How the NBA's fashion game has evolved in the 10 years since the 2005 dress code

Marc J. Spears

Ten years ago on Oct. 17, 2005, NBA players received a surprising memo from then-commissioner David Stern. A league-wide dress code was going into effect. No more baggy jeans. No fitted baseball caps. No XXXL white T-shirts. No Timberland boots. Oversized necklaces – even ones with religious pendants – were also out.

Players were not happy. Some jokingly called it the "A.I. rule" after Philadelphia 76ers guard Allen Iverson. Some thought it was racist toward black players or a slap at the hip-hop community.

"I remember a lot of guys being upset with it," said San Antonio Spurs forward David West, who was then playing for the New Orleans Hornets. "A lot of guys thought they were being too intrusive. … I just remember felling like, 'Damn, I'm a grown man and someone is telling me what to wear.' "

The NBA's mandatory dress code was for all NBA and NBDL players, who were expected to wear business-casual attire while participating in team and NBA activities that included arriving at games, departing games, conducting interviews and making promotional and other appearances. Specific penalties weren't announced, but repeat violators were subject to fines.

"It was like us versus the league," former Detroit Pistons guard Chauncey Billups said, "and there was a little tag going on us on who we were and what we represented, the black players, the whole hip-hop culture."

Ten years later, the NBA's sense of style has evolved to the point where several stars routinely make their own unique fashion statements.

"It was kind of weird," Golden State Warriors coach Steve Kerr said. "A predominantly black league with a white commissioner telling everybody what they had to wear. I wasn't sure how I felt about that. And I was wrong."

The NBA didn't think it needed a dress code in the 1980s when many players wore business attire clothing while flying on commercial planes with their teams. NBA stars like Julius Erving, Magic Johnson, Michael Jordan, Clyde Drexler, James Worthy and Alex English looked typically sharp when they arrived to games in the 1980s. Drexler believes NBA players began dressing more casually as teams started using charter planes in the early 1990s.

"We were pretty serious about how we dressed," Drexler said. "I always had a personal tailor. Most teams had dress codes when traveling until most started chartering around 1990, 1991. Detroit was the first team to charter. Portland was the second.

"Once both Portland and Detroit played in the 1990 NBA Finals, most teams thought it created an advantage to charter. Then everyone started to charter."

Los Angeles Lakers coach Byron Scott, who won three championships as a guard with the Lakers in the 1980s, said players during his day simply wanted to look good.

"We wore sport coats to the airport and slacks," Scott said. "You didn't have to put in a dress code and rule."

Players called the NBA's 2005 dress code the A.I. rule. (Wire Image)
Players called the NBA's 2005 dress code the A.I. rule. (Wire Image)

In the 1990s, hip-hop culture became popular with young adult fashion with its relaxed, baggy and sports-geared clothing. You didn't have to be from the so-called "hood" to be attracted to dressing that way. And it wasn't only black kids wearing the clothes.

"I was in the era of when guys, especially rappers, were wasting tons of money, including myself, on extravagant, unnecessary and oversized jewelry," former NBA player Jason Richardson said.

Said Billups: "Outside of the games I had all the jerseys you could have. I would dress the part. I represented [that era]."

The majority of NBA season-ticket holders, however, were older, well off and couldn't relate to hip-hop fashion.

"I guess they wanted people in the arena to feel like they were at a business type of function," said Warriors center Andrew Bogut, who was a rookie with the Milwaukee Bucks when the rule was implemented.

Former NBA player Grant Hill said then-Orlando Magic coach Johnny Davis asked him and teammate Pat Garrity to have a players-only meeting to come up with team rules for the 2004-05 season. The topics included fines for being late or missing practices and games, dress code and more. Hill said the players were in favor of a relaxed dress code.

"Literally, the team voted and it was like, 'You can wear anything but shorts and sandals,' " Hill said. "I was like, 'Are you guys sure about this?' So we went and presented it to Johnny Davis as coach and he was like, 'No.'

"He called a team meeting and said, 'Here is a dress code and this is what we're going to do.' We had to wear slacks and a button-down collared shirt. There was a lot of resistance from guys."

The "Malice at the Palace" brawl between the Indiana Pacers and Pistons on Nov. 19, 2004, in Auburn Hills, Mich., also contributed to the NBA's decision to implement a dress code. The rule went into effect with the one-year anniversary of the brawl on the horizon to counter image problems that hampered its then recent history.

