A year before this iconic creation, Siegel designed the Major League Baseball logo and this pleased then-commissioner Walter Kennedy. Siegel remembers the situation like this –
“COMMISSIONER KENNEDY WANTED A LOGO THAT HAD A FAMILY RELATIONSHIP WITH MAJOR LEAGUE BASEBALL BECAUSE THE NBA WAS HAVING A LOT OF TROUBLE WITH THEIR REPUTATION AT THAT TIME AND WANTED TO UPLIFT THE IMAGE.”
Seriously, take a look at each logo side-by-side and it’s not difficult to see that the same guy was responsible for both. A featureless white silhouette of a player in action against a diagonally-split red and blue background. It’s hard to imagine that such similar designs would ever be allowed to pass the board-room in these days of unique branding. But this was the late 1960s and the motivations were different in this case.
To our eyes, the similarities between the MLB logo and the NBA logo almost give the impression of being more informative than anything. It’s like they’re telling us – ‘This way for baseball, this way for basketball’ at some sports tryout venue.
WHATEVER THE MOTIVATION FOR SUCH SIMILARITIES, SIEGEL NEEDED SOME INSPIRATION FOR THE SILHOUETTE OF THE BASKETBALL PLAYER
He considered images of all-time greats such as K.A. Jabbar, Wilt Chamberlain and John Havlicek. It was the posture that Jerry West had in the photo that sold the iconic image to him in the end and he felt that it fitted the bill nicely.
This illustration was based on a cover photo of West playing for the Los Angeles Lakers that had adorned the pages of Sport Magazine, which was a popular publication in the 1960s.
Alan Siegel again –
“I LIKED THE PICTURE BECAUSE IT WAS A NICE VERTICAL AND HAD THIS MOTION TO IT. I WAS A FAN OF HIS AND HE WAS ONE OF THOSE PEOPLE WHO HAD AN IMPORTANT HISTORY IN THE NBA. BUT IN DESIGNING THE LOGO, I NEVER MENTIONED IT WAS BASED ON A PICTURE OF HIM. IT WAS JUST DISCOVERED YEARS LATER.”
NBA commissioner Walter Kennedy had no idea who the silhouette image for the potential NBA logo was based upon. But he loved it. Jerry West himself was never consulted on whether he was okay with the league using his likeness. It was decided and that was that.
Siegel explained –
“WHEN I SHOWED IT TO KENNEDY, HE ACCEPTED AND IT WAS DONE. MAYBE TOOK 30 MINUTES.”
THE RED, WHITE, AND BLUE NBA LOGO WAS BORN
Jerry West had a somewhat mixed reaction to being the logo.
Being the player who became the NBA logo seems like it would be considered a huge honor and bring great pleasure, but that was not the case.
According to Jonathan Coleman, the writer of Jerry West’s biography-
“JERRY’S PROUD TO BE THE NBA LOGO, BUT IT’S ALSO EMBARRASSING TO HIM, IN EQUAL MEASURE.”
Any pride that Jerry West found in being the chosen athlete didn’t last long and he began to resent it when the logo threatened to colour his basketball legacy. Jerry West’s basketball career was exceptional and he is one of the most significant point guards in the history of the Los Angeles Lakers.
Jerry West participated in nine NBA Finals (a staggering feat in itself) and was victorious in one of them. He made 14 appearances on the All-Star Game roster and was Finals MVP even while on the losing team. To this day, he is the only person to ever have done so. In 1980 he was inducted into the Hall of Fame and in 1996 voted one of the top 50 players of all time.
NOW, PEOPLE MEETING WEST WOULD REFER TO HIM AS “THE LOGO.”
It was already too late and the nickname stuck. And Jerry West apparently hated it.
This may very well be true. However, it doesn’t really account for the fact that Jerry West allowed the photo that inspired the NBA logo to be used as the cover of his autobiography…
But that’s another story.
Jerry West said –
“I WAKE UP AND I SEE IT. I GO TO A GAME AND I SEE IT. IT’S EVERYWHERE. I CAN’T GET AWAY FROM IT. I JUST SHAKE MY HEAD.”
