NBA Fashion Victims
Issue   |   Tue, 03/05/2013 - 23:29

On the eve of his retirement as commissioner of the NBA, among some other noteworthy legacies, David Stern will leave a residing impact on player fashion in the world’s premier basketball league.

Far from a fashionista, Stern is famous as a hard-ball negotiator and a commissioner who’s presided over consistent increases in league revenues and popularity. Nevertheless, he is duly infamous for setting out sartorial standards for NBA players at the start of the 2005-06 season. In the name of dusting off the NBA’s less than sterling corporate image, Stern spearheaded an initiative banning ballers from wearing jeans, hats, do-rags or large jewelry whilst conducting NBA business — most notably while attending press interviews and sitting courtside.

At the time, Stern withstood criticism for a draconian overture into player conduct by professing that his guiding principle in all matters dress code was maintaining the professionalism of the league. Stern’s tenure as the NBA’s head outfitter, however, has also been marked by questionable developments in on-the-court fashion.

Paradoxically, while Stern “cleaned up” the league’s image by instituting fashion policies off the court, on-the-court styles came into vogue that had never been seen before. NBA players have popularized in-game equipment (I use that term generously) with limited and often nonexistent functional value — gear like shooting sleeves, power wristbands and even Band-Aids branded with nicknames.

So some of the uniform accessories Stern has allowed to come into vogue in the NBA are at odds with his fashion principles. And on the flip side, players have claimed that some of the accessories he’s banned were actually integral to their health and performance and ultimately their ability to play basketball professionally.

Back in 2005, Stern was clear about his rationale for instituting a dress code in the NBA: “There’s the uniform you wear on the court, there’s the uniform you wear when you are on business, there’s the uniform you might wear on your casual downtime with your friends and there’s the uniform you might wear when you go back home,” the commissioner explained. “We’re just changing the definition of the uniform that you wear when you are on NBA business.”

For Stern, the NBA’s business extended beyond the court and into the pressrooms and locker rooms where the limelight followed the game’s biggest stars. And as the game’s popularity has grown, the chances to cash in on the NBA’s on-the-court business have become ever more attractive.

My prime example is an accessory that first appeared in the league during the 2000-01 season and has managed to find its way onto players’ arms ever since. Shooting sleeves, as they’re called, are the spandex-y accessories that stretch to cover a player’s arm. Allen Iverson, arguably the league’s biggest star when he became the first NBA player to wear a shooting sleeve in a game, suffered from elbow inflammation that year, so his sleeve was presumably meant to alleviate further pain. Indeed, perhaps because it helped his elbow heal, or because he felt it helped him in some other way, Iverson continued wearing the sleeve.

In the span of a few seasons, shooting sleeves became all the rage in the NBA. Players whose elbows were perfectly fine begun wearing them — the league’s star players, in fact, became some of the quickest adopters.

So, naturally, fans became fascinated with the accessory. Useful or not, shooting sleeves became cool. All too happy to oblige that new demand, sports apparel manufacturers made sleeves with zestier team colors and a host of other wow factors. Adidas, the manufacturer of the league’s jerseys, in fact continues to provide the players it sponsors with specially branded sleeves whose garish design is hard to miss on television.

Some players maintained that the accessory helps keep their shooting arms warm (apparently a problem NBA players of lore never faced nor managed to overcome). I’ve never played basketball professionally, so admittedly my ability to gauge the impact of these sleeves on shooting performance is limited. But let’s suppose for now that sleeves do positively impact shooting, and in fact help players who wear them. That makes it easy to see why the league would approve of their use during games.

In contrast, consider the rise of tights in the NBA. During the same season that Stern instituted his dress code, journeyman Jerry Stackhouse began donning compression leggings during games to help deal with a groin injury he’d suffered. Just like the shooting sleeves, Stackhouse claimed the leggings helped keep his legs warm after stretching.

After hearing Stackhouse swear by the leggings, eventually there was a growing cadre of NBA players following suit. Again, superstars led the way in adopting the new fad. And again, as fans grew attracted to the fashion, apparel manufacturers made commercially available tights cool. But before the start of the next season, Stern ruled the tights a fashion faux pas, and the NBA instituted a new uniform policy that banned players from wearing them during games.

So why the discrepancy in the rulings of the NBA’s fashion police? In terms of functionality, the tights can’t be much more or less useful than the shooting sleeves because they serve precisely the same purpose. And for every NBA player who found the tights more distasteful than cool, there was another who was more than happy to give them a try.

Let’s consider Stern’s criterion for acceptable NBA fashion, then: how did the tights and the shooting sleeves reflect on the NBA business? The sleeves, as I’ve written above, were prominently branded. The tights, however, for somewhat understandable reasons, didn’t feature enough room for branding. And the only room for branding on the tights would have been between a player’s knees and his shoes — space already occupied with NBA branding. Simple as it sounds — and like it or not — NBA fashion boils down to NBA business.

In his reign as NBA head tailor, Stern found a way to align player performance and NBA business interests both on and off the court. And best of all, he did it while keeping the players happy — or more specifically, while keeping the players looking snazzy. For all the flak he’s received for his fashion sense, NBA players should hope Stern’s replacement will be as sharp as he is dapper.

Jasmin (not verified) says:
Sat, 02/22/2014 - 04:18

Many thanks for making the sincere effort to explain this. I feel fairly strong about it and would like to read more. If it's OK, as you find out more in depth knowledge, would you mind writing more posts similar to this one with more information?



Kerry (not verified) says:
Fri, 03/28/2014 - 13:25

Great piece. It's eye opening to see how something that can help an athlete avoid injury gets scrapped because of the lack of logos on it. Kerry