NBA suited for new image

Players are told to cross over from hip-hop to business attire


From the sneakers on his feet, to the retro jersey on his back, to the do-rag on his head, Allen Iverson is a proud product of hip-hop culture. He's also among the best paid endorsers and biggest on-court stars in the National Basketball Association.

Behind players like Iverson, the league has built a relationship with youth culture that transcends sport. Kids and the music stars they love wear basketball shoes and NBA "throwback" jerseys. Many NBA players don the same attire.

It's a symbiosis that has earned the league millions of dollars, marketers agree.

Now, the NBA is trying to change its image with a memo issued Monday that orders players to dress more boardroom than schoolyard. The "business casual" code means no T-shirts, no baggy jeans, no retro jerseys, no hats, no chains and no athletic shoes at team or league events. Players not in uniform at games must wear a sport coat and dress shoes.

NBA officials have played down the code, saying it's no different than the dress expectations at professional offices around the country. But cultural observers say this is disingenuous because law firms and accounting offices aren't linked - stylistically or financially - to tennis shoes, jerseys and jewelry.

The NBA seems to be declaring war on a part of its own culture.

"It's kind of a strange decision when most of the styles that are popular in urban fashion are based on the NBA," said Emil Wilbekin, creative director at urban designer Ecko and a former fashion editor at Vibe. "These guys grew up on hip-hop, and they want to dress like superstars, which they are. It's almost like the NBA doesn't want the players to be who they are."

Antonio Gray, fashion buyer for the Baltimore chain Changes, said the league, "should dance with the girl that brought 'em."

"They trade in urban culture, so this seems really inconsistent," he said.

Others said the league's stance is based on unrealistic assumptions.

"I think this is sort of in keeping with the league whose logo still features the profile of a clean-cut white guy," said Paul Lukas, who writes a column on sports fashion for "Jerry West. That's still what people in the league office want to think the image of the NBA is, when the reality is probably very far from that and something they're not comfortable with."

Race can't help but become part of the discussion, Lukas added.

"It's hard to get past the fact we're talking about a bunch of predominantly white executives making decisions about how a bunch of predominantly not-white athletes are going to dress," he said. "I'm not saying either side is right or wrong, but it speaks to a very obvious culture clash."

Players said the same in questioning the code.

"I don't agree as far as tucking your chains in. I really don't respect that because the [highest] percentage of people who wear chains are black," said Pacers guard Stephen Jackson. "Everything else is fine with me. If they want us to wear suits, I'll wear suits."

Others said the league might be reaching out to the wrong audience.

"We don't really sell to big business," Suns guard Raja Bell told the Associated Press. "We sell to kids and people who are into the NBA hip-hop world. They may be marketing to the wrong people with this."

Such criticisms aside, many players offered measured responses.

Antonio Davis of the New York Knicks, president of the league's players association, said: "I think with anything you impose on players, the first reaction is going to be: `Nah, I don't want to do that.' ... But in the end, when it all settles and you start to realize why, guys will come in and feel good about how they're dressed. Hopefully, they'll start to embrace it."

"I respect David Stern and whoever else had to deal with it," Jackson said. "As far as dressing up, that's what we're supposed to do. Kids look up to us. I have no problems with not wearing do-rags and hats. Collared shirts, shoes, slacks, that's the way we're supposed to dress. People look up to us, and we make enough money to dress up."

Some fashion purveyors took similarly neutral stances.

"We were taken by surprise," said Erin Ritter, spokeswoman for Mitchell & Ness, a Philadelphia company that makes and sells the throwback jerseys that are part of hip-hop and NBA attire. "But at the same time, we can see why they maybe want a little more uniformity at the games. It's their prerogative of course."

Ritter said her company won't suffer if NBA stars stop wearing throwback jerseys at league events. "We have close relationships with a lot of players, and we think they'll continue to wear our jerseys on their own time," she said. "And what's more important to us is that hip-hop artists and urban tastemakers wear our clothes."

John Antil, a professor at the University of Delaware who studies celebrity endorsements, praised the dress code.

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