Uniform colors have a utilitarian purpose—namely, to help us distinguish between rival clubs on game day. After all, life would get confusing fast if spectators couldn’t tell which squad was which.
At home, most North American football and hockey teams wear vibrant, multi-colored jerseys. And unless special permission to do otherwise is granted, visiting players are—again, for the most part—stuck wearing white.
Basketball reverses the trend. In both collegiate and professional contests, it’s the home team that normally dons white while their on-court guests show up in something more eye-catching. The NCAA, NBA [PDF], and WNBA [PDF] all enforce this general guideline. “Opposing team uniforms shall be of contrasting colors,” reads the official NCAA men’s basketball rule book. “The home team shall wear light game jerseys and game shorts and the away team shall wear dark game jerseys and game shorts. This rule may be altered by mutual consent of the competing institutions.”
How did this tradition start? America’s pastime probably had something to do with it.
Towards the turn of the 20th century, Major League Baseball clubs began touting dark blue, black, or (usually) gray jerseys on the road, and white ones at home. Back in those days, teams sometimes had difficulty finding laundry services outside of their own cities. So, for days on end, visiting players were often left with no choice but to wear the same, unwashed jerseys over and over. Darker outfits, therefore, helped mask the inevitable dirt and grass stains.
In its formative years, the younger sport of basketball likely stole and tweaked that custom. At every level from grade school to the pros, clubs usually honor the white-at-home, colors-on-the-road standard. Still, exceptions are out there.
Take the Los Angeles Lakers. 1967 saw the storied team adopt a radically new look. Previously, their colors were as follows: navy blue, royal blue, and white. But in that pivotal year, the club introduced its famous purple and gold chromatic scheme. Notably, the Lakers also emerged as the first NBA franchise to make non-white jerseys their standard home attire. Local fans grew accustomed to watching Jerry West and company take care of business in those now-iconic yellow unis.
Also, fans get to see a whole slew of different jersey colors and designs when a visiting team comes to town. Given how experimental the NBA can get with uniforms (sleeves?!?), a little consistency in your own back yard is much appreciated.