Yes, yes, it’s a colossal matchup between the two best teams in the NBA. The rising Houston Rockets facing the defending champion Golden State Warriors. James Harden vs Steph Curry. We get it.
But hold the hype for just a second, look more closely and you’ll see another spectacle — this one of style, swag and personal expression.
Instead of dazzling dunks, you’ll see debonair, even daring, attire. Look closely and you’ll notice the battle is more than about basketball.
Fashion is the game.
There’s Rockets guard Chris Paul, who has a line of men’s leather accessories with Hook & Albert, decked in a sleek track suit with an embellished jacket as he strolls into Toyota Center hours before a game. James Harden, the Rihanna of the NBA because of his rebellious style, walks in with a brightly multi-colored shirt decorated with lion heads. Then, P.J. Tucker brings up the back with white capri pants and a gold lamé shirt reminiscent of something from a 1970s music video. The verdict was out on Tucker’s style.
But this we do know: The fashion prowess of NBA players has made the league more culturally relevant beyond sports in the last decade and drawn an allegiance of fans who care nothing about the game itself. When the players roll into their arenas like models on the catwalk, all eyes are on what they are wearing. Their post-game press conferences get as much attention for their outfits, whether tame or outrageous, as for their stat sheets.
The players are now almost as likely to land on the cover of Esquire as they are on Sports Illustrated. They have their own fashion lines and collaborations with brands. They also sit front row elbow-to-elbow with Vogue editor Anna Wintour at New York Fashion Week
They’ve come a long way from — thankfully — their ridiculed days of baggy shorts and oversized T-shirts.
“We’re some of the most recognizable athletes in the world,” Paul said. “We don’t wear helmets, so when we walk anywhere we get noticed, especially for what we wear. It’s very personality driven and gives us an opportunity to express ourselves off the court.”
The NBA’s current obsession with sartorial swagger started because of two, very different men: former Philadelphia 76ers guard Allen Iverson and former NBA commissioner David Stern.
Back in the mid-2000s, strait-laced Stern felt basketball had an image problem, and part of it was due to the clothes the players wore off-court. Iverson, with his ultra-casual, hip-hop style and braided hair, and constant courting of controversy was a particularly sharp thorn in Stern’s side.
But it was an all-out brawl in 2004 involving the Indiana Pacers, Detroit Pistons and fans that seemed to be the tipping point. Stern soon issued new rules for behavior that also prohibited headgear, chains, pendants and medallions, making the NBA the first major American sports league to mandate how its athletes dress.
In Stern’s new world basketball order, throwback jerseys, du-rags and work boots were out; dress shirts, khakis and dress shoes were in. Many players rebelled at the time, calling the restrictions racist. Cedric Hill, the Houston rapper turned sports podcaster ESG, remembers the frustration.
“With the NBA being a predominantly black sport, a lot of inner-city kids, we all played basketball, and if you didn’t become a basketball player, a lot of people may have been rappers,” he said. “I think it was a race-driven decision.”
But his feelings have mellowed. “Now, at my age, the NBA was basically trying to protect their brand,” he said. “The stereotype played a major part in it. … I hate to say this but [Iverson] was the poster child for it because he was having so many off-court issues. He was quote-unquote the thug of the NBA.”
But as much as Iverson was the NBA’s problem child, he pushed more players to contemplate their style off the court.
“You think about it, the person who probably pushed the culture the most NBA-wise was Allen Iverson, with the braids and the tattoos, and the sleeves,” Paul said, who tops nearly every best-dressed list of NBA players. “I wanted braids when I was in high school. My parents weren’t with it.”
As the dress-code mandate settled in and more players polished their looks, it was inevitable their style statements would be the new battle ground, said Jonathan Evans, senior style editor at Esquire.
“This is a group of highly competitive guys, and fashion is part of the way they compete,” Evans said. “There is now a constant game of one-upping each other. There are players who play it low-key, then there are others who are trying to take fashion to a PhD level in putting crazy things together.”
