When GQ named Lebron James the most stylish athlete in professional sports
last week in November, we weren’t exactly surprised. After all, the NBA has always had its standout style stars, and it’s no secret that the current generation of NBA ballers — from James to Amar’e Stoudamire and Russell Westbrook — is embracing fashion with more brio than any before it. But as more and more players show off preppy pastel prints, bow ties, and fedoras, we must give props to the sartorial insurgents who informed today’s dapper norm.
In the the ’70s, legends like Walt “Clyde” Frazier, Wilt Chamberlain, Julius “Dr. J” Erving, and Earl “The Pearl” Monroe injected the league with hirsute signatures of their era: afros, beards, and loads of swagger. No one did it with more style than Frazier, who schooled the league in smooth with an array of velvet fedoras, mink coats, medallion pendants, and three-piece suits. As a player, he was a perennial all star, but as Frazier told GQ, it was his iconic style that earned him the nickname “Clyde”:
“From the movie Bonnie and Clyde,” he explained. “What happened was, when I first started I wasn’t playing well as a rookie. So to pacify myself I used to go shopping. So I would go out buy clothes, go to my room, dress up, and look in the mirror and say, Well, I ain’t playing good but I still look good!”
With the arrival of the ’80s, the blown-out ’70s gave way to cleaner, more angular lines. Original geek Kurt Rambis, a forward for the Showtime Lakers, rocked black nerd glasses and a (non-ironic) mustache long before either was a fashion statement. But it was the infamous high-top fade (we’re looking at you, Kenny Smith and Patrick Ewing) that typified the decade. Today, NBA millennials like Iman Shumbert and Brandon Jennings — who weren’t even alive in the ’80s — are paying homage to the era by sporting their own retro-tastic fades.
In the ’90s, hip-hop culture breathed a new era of loose-fitting fashion into the NBA. Between the lines, baggy unis and Air Jordans replaced the short shorts and form fitting jerseys; off the court, logo-heavy tracksuits, throwback jerseys, immaculate sneakers, and a mink coat or two were how you rolled if you had swag. Of course, if your wardrobe fell on the wrong side of The Fresh Prince Of Bel-Air (ahem, Michael Jordan), you may have fallen victim to garish color combos, bargain bin prints, and the worst offender of all, the ‘”Power Suit,” where tailoring went to die during draft season.
Maybe no player epitomized hip hop’s stripped-down street ethos more than Allen Iverson. With his entry into the league in 1996, the tiny two-guard oozed big attitude with heavily tattooed arms and unapologetic cornrows. Iverson stayed true to his look regardless of venue or occasion, brandishing snapbacks, cross pendant chains, and oversized sweatpants for post-game press conferences. Iverson’s NBA career ended after 14 seasons, but not before his look influenced countless other NBA players.
RISE OF THE GEEK
By 2005, NBA players started to get wind of a new phenomenon sweeping Hollywood — the celebrity stylist. Jalen Rose was among the first NBA players to hire stylist Rachel Johnson, who helped the guard step up his jersey game. But it wasn’t until LeBron James hired Johnson in 2006 that the trend shook up NBA fashion. Not only was James on the verge of becoming the best player in the league, suddenly he was the guy wearing tailored suits, plaid button-ups, and non-prescription eyeglasses to press conferences, infusing his look with a genre of style no one saw coming — geek chic.
Some credit James for the shift, others Johnson. But fashion blogger and NBA stylist Megan Ann Wilson believes that something else informed the trend: a dress code implemented by NBA commissioner David Stern in 2005.
“I think the dress code was necessary at the time,” explains Wilson. “You had people saying, ‘They’re just like hip hop, they dress like thugs.’ I think there were negative connotations that weren’t actually there. They were trying to sell [the NBA] to different markets and the look had to be cleaner.”
Between the new code and the influx of stylists, players sought a more suave, tailored look. Custom Italian suits became standard, and players began embracing designs like Rag & Bone and Simon Spurr. Soon pocket squares, lens-less glasses, and pastel hues were creeping on to post-game TV screens — and not just on King James. Another client of Johnson’s was Amar’e Stoudemire, who, with her help, gradually started to showcase more flamboyant fashions. The Knicks’ forward has since covered Vogue (alongside Gisele Bündchen), attended fashion shows with Anna Wintour, and helped pioneer what’s now being hailed as the NBA’s hipster movement.
“When you put your fashion on — you know, your tailor-made suits or bow ties and fedoras — you feel like you’re swagger,” he told Vogue. “You feel elegant and rich.”
Of course, no conversation about NBA style is complete without Russell Westbrook, whose duds manage to be both debonair and tongue-in-cheek. In May of 2012, Westbrook made headlines when he showed up to a press conference in a pair of shiny red specs and a T-shirt covered in a rainbow fish tackle print — all that was missing from the get-up was a chemistry textbook. The outfit launched a thousand Steve Urkel memes and warranted a “Well, at least we know they got a TJ Maxx in Oklahoma City,” remark from Charles Barkley. But it was a bold statement — and one that didn’t go unnoticed by the fashion elite. Last spring, Westbrook earned a coveted front row seat next to Wintour at the Rag & Bone show during New York Fashion Week.
In contrast to Westbrook, fellow Oklahoma City Thunder teammate Kevin Durant takes a more toned-down approach to the geek look. The 24-year-old all star not only wears a backpack to post-game junkets, but also sports the nerdiest thick-rimmed spectacles in the game.
“I don’t try too hard, but I like to stand out,” he told Teen Vogue. “You can tell when somebody’s comfortable in an outfit. Growing up, I would look in the mirror and think, will this person like what I’ve got on? Now, if I like it, that’s all that matters.”
While the geek-chic trend has become ubiquitous, it’s hard to pin down where it came from or who originated it.
“There’s so much debate,” says Wilson. “Originally Westbrook said he and his stylist came up with it a few years ago. But beyond the NBA, it definitely came from that hipster sensibility you see in popular fashion. Everyone kind of credits it to Brooklyn or Portland. There’s now a fine line between geek and hipster — a lot of people attribute it to Urkel and that mid-’90s image.”
The look has been equal parts dapper and geeky for a couple of years now. It shows no sign as ending, with seemingly every all star — from James Harden to Chris Paul — dipping their toes into dandy territory. Is the NBA a breeding ground for a new kind of athlete hipster? Are the nerdy glasses a fleeting trend, or an homage to Kurt Rambis that will be forever? Either way, what we do know is that the collision of fashion, culture, and entertainment will always be at the forefront of NBA style.
“The NBA has been the pioneer league for style in sports because it’s more individual — there’s no equipment,” says Wilson. “It’s become performance art.”
Editor’s Note: This article was originally published on November 27, 2013.