The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

NBA coaches are stuck in a pandemic rut. It’s time for a fashion intervention.

Indiana Pacers Coach Rick Carlisle likes suits but is speaking for coaches who prefer comfort. (Mary Altaffer/AP)

The last time Rick Carlisle wore a suit to work, the world was about to shut down.

It was March 11, 2020, and Carlisle was the coach of the Dallas Mavericks. That night, news began to spread about the NBA suspending its season because of the coronavirus pandemic. His would be the final game on the NBA calendar for months.

When basketball returned, he didn’t look the same.

Much to the dismay of lovers of fashion everywhere, Carlisle — now with the Indiana Pacers — and his male and female peers in the NBA coaching ranks have exchanged their formal attire for golf shirts and long-sleeved pullovers.

“At one time, two or three years ago, the vote of the head coaches would’ve favored suits,” said Carlisle, the longtime president of the National Basketball Coaches Association. “Now it overwhelmingly favors polos and quarter-zips.”

Just look at what the pandemic has wrought. In the Before Times, most NBA coaches had a wardrobe deal with Men’s Wearhouse and a master tailor, Joseph Abboud, to customize their suits. Now, they are styling themselves as though they have to hop on Zoom at any minute: an untucked quarter-zip pullover, a pair of presentable pants only because the camera may accidentally pan down and some rubber-soled sneakers. Their new look is glam enough to pass for a high school administrator — they can probably draw up an ATO play and proctor an ACT exam at the same time.

They’ve been dressing like nobody is watching since the league restarted in July 2020. Those games were put on inside empty gymnasiums, and the bubblelike atmosphere called for a more relaxed attire. By the start of the 2020-21 season, the advocates for comfort had grown in number. And though normalcy in sports, or what was left of it, has returned, NBA coaches are still shunning the former formality of their wardrobes. They’re not just stripping away their suits; they’re losing the tradition of dressing like grown-ups who care.

Theirs is a pandemic chic. The haute couture of polyester and wrinkle-free pants. And it makes me long for the days when the NBA sidelines showed a touch of class.

I miss pocket squares and plaid sport coats. My kingdom for the rare sighting of a monogrammed “LV” necktie hanging down a dress shirt of the coach who appreciates understated but classic luxury. Shoot, at this point, can we just bring back the days of shirts with collars?

That was when NBA coaches abided by a code. The league required coaches to wear dress shirts and sport coats for games. But wearing mandatory suits for 82 games can be costly, so in 2008, the NBCA brokered a deal with Abboud and Men’s Wearhouse to provide at least 10 custom looks free to the coaches who wanted them. However, that partnership expired two years ago, right around the same time coaches agreed to start wearing matching polos in the bubble.

“It looks good,” Carlisle said Wednesday before pulling on a gray quarter-zip for the Pacers’ matchup against the New York Knicks. (Tom Thibodeau and his staff chose a lighter hue for their garb, closer to dirty-dishwater-gray.)

“You’ve got the entire coaching staff, training staff, strength and conditioning staff all dressed the same way on the bench,” Carlisle continued. “To me, it’s a very good look. So I certainly see the merits of staying the way we are, but it’s going to be a conversation on a year-to-year basis with the league to see how it goes next year.”

Try as Carlisle might to champion for the casual, there’s a reason ZZ Top never sang: “Every girl crazy ’bout a Dri-FIT polo.”

These are professional adults, well compensated, serving as the front-facing leaders of major organizations. They should dress like it. Or if they don’t appreciate the fuss, take my friend Jerry Brewer’s suggestion: Dress like your winning percentage. If you’re tanking, wear cutoff jeans and flip-flops because, really, no one cares about your team. But if you’re tops in the conference, you better break out some Ted Baker.

Remember when Pat Riley wore Armani and Chuck Daly rocked Hugo Boss? Though their 1990s New York and Detroit teams, respectively, would smack you in the face, at least the coaches looked good. Looked like they were in control. Suave, even. Jazzing up the sideline and teaching future generations that a suit can say so much about a man.

And that suits can mean so much to men. The champagne-soaked suit Carlisle wore when the Mavericks won the 2011 championship remained in his closet until eight years later, when he dusted it off to wear again at a street naming ceremony in honor of Dirk Nowitzki. But there’s no reason to preserve the black quarter-zip pullover that Mike Budenholzer wore during the Milwaukee Bucks’ 2021 title celebration. He could bust that out anytime — for a January game in Charlotte, a quick run to Home Depot, wherever.

But Carlisle, God bless him. He may back up his peers who prefer play clothes, but the biggest mentor in his life, besides his father, was Daly. Carlisle still has love for suits.

“Deep down because of my relationship with Chuck and the traditional aspect of the game,” he said, “I’m a suits guy.”

NBA coaches may think they’re dressing for comfort and convenience, but they are actually crying out for help. For they, too, are stuck in the fashion purgatory of dressing down, one day after another of bland leisure wear, which so few of us can escape.

Like NBA coaches, we used to dress for the occasion. But almost two years into a global pandemic that has drastically altered the life we used to know, those of us still working from home have redefined the look of business attire. One that consists of an old pair of sweats and a college hoodie. One that screams: I woke up like this. No, really. I literally just rolled out of bed.

In their own way, NBA coaches have embraced a new normal of professional dress as well, one that prioritizes officially licensed uniformity over individualism. Every time they zip up those pullovers, they’re losing a bit of tradition. Every polo packed for a road trip is an affront to the expression of style. These coaches need a fashion intervention. So, for the love of Daly, please, gentlemen, put on a suit.