There's No Dressing Up Bad Attitudes

Allen Iverson
Allen Iverson is emblematic of the modern NBA player that dresses casually and refuses to put on a suit. (Jonathan Newton - The Washington Post)

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By Michael Wilbon
Saturday, October 15, 2005

Being asked by your employer to wear a jacket and slacks when representing the company shouldn't cause this much drama. Not when you make, on average, $4 million a year. The dress code being proposed by the NBA doesn't ask players to wear a suit and tie every day, just to look like working professionals: a jacket with lapels instead of a throwback jersey and a do-rag, a pair of loafers instead of high-top sneaks. And we're talking game days and official public appearances, not eight hours a day, five days a week.

But the sound of the rebellion has been heard from Portland to Miami.

Don't get me wrong, there are players who not only don't oppose the dress code, but like it. "I know a lot of people will say we're in the entertainment industry, but we represent franchises that are sometimes among the biggest businesses in that city," the Wizards' Antawn Jamison said the other day. "I'm fine with a jacket and shirt with a collar and pants that aren't jeans. We're professionals and we should be putting forth a professional image. I don't see what the problem is."

That's because Jamison has some sense that he's paid a lot of money to represent more than himself. A lot of his peers don't have that sense. Some of them don't have any sense of anything, starting with Marcus Camby, now of the Nuggets, who said he can't see adhering to the dress code "unless every NBA player is given a stipend to buy clothes." Camby makes approximately $8 million a year. And he wants folks to believe he cannot afford a suit. It's too bad a judge can't order Camby to spend the rest of this season in New Orleans's Ninth Ward.

Camby's "stipend" speech is now officially the dumbest and most offensive thing uttered in the last five years, surpassing Latrell Sprewell's "I've-got-to-feed-my-family" speech as a reaction to why he was outraged at not being offered more than $10 million a year by the Timberwolves.

The irony here is that Camby was hurt so often early in his career it seemed all he could do was sit on the Knicks bench in a suit, some of them quite stylish as I recall. But mostly, we're talking about the usual suspects. You didn't think Allen Iverson and Rasheed Wallace were going to just say "okay" to looking anything other than homeless, did you?

Somewhat predictably, Wallace told radio station WOAI: "I can't speak for other teams, but for us, we're definitely trying to voice our objection. I don't have a problem with that dress code if a man is injured and has to be on the bench during games. But it's kind of crazy to sit up there and try to tell us how to dress on the way to work. We're not in that head office in New York. To me, that's crazy."

What Wallace doesn't get, of course, is that the perception of the NBA doesn't come from the head office in New York; it comes from Madison Square Garden and the Palace of Auburn Hills and Staples Center and MCI Center. And right now the league's image isn't good. I'm not talking about the perception of NBA players in a hip-hop universe, which the league married itself to 10 years ago; I'm talking about their image among the people who pay for their lavish professional existence, meaning primarily network partners and corporate sponsors. Hip-hop may be the image of the league; by and large it doesn't fund the league.

If rich people, most of whom get dressed in something other than throwback jerseys every day (say, for example, bankers who make even more money than the players but still have to adhere to a dress code), don't renew their $200,000 luxury suites at NBA arenas, and if sponsors and TV partners don't pay the NBA hundreds of millions of dollars every season, then the generation of ballers after Iverson and Wallace might well be playing in the Rucker League and not a national league, internationally televised. Maybe their agents can remind them of that.

And maybe their agents can remind them that the popularity of the NBA, which allowed stars to make $13 to $20 million annually, was created not only by what happened on the court, but what happened off it. From 1985 to 2000 or so, most NBA players were the best-dressed men on the planet. Earvin Johnson and Michael Jordan looked so stylish and sophisticated every night that CEOs wanted to buy what they were selling. For every rumpled John Stockton there was an Alonzo Mourning who on his way into or out of the arena made you think he was going or coming from somewhere important. Every night was red-carpet night in the NBA.

Other than Mourning and Ray Allen and a handful of others who understand the art of presentation and what it means to the pocketbook, that's gone now. Too many players now look like bums on the street. I can't figure out whether they're copying today's styles or whether they led the way.

Either way, it's hideous. I'm reminded of a passage in Charles Barkley's book, "Who's Afraid of a Large Black Man?" in which the Rev. Jesse Jackson talks about how annoyed he is with seeing young men (black and white, but mostly black) walk around with jeans hanging around their butts and sneaks without laces.

"In jail," Rev. Jackson said, "you can't wear a belt or a rope around your waist. . . . They take the strings out of your shoes because you might try to hang yourself. . . . That's jail culture. Nobody designed that. It's jail culture, that's all it is."

The NBA, as it turns out, knows now that people don't want to pay $200 a night to see jail culture. If they can't see Magic and Michael, they want to see people who make the attempt to look something like Magic and Michael. This is why the league went from one extreme to the other, from hip-hop to forging a relationship with Matthew Dowd, chief campaign strategist for Bush-Cheney 2004.

It'll be interesting to see whether Commissioner David Stern, who has been carrying a big stick the last 18 months on issues of comportment and image, will back down now that so many players have complained. When Detroit's Richard Hamilton learned of the proposed dress code last week he said to reporters, "Is that for real? Is that for real? Then [the NBA and club executives] are going to have to write a lot of fines."

No doubt, Hamilton is right and some players will simply write checks to pay those fines, perhaps in advance. And certainly the NBA shouldn't require 6-foot-8 men to wear anything other than what I call "comfy clothes" on airplanes. The bigger question is whether the rebels outnumber the players who look back at the previous generation of NBA stars, even some holdovers like Shaq and Mourning, and realize the upside, both short term and long, and see how stupid it is to equate dressing up with selling out.


© 2005 The Washington Post Company

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