In 2005, the NBA’s (now former) commissioner David Stern introduced the first major-sports-league dress code. The changes were met with much controversy and divided opinion among players.
But what led to the dress code changes?
While there were several reasons and incidents that lead to David Stern introducing the new dress code, the major one was the ‘Malice at the Palace’ incident of November, 2004. The incident occurred at the Detroit Pistons v Indian Pacers game and involved players on both teams and the spectators brawling for ten minutes on live national TV. It resulted in charges brought against many of the participants (both players and spectators) and millions of dollars worth of fines. ‘Malice at the Palace’ prompted David Stern to attempt to change the NBA’s image and reputation and as the opening of the 2005 season approached he implemented a new dress code.
Stern’s dress code stated that players were expected to wear ‘business casual attire’ to all team- and league-related events and activities. This included to and from a game, on the bench when out due to injury, at interviews and charity events and so on. The dress code outlawed sleeveless t-shirts, shorts, jerseys and sports apparel inappropriate or unrelated to the event or not team-identified/approved: headphones, sneakers and work boots; head gear such as baseball caps and hats; chains, medallions and other jewellery worn outside the player’s clothing like headphones and sunglasses while indoors.
Players’ reactions to the changes were mixed. In the 2005 preseason, Jason Richardson said: “I don’t understand what that [dress code] has to do with being business approachable. […] You wear a suit, you still could be a crook. […] A guy could come in with baggy jeans, a ‘do rag and have a Ph.D. and a person who comes in with a suit could be a three-time felon”.
Other players were more accepting. “We are going to have fun, but this is a job and we should look like we’re going to work, that’s the way they feel,” said LeBron James in the wake of the changes.
Now, almost 12 years after the implementation of the dress code, how has the NBA’s fashion and streetwear culture changed?
As the players began to accept and the embrace the ‘business casual attire’ code, the men’s fashion industry also began to change. Dwayne Wade explained the players’ changing attitudes towards the code as “a competition amongst guys […] 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”.
Players like James and Wade were considered the leading icons during the dress code change. Due to their enthusiastic embrace of high-end fashion in keeping with the code, other NBA players began to follow suit. The change to ‘business casual’ snowballed to the point that today’s players now have top-brand endorsement deals and their own fashion lines and brands as well. The short journey from a stadium’s parking lot to the team’s locker room before a game has become somewhat of a catwalk, as players flaunt their high-end, fashionable ‘business casual attire’.
Even though cultures and fashions change and evolve throughout the years, David Stern’s controversial dress code catapulted the NBA into the modern fashion world and what it is today.