To up the stakes, the league even started handing out an official NBA Style Award in 2017, right along with awards for the year’s best dunk, block and win. The trophy, which is decided by a fan vote, marked the first time the league recognized the importance of style in its branding. This year, Harden is up for the prize, along with LeBron James and Russell Westbrook.
“Harden is definitely a risk-taker and understands it,” Evans said. “Russell is always pushing boundaries of what fashion is. If you think about it, some guys have an innate fear of fashion and to have these Superman-heroes of the court make bold style presentations is impactful. I think the average man is dressing better than he did in 2005, and the NBA has a lot to do with it.”
At a Cleveland Cavaliers game against the Indiana Pacers last month, James and his teammates showed up to the arena in the matching made-to-measure gray Thom Browne suit, cashmere cardigans, socks, leather brogue boots, aviator glasses and the $41,000 Mr. Thom bag — all purchased by James. If you didn’t know that the NBA was all about style before this runway parade, you knew now.
The American designer worked on the project with James and Dwyane Wade, who was traded from the Cavaliers to the Miami Heat before the suits were completed. Both players are considered the elder statesmen of NBA style. They show up well-dressed, blending in elements of sneaker culture, without being too out there or too relax.
Wade, who told GQ last year that “fashion is a huge component of my life” and has several fashion brands to his name, thanks Stern’s edict for making him take clothing seriously. “It was like, ‘OK, now we got to really dress up and we can’t just throw on a sweatsuit,’” he said to USA Today in 2014. “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 a fan of it.”
His longtime stylist, Calyann Barnett, said it’s a juxtaposition of fashion and art that’s happening in the NBA now.
“When I started working with Dwyane (in 2008), nobody really cared yet about fashion in a broader way,” Barnett said. “It was still very urban and hip-hop inspired. It’s been amazing to see the evolution. The NBA redefined what it meant to dress business casual. Now, it’s commonplace that the players are comfortable in trying new looks. They are being creative and seeing their style as art.”
Adorning themselves head-to-head in one designer isn’t what this is about, she said. Wade rocks pieces across high-low price spectrum from Urban Outfitters and Zara to Hermès and indie brands like Fabrice Tardieu shoes.
“Style has become a part of the athlete’s brand,” Barnett said. “Take Russell, he takes his time and does his research. He meets with designers. I think when we see him in a crazy outfit, he’s having fun and even making fun at what you can do with fashion. Chris Paul plays it safe, but he’s so well-dressed that he doesn’t need to take risks.”
Still, there are those who are old school, like Houston Rockets’ Gerald Green. You’ll see him in one of his many throwback jerseys and his hair elaborately braided — with the Rockets logo — by local stylist Sandra Finn. You might also catch a glimpse of his tattoos — a Houston skyline, the Houston Oilers logo and the Interstate 45 sign. All style statements that show his love for Houston.
“This is what I wear,” Green said. “I’m not into all of that GQ fashion. A lot of people may have a lot to say about me, but I’m me. I’m no different from any kid that’s from the North side or South Side of Houston that’s living a dream.”
Green confessed that he tried earlier on to flex his style options when he got an ear pierced in high school. He hid it with a bandage at home, but his mom wasn’t having it and ripped it out. He didn’t even think about getting a piercing or a tattoo until he was drafted into the league.
But it’s the more flamboyant dressers in the NBA, like Westbrook and Tucker, who are fodder for fashion magazines and commentary. Some say their looks are trendsetting, other say it’s all about showboating.
Take Tucker, who recently was in the Balmain store in Paris when he picked up a “one-of-a-kind” beaded jacket to take home. By the time he learned of the $25,000 price tag, it was too late, he told the Associated Press. He later saw NBA super fan and eccentric 78-year-old millionaire James Goldstein sporting the same piece while courtside at a game.
Tucker described his style as adventurous and spontaneous, not showboating. Maybe that would explain the gold lamé shirt.