Since it’s inception, the NBA has had fashion icons like Walt Frazier, pictured above, whose style and grace transcended their game and into their wardrobe.
However, as time progressed, American society stopped dressing like Don Draper and started dressing like Badger. This devolution from conservative style was gradual, but reached a fever pitch towards the early 2000s, where baggy fits, bold clashing patterns, and excessiveness characterized our style. Whereas expression of self through clothing during Frazier’s era looked liked this
NBA players in the early 2000s, like Allen Iverson who were inseparable from hip-hop culture, expressed themselves like this.
Walt Frazier only added a bit of his own flair to the outfits of white America, but Iverson was emphatically outside of the mainstream. He wore the same clothes as the men being arrested on the news every night. He sported cornrows, bling, and tattoos. He was the embodiment of hip-hop, when hip-hop represented everything wrong with society. But, once Iverson’s popularity and skill introduced hip-hop culture to the league on a major scale, it spread like wildfire. Crushed velvet sweatsuits were in and khakis were out. The league embraced the hip-hop style. (see the sideline players during Jason Richardson’s insane dunk contest finale)
Although Iverson was the most exciting player the league had to offer, he scared the conservative basketball audience who preferred players with high top military haircuts named Dick and George. As a result, sponsorships and attendance began to go down among the wealthier and whiter sections of America. Many fans and owners were no longer comfortable with the idea of paying men millions of dollars to play a game if they looked like those who filled the prisons.
This sentiment was simmering until the Malice in the Palace catalyzed an eruption of these fears. The league needed to get their image under control in order to have a future other than as a sideshow sport filled with potential convicts. Once millions of Americans witnessed a crazed Ron Artest charge into the stands, a scapegoat was needed. The NBA sided with the racist patrons who were uncomfortable with cornrows on millionaires by issuing a dress code that mandated acceptable attire for each game. Instead of seeking mental health treatment for Artest, improving fan security, or standing behind their players, the NBA blamed black culture.
Predictably, players met this rule change with resistance. They made valid claims that the NBA was trying to suppress their expression of self in order to make a more presentable face of the league, but to no avail. The first attempts at the new attire were rocky. Most players were ignorant of higher fashion and looked as though they bought their suits from local thrift stores. They attempted to apply the baggy style of their preferred clothes to their mandated formal duds and the results were abysmal.
However, as new players entered the league, they repurposed the style regulations imposed upon them into a new fashion. Cardigans, thick glasses, and bow ties became staples of many black NBA players’ style. In a tremendous turn of irony, the style of the preppy, white elite, who criticized the NBA’s hip-hop culture, is now the trademark look of many young players. Since the league’s popularity is at an all time high, these players have become titans of fashion. They have features in GQ. The clothes that they wear to games and during interviews are legitimate topics of conversation. They have an influence on the fashion tastes of the entire world.
These men have taken the standards of formal attire and used them in innovative ways, kicking off new trends. This shift not only has changed black fashion, but also has distanced players from the connotations of violence, crime, and ignorance typically associated with the NBA’s pre-dress code style. Whereas Allen Iverson was like 50 cent, unapologetically street and proud of his difference from the mainstream culture, players today are more like Kanye West, embracing some aspects of the dominant culture while still retaining an authentic black identity. As a result, the NBA has shifted from an American sport filled with “thugs,” teetering on the edge of unwatchable, to one of the premier sporting leagues in the entire world. Now, we no longer know if black NBA players are dressing white, or if their younger white fans who imitate their style are dressing black.
Instead of killing hip-hop culture, David Stern’s racist and misguided dress code made hip-hop culture a part of mainstream culture. Now hip-hop no longer wears the easily dismissible outfit of baggy jeans and tall Ts. It commands attention in its tailored suits.
Simply put, My mother would have been horrified if I dressed like Allen Iverson, but now she would love if I looked like Lebron.
Follow John on Twitter @FlynnDecent