Smartly suited players Chris Bosh, left, Dwyane Wade and LeBron James attend… (Jason LaVeris / FilmMagic )
In 2010, a month before he took to the basketball court for the first time in a New York Knicks uniform, Amare Stoudemire took to the red carpet at Lincoln Center in head-to-toe Tom Ford. In 2009, when NBA No. 1 draft pick Blake Griffin was chosen by the Clippers, he was wearing a custom suit, a purple necktie and eye-catching pocket square from L.A. tailor Waraire Boswell. And sometime during this year's playoffs, there's a decent chance the Miami Heat's Dwyane Wade will be photographed sporting a diamond lapel pin from Jason of Beverly Hills.
The National Basketball Assn. has had its share of style-savvy players — and even coaches (paging Pat Riley). But it wasn't so long ago that the biggest fashion statement on court or off was Dennis Rodman dying his hair the colors of a fruit bowl and Shaquille O'Neal wearing baggy suits — definitely a mixed bag.
Think about it: It can be hard to find the right clothes when you're somewhere around the NBA average of 6 foot 7.
But today — witness Stoudemire, Griffin and Wade — even the tallest players sport a trim and tailored look. Having a personal stylist is de rigueur. Nattily attired, high-profile players grace the covers of glossy style magazines and sit front row at fashion shows next to Vogue's Anna Wintour.
The athletes' fashion side projects and brand endorsements have become so common that the league's acronym might as well be "National Bespoke Assn." And it's not just about court shoes anymore. The Celtics' Jermaine O'Neal recently launched a menswear label dubbed Le Jaunty. Stoudemire is collaborating with designer Rachel Roy on a collection for women (spotlighted by Women's Wear Daily last week). And the Lakers' Kobe Bryant has partnered with Nubeo on a line of ungodly expensive watches.
It's hard to reconcile the wardrobe of today's hardwood warriors with the laissez-faire look of the league circa 2005, when the NBA felt compelled to institute an official dress code.
"The dress code was part of a larger discussion about the business of basketball, the players' role in it and projecting a positive image," said Michael Bantom, senior vice president of player development for the NBA. "It was something that teams had dealt with on an individual basis. Some teams had their own dress codes, others didn't."
But as of the 2005-06 season, off-court players engaged in team or league business were required to wear collared dress shirts or turtlenecks, dress slacks, khakis or dress jeans with "appropriate shoes and socks." Players at games but not in uniform were additionally required to wear a sport coat, dress socks and dress shoes or boots. T-shirts, sports jerseys, shorts, headphones, sunglasses worn indoors or headgear of any kind were prohibited while a player was on team or league business.
Many observers — including Bantom — see that as the first ripple in what would eventually become a change in the way professional basketball players approached their clothing choices.
"True to their competitive nature, once they started dressing up — and seeing how good they looked — they started competing with each other to see who could dress the best," Bantom said. "The evidence of that can be seen in their interest in fashion and the exposure they're now getting because of the way they're dressing."
That meant players were no longer simply satisfied with the convenience of one-stop custom clothiers such as Élevée in Van Nuys, which in 2005 laid claim to half of the NBA's players as clients. Stephon Marbury once placed an order for 82 suits — one for each regular season game — and longtime customer Shaquille O'Neal was known to order 52 shirts and 20 pairs of trousers at a clip.
But after the dress code was implemented, some pro ballers took a page from the music and movie industry celebrity playbook and began to engage the services of personal stylists.
"Before the league changed the rules, it was pretty simple," said Paige Geran, a stylist who has worked with Kobe Bryant for the last year and a half. "The guys would just wear suits for every game so they'd just buy them in bulk."
After the rule change, "the more savvy guys — the Kobes, the LeBrons [James] and the D-Wades — they started turning to stylists because they enjoy fashion and wanted to look a little more unique. A stylist can bring a lot to the table for them — they're getting to wear stuff that a man who is 6 foot 3 can wear."
Geran's comment underscores a crucial point: buying off-the-rack clothes — especially dress shirts and tailored suits — isn't an option for most players. And when a guy's workaday uniform is, in fact, a uniform, there is all the more reason to kick things up a notch.