It’s that time of year again when the stroll from the tunnel to the locker room transforms into the ultimate runway: Saint Laurent leathers, Givenchy tees, and Balmain bikers become the battle armor of the NBA’s elite. That’s right! The NBA is back, bolder, and better than any Russell Westbrook outfit. Over the years, The NBA has witnessed a remarkable transition in player style. The current relationship between players and fashion is at an all-time high, but it hasn’t always been that way.
The journey to modern NBA fashion has its roots in the decadence of the 1970s: elegant furs, extravagant dandyism, and soaring stars. Hollywood aided in this period by churning out films that popularized the image of the street kingpin look that dominated the 70s, such as Shaft and Disco Godfather. One of the true icons of this period was New York Knicks hall of fame point guard Walter “Clyde” Frazier. He revealed to GQ an ideology that’s still seen today: “What happened was, when I first started I wasn’t playing well as a rookie. So to pacify myself I used to go shopping. So I would go out buy clothes, go to my room, dress up, and look in the mirror and say, Well, I ain’t playing good but I still look good.”
During the ’80s the primary method of travel for all NBA teams was commercial flights. The players reflected the formality of air travel with proper business attire. Byron Scott stated the mindset of the players, “We wore sport coats to the airport and slacks.” The players of that decade meant business. “We were pretty serious about how we dressed,” Clyde Drexler explained. Teams implemented dress codes that dictated how to dress during these flights. One of the first pivotal moments for NBA fashion came at the end of the 1980s. Portland and Detroit were the first two teams to charter private planes for their teams. Coincidentally or not, both teams made it to the finals in 1990. After this conclusion most owners were convinced that private planes were the key to helping their teams succeed. Thus commercial flights were yesterday’s news and private planes became en vogue. Interestingly, this upgrade would radically alter NBA fashion. Players no longer traveled in a public manner, therefore they could be more expressive with their personal fashion and dress in a more casual manner. The players reveled in this new found freedom and discovered a powerful force to further influence their style: Hip Hop.
The first epoch of the 1990s was echoed through groups like A Tribe Called Quest, De La Soul, and the Jungle Brothers. These groups were colorful, loud, and heavily influenced by themes of Black Nationalism. This translated into the NBA through an infusion of African inspired prints, themes and colors. Additionally, this look would become iconicized through the styling on The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air TV show, whose cast members regularly wore Hip Hop’s first clothing brand Cross Colours. The next movement in the 1990s was the rise of gangster rap brought on by the likes of NWA, Tupac, and a litany of other hyper aggressive rhymers. This switch in Hip Hop ushered in a new attitude that was on full display in the following decade. The fashion narrative in the NBA had once again been updated to reflect the times. In the 30 for 30 documentary Broke, former baller Antoine Walker laments blowing his career NBA earnings on a seemingly endless selection of custom suits. Players had both the means and a distinct culture in which to partake. The bromance between Hip Hop and the NBA would only continue to grow over the 90s with Air Jordans becoming the de-facto sneaker for any legit rapper. The true poster child of the fashion and attitude of the the 1990s, however, wasn’t Jordan. That title belongs to non-other than The Answer – aka Allen Iverson.
2000s: Allen Iverson Schools The League
Allen Iverson crashed into the league in 1996 with a brandished swagger all his own. He fully embraced the hip hop culture: lavishly tattooed, cornrows, hoards of jewelry – or “ice”, and an unapologetic attitude to boot. Iverson was writing the sartorial handbook of the league while dominating it at the same time. The reception to this new hip hop inspired style caught many off guard during a summer trip for the 2004 Olympics US Men’s Basketball Team. While in Belgrade, “at a dinner hosted in their honor, Allen Iverson and younger teammates including LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony arrived at one of the city’s most prestigious restaurants in a variety of tracksuits, baggy jeans, platinum chains and diamond earrings.” Jason Richardson had the following to say on this excessive era of NBA fashion, “I was in the era of when guys, especially rappers, were wasting tons of money, including myself, on extravagant, unnecessary and oversized jewelry.” Ballers were making the money and spending it just as fast. It wasn’t just enough to be the best, you had to parade your wealth through external means. The early 2000s marked an era of unchecked decadence and defiance. The end result of such actions resulted in a night that would forever change the NBA.
