Feature photo courtesy of Cody Mulcahy.
Tune into an NBA press conference nowadays, and you are destined to see some of the world’s most… hmmm.. “interesting” male fashion. The styles are endless: Russell Westbrook popularized the Urkel sheik, LeBron’s male-pattern baldness has led to an affinity for bizarre headwear, and of course, there’s Swaggy P Players who try to oneup each other, searching for the lens-lacking glasses, an eccentric, Milan-runway type of look that will be surely ridiculed by the likes of Barkley and O’Neal come post-game. Somewhere, lounging in a Bora Bora hotel room, the now-retired former NBA commissioner David Stern is shaking his head with his face firmly planted into his palms. In 2005, when he implemented the first full-on dress code for American professional sports, Stern couldn’t have possibly fathomed how badly his controversial plan would backfire.
Remember the days when it wasn’t uncommon for Kobe to be sitting on the Lakers sideline in a Donovan McNabb Eagles jersey instead of an Yves Saint-Lauren suit? Or when Iverson’s dress was essentially Cam’ron sans the pink? And Tim Duncan, well, he still dressed like this. The early 2000’s in the NBA was heavily influenced by the hip-hop culture of the same time. With baggy throwback jerseys and chains, one’s favorite rapper dressed exactly like their favorite athlete. After the heinous Malice at the Palace brawl during the 2004 season, then-Commissioner Stern felt it was time for an image re-boot around the league. His goal? Eliminate hip-hop culture inspired dress throughout the NBA.
The issue with Stern’s dress code was it denied players the ability to express themselves and was perceived as inherently racist. Who was Stern to rule that the way certain players had been dressing their whole lives was too thuggish and that they couldn’t wear the outfits that they paid good portions of their salaries for? It seemed NBA fashion was headed in the same direction as your local office space, players wearing the types of clothes one might expect to see Bob, Randy or Frank wearing in the cubicle next door .
Fortunately, players have been able to reclaim their right to expression through fashion. Early pioneers include the likes of Dwayne Wade, who famously wore custom eye bandages with slogans on them until those were banned by the league in 2009. Also, as hip-hop culture developed, artists like Kanye West made what rappers wear more suitable for the type of guidelines required by the NBA dress code. Rappers and athletes once again dressed alike, but it was designer brands like Versace, Ralph Lauren or Gucci being worn instead of Rocawear or champion jerseys.
Athletes got more and more into runway-esque fashion, beginning to wear some of the most trendy and out-there lines from the hottest brands throughout the world. In the process, they began to make a hilarious mockery of the David Stern dress code that was supposed to take the focus off the way athletes looked off the court and place it solely on in-game action. Loopholes in dress guidelines were found, and now players’ outfits are more talk in the media than they ever had been before. A morning episode of SportsCenter will surely poke fun at a pair of leather pants and a Versace top worn by Nick Young, and Inside the NBA will make sure to ask Westbrook exactly what prescription he has in his lensless glasses. Thankfully, the players are finally choosing clothes that suit their personal style, and when such players are garnering billions of dollars for an increasingly international league, they should be free to wear whatever the hell the want. Whether it be through innovations like D-Wade custom eye bandages or Swaggy P playing in the latest Nike X Supreme collab, NBA players have regained the ability to be themselves, a privilege that should have never been stripped.