What Does Basketball Fashion Have to Do With Basketball?

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How much does the profession of basketball intersect with the art of dressing? According to gritty NBA forward and notable fashion plate PJ Tucker, only so much.

“They don’t even correlate to me,” says Tucker in an interview that appears in Fly: The Big Book of Basketball Fashion, a new coffee table-style book by Portland-born author Mitchell S. Jackson (Survival Math). “The way I play and the way I dress. Like night and day. I guess it’s kind of impossible to dress like I play, ‘cause, you know, I’d probably look like a homeless person.”

NBA players are tall, in excellent shape, young, rich, and famous: This gives them everything they need to operate as models for bespoke clothing. Who cares if dressing well has little to do with the actual playing of the game of basketball? A survey of the style of NBA players from the post-war era until now still functions as a survey of fashionable-yet-highly-wearable clothing that might be otherwise overlooked and thus forgotten. 

Jackson broke up his catalog decade by decade and the results track with whatever emergent youth culture was ascendant and with whatever men—Black men, especially—were trying to project at the time. In the ’60s, we see a lot of suits and ties, a reflection of the Civil Rights movement and Black struggle for acceptance in white America. In the ’70s, the seriousness of that moment recedes and color blossoms across the page. See Kareem Abdul-Jabbar draped in a dashiki, Bill Walton sporting overalls, Wilt Chamberlain in a silk top, three buttons undone, sporting a massive medallion. 

No one in history got more and wilder fits off than Knicks guard Walt Frazier during this era. He appears in these pages sporting a turtleneck, a gold medallion, a Spanish-style wide brim hat, and an honest to god cape, and, somehow, it all works. For more of Frazier’s work in the aesthetic space, check out his 1974 book Rockin’ Steady: A Guide to Basketball & Cool, where Frazier tells the reader exactly how to rock a cape, and also how to defend every NBA starting guard from the 1973 season. 

The ‘90s and the early aughts ushered in a series of baggier and baggier fits. Michael Jordan’s gigantic, nearly Byrne-esque, suits really stick out at first, until Iverson comes along and inspires the entire league with hip-hop aesthetics. In the wake of the Malice at the Palace—a massive brawl during a Pistons-Pacers game that spilled out into the stands—NBA Commissioner David Stern, in a paternalistic and also pretty-racist move to improve the perception of the league in the eyes of white America, employed a strict dress code on players’ game day fits. 

And so, NBA fashion as we know it has returned to the well-kempt style of the ‘60s: suits are back, sporting slim cuts which emphasize the players’ height and wide shoulders. It’s a weird space to enter intellectually, because while it does mark a hard return of respectability politics to Black fashion— like so many others in Mitchell’s fascinating and entertaining book—LeBron James wears it so well. 

Earvin “Magic” Johnson shows up to the 1988 NBA All-Star Game in style. (Andrew D. Bernstein / Getty Images)

Mitchell S. Jackson appears in conversation with Tra’Renee Chambers at Powell’s City of Books, 1005 W Burnside, Tues Sept 20, 7 pm, FREE 

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