Basketball fans were surprised to see a commercial for the NBA's new fashion blog during the play-offs. The commercial showed a man in a green suit checking up on NBA players' outfits on his phone while getting measured by a tailor. The site was launched six weeks ago in response to the overwhelming social media attention generated by the league's most fashionable players.
"If you just look on social media, when a player walks into the arena and they show them live on television within a minute or two there are photos all over, it is something people talk about, so on NBA.com we have started paying attention to it as well," said Lang Whitaker, one of the site's editors.
Professional basketball has always had ties to popular fashion. Chuck Taylor All-Star sneakers date all the way back to the '20s. In the '70s, Julius "Dr. J" Erving rocked a big Afro and wristbands. The '80s introduced the Air Jordan and long basketball shorts. In the '90s, the Michigan Fab 5 started the black-shoes-and-socks trend.
"Style has always been a part of sports, it is just an extension of it now, we do not care what they wear on the court, we care what they wear off the court as well," says Whitaker. Players like Kobe Bryant and Dwyane Wade live at the intersection of high-fashion and locker-room style.
Dwyane Wade's style is a frequent topic of conversation on social media. Last month he was mocked for wearing an all-orange outfit before a Miami Heat Game. In an interview with GQ, he said he expresses himself through fashion. "I feel like the way I dress says a lot about my personality, a lot of people will not get a chance to talk to me, but when they look at me, they can get an idea of who Dwyane Wade really is."
Brandon Williams is a professional stylist whose clients include Mike Conley and Michael Redd. "It is 100 percent marketing. Some guys just do it for the love of fashion, but then there are the athletes that invest in a stylist and in fashion to cultivate their brand because they want to get involved in other things than the sport they play, whether it be charities or different endorsement opportunities," said Williams.
Fashion Blooms in Response to Dress Code
Basketball style started to change in the aftermath of the notorious Indiana Pacers- Detroit Pistons brawl. "They didn't want guys wearing sweat pants or sneakers or things like that", says Whitaker. NBA commissioner David Stern implemented a dress code in 2005 that stated players must dress in business attire when conducting official NBA business.
Critics of the decision argued the NBA was trying to rid itself of the influences of hip-hop while profiting from it. David Leonard is the author of the book After Arrest: The NBA and the Assault on Blackness. "You have a league that is making money off a skullcap with league insignias saying that very skullcap is unacceptable."
Leonard says the current NBA fashion movement is what happens when a group of creative, spontaneous people respond to the restrictions of a dress code. "In spite of the efforts from the league to create a culture that matched the business suit culture of corporate America that they were trying to appeal to, players have found ways to creatively maintain their own sense of identity, of style, of agency, of power, while complying with the rules at hand," he said.
Just Another Competition
Aside from the aesthetic challenge of dealing with the dress code, there is also the problem of finding clothes in an NBA player's size. "They are tall, their body is actually different, their neck sizes are different, their arms are longer, their feet are bigger; so in order for them to fit a suit like a person who is 5'10 for example, you have to get it custom made," said stylist Khalilah Williams-Webb to Tell Me More host Michel Martin.
Williams says his clients approach fashion with athletic precision. "This has become another type of competition for these guys. They have seen guys go from just basketball players to mogul-type status just from their brand association and different things that they are able to accomplish image-wise," says Williams.
Fashion is starting to add to the spectacle of the NBA and more players are taking note. Whitaker expects we will see some bold sartorial choices during the finals, which started yesterday. "In the finals somebody will wear something just to get people talking, I do not know what it will be."
Fashion bloggers will be keeping track of who wins the series, but they will be plenty busy talking about who wore what on the way to the locker room.