If it wasn't for a case of bursitis in Allen Iverson's right elbow, the arm sleeve might not have ever been the fashion phenomenon that it became. In 2001, with Iverson dealing with elbow pain, Philadelphia 76ers trainer Lenny Currier decided to improvise and cut up a sleeve to lessen the pain Iverson was feeling in his shooting arm. In his arm sleeve debut, Iverson scored 51 points on Jan. 21, 2001, against the Toronto Raptors:
Per Jay Caspian Kang of The New Yorker, after the debut of the arm sleeve, Under Armour (described in the story as a "nascent sportswear company," which tells you how long ago that was) reached out to Currier and gave Iverson a customized nylon sleeve, proof that anything popular in sports and culture can and will be commercialized. The UA arm sleeve was stitched together by hand by an elderly lady, who, according to Currier, received an autographed jersey from Iverson because he loved it so much.
In the years since, the arm sleeve has demonstrated very strong staying power, both for its practical use and as a fashion statement. Per a 2008 business report from Darren Rovell, an NBA spokesperson revealed that the best non-apparel item sold by the league were shooting sleeves. This was more than a half-decade after Iverson first popularized it.
Also, an esteemed list of players in the NBA has donned the arm sleeve as part of the player's aesthetic, including LeBron James, Kobe Bryant, Carmelo Anthony, Russell Westbrook, Dwight Howard, Dwyane Wade, Kyrie Irving and Paul George.
Iverson is the clear-cut No. 1 choice here, but since we can't devote the entire space to the Answer, and because LeBron has his own history with all kinds of different sleeves, and because the black sleeve he wore during his Miami Heat days complimented the entire villain aesthetic of the Heatles, I'll give my vote to him.
The wrinkle in LeBron's relationship with the arm sleeve is that he doesn't wear it every single game. In 2005, the folks from the NBAAAY Tumblr put together an infographic analyzing how LeBron's shooting percentages varied depending on what accessories he wore. The conclusion? The head band and right arm sleeve combination was the best for him (my other conclusion: LeBron is pretty good regardless of what he wears).
While the arm sleeve might work for LeBron, he's not a fan at all of the sleeved jerseys, which he famously ripped apart during a game against the Knicks in 2015.
Another great use of the arm sleeve? As a giveaway to fans after games, which LeBron has done.
The arm sleeve isn't just restricted to the NBA, and we'd like to nominate Robert Griffin III for the who wore it worst award just because he is responsible for one of the most hilarious arm sleeve-related moments in sports history. Back in 2014, Griffin was asked about his arm sleeve and decided to post a full-length response on Facebook. As you know, anytime a Facebook post goes beyond three paragraphs, it's bad news:
Redskins QB Robert Griffin III issued a statement through Facebook to his fans and critics >> pic.twitter.com/XoG1NDcNH6— NFL on ESPN (@ESPNNFL) January 13, 2014
Griffin then committed the double online faux pas of defending a Facebook post and putting up a photo caption response:
Answer a fan question on Facebook & it is reported as an "issued statement to critics and fans".....SMH. Not the case people.— Robert Griffin III (@RGIII) January 13, 2014
Not that anyone is keeping track but Ray Allen's iconic three-pointer against the Spurs might go down as the greatest sports moment involving a beautiful shot of an arm sleeve. What a beautiful photo.
Going back to Iverson, in the New Yorker piece by Kang, Scoop Jackson made a very practical observation about the arm sleeve and how it helped Iverson: "Allen was always a great scorer, but he wasn't a great shooter. There wasn't room for error in his shot, so they needed something that was light enough that it wouldn't affect his motion at all."
Even though the arm sleeve exists as a fashion statement, it will endure because some of the best players have tried it in the NBA, grown comfortable with it and succeeded. This is not an item just for the aesthetic of mediocre players. Some of the game's best have embraced it, and many of this generation's players grew up idolizing someone like Iverson, so if they can't emulate his game, emulating his look is the way to go.
With overall technological advances, the arm sleeve will also continue to evolve. In 2013, a startup called Vibrado Technologies developed a sleeve that actually gives instant feedback, with sensors that measure the arc, angle and momentum of every shot. In addition, padding has been added to the sleeves, on the elbows and beyond, and the sleeve concept has been extended to the legs as well.
You can expect arm sleeves to continue evolving. But ultimately, if it looks good, and feels good, athletes will continue to wear them.
Over a decade and a half after it was popularized by Iverson, the arm sleeve is still going strong and very much a part of the everyday sports aesthetic.