The Punch That Created Modern NBA Fashion
Although these days he goes by the name Metta World Peace, Ron Artest wasn’t always the most gentle of players. On a nightmare of a night for the NBA, November 19, 2004, “A cup splashes off Ron Artest in the closing moments of a blowout win against the Detroit Pistons. He leaps into the stands at the Palace of Auburn Hills and into sports infamy. Mayhem follows. Players fight fans, fans fight players, a chair is thrown, bottles are tossed — in seconds, the invisible wall that separates athletes and spectators is demolished.” After this “Malice at the Palace” incident, which many label the darkest night in NBA history, Commissioner David Stern was determined to re-write the NBA’s image once and for all.
Off That: Out With Chains, In With Cufflinks
According to some, the NBA had garnered a reputation of being overridden with so-called “thugs and gangsters”. This notion combined with the fallout from the “Malice at the Palace” episode left David Stern yearning for change. Therefore, in 2005 the NBA set forth with a host of initiatives aimed at changing the perception of the league: players had to sign autographs following pre-game warmups, the NBA cares initiative, and last but certainly not least: The Dress Code, or as some heard it called – the AI rule. The Dress Code as initiated by Stern contained the following guidelines:
–A long or short-sleeved dress shirt (collared or turtleneck).
–Dress slacks, khaki pants, or dress jeans.
–Appropriate shoes and socks, including dress shoes, dress boots, or other presentable shoes, but not including sneakers, sandals, flip-flops, or work boots.
It also banned throwback uniforms and chains outside of clothes. At first players were outraged at what they perceived to be an attack against them and their culture. A.I., specifically, lamented the new code, “They’re targeting my generation – the hip hop generation.” Although the players were not in love with the new rules of dressing, there was no dissenting. Players had to re-discover how to express themselves in the new NBA fashion landscape.
Modern Era: What's That Jacket? Margiela
In 2006, Lebron James hired stylist Rachel Johnson to help elevate his look. LBJ, at the time, had all the killer moves on the court but lacked the killer fashion instinct to match. His gesture of hiring a stylist highlights the fashion game changes ocurring in the NBA, and subsequently a wave of stylists began cascading into the league. Gone were the days of baggy sweatpants and chains and in were brands like Givenchy and Margiela. Miami Heat Dwayne Wade perfectly summed up this transition period in the league, “It was like, ‘Ok, now we got to really dress up and we can’t just throw on a sweat suit…Then it became a competition amongst guys and now you really got into it more and you started to really understand the clothes you put on your body, the materials you’re starting to wear, so then you become even more of a fan of it.” What once was a game about mere money and comfort changed to one centered on tailoring and quality. The Dress Code seemed a one sided measure benefiting only Stern’s interests but has proven lucrative for players as well. Unlike other athletes, NBA players are given ample chances to promote products and fully embrace it. The modern NBA player is expected to dress well and be knowledgeable about suits and the various accoutrement.
Future: Dunking & Designing
The NBA these days couldn’t be more different than the turbulent times of the early two-thousands. Givenchy, Alexander Wang, and Prada are every bit as part of the modern NBA player’s lexicon as dunk, dribble, and defense. Marketers have fully embraced these larger than life figures as the mammoth marketing machines that they truly are. This development shifted the lackluster image of the league from tacky to tasteful, with many players now listing Karl Lagerfeld and Anna Wintour as close friends. More and more players today are working directly with fashion brands and companies to further their fashion dominance: Dwayne Wade and Chandler Parsons with Miami lifestyle brand Del Toro, Russell Westbrook with Barneys, and Lebron James with his fashion boutique UNKNWN. Fashion and basketball continue to intertwine and allow for lots of interesting future possibilities like this years NBA Fashion Show held during All-Star weekend. In terms of fashion influence rappers have held the torch of trendsetters but that’s looking like it could change in the coming generations. Who’s to say that the next Kanye West isn’t somewhere in middle school right now dunking on chumps and designing sneakers in his free time?