Salem Screen Printers 1987 NBA All-Star Merchandise

While Michael Jordan was leading the Chicago Bulls to their first NBA title, Salem Sportswear had rented out a vacant Volvo dealership in suburban Chicago, where about 25 of its employees worked on championship T-shirts. In addition, shirts printed in Alabama and New Hampshire factories were about to be shipped out via trucks and planes.

That process resulted in about $10 million in sales in just one week.

"As soon as that game was over, we could have had 150 presses running somewhere in the country," said Salem Sportswear co-founder Kyle Nagel. "It was like a feeding frenzy."

In the 1980s and 1990s, fans couldn't get enough of Salem's caricature shirts, which depicted players in a lighthearted and appealing way. The company created caricature shirts of athletes in each professional league, but their most famous were of the NBA championship teams, including Jordan's Bulls and the Detroit Pistons' Bad Boys.

Chicago Bulls "It was fun. It was like being on a Wheaties box," said Rick Mahorn, the power forward on the Pistons' 1988-89 championship team. "It was a good collector's piece for fans and also guys who played the game."

Although many sports fans grew up with these shirts, Salem's co-founders -- Nagel and Keith Kennelly -- grew up next to each other.

In the fourth grade, the family of Kennelly, who is now 60, moved next door to Nagel, 59, in Salem, New Hampshire, the town for which their company was named. They played hockey together at local rinks and football in the yard.

"We would be in his pool and those kind of things," Kennelly said. "We were friends forever."

At the age of 17, Nagel joined the Navy and traveled throughout Europe. Kennelly would send him letters. In one postcard he suggested creating a T-shirt company, which they started in 1980 and was then called Salem Screen Printers.

Though they played sports together, music was their first love. And because back then fans couldn't get shirts of their favorite bands except by ordering them from the back of Rolling Stone, the duo found a niche printing shirts for The Clash and sold ones of the Talking Heads, Elvis Costello and The Jam at concerts.

"It could have easily gone that way where we concentrated on rock shirts," Kennelly said. "It morphed into sports."

***

The mid-1980s represented the peak of the Boston Celtics-Los Angeles Lakers rivalry, and being located in New England, they were at the epicenter of the Bird-Magic craze.

Los Angeles Lakers Bill Fickett, an electrician who also ran FHM Sports Group, walked into their store in 1985. He had created a popular T-shirt that said: "The Massachusetts State Bird" and depicted Larry Bird as a bird dribbling a basketball -- but without team or NBA logos -- and needed help on a T-shirt promotion for Burger King.

Kennelly and Nagel eventually scraped together enough money to buy out Fickett's partners. Together they all sent the company to new heights as the NBA was actively trying to market its players.

Bill Marshall, the vice president and general manager of the NBA's consumer products department, asked if they wanted a license, and official licenses with Major League Baseball and then the National Football League followed.

In addition to the caricatures, Salem created shirts with a team's championship rings and another with 3-D-looking NFL helmets. It even made pennants with player caricatures.

Salem's most well-known product, the NBA championship T-shirts, had a caricature of every player on the roster and the head coach. As the playoff pool winnowed, Nagel would meet with the general managers of each NBA team and eventually print them samples. Each team got 1,000 shirts, and each player received 144.

Pittsburgh Penguins

The apex of the company came during the Jordan years when the Bulls wore Salem shirts at their championship parades in Grant Park.

Quentin Richardson, who grew up in Chicago and played at DePaul before embarking on a 13-year NBA career, owned one of Salem's Bulls championship T-shirts.

"They were cool," said Richardson, who now plays in the BIG3 league.

Nagel met Bulls forward Scott Williams and paid him to wear them, which got other players hooked.

That's just one example of the deals Nagel brokered while in charge of the sales and marketing. Meanwhile, Kennelly ran Salem's facilities.

"He was more of an at-home guy, and I was more of a roadie," Nagel said. "We complemented each other."

***

Nagel and Kennelly lacked an artistic background, and neither drew any of the caricatures themselves. Larry Johnson of The Boston Globe did many of the early drawings, and Kennelly and Nagel even ventured to New York City to find others.

"We were always on the look(out) for the artists," Kennelly said. "We tried all kinds and all different people."

While employing about 40 or 50 artists on staff, the two friends turned a company that started on the back porch of Nagel's mother's house into a publicly traded one that had about 2,000 employees in three states, $100-plus million in annual sales and licenses from the four major sports.

Howe, Gretzky

In October 1993, Fruit of the Loom -- with help from Berkshire Hathaway -- bought Salem from Kennelly and Nagel for $136.4 million. 

Nagel said he would make that same decision again. 

"It was a no-brainer," he said. "We also saw the window shortening." 

Sportswear was becoming over-licensed and too commoditized. More lucrative footwear companies with greater inventory space started signing exclusive deals with professional leagues. That contributed to another popular sports brand, Starter, declaring bankruptcy in the late 1990s.

Pro Player Apparel, the sports apparel arm of Fruit of the Loom that produced coats similar to the Starter jackets, integrated Salem into its product line. Pro Player also had the naming rights from 1996 to 2005 for the South Florida stadium that was home to the Miami Dolphins, University of Miami football and the Orange Bowl.

A year after Fruit of the Loom filed for bankruptcy in 1999, Perry Ellis brought Pro Player, starting a convoluted chain of events.

Larry Bird Night Currently, Perry Ellis is the brand owner/licensor of Pro Player while United Legwear & Apparel is the master licensee, but that agreement will be reviewed in 2021, when the term ends.

With high-tier stores showing less interest, Pro Player is being sold at Family Dollar stores, and those items do not have the caricatures on them. 

One of the founders of those caricature shirts, Nagel, is now semi-retired. He ran eight different businesses, including movie theaters, and sold 65 Planet Fitness franchises to a private equity company.

Though Nagel has not held onto his Salem Sportswear shirts, Kennelly still has many.

"He's a packrat," Nagel joked. "He's like the Smithsonian of Salem."

Kennelly posts pictures of old Salem T-shirts on his Instagram page. He also owns Retroplanet.com, which sells nostalgic products online, including decals, wall décor and licensed Coca-Cola products.

Not only are such pieces from the past popular, there could be a market for creative sports T-shirts today. Nagel called the current merchandise "embarrassing."

Dream Team

"I'm surprised no one's out there trying to do that ... I'm shocked actually because nowadays with the techniques of printing it would be so much nicer than what we were doing," Nagel said. "There's opportunity for a young entrepreneur."

Nagel and Kennelly were young entrepreneurs themselves -- in their mid-20s -- during Salem's heyday, but they attributed their success to their employees, most of whom were even younger.

"We were blessed to have those kids," Nagel said. "The camaraderie was second to none."

Having known each other for more than 50 years, the co-founders of Salem Sportswear remain close. They chat often and get together about twice a year, but now the focus is on their families rather than their clothing, which once captured a sports era.

"The timing was perfect," Kennelly said. "We had a lot of good times for sure."

James Worthy

-- Follow Jeff Fedotin on Twitter @JFedotin.