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Where Fashion Meets Basketball: Impact of AI and Dress Code on NBA

When David Stern implemented a dress code for the NBA in 2005, players said he was limiting self-expression. Today, players have found their platform and voice through fashion.

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The year was 2005. Teens were dressing in Juicy Couture tracksuits and baggy Sean John jeans. Songs from Missy Elliott and The Black Eyed Peas were topping the charts. Despite Destiny’s Child announcing their disbandment, the culture was thriving and making its mark on society through music, art, and sports, to name a few genres.

Even basketball star, Allen Iverson, of the Philadelphia 76ers, was leaving his own mark on society. Having been named NBA All-Star MVP in 2005, and previously in 2001, he would continue to go on and become an 11-time NBA All-Star. But his roaring impact on the NBA landscape went far beyond how he played on the court. He was impacting the way NBA players dressed, and the fashion industry has, in turn, impacted the business of the NBA.

Iverson was a rough around the edges, probably don’t bring home to your momma type of basketball player. He wore his hair in cornrows, had 20-something tattoos covering his arms, and hung flashy jewelry around his neck. The kid from the Hampton, Virginia projects was completely different than what the league had ever seen before. Through his attitude, wardrobe, and actions, Iverson was unapologetically himself.

Gary Land

To the young generation of ballers watching him, Iverson was an icon. He was relatable. He felt attainable. He represented a culture that, well…represented the majority of NBA players.

Unfortunately, not everyone approved of what some called his “thuggish” appearance and “ungentlemanly” actions. Commissioner David Stern, who sought to appease middle America by keeping the league mainstream, wasn’t exactly a fan of the image Iverson gave the league.

Combine Stern’s mindset (that one could largely argue was race-based) and the infamous “Malice at the Palace” incident that occurred nearly a year prior, and the commissioner believed he needed a quick fix for all of the PR damage.

In October of 2005, Stern implemented a league-wide dress code.

The code stated that all players had to be dressed in business attire upon arriving and leaving games, press conferences, and any other team events like charity gatherings. Essentially everything the players had been wearing at this point in time, such as do-rags, t-shirts, Timberlands, oversized jerseys, and jewelry, were all forbidden.

Like any change, there was pushback. But this pushback was widespread. Iverson, and many other stars like Paul Piece and Stephen Jackson, were publicly frustrated.

“Man you would not believe, back in the day, how many times I would get told this and that about my clothes. AI, he’s a thug. His hair, it’s gang related. He don’t dress like a professional. Had to be a thousand different things people said. But it’s like — do they even get how this all works? Jewelry is just jewelry. Hair is just hair. Clothes are just clothes. Answer me this…… has anyone ever committed a crime with their HAIR? O.K., I’m young and I’m black, and I dress that way. But what am I doing — just ask yourself that. What am I doing? I’m getting out of my car…… to walk to my office…… to go to my job.” - Excerpt from The Players’ Tribune, 2018 “Allen” by Allen Iverson.

What Stern likely didn’t fully expect was the evolution that was about to unfold in the league. Whether or not it was because they didn’t want to get slapped with a hefty fine, the players gradually began to accept the change. T-shirts turned into turtlenecks and jeans turned into dress pants.

In 2015, 10 years after the dress code had been put in place, Dwyane Wade spoke upon the mindset shift that had been happening.

“It was like, ‘OK, now we got to really dress up and we can’t just throw on a sweat suit,’” Wade said. “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.”

Dwyane Wade of the Miami Heat arrives for his last NBA game in Miami on April 9, 2019.
NBAE/Getty Images

But even still, how did the league go from an immediate switch to suit coats to where we are now? (Which is a little bit of every style you can imagine.)

Little by little as the players started showing more interest in what they wore, so did the friendly competitions. If one was buying a Ralph Lauren suit, then the next would one up him and buy a Valentino and then Brioni. Before long, high fashion began to find a role aside from red carpets and runways. There, in the dusty back hallways and tunnels of basketball arenas, high fashion started becoming a staple of the NBA.

Fast forward to today and pregame arrivals that once were simply a way to watch your favorite player enter the building, have turned into full-on catwalks, displaying the latest sneaker collaboration or designer clothing line. Press conferences receive as much coverage on what the players wear as what they were actually saying.

Getty Images via GQ

The superstars of the NBA have not only been able to turn something that was once restricting them into a creative outlet, but fashion has allowed them to make some serious money moves, because the CEOs of the industry are noticing their fire fits.

In 2005, Nike and Adidas were some of the only brands competing for players’ attention. Today, brands far and wide want a chance to be featured in the locker room fashion shows and press conference photo shoots. From being invited to exclusive fashion week shows to launching individual clothing lines, the modern NBA player is not who he was in 2005.

Russell Westbrook has a collaboration exclusively sold at Barney’s New York, and most recently produced his very own Los Angeles-based clothing line. Dwyane Wade has a range of ties and accessories with the brand The Tie Bar. Michael Jordan has completely flipped the world of sneakers on its head (that deserves an entire article itself). The list goes on and on.

Even Louis Vuitton, a French fashion tycoon, has released their own line of basketball-inspired shoes. In 2005, top luxury designers were not thinking about basketball and its players, not even a little bit.

The impact of fashion on the NBA has even begun to spread across leagues. Just this past opening day for the MLB season, the Phillies dedicated two super posts on their Instagram account to their players’ pregame arrivals. Were they pulling out all the stops for Bryce Harper’s arrival to Philadelphia? Perhaps. But regardless, this is new to the MLB and one can only assume, it’s at least partially because they see the publicity and business opportunities connecting with fans through fashion brings the NBA.

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Where will the relationship between sports and fashion be years from now? That’s tough to predict. Maybe the name “Westbrook” will be the next “Givenchy”. Wherever it goes, fashion has impacted the overall image of the league, the business opportunities for its stars, and the way you and I think about clothing trends.

And as for Iverson? He has come to see the silver lining in the dress code as well. Sure, he still can be found courtside with his snapbacks and bling. And no, he says he’d never wear what today’s players are wearing. But in regards to the evolution of self-expression the dress code has brought to the league, he’s all for it. After all, that’s all he wanted all those years ago…to express himself exactly as he was.

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