Let’s first admit that the uniforms worn by America’s professional sports teams are, generally speaking, awfully designed. You can attribute that to lots of causes: Owners with no taste; owners without the sense to hire good designers; and of course a rage-y, socially networked, and hidebound public. So it’s downright miraculous when good work nonetheless rises out of all that muck. Make no mistake: The uniforms that the Memphis Grizzlies will wear in January to honor MLK Day are great work.
It would have been all too easy to create a jersey that simply featured a logo of King or an awareness ribbon. Sports teams do it all the time. But the Grizzlies jersey is designed in a subtle but devastating nod to a real place: The Lorraine Motel, where King was assassinated and which now lives on as a museum. The black, of course, represents mourning and respect. However, the other details include the piping on the jersey and shorts, which echoes the motel’s walkway railings; the teal accent color, which replicates the motel’s painted doors; and the typeface, which blends both the Lorraine’s signage and the Grizzlies’s logotype. The final detail, just at the neckline, is an icon representing the wreath which now hangs on the motel’s facade, marking the place where King was shot and killed.
The brilliance of the design lies in the concreteness of those references. By nodding not to idea, but to the true-to-life site of tragedy, the jersey doesn’t let any abstractions muzzle its message. Instead, the jersey remains firmly planted in the simple horror of what happened. It’s rooted in a place that you’d otherwise never think about. In doing so, it lends a fresh eye to the man himself, a person so famous that his real life hides in plain sight. Few memorials, whether they’re buildings or benefits or statues, ever come close to achieving that—not to mention sports jerseys.