Growing up in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, in the late ’90s, Antwan Staley’s greatest concern on a school day was how soon he could ball. The moment the bell rang, he rushed straight to the nearest basketball court. If he went home first, he knew he’d get roped into housework or studying, so he was always dressed to play — with a pair of mesh gym shorts underneath his jeans.
“It was just easy access after school,” he tells MEL today. “You’d take your pants off and start hoopin’.”
Wearing three layers of padding — often, Fruit of the Loom boxers, Champion gym shorts and Marc Ecko jeans — sounds like an impractical fashion trend. And yet that signified cool for a cool, sports-obsessed kid two decades ago. It was an alternative to the frosted-tips dude, the JNCOs dude, the fedora dude. What did it matter if you could actually shoot a three or dribble between your legs? In seconds, you could rip your pants off and transform from prepubescent twerp to Jalen Rose or Kobe Bryant.
Curiously, given the rise of athleisure and the ongoing 2000s style revival, basketball shorts under jeans have yet to make a comeback. Scrunchies, matching tracksuits, white socks and chunky sneakers are gracing runways and for sale on Gen Z thrifting app Depop. Is it only a matter of time before guys start wearing gym shorts under their chinos to play ping-pong in the WeWork?
That extra layer of padding might’ve been hot — ball sweat is always on a guy’s radar — but it sure was a boon when you had no ass. Skinny dudes could literally build a booty with a sufficiently chunky poly knit between their Levi’s and Hanes. It still works: In 2017, Brandon Zaboklicki, a 25-year-old from the suburbs of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, started rocking shorts under his jeans after losing a belt on vacation. He was too lazy to get a new one, so he got creative to hold up his pants — which were “too big like a parachute.” The unintentional benefit: an ass so fat.
“You know that pic of Donald Trump where it looks like he’s wearing a diaper golfing? Like that, but not as bad,” he describes. “[I] just looked thick.” (And hey, those three layers become makeshift snow pants to keep you warm in the winter.)
Another benefit? If you balled hard during your lunch break and then ran to English before the bell rang, the shorts helped mask a certain middle school boy stench. “I’m sure I got my underwear sweaty in the gym a couple times and forgot a spare and wore shorts out of necessity for the rest of the day,” says Chandler Lawley, a 23-year-old from Beaumont, Texas. (Other guys seem to prefer the feeling of gym shorts on their bare junk in more private moments.)
The different styles of shorts became statement pieces. If you really wanted to be a player on and off the court, you rocked a pair of red shorts. “It attracts a more rambunctious kind of person,” says Varcee Nzaro, a 24-year-old who sagged his jeans below his gym shorts at high schools in both Florida and Michigan. To him, the shorts were a statement: I can alley-oop on you, so you don’t want to fight me. “I wouldn’t do either of those things,” Nzaro confesses, “but if I had to, I would’ve been prepared for it!”
The look also prevented that distinctly adolescent fear of changing in public. But these guys are now full-fledged adults who can make time to swap bottoms between their day jobs and a pick-up game at the YMCA — if they’re still balling at all. “I’m 35; I haven’t played basketball in so long now, but if I were going to play basketball, I would just put on the shorts,” says Staley, now a sportswriter in Charlotte, North Carolina.
But back in the day, Staley sagged. The 2000s were an era of much looser clothes, compared to the skinny and cropped jeans that define the current decade. Years of influencers made drooping pants synonymous with a laid-back persona: Kris Kross, Ice-T, 50 Cent, Lil Wayne and Sisqo, to name a few.
Though sagging hasn’t fully dropped to the wayside, it’s actually been the subject of legal crackdowns. Several states, including Florida and Louisiana, banned sagging pants in a thinly veiled effort to police the black community. (“Black men made up 96 percent of the 726 arrests for sagging pants in Shreveport since the law passed in 2007,” reports USA Today.) The Louisiana law was finally suspended after a police officer shot a black man while attempting to stop him for sagging.
Despite the police state’s worst intentions, the look never quite went away. Former middle school ballers, now in their 20s, tell MEL they still wear gym shorts under their jeans even though their days playing pickup are long gone.
One Gen Z guy — Jason, a 20-year-old in Queens — started balling in middle school and simply never ditched the look. While gym shorts with jeans aren’t yet on a fashion comeback, the look is a timeless piece of wearable nostalgia. “Honestly,” Jason admits, “if I do wear pants without the shorts, it feels weird.”