In the NBA, the players suit up

Not everybody thought a dress code was a good idea, but it turns out to be a slam dunk


On the basketball court, NBA players dazzle. They're quick. They're flashy. They look good doing what they do.

And nowadays, two months after an imposed leaguewide dress code, early fashion reviews are in: These pro ballplayers are looking equally as good off the court.

The Cleveland Cavaliers' hip young star LeBron James has a penchant for preppy cable-knit sweaters under his suit jackets. Allen Iverson throws a phat leather jacket over his cashmere walking suits. Shaquille O'Neal likes three-piece suits, with three, four or even eight buttons. Our own Juan Dixon favors Gucci deck shoes and argyle cardigans.

The stepped-up style is proof that the dress code, instituted by National Basketball Association Commissioner David Stern, is being well-received.

"Everyone's out trying to outdo one another in terms of personal style," says Jimmy Jellinek, editor-in-chief of Stuff magazine.

The new rule banned T-shirts, baggy jeans, retro jerseys, hats, chains and athletic shoes at team and league events. And players not in uniform at games were told to wear, at the very least, sport coats and dress shoes.

Although some players and observers initially balked at the directive, there have been only a few warnings issued to teams for noncompliance, says Tim Frank, the league's vice president of basketball communications.

"We've had very few issues," he says.

Meanwhile, many outsiders have been steadily cheering: The NBA was growing up.

But there was also cause for some worry.

Outside their glitzy arenas, pro players weren't always winners. In fact, they were often guilty of fashion fouls.

Baggy sweats. Gaudy jewelry. Oversized suits in colors meant only for Skittles.

Fashion observers wondered: Could men whose collective fashion sense tended toward do-rags, terrycloth sweatbands and sprawling tattoos really be trusted with tailored, tucked-in, grown-up clothes? Or would the end result be similar to that of 6-year-old girls playing in Mommy's makeup?

Two months later, NBA players are doing well at the "team player" thing, checking their egos at the team bus door and wearing their Sunday best to and from games.

Their individual ideas about what that means, however, run the gamut.

Washington Wizards forward Caron Butler, for example, prefers Ferragamo shoes and Prada, while his teammate, guard Donell Taylor, says he buys many of his suits at Men's Wearhouse.

"They're wearing suits, but they're wearing their versions of suits," says Mike Paul, a reputation management expert for New York's MGP and Associates, who has coached NBA players on image issues. "Some of them who made a fuss are wearing the funkier suits. You might see a guy wearing a black suit with a red shirt. You may see a guy wearing all plaid, because that's fly today for guys who are more hip-hop to wear plaid."

By and large, the players are following the rules. But if Stern had hoped for Brooks Brothers, neatly knotted ties and benches of young men in navy blue and black, that certainly hasn't happened.

And thank goodness, fashion observers say.

"You don't want these guys dressing like accountants," Jellinek says. "They're more than just NBA players. They're superheroes. They're entertainers."

Take the Phoenix Suns' Steve Nash in his sexy double collars and wide French cuffs. Or Miami Heat guard Dwyane Wade, who's prone to snazzy white fedoras, tipped to the side.

"It's like Scarface couture," Jellinek says. "It's fantastic."

In a sense, the players - many of whom grew up idolizing hip-hop stars - are just falling in line with the direction that evolving culture had been headed in anyway.

The same style-setting celebrities who used to rock sneakers, T-shirts and hats-to-the-back are now wearing - and even designing - high-end business and formal wear.

"Jay-Z" is now Shawn Carter, dapper in expertly tailored suits, striped shirts and sweater vests. "Diddy" - better known as Sean Combs to his mother and the Hamptons set - won a coveted Council of Fashion Designers of America award for his beautifully made suits. And Russell Simmons may have started his Phat Farm label with truckloads of baggy jeans, but these days, you'll rarely catch the prepster in a pair.

"If you look at the style icons, the Russells and the Jay-Zs, they were already approaching the direction of the suit," says Morris Reid, a branding expert at Washington D.C.'s Westin Rinehart, a strategic communications consulting firm. "It's just ironic that the commissioner wants to move them away from hip-hop when he's actually moving them closer to hip-hop yet again."

Wizards point guard Gilbert Arenas, for example, is a fan of button-up shirts by Thomas Pink, a brand with cachet among those who golf and lunch, not typically those who hoop and club.

His exposure to the luxury label didn't come from billionaire team owners or powerful advertisers. Arenas first spotted a Thomas Pink shirt on rap star Jay-Z, in his 2003 "Change Clothes" video.

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