“IT ALMOST FEELS LIKE I HAVE TO APOLOGIZE FOR THAT SYMBOL, IT’S NOT FUN.”
Eventually Jerry West asked the NBA to change the logo, suggesting that it might be appropriate to represent Kareem Abdul Jabbar’s skyhook or Michael Jordan’s Jump Man, but there seems to be very little enthusiasm for a change from the NBA.
It would be wise not to read too much into their reticence. The sheer amount of money and effort it would take to completely re-brand the NBA is pretty staggering. And they have never officially recognised West as the ‘model’ for the logo in any case.
The reason that many people, including Alan Siegel, give for this is that the logo itself all NBA players. If the NBA suddenly announced that it was, in fact, a representation of one white man, it would somehow diminish its universal nature and the overall appeal of how it is viewed.
THERE ARE CERTAINLY GOOD ARGUMENTS TO SUGGEST THAT IT WOULD BE MORE APPROPRIATE FOR THE LOGO TO REPRESENT AN AFRICAN-AMERICAN ATHLETE
Alan Siegel had this to say on the matter –
“IT SHOULD BE PROMOTED AS A 75-YEAR-OLD SYMBOL THAT HAS BEEN THE MASTER BRAND OF THE NBA. THIS IS A SYMBOL BASED ON HISTORY AND LONGEVITY. IT’S NOT RACIST IN ANY WAY. IT’S PROMOTING A GREAT AMERICAN GAME THAT’S PLAYED AROUND THE WORLD, BUT A GAME PEOPLE ASSOCIATE WITH AMERICA.”
Agree or not, the value of the brand as it stands is almost incalculable and as we all know, money talks.
There are certainly reasons why the logo should be changed change in order to better represent the athletes who make it what it is. This is the bigger, more valid reason for any adaptation than to bow to West’s wishes but is still highly unlikely. In terms of licensing alone, the image is worth billions.
Perhaps the strongest push towards changing the logo came due to tragic circumstances in 2020.
The death of 9 people in a helicopter that contained Kobe Bryant and his daughter among others, rocked the world. Not just the NBA world.
The idea began to circulate that the logo should be changed to represent Bryant and at first didn’t seem to make many waves. Then Kobe’s widow Vanessa Bryant gave the idea her blessing. Then Kyrie Irving posted an Instagram post with the words
‘BLACK KINGS BUILT THE LEAGUE’
Although this didn’t exactly gain a lot of traction among some of his peers, his post was praised by past and present NBA players like LaMelo Ball, Trae Young and Stephen Jackson and the discussion came right back to the forefront of the collective NBA mind.
When asked about a hypothetical logo that had Bryant in place of West, Kyrie Irving said –
“IT’S JUST A REFRESHER THAT THIS IS THE GUY FOR US, HE’S THE GUY FOR ME. HE’S MY MENTOR MORE THAN JUST AN INSPIRATION. I TOOK A LOT OF KNOWLEDGE AND WISDOM FROM THAT GUY,”
A Change.org petition that appeared shortly thereafter has already received more than 3 million signatures. There is clearly a lot of strong sentiment out there, and this suggestion received a powerful emotional response.
As we mentioned earlier – there can be no non-financial argument for not changing the logo to a black athlete. If money were not in the equation (and the league not predominantly run by white guys perhaps) then it might be that it would have happened decades ago.
BUT IT CAN NEVER BE KOBE BRYANT
Strap in folks – here’s why…
Before we enrage a significant number of you reading this, let us just state this for the record.
Kobe Bryant is one of the greatest, most important athletes ever to grace the NBA with his presence. We loved watching him play and were shocked and saddened to hear of his death along with those other 8 people under such tragic, horrific circumstances.
The fact remains, however, that Bryant was accused of rape and hard physical evidence was found that supports this accusation. This included the alleged victim’s blood on his shirt after she was found having been choked. These are facts.
No court case was ever undertaken as the alleged victim declined to testify. Perhaps due to the savage, horrendous actions of so-called fans who attacked her and demonised her for daring to report a sickening crime.
