Opinions on the NBA's Dress Code Are Far From Uniform

Allen Iverson, Michael Jordan
Allen Iverson, left, is emblematic of hip-hop culture's influence on NBA players in the post-Michael Jordan, right, era. (AP, Reuters)
By Mike Wise
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, October 23, 2005

At one of Belgrade's finest restaurants last year, Allen Iverson, Carmelo Anthony, LeBron James and many of their youthful U.S. Olympic basketball teammates attended a dinner in their honor. The guests included members of the Serbian national team, all of whom wore matching sport coats.

Iverson and some of his fellow National Basketball Association professionals arrived wearing an assortment of sweat suits, oversize jeans, shimmering diamond earrings and platinum chains, according to NBA officials who were at the dinner.

Larry Brown, the Hall of Fame coach of the U.S. team, was appalled and embarrassed. He later remarked to one official that he had thought about sending some of the worst-dressed players back to the team hotel.

Word of the fashion faux pas eventually made its way to the office of NBA Commissioner David Stern in New York, where concern was already on the rise about how some players were dressing and, more broadly, how the game's appeal was slipping. The NBA had tried mightily to fuse its product with hip-hop culture, viewing its young players and their street fashion sense as a way to connect with a new generation of fans in the post-Michael Jordan era. But that wasn't happening. Indeed, Stern and some of his closest advisers concluded, they might be driving fans away from the sport.

With the new season set to begin Nov. 1, Stern announced a dress code earlier this month that requires players to wear "business casual" attire whenever they are engaged in team or league business. It specifically bans shorts, T-shirts, jerseys, sneakers, flip-flops, headgear such as 'do-rags, and chains, pendants and medallions worn outside clothing.

Stern's image-overhaul decision sparked a contentious debate over fashion and race and called attention to a generational chasm between modern professional athletes, many of whom are black, and their mostly white paying customers.

Recent public opinion polls, as well as some of the NBA's own focus groups, ranked basketball players as the least popular athletes among the major professional sports leagues, according to NBA officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. Television ratings for June's NBA Finals plunged 29 percent from the year before.

Asked during a conference call with reporters whether the dress code was aimed at appeasing the NBA's corporate sponsors, Stern replied: "We don't think that looking professional is a corporate decision. Our teams have done it for years, and there was a strong sense that we should do a uniform minimum code across the league, and that's what we did."

Many players who feel their individualism is under siege don't see the issue the same way, and are vowing that they will not allow themselves to be commodified by the league.

"They're targeting my generation -- the hip-hop generation," Iverson said in a television interview. He added, "You can put a murderer in a suit and he's still a murderer." Iverson, along with Denver's Marcus Camby, asked if the NBA would provide players with a clothing stipend to conform to the dress code.

"It's definitely an attack on the hip-hop influence of the NBA," said Elliott Wilson, the editor-in-chief of the hip-hop lifestyle magazine XXL. "It sort of allows the men in charge to think that they have reclaimed the NBA's value system -- and they now have a league that reflects their taste and what they believe in."

The problem is that the relationship between the NBA and hip-hop cuts both ways. The designer sneakers and oversize jerseys and shorts that are now the mainstays of hip-hop fashion appeared first on the basketball court, worn by a generation of players intent on stamping the game with a distinctive new style. For players such as Iverson, who like many stars has a successful clothing line that melds basketball and hip-hop, the dress-code edict could cost money in missed marketing opportunities.

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