Westbrook was born to dress people in the same way he was born to drop 40 points on opposing teams. “It’s funny. If you go to my house and look in my closet – I’m not lying – I have seven different piles of clothes, each for a different friend,” Westbrook says, sipping a juice at Fred’s, the sleek restaurant above the Barneys Madison Avenue store. When he isn’t playing ball or designing clothes, Westbrook is outfitting his buddies, operating as a sort of Santa of style. “All my friends, I send it to them, and they’re like, ‘Oh yeah. This is me.’ They don’t have to ask, I just send it to them: That’s for you, that’s for you, that’s for you. …A lot of times, we’ll go out, and I’ll think to myself, ‘Damn, I used to have a shirt like that.’ Then I realize, that’s my shirt!” Until recently, the dominant fashion in the NBA was a rejection of fashion, or at least high fashion. Players tended to favor jerseys, T-shirts, warm-ups, and do-rags. Then, in 2005, NBA Commissioner David Stern decided to institute a dress code to clean up what he regarded as the league’s thuggish image. His decision, which some criticized for its undercurrent of white paternalism, initially caused a furor. But it worked better than he could have imagined and sent the league rocketing off in a new direction.
Ten years ago on Oct. 17, 2005, NBA players received a surprising memo from then-commissioner David Stern. A league-wide dress code was going into effect. No more baggy jeans. No fitted baseball caps. No XXXL white T-shirts. No Timberland boots. Oversized necklaces – even ones with religious pendants – were also out. Players were not happy. Some jokingly called it the “A.I. rule” after Philadelphia 76ers guard Allen Iverson. Some thought it was racist toward black players or a slap at the hip-hop community. “I remember a lot of guys being upset with it,” said San Antonio Spurs forward David West who was then playing for the New Orleans Hornets. “A lot of guys thought they were being too intrusive. … I just remember felling like, ‘Damn, I’m a grown man and someone is telling me what to wear.’ ”
West, however, ignored the rule and continued to wear sweats to games. His wallet faced the consequences. He said the league had fashion police at NBA arenas, and they took pictures and reported players who didn’t adhere to the dress code. “I didn’t really change much,” West said. “I got fined a couple times because I’d rather be comfortable. My comfort comes first before anybody else.”
In the 1990s, hip-hop culture became popular with young adult fashion with its relaxed, baggy and sports-geared clothing. You didn’t have to be from the so-called “hood” to be attracted to dressing that way. And it wasn’t only black kids wearing the clothes. “I was in the era of when guys, especially rappers, were wasting tons of money, including myself, on extravagant, unnecessary and oversized jewelry,” former NBA player Jason Richardson said.
The “Malice at the Palace” brawl between the Indiana Pacers and Pistons on Nov. 19, 2004, in Auburn Hills, Mich., also contributed to the NBA’s decision to implement a dress code. The rule went into effect with the one-year anniversary of the brawl on the horizon to counter image problems that hampered its then recent history. “That brawl gave the NBA a huge black eye,” Billups said. “Nobody can say that it didn’t. The dress code was just one of the things that the league tried to do from a marketing standpoint. It put ice on that black eye from the fight to bring down the swelling.”
“We were pretty serious about how we dressed,” Drexler said. “I always had a personal tailor. Most teams had dress codes when traveling until most started chartering around 1990, 1991. Detroit was the first team to charter. Portland was the second. Once both Portland and Detroit played in the 1990 NBA Finals, most teams thought it created an advantage to charter. Then everyone started to charter.”
What are your go-to pieces when you’re not in uniform? Mike Conley: I love Diesel jeans. I actually enjoy what Diesel Black Gold is doing right now, too. I think Public School might be one of my new favorite designers after their last show.