Interesting to note that a huge out-of-court settlement exchanged hands between Bryant and the alleged victim when she sued him in civil court. Wonder why he paid her? Curious.
This fact alone, and the furore surrounding the whole affair preclude him from becoming the logo.
IT’S AS SIMPLE AS THAT
We have no opinion as to whether Bryant was guilty or innocent. It’s not our place to say. We’re here to talk about basketball. But does it really seem reasonable to brand a highly-reputable, multi-billion dollar sporting franchise in the memory of a man who has credible charges of such a despicable crime against him? We can’t just cherry-pick the parts of his legacy that suit the narrative.
How would the alleged victim feel? How about other victims of sexual assault and abuse? What message does it send to them and their families?
We’re not here to besmirch the name of Kobe Bryant. We loved him, and his legendary performances on the court leave a sporting legacy that is untouchable. His tragic death came as a shock to all of us who are invested in the sport we love so much. But there are other ways that his memory can be honoured. The NBA can’t touch this one with a 100-foot pole.
IF WE WANT TO TALK ABOUT THE LEGACY OF BLACK PLAYERS IN THE NBA THEN THERE ARE NO SHORTAGE OF GROUND-BREAKING TEAMS AND INDIVIDUALS WHO DESERVE MENTION
Bill Russell is as worthy a contender as anybody. With his 11 titles still representing an NBA all-time record more than 50 years after his retirement. Russel’s history-making achievements don’t end with his staggering 11 NBA rings! He also became the first black man to be a coach in 1966, when he was still playing as the captain.
His image would also give a nod to the Boston Celtics, who were the first NBA team to draft a black player, Chuck Cooper in 1950. They were also the first team to have an all-black starting five in 1964.
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar accumulated more points than anyone during his illustrious career. His trademark ‘sky-hook’ shot would make an instantly recognisable image.
Magic Johnson and Larry Bird going at it like wild men during the 1980s brought renewed interest to the NBA and put it back on the sporting map.
LeBron James is an immaculate ambassador for the NBA who has given 2 decrees t the sport and exemplified everything it stands for.
ALL INCREDIBLY ADMIRABLE, WORTHY ICONS OF THE SPORT
And that’s before we even mention the GOAT…
Six-time champion, greatest player of all-time Michael Jordan is a game-changer. Literally and metaphorically. He made an impact on the sport that has never, and probably will never be equalled. He drove the image and interest in the NBA through into the stratosphere, where it has stayed to this day. No other athlete so instantly represents any sport, perhaps all over the world. Quite simply – the NBA would not be the globally iconic brand that it is today, were not for MJ.
The only problem? Jordan already has his own logo.
The Jordan brand is doing rather nicely. MJ and his incredible legacy have ensured that Jumpman is a huge stand-alone brand, and it would not be wise to confuse that with the branding for the NBA itself.
So the debate will rage on, it seems.
As far as we’re concerned here at The Jump Hub, the NBA’s logo is nothing more than a symbol. It contains no deeper meaning. The silhouette featured doesn’t represent Hall-of-Famer Jerry West playing any more than it does the man in the moon. It was a fairly arbitrary aesthetic decision made decades earlier and shows no disrespect whatsoever to the legion of black players who have made the NBA Championship what it is today. When people look back at NBA history it is highly unlikely that the subject will garner even the briefest of mentions.
Would a new logo be a classy nod to the achievements of all those incredible black athletes? Sure. Is the NBA experience diminished because of it? Nah.
We’ll leave the last words with the man who created the NBA logo all those years ago. When asked whether he thought the logo should be updated to reflect modern society and the sport itself, this is what he said.
“THERE WERE THOSE WHO SAID, IF IT SHOULD BE A PERSON, IT SHOULD BE MICHAEL JORDAN, OR LEBRON JAMES OR KAREEM ABDUL-JABBAR. THERE WAS A PARADE OF PEOPLE OBJECTING. WELL, YOU DON’T CHANGE SOMETHING UNLESS THERE’S A COMPELLING REASON TO CHANGE IT. THAT’S BEEN MY POSITION.”