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The history of basketball logos

A logo defines a company or organization. It is what people can quickly see and immediately recognize your brand, and in no industry is that more true than in sports. Sports logos go back to the earliest days of any kind of sports teams. Logos were seen from the seals and crests monarchs and nobles used during the medieval period, which themselves may have come from Roman imperial crests.

The earliest logos which are associated with sports come from the ancient Athenian Olympic games. Athletes from various guilds and towns would wear something to show solidarity with others from their region. One of the earliest examples of this was an ancient Lesbosian who painted a symbol on his body to signify that he was from the Island of Lesbos. Roman gladiators too had symbols and logos which were district from one and other. In the ruins of the city of Pomeii there is some graffiti which seems to have been done to show support for someone's favorite gladiator.

With the rise of organized sports in the latter half of the 19th century, teams started having simple designs to tell teams apart. This became important in college sports as often times many of these early events had several schools competing.

One of the first examples of a logo for a basketball team occurred in 1896, just 5 years after the invention of the sport, when the Brigham Young Academy (Now Brigham Young University) played the University of Utah in a women's basketball game to celebrate Utah's statehood. BYA's women's team embroidered the letter Y on their uniforms so that they could stand out from the Utah team as both teams wore the same color of uniform. The game ended with a 0-0 tie after just a few minutes because of a skull fracture to a player.

The Utah vs BYA game may not be the first instance of basketball teams using logos, but it is the oldest written account that survives. The following year however, the first real professional league, the first NBL, started playing and there are some accounts of logos and design for those teams.

The Camden Electrics may have been the first professional basketball team with branding of a logo. The Electrics had capitol C as their logo and did sell souvenirs at their games.

Companies have also long used logos in marketing, and as basketball moved into the corporate sponsored leagues a lot of logos began to be corporate logos. This is very evidence in the Midwest Basketball Conference of the 1930s. The Flint Dows, and Fort Wayne General Electrics used the Dow Chemicals and General Electric logos as their logos.

By the 1910s most basketball teams had a logo associated with them. Usually the logo was just a letter associated with the team, such as the Electrics with the capital C. The letters were usually capitolized and most of the time were associated with the first letter of the home city; so a team from Boston would use a B, a team from Chicago would use a C and so fourth. There were some odd exceptions however, as some teams would use symbols for their logos.

One of the more common early basketball symbols used for a logo was the swastika. Long before Adolph Hitler and the Nazi party made the emblem synonymous with hate, it was a popular choice for basketball teams. The swastika was used often by non-white teams, and was the primary logo for a barnstorming team of American Indians in Oklahoma and north Texas until the 1930s. However, with the rise of Nazism the logo was quickly discarded and now is banned.

Most logos were not very elaborate, usually consisting of just letters and maybe a small design. Few of these logos survive in the basketball world as most basketball teams have either changed their logos or did not exist in the early days. However, these more spartan logos can still be seen in the NFL and MLB – for example look at the NFL's Green Bay Packers and Chicago Bears. Both the Bears and Packers have kept their simplistic logos. In baseball the New York Yankees and Cincinnati Reds have kept their simple logos.

The primary reason for simple logos was money. It cost a lot of money to put designs on uniforms, and many teams simply did not have the money for that unnecessary expense. At the time most uniforms were hand sewn, so stitching on a design would be incredible hard.

For the more successful teams and leagues logo design did become more complex in the 1930s. This can again be seen in the Midwest Basketball Conference, as teams like the Chicago Duffy Florals had fairly elaborate logo designs.

As the MBC evolved into the National Basketball League logos did get more complex, even the corporate teams began to come out with newer more elaborate logo's. The Fort Wayne Zollner Pistons introduced their logo of a basketball player made out of pistons in the 1940s, and the Anderson Duffy Packers had a very elaborate Native American in a head dress as their logo as well.

World War II did cause teams to cut back on designs to save money. The Toledo Jeeps for instance just had uniforms that said Jeeps. Team names appearing on uniforms became a lot more common place during this time as well. Previously, uniforms had just the players number and not much else, but starting in the 1940s almost all professional teams added either the nickname or the city name to their uniform.

With the creation of the Basketball Association of America in 1946, logo's for the major professional basketball teams in the United States may have hit a peak in complexity. The Boston Celtics and New York Knicks both had people on their logos and other designs. At this time color began to be associated with logo's as well. During the 1940s most BAA and NBL team logos that had color had simple greens, yellows, reds and blues, and this color scheme stayed pretty consistent until the 1960s.

In the late 1960s a rival to the NBA, the ABA, formed and with it came a whole new slew of colors. The logos for ABA teams all did seem to contain the colors Red, White and Blue, but also other colors like Orange, and different hues and shades of primary colors.

Until the 1970s most NBA and ABA team's logos rarely contained more than 3 colors, but in 1974 the New Orleans Jazz introduced their new logo which had six different colors and soon more teams followed suit. The Jazz introducing more colors had less to do with some marketing idea and more to do with the fact that technology had gotten better to allow for more colors. Television had switched to color TV so having sharp contrasting colors just to be seen was no longer needed. The color explosion of logos for the NBA continued into the 1980s and hit a peak in the 1990s.

As basketball got more popular a teams logo was its way to make more money. The most popular teams as the league became a house hold name were the Boston Celtics, New York Knicks, Chicago Bulls and Los Angeles Lakers. Their logos are the most recognized logos in the NBA, and they are the only four teams not to significantly modify their logos since the 1970s.

Once reserved only for relocations, the 1990s seen a slew of logo changes. From 1992 to 2002, 18 of the 30 NBA teams significantly modified or all-together changed their logo. Of the 10 that did not change their logo, 4 with the teams previously mentioned and 6 were expansion teams, and the other two were the Los Angeles Clippers and Indiana Pacers.

As the 2000s rolled around and the age of the internet, teams began changing their logos more and more often. For instance the Jazz were had barely altered their logo from 1974 until 1996, only changing the city name from New Orleans to Utah, have now rebanded or changed their logo 5 times and are poised to a sixth version.

Secondary logos also became a popular concept in the 2000s. A lot of these secondary logos harken back to the first logos of just a single letter for the team name,

Another recent change is teams going back to their classic logos from the 1970s and 80s. This is most evident with the Golden State Warriors who have been using the bay bridge logo again.

The changes in logos will continue because unlike in the past where a rebrand cost a lot of money, today a rebrand makes teams a lot of money – even if like the Jazz you can't get it right. So expect newer and more complex logos in the future only to be taken back to the past.