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How David Stern's Dress Code Transformed The Modern NBA Star

02/17/2015 10:33 am ET | Updated Apr 19, 2015
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It's February 14th, 2015, and the front page of the New York Times Sports section features a quote from Los Angeles Lakers guard Nick Young. "I'm like Kanye, Pharrell," says the boyfriend of Iggy Azalea. "You could compare me to those levels."

Young is not referring to his stardom on the basketball court, but as his role as an "N.B.A. fashion guy." The article, entitled "Posing for Fashion Houses, N.B.A. Stars Feel at Home," is written by Andrew Keh and discusses "the growing synergy between the N.B.A. and the world of fashion -- how and why the league has become such a fertile source of brand pitchmen and style icons."

It's worth noting that the Association's All-Star festivities took place here in the Big Apple, where both the city's teams are below .500, and two franchise owners have been removed in the past 12 months for racist controversies. Yet the lead article in the Times Sports section is about fashion, and none of the previously mentioned topics makes an appearance.

Perhaps the most notable absence, however, is any mention of David Stern's unilaterally-imposed dress code.

It's October, 2005, and NBA stars are in a public war of words with the NBA Commissioner. The dust still hasn't settled from the infamous Malice at the Palace, where a game had to be cut short when Ron Artest and his Indiana Pacers teammates went into the stands and fought a group of fans.

The NBA has imposed a series of public relations alterations as a result of the incident. Amongst them is the requirement of players to sign autographs following pregame warm-ups and the creation of the NBA Cares Initiative. The most public alteration, however, is Stern's dress code, making the NBA the first major sports league to require its athletes to dress a certain way.

The dress code requires all NBA players to wear "business casual attire" before games, after games, and during any official league event. Business Casual is described as the following:

• A long or short-sleeved dress shirt (collared or turtleneck), and/or a sweater.
• Dress slacks, khaki pants, or dress jeans.
• Appropriate shoes and socks, including dress shoes, dress boots, or other presentable shoes, but not including sneakers, sandals, flip-flops, or work boots.

The dress code, predictably, has struck a nerve with a number of the Association's African-American stars, who view the rules as an attack against who they are and who they represent.

"When I saw the part about chains, hip-hop and throwback jerseys, I think that's part of our culture," said 28-year-old Boston Celtics star Paul Pierce. "The NBA is young black males."

"They're targeting my generation -- the hip-hop generation," said Philadelphia 76ers guard Allen Iverson, who would lead the league in points-per-game that season.

Golden States Warriors guard Jason Richardson went so far as to call the changes race-motivated: "They want to sway away from the hip-hop generation. ... One thing to me that was kind of racist was you can't wear chains outside your clothing. I don't understand what that has to do with being business approachable. ... Some of them have religious meanings behind their chains, others have personal messages behind their chains. Some guys just like to wear them. I think that was an indirectly racial."

Even then NBA players union president Antonio Davis got involved, telling USA today "I don't think it's fair for them to tell you exactly how to dress."

Back to present day and the NY Times piece. The Houston Rockets' James Harden, a blooming NBA star since escaping the shadow of the Oklahoma City Thunder's Big Two, openly discusses his foray into fashion.

"It's different for me," said Harden. "I'm starting to move in this direction. This is a big step for me."

Harden sounds not like a man embracing the world of menswear -- not like Young, and certainly not like his former teammate Russell Westbrook, who features prominently in the article -- but as a marketing icon trying to score a big buck. Wrote Keh; "Harden... acknowledged that he was still trying to establish this sort of comfort level." This is not Harden's cup of tea, as it were, but a necessity in today's modern NBA to adequately expand his brand.

Earlier this year, Miami Heat guard Dwyane Wade spoke openly about how the dress code changed the mindset of NBA stars.

"It was like, 'OK, now we got to really dress up and we can't just throw on a sweat suit,'" Wade said. "Then it became a competition amongst guys and now you really got into it more and you started to really understand the clothes you put on your body, the materials you're starting to wear, so then you become even more of a fan of it."

The "hip-hop generation," as Iverson described it, is dead, at least in the NBA. Chains and do-rags has been replaced by turtlenecks and eyewear.

While Stern's decree was intended to protect his own brand in a manner that would make Roger Goodell blush, the dress code has proven to be mutually beneficial. A rule that was so despised has spawned a new financial opportunity for the players.

The NBA fashion movement has become so profitable, in fact, that its initial protests are all but forgotten. Wrote Keh:

"For years in the N.B.A., players have viewed being well dressed as a given, as much a part of modern basketball culture as lay-up lines and pregame stretches."

Considering it was just 10 years ago that the NBA's biggest stars, names such as Pierce, Iverson and even Tim Duncan (who called it "basically retarded"), were fighting for the right to wear whatever they wanted, it's curious Keh would make such a proclamation.

But thats just the point; the code was embraced by a new generation of NBA stars with such fervor that it is hard to imagine an NBA All Star Weekend that doesn't coincide with NYC's fashion week. Events at Macy's and Bloomingdale's seem as much a part of basketball as, to quote Keh, "layup lines and pregame stretches."

''Every player should have a feel of how they market their own selves," said Pierce in 2005. "We should be able to dress the way we feel."

In today's modern NBA, the stars are doing just that. It's difficult to imagine properly discussing this point of arrival without respectfully appreciating its initial point of departure.