From the Feet Up
Why NBA Players Are the Most Influential Athletes in Fashion
After one of the most exciting and momentous NBA off-seasons ever, it’s safe to say even the more casual fans are highly anticipating the 2017-18 season. How will Paul George play in Oklahoma City? Will Kyrie help the Celtics overtake LeBron and the Cavs in the East? And can anybody even come close to competing with Steph and the Warriors?
These are all questions everyone is eagerly awaiting the answers to, but more and more, the anticipation for the next NBA season doesn’t only have to do with the games on the court. There’s a new aspect of professional basketball that some are now referring to as the “second game” in the NBA…
Now instead of people only asking, “Is Russell Westbrook going to get another triple double tonight?”, you have just as many—if not even more—asking, “What’s Russ going to wear to the post-game presser?”
Indeed, the NBA has emerged as the sport when it comes to fashion, with ballers, in what seems like a few short years, eclipsing athletes from other sports that have traditionally been thought of as suave or refined like soccer, tennis, and golf. While most of us would agree that there have long been NBA players with great senses of style—we’ll take Clyde Frazier over any golfer or tennis player you can throw at him from the 1970s and ‘80s—the sartorialist phenomenon in the NBA seems like it sprang from nowhere in the last four or five seasons. In fact, it’s a designer-branded volcano that’s been waiting to explode with Gucci loafers, Lanvin suits, red leather pants, and non-prescription glasses for years.
Of course, the easy answer to why NBA players have become the most influential athletes in the fashion world is the “David Stern Rules” from 2005. The commissioner declared all players had to dress in business casual wear before, after, and on the sidelines of games when not on the active roster. A direct response to the steadily increasing “hip-hop” image of the NBA at the time and seen as a way to straighten out players after ugly incidents like the infamous Malice at the Palace, Stern’s dress code certainly received its share of controversy and accusations of racism. But twelve years later the dust has settled and it’s easy to see the policy led to a new era of fashion-minded players throughout the league. A game where what a player wears off-court has increasingly become as important as their stats on the court.
So yes, the 2005 dress code certainly helped create the couture NBA star, but let’s go back further than that. Before Allen Iverson, XXXL throwback jerseys, and iced-out jewelry triggered the NBA’s upper management, the fashion prowess that the league is now known for was already smoldering and sparking thanks to a few components distinct to the game of basketball and the backgrounds of its players. The dress code was simply the can of gas needed to ignite the inferno.
Look at a professional basketball player. OK, so they’re unusually tall, but those athletic, slender frames were made to look good in clothes. Once players figured out that oversized suits with shoulder pads and each pant leg wide enough to drive a Prius through were a no-no, looking chic became a natural occurrence for many. Although football may be more watched and more talked about in American sports culture, they just aren’t as influential when it comes to style. The players are simply too big and muscular to pull off a pair of skinny jeans or Givenchy biker jacket the same way a Westbrook or James Harden can. A few NFL stars try—Cam Newton, we’re looking at you—but they can’t seem to achieve the same effortless looking style sense of basketball players.
With no face mask, helmet, or body-covering padding of any kind, NBA players are also quite simply more recognizable than their counterparts from the other most popular sports in America. With recognizability comes relatability, which also helps drive the influence basketball stars have over their contemporaries.
Even more important than the physical truths that have led basketball players to style royalty is the culture most closely associated with the sport: hip-hop. In 2017, no one on Earth is more influential on male youth culture than rappers, and no sport is more closely associated with the likes of Jay-Z, Kanye West, and Drake than basketball. And what’s the other culture that goes hand-in-hand with hip hop? The culture that has existed alongside rap music even before Run DMC hit the stage repping adidas?
Sneakers. When you review the earliest, deepest roots of the NBA’s style obsession today, you’ll find that they appropriately start from the ground—or feet—up.
Going all the way back to Clyde Frazier again, it’s no coincidence that the first NBA player to have a signature shoe, the PUMA Clyde, was the biggest athlete style icon of his time. Then a few years later along came a man named Michael Jordan. After Nike launched the Air Jordan in 1985, the subsequent models would become a line of the most coveted footwear in history—athletic or otherwise. Jordan’s franchise of footwear and apparel quickly set the blueprint for the athlete’s signature sneaker business model, eventually birthing shoe lines for everybody from Charles Barkley to Mike Trout (and a few scrubs in between). While hundreds of athletes from other sports have had signature shoes, basketball still dominates sneaker culture because, quite simply, it’s the sport most closely associated with wearable athletic footwear off the court. You can’t wear football cleats or hockey skates to the mall.
Looking back at all of sneaker history, there’s no doubt that Air Jordans were the catalyst for the innovative, boundary-pushing, and highly competitive sneaker industry as we know it today; an industry and culture that keeps us all thirsting for more—whether it’s the latest breakthrough technology or hottest retro release.
Meanwhile, the signature lines, sneaker tech, and ad campaigns created to keep the different brands competing with each other shaped a massive consumer base from pre-schoolers to grandpas that were all convinced they needed the latest gimmicks and the shiniest, newest sneakers on the market. Most of which weren't even used for any kind of athletic activity at all. In the end, it was all just about looking good. And isn’t that what fashion is all about?
From the hood to the suburbs, looking fly couldn’t be achieved unless you had a fresh pair of sneakers to complete the outfit, a fact that’s just as true today as it was in the b-boy days of the ‘80s, the tech and signature sneaker explosion of the ‘90s, and the lifestyle-minded athleisure trends today. Any of the league’s current style mavens—Westbrook, Harden, LeBron, Curry—will tell you their earliest efforts to look good started with sneakers as kids, progressing and maturing into their current tastes for sharp suits, unapologetic casual wear, and designer labels.
Rooted in nostalgia for the pair of sneakers they had or always coveted as kids, NBA stars are now bringing that grown-man, hip-hop inspired fashion sense to the masses. A natural style that no traditional fashion house or agency could create, predict, or manufacture themselves. A unique look that is truly their own. As a result, they’re some of the most influential athletes on the planet.