Even when he wasn't trying to be, Allen Iverson was a basketball trailblazer.
In a piece in the New Yorker, Jay Caspian Kang describes how the former 76ers superstar once needed a solution to a nagging case of bursitis. It was the middle of Iverson's stellar 2001 season, and he had developed swelling in his shooting elbow.
Lenny Currier, then the trainer of the Philadelphia 76ers, fashioned a piece of tube bandage into an arm sleeve and gave it to Iverson to wear one night. Iverson scored 51 points that game and liked the sleeve so much that he wore it for the rest of the year. That season he led the 76ers to the NBA Finals and won the league's MVP award.
“Allen was always a great scorer,” longtime basketball writer Scoop Jackson told Kang. “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.”
Iverson wore the sleeve for the rest of his career, and other players quickly followed suit. Now, LeBron James, Kobe Bryant, Carmelo Anthony and a handful of other All-Stars rarely take the court without a sleeve. While it is a necessity for some players, for others it's simply a fashion statement. According to Kang, half of the starters in the Miami Heat-Brooklyn Nets series wear a sleeve.
While the sleeve may help prevent elbow swelling, some have suggested that it works primarily as a placebo. When players wear it they think they have less of a chance of getting injured, when really the science behind the sleeve remains unclear.