MIAMI -- What's up with the sleeves? It all started 10 years ago, when Allen Iverson protected a bum elbow with a padded sock-like garment.
Before long, players all around the NBA -- and eventually college and high school -- were showing up at games with one arm in a compression sleeve. LeBron James wears one. Dwyane Wade wears one. Five players on the University of Miami men's basketball team wear them.
Kobe Bryant has worn one. So have Vince Carter, Ray Allen, Carmelo Anthony and Dwight Howard. Needless to say, the sports equipment companies took note. They now come in a rainbow of colors. They come with logos. Someday, maybe they will come with tattoos.
And women wear them, too. The University of Miami's Riquna "BayBay" Williams, the leading scorer in the Atlantic Coast Conference, doesn't leave home without one. Neither does her teammate Stefanie Yderstrom.
Does the ubiquitous sleeve really keep the arm muscles warm, reduce swollen elbows, and stabilize the shooting motion, as advertised, or is it just a fashion statement that will someday fade like wristbands, headbands and tights? Do players really need them, or do they use them as a psychological crutch?
Both, says Heat trainer Jay Sabol.
"When Allen Iverson started wearing it, it was for a purpose -- to keep elbow swelling down and protect it from further injury -- and then he sparked a fad," Sabol said. "From a sports medicine perspective, the sleeve does offer a little bit of compression, keeps the joint warm and can be fitted with a pad to protect the elbow from further injury when players dive on the floor. That's mainly why Dwyane wears one, because of the physical nature of his game. But for many athletes, it's more that they like how it looks and feel good wearing it."
And if an athlete feels good wearing something, they should wear it, he said.
"(Former Heat trainer) Ron Culp told me if a player wants to rub peanut butter on his arms because he thinks it makes him shoot better, you go out and buy a big jar of Jiffy," Sabol said. "At this level, a lot of it is what makes athletes feel better, how they can get an edge, within the confines of the league and the rules."
Wade wears his sleeve on his left arm, his non-shooting arm. He said he first wore it during the 2006-07 season for extra protection after an elbow injury and got used to it.
"I like to keep my shooting arm as free as possible, and the sleeve would get in the way of my shot, but I like wearing it on the other arm because I feel it keeps that elbow from getting banged up," Wade said. "I take a lot of hits and dive for a lot of loose balls, so I need all the padding I can get. But I think some guys out there just wear the sleeve as a fashion statement. They like how it looks."
James has been wearing a sleeve on his shooting arm fairly regularly since injuring his elbow last season. He said he gives Iverson all the credit for the fad, and within NBA locker rooms, the sleeve is known as "The A.I. Sleeve." James agrees the benefit might be as much psychological as physical.
"There are a lot of superstitions, and guys wear things because they feel good and they think it makes them play better," James said. "It's kind of like Rip Hamilton's mask. He feels he can't be as good without it. Other guys feel they can't be as good without their compression sleeve. Once you get used to something, it makes you feel comfortable. And for me, it does compress the elbow, hold it all in, and that makes it feel more secure out there."
University of Miami guard Durand Scott is superstitious about equipment. He started wearing a knee pad on his shooting elbow in high school after an injury, and once he got used to it, he thought it actually helped his shooting motion. The one game he didn't wear a compression sleeve this season, on the road at Duke, he had his worst shooting night.
"I left my arm sleeve in my hotel room and didn't realize it until we got to the arena," Scott said. "So, I played without it. But it felt kind of strange. I'm not saying that's why I missed my shots, but I do feel more comfortable with it than without it. Plus, I like how it looks. I'd say as many guys wear it for looks as for injuries."
The NBA and NCAA have rules prohibiting athletes from wearing compression sleeves and other equipment purely for show, but as long as the athlete and trainer agree the sleeve helps protect from arm injuries, the athlete is allowed to wear it.
At the University of Miami, there are orange sleeves, green sleeves, white sleeves and even sleeves decorated with Sebastian the Ibis.
"There are no rules on colors of the sleeves, except that they have to match the uniforms," Hurricanes trainer Wes Brown said. "But you're not allowed to write on them or decorate them any more than how they come. Some players love them, some don't.
"We give them out for players who have had elbow injuries because it does offer protection. If it makes them feel good, I have no problem with them."
Yderstrom injured her left, non-shooting elbow a few years ago and has worn the sleeve ever since because the bone is still a bit tender and gets sore every time she hits it.
"It's not so much fashion for me as that I like the same rituals before games, and now I'm used to wearing the sleeve. I feel strange without it," she said.
Williams hyperextended her shooting elbow last summer and started wearing the sleeve to protect herself from further injuries. She started out with a white one, but then noticed the men's team had fancier ones with Sebastian the Ibis, so she asked if she could have one.
"I wear it because of the injury, but as long as I'm wearing it, it's more fun if it looks good," she said. "It becomes like a good luck charm.
"Shanel (Williams, her teammate) told me if I don't shoot well, to take the sleeve off and give it to her because maybe then she'll shoot well. We joke around about it."
The one thing athletes agree on is that the sleeve keeps their arm warm.
Sometimes, too warm, Williams said.
"It gets really hot and sweaty on that arm, so I pull it down and let my arm breathe during time outs," she said. "It is funny how many people are wearing them now. It's definitely a fad."
Basketball players are just like regular people, said Heat forward James Jones, who chooses not to wear a sleeve but understands why others do.
"The better you look, the better you feel," he said. "If you think the sleeve looks good, you feel better in it, and you probably play better."