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Mar 20, 2019

NBA Creative Director (former), Gameplan Creative CEO and Sports Design Trendsetter, Tom O'Grady.

Tom was born and raised in Chicago and graduated with a degree in Design, Marketing and Visual Communications from Columbia College Chicago in 1981. We talk about his childhood memories and the large influence that sport had on him and his family.

During the 1980s, Tom worked as an ad agency art director on the McDonald’s business. Simultaneously, McDonald’s began to devote resources to sports marketing. This was the perfect opportunity for Tom – he combined his love of sports with his passion for design. He met and worked with Michael Jordan on the memorable Large fries for “Small Fries” ad campaign and also contributed design work to the inaugural McDonald’s Open later that same year (1987).

Judy Shoemaker was the agency account director that Tom worked with on the McDonald’s Open project. In 1988, she accepted the role of Vice President, Marketing, with NBA Properties. Two years later, Judy began to recruit Tom to join her at the NBA. Commissioner David Stern named Tom O’Grady the league’s first Creative Director in 1990. Tom discusses the process that led him to leave Chicago and take up residence in New York.

We discuss the impact that well-known designer, Alexander Julian, had on the aesthetics of the expansion Charlotte Hornets (1989 season). To that point, equipment managers were largely responsible for their team’s uniform design (in concert with Medalist Sand-Knit). Tom talks about how he built the NBA’s creative services team, recruiting designers who were comfortable with the explosion in graphic design software of the early 1990s.

Tom was tasked with the creative direction for The Dream Team (1992 Olympic Games). He shares inside stories on how the now-iconic photos were created during the 1992 NBA season.

Tom was responsible for the rebrand of the Phoenix Suns (1993 season). He met with then-team president, Jerry Colangelo, and the Suns’ ownership group. We do a deep dive on the creative process. That same season, Phoenix celebrated its silver anniversary (25th season) in the NBA, Charles Barkley joined the team and the Suns met Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls in the 1993 NBA Finals.

A fascinating aspect of our conversation relates to design considerations the NBA factored in to its television broadcasts. For example, when the league received team prototypes, they would broadcast test the new uniforms at the New Jersey Nets’ home arena (The Meadowlands), to ensure colors and numbers would “read”.

1995 was a big year for the NBA and Tom. He oversaw the launch of the NBA.com website and was also vital in the Atlanta Hawks’ new logo – a hawk in flight, its claws clutching a basketball. Further, two expansion teams – the Toronto Raptors and Vancouver Grizzlies – were set to enter the league for the 1996 season. Tom was responsible for the brand identity creation of the franchises. In a future episode of the show, Tom will return to discuss (in-depth) the Raptors / Grizzlies origin story, plus, the iconic 1995 and 1996 NBA All-Star Weekend designs.

Our discussion also includes the near-rebrand from the New Jersey Nets to the New Jersey Swamp Dragons. We talk about Zach Lowe‘s excellent ESPN piece that detailed the proposed identity change.

We round out the episode by talking about Tom’s all-time favourite NBA uniforms, his crucial role as brand architect for the WNBA’s launch in 1997. All this and plenty more in one of the best conversations I’ve had yet.

Topics / links discussed (include):

* A would-be secondary logo for the Chicago Bulls?

* The rebranded Phoenix Suns uniform (debuted in 1993 season)

* 1995 and 1996 NBA All-Star Weekend

* What if?! The Nets were almost the New Jersey Swamp Dragons!

 

People mentioned in this episode, include: Chris Tripucka, Florence Griffith-Joyner, Rick Welts, Don Sperling, Peter Capolino, Dick Sakahara, Andrew Bernstein, Anne Occi, David Haney, & David Boss.

 

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