Ben Simmons was wrapping his first month as an active NBA player when he asked Philadelphia 76ers equipment manager Scott Rego who picked out the team's jerseys -- and why the Sixers never wore black anymore. Simmons grew up in Australia with a poster of Allen Iverson wearing the black, red and gold uniforms the Sixers used for the better part of a decade -- including their run to the Finals in 2001. Simmons wanted to wear them too.
Rego told Simmons to take it up with Chris Heck, the team's president. Heck has lived in Philadelphia for more than 30 years. He loved almost everything about the Iverson era.
"The one thing that always drove me nuts were those silly black uniforms with red and gold," Heck said. "How could we become the Pittsburgh Pirates?"
When Heck landed a job with the Sixers in 2013, he vowed never to bring back the black uniforms. He encountered opposition among younger team employees. Heck fought it off as long as he could, including in the design of the gray "Rocky"-themed alternates the Sixers used last season, but he knew he would have to relent.
Simmons would not drop it.
"I took it upon myself to bring back the black jersey," Simmons told ESPN over email.
After that locker room tip from Rego, Simmons tweeted the idea at Heck -- a clever way of getting the public on his side. (The tweet has since been deleted.) Heck replied that Simmons could help design a future uniform if he won Rookie of the Year. He did.
Meanwhile, the 2020-21 season was coming -- marking the 20th anniversary of that Finals appearance. Younger team employees craving the nostalgia of the black jerseys saw their chance.
"That's what I want, because that's what I remember," said Desron Dorset, 33, the Sixers' vice president of business and fan development. "Iverson was that guy. And I knew from a dollars and cents perspective, if we bring those back, we hit gold."
The Sixers discussed a mirror image throwback, and some within the organization are a little worried fans expect that. They went another direction for a variety of reasons, including a determination to maintain some of the team's core color scheme.
The final Sixers' city edition jersey for 2020-21, unveiled exclusively at ESPN this morning:
The Sixers will build an accompanying court -- a challenge for them, since there is not space to store it at the Wells Fargo Center, where the Sixers are tenants. (The team will store the court off-site.)
The minimalist 76 logo at center court has been part of the team's city edition jerseys since Nike and the league unveiled that line of alternate uniforms in 2017, team officials said. It marks a nice contrast with a busier logo -- featuring a snake wrapping around the Liberty Bell -- that has sometimes adorned center court over the past few seasons.
(The snake image hides underneath the flap of the shorts in the new uniforms.)
The design wrapping around the front and back of the tops is meant to mimic Philadelphia's famous Boathouse Row along the Schuylkill River. Given the black motif, the Sixers wanted to highlight some local landmark that takes on a new life at night, Heck and Dorset said. They settled on Boathouse Row.
They initially rendered the houses using small dots instead of connected lines, seeking to evoke the lights shining off the houses; the dots did not survive heavy-duty washings, Dorset said.
On the back, player names appear beneath their numbers. When the Sixers decided upon that look early in the design process, they expected it would be radical. Player names ended up below jersey numbers for games in the Orlando, Florida, restart bubble so that social justice messaging could get the prominent spot at the top.
Mixing in four colors -- red, white, blue and black -- is a juggling act, even if the dominant one (black) relegates the others to trim status. It was not the team's intent. The first proposal to gain serious traction focused on blue and black, with red appearing only in the 76 logo at the bottom of the shorts or not at all.
The jerseys echoed Duke University's black alternates -- too closely for Simmons's taste. (One version -- the center one above -- had the team's circular logo of 13 stars on the belt buckle. The final version has the Liberty Bell there. Two had no reference to Boathouse Row; the third displayed it along the side.)
Simmons insisted on red. "He was like, 'Where's the red, man?'" Dorset said.
Red is among Simmons' favorite colors. "You have to include the blue and red," Simmons said. "Those colors are synonymous with the Sixers."
(For the record, Simmons said his favorite non-Sixers jersey is the red-and-black uniform of the Essendon Football Club -- the Bombers -- in the Australian Football League.)
Simmons also did not much like the blue "Phila" wordmark in that tilted script. Simmons pushed for the more vertical font, with heavy shadowing, he and team officials said. They added such a deep shadow, officials worried the letters might take up too much space. Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot was on the team during the early stages of the design process, and there was concern about whether his name would fit. (The team later ran a test using Shai Gilgeous-Alexander's last name, which is three letters longer than Luwawu-Cabarrot's, officials said.)
Simmons also suggested using a V-neck over a crew neck. He said he enjoyed the back-and-forth.
"It was really cool to be a part of that, and definitely something I'd do again," Simmons emailed. "This was eye-opening, seeing how long the process really is."
The team is hoping to involve Joel Embiid in the design of a uniform personal to him, if he expresses interest, Heck said.
Simmons has come to feel invested in the jerseys, and the reaction to them.
"Have to say, I felt pressure to be part of a team delivering a jersey that our fans will love, and that myself and my teammates will feel proud to wear," he said.
The most important critic understands how players might perform better when wearing jerseys they like.
"When you look good, you play good," Iverson told ESPN. (Iverson is a paid ambassador for the team.)
His review of this meld between his era and traditional Sixers' colors?
"I love 'em," Iverson said. "It's almost bittersweet. You look at them and you imagine yourself playing in them -- adding the headband, the wristband, the sleeve, trying to put your flavor on them."
Dorset's dream was bringing back the Iverson-era jersey and introducing a new black one in the same season, he said.
The team is open to revisiting an Iverson-era throwback. Teams have tended to space out throwback jerseys, and the Sixers last season brought back a slightly modified version of a jersey they used in the 1970-71 campaign. (League rules technically allow teams to use throwback jerseys -- dubbed Classic Editions -- in anniversary seasons in which the anniversary ends in 5 or 0: i.e., 25th or 30th.)
"If I have my say, we will have those Iverson 2001 jerseys back in the cycle at some point," Dorset said.