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Sports Then and Now

How Fashion Has Taken Over the NBA

Posted on February 04, 2019 by Martin Banks

Perhaps no sport is more associated with fashion than the NBA. The competition among players to dress the best is fierce, and it’s become a big part of the news cycle surrounding the league.

Players receive a lot of chances to flaunt their fashion choices. The most notable is the pre-game walk through the tunnel. Traveling to and from games, press conferences and other events provide opportunities as well.


Over the last few decades though, the story of the NBA and fashion has moved beyond just pre-game and press conference outfits. Players such as Russell Westbrook and James Harden make regular appearances at world-famous fashion shows and on the covers of style magazines. Many players also have their own fashion lines and brand collaborations. Westbrook even wrote a book, titled Style Drivers, about his relationship with fashion.

In 2017, the NBA officially recognized the importance of fashion for the league by introducing the NBA Style Award, which the league gave out alongside awards for most valuable player and rookie of the year. Westbrook took home first place, followed by Cleveland’s Iman Shumpert and Chicago’s Dwyane Wade.

The NBA’s Fashion Transformation

In 2005, the NBA officially introduced a dress code in an attempt to improve its public image. David Stern, the NBA commissioner at the time, felt the NBA had an image problem. A brawl between players from the Indiana Pacers, the Detroit Pistons and fans that came to be known as Malice at the Palace seemed to be the tipping point that led Stern to lay out new rules for players in an effort to improve the league’s reputation.

Following the incident, Sterns issued new rules for behavior and dress. The rules banned much of what players commonly wore at the time, including t-shirts, jeans, jewelry and all types of headgear. Instead, players had to dress in business attire or otherwise dress conservatively when traveling to games or conducting other kinds of league-related business.


Initially, many players spoke out against the new rules. Some called the rules racist. Over time, though, more players began to embrace the new style. It likely would have happened eventually anyway, but some credit the dress code with pushing the NBA toward high fashion more quickly.

Fashion’s Role in the League

Fashion has come to play an important branding role both for individual players and the league itself. It’s helped many players establish their personal brands and gain fame even among people who don’t watch the sport. It’s also been a big money-maker for some players.

Malik Monk, De'Aaron Fox

It’s also another way that players compete with each other, which perhaps explains why the fashion statements coming out of the league keep getting bolder. They understand the importance of a well-tailored suit. In his book, Westbrook describes how he uses his style as a “psychological weapon on and off the court.”

Some teams use fashion to craft a cohesive team identity off the court or perhaps intimidate an opponent before a big game. Last year, LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers showed up to an Indiana Pacers game in matching, perfectly-fitted suits paid for by LeBron.

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Why do fashion and basketball combine so well? NBA players are some of the most recognizable athletes in the world. They don’t wear helmets when they play, so fans can always see their faces. The game itself also presents opportunities for self-expression. You can choose the simple lay-up or the high-flying dunk. Players use fashion to extend this self-expression to off-the-court appearances as well.

Where is the NBA fashion scene going to go from here? It’ll likely continue to get more adventurous but may eventually move toward more understated choices. After all, fashion goes in cycles. The league’s posture in the fashion world seems pretty steadfast though, and the trendiest players will likely continue to hold influence for years to come.

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