John Wall, entourage at his side and sunglasses on his face, walked off the elevator on the fifth floor at Macy’s Herald Square in Manhattan and into a small room tucked away from the public earlier this month. A few minutes later, a throng of eager media members, nearly 20 in all, surrounded Wall for some rapid-fire questions.
The Washington Wizards’ point guard was in town to start in the NBA All-Star Game three days later, but basketball wasn’t the subject of discussion. Wall was at the department store making an appearance for Sean Combs’s clothing line, Sean John, so fashion was the topic.
“Just go with your style,” Wall advised, answering the first question. “Whatever you feel comfortable in. That’s the important thing.”
What Wall and other NBA players are comfortable wearing off the basketball court has become as important to many casual fans as their performances on it. All-Star Weekend, which coincided with the annual New York Fashion Week, felt as much a fashion convention as a basketball showcase. The weekend featured the NBA’s first fashion show. Rapper Kanye West staged his own fashion event to release his new sneaker, the Adidas Yeezy 750 Boost (retail price: $350). Wall and several other players attended both events.
The NBA’s locker rooms and news conferences are men’s fashion’s latest, and perhaps most influential, runways. Venture into the Wizards’ locker room after a game and the development is evident. There, players replace their uniforms with form-fitting suits, designer shoes and, sometimes, hats, the latest installment in the evolution.
Entertainer Pharrell Williams is widely credited with boosting the popularity of hats as an accessory. He was initially mocked for the oversize brown hat he wore to the January 2014 Grammy Awards, drawing comparisons to Smokey Bear, but the look eventually caught on. New York Knicks star Carmelo Anthony was at the vanguard in the NBA last season and the advancement in headwear has made its way to the Wizards this season.
Wall and teammate Drew Gooden III revealed they began buying hats over the summer. Wall has a stylist in Los Angeles who suggests outfits and estimated he has four or five hats in his wardrobe. Gooden purchased his first few hats in New York during the offseason.
“When I was in New York this summer I seen a lot of people wearing those, like they were rabbi hats,” Gooden explained. “It wasn’t like it was like a cowboy hat or anything. It was more like a rabbi’s hat. I saw that look going around with the women and the men and it kind of caught me off guard when I saw a couple people wearing them. But then you kind of seen how that had taken a turn into the fashion world. So I got a couple hats I might wear once in a while. It’s not an everyday thing for me.”
Rasual Butler is the Wizards’ other prominent hat wearer but claimed he isn’t a fashion prisoner of the moment. The 35-year-old swingman insisted he has worn fedoras and feathered headwear since he was a child growing up in Philadelphia.
“For whatever reason since I was young I’ve been drawn to those,” Butler said. “I got some hats and pictures of me dressed on Easter Sunday at like 4 and 5 with, like, big hats.”
Butler estimated he has a few hats in his homes in Miami and Washington. He does the majority of his hat shopping online but seeks out boutiques in bigger cities like New York and Los Angeles to add to his collection.
“When you go buy it, they only got two or three in stock,” Butler said, “and they won’t ever have them again.”
The thought of NBA players donning hats was unthinkable a decade ago. Back then, most NBA players took their fashion cues from the hip-hop world. The popular headwear choice was a fitted baseball cap to color-coordinate with throwback jerseys, ’do-rags, baggy jeans and sneakers.
That began to change when then-Commissioner David Stern implemented a dress code in 2005, requiring players to wear business casual attire when participating in team or league activities. The rule, created to improve the league’s image for corporate and mainstream America, was initially controversial but is now credited as the catalyst for today’s fashion culture.
“The dress code helped a lot as far as fashion goes,” Butler said. “Once they said you couldn’t wear jerseys anymore then you started to have to venture out, either have straight business attire like your 9-to-5 office job or put a little spunk to it and be the 9-to-5 guy after work. I think the dress code has something to do with the evolution of fashion being so prevalent in the NBA.”
Now fashion and the NBA are synonymous. There are extremes. On one end, players such as Oklahoma City Thunder point guard Russell Westbrook, Miami Heat guard Dwyane Wade and Wall have become models off the court. At the other end, there are subtle reminders, like 37-year-old Paul Pierce’s designer glasses, which he wears simply for style, without a prescription. It is a reality that would have been unimaginable just a few years ago.
“I would’ve laughed at myself,” said Gooden, a 33-year-old who entered the NBA in 2002. “I would’ve been like, ‘My jeans are too tight. My shirt’s too small.’ I would’ve looked at myself like, ‘What have I become?’ But when I look back at myself, now as an older guy, some of the stuff I was wearing back in 2001, 2002, I’m like ‘What the hell was I doing then?’ ”