"That brawl gave the NBA a huge black eye," Billups said. "Nobody can say that it didn't. The dress code was just one of the things that the league tried to do from a marketing standpoint. It put ice on that black eye from the fight to bring down the swelling."

Billups was among those who heard the NBA's dress code referred to as the "A.I. rule." Iverson frequently wore hip-hop gear off the court and to games. In 2003, he wore a Milwaukee Bucks jersey and hat to NBA All-Star media availability while playing for the Sixers. He also wore a Michigan State jersey on the bench while sidelined during a USA Basketball Olympic qualifying game. Former Sixers forward Andrew Iguodala said Iverson bought several oversized suits to adhere to the dress code.

"Allen wasn't a fan of it," said Iguodala, now with the Warriors. "Allen just wanted to be comfortable. He wasn't trying to just be a rebel without a cause. He was like, 'I just want to be comfortable. I just want to go to the game and play basketball.' He didn't want to be uptight or feel restricted.

"You watched him play and his style was to be able to freelance and move carefree, just be comfortable in his own world. He said, 'When I do that, I don't want to be restricted with a tie or collar on my neck.' "

LeBron James and Dwyane Wade both take pride in what they wear. (Getty Images)
LeBron James and Dwyane Wade both take pride in what they wear. (Getty Images)

Richardson was playing for the Warriors at the time and said he thought the dress code targeted blacks and the hip-hop generation. He wanted the NBA Players Association to get it reversed.

"It's funny how you mature and look back at things you've done or said and grow from them," Richardson said. "At the time, being young, I thought it was a personal attack to most of the guys in the NBA."

But there were also black NBA players and coaches who didn't have a problem with the dress code.

"I was old school," Hill said. "I was already dressed in suits and was trying to look professional."

Scott, then the coach of the New Jersey Nets, also didn't have an issue with the rule.

"It made guys – instead of coming to the games in sweats and looking all raggedy – at least look a little professional," he said.

West, however, ignored the rule and continued to wear sweats to games. His wallet faced the consequences. He said the league had fashion police at NBA arenas, and they took pictures and reported players who didn't adhere to the dress code.

"I didn't really change much," West said. "I got fined a couple times because I'd rather be comfortable. My comfort comes first before anybody else."

And it wasn't just players who embraced hip-hop culture who struggled with the dress code. Bogut said Bucks teammate Toni Kukoc also was reprimanded.

"I remember Toni Kukoc wore just wore a turtleneck, a [James] Bond type of turtleneck, with a jacket, and he got a warning for it," Bogut said. "It was crazy. At that point, they were real strict. They wanted collared shirts. They thought he was trying to be demonstrative."

The NBA began to slowly relax the dress code without any announcement. Under the current code, a player must wear a dress shirt and slacks or dress jeans. No sport coat is required.

"They turned it back and tweaked it a little bit and made it a bit more lenient," Bogut said. "I don't mind it. Business casual is fair enough. There is a time and a place where sweats are called for. Back-to-back games, flying out at 1 a.m."

 Russell Westbrook has been a regular at New York's Fashion Week. (Getty Images)
Russell Westbrook has been a regular at New York's Fashion Week. (Getty Images)

Since being hired in 2005, USA Basketball executive director Jerry Colangelo said the only problem he had with his players that merited a discussion about fashion  involved LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony and Dwyane Wade. USA Basketball had adopted the NBA dress code entering the 2006 world championships and even had a league executive on hand to help enforce it. James, Anthony and Wade, however, didn't adhere to the rule while attending a game on an off night. Their underwhelming attire appeared in media pictures. Colangelo was disappointed and met with the players about the issue at the team hotel the next day.

"Their attitude was, 'We don't need to have any rules,' " Colangelo said. "I was just listening and Carmelo said, 'We don't have these kind of rules [in the NBA].' LeBron said something and I said, 'You want it the way it is in Cleveland?' He said, 'Yeah.' I said, 'Well, I don't want it the way it is in Cleveland because you guys are running the show. I'll tell you what, we'll do it the way [Miami Heat president] Pat Riley does it in Miami? What do you think? Is that OK, Dwyane?' [Wade said], 'No, no, no, we don't want that either.' "

James, Anthony and Wade are now among the NBA's most fashion-conscious players.

"I didn't see the bigger picture of making us more approachable to fans and maybe business opportunities off the court," Richardson said.

Said Kerr: "It's been really good for the league. Guys look really good on the sidelines. They've made a point to look good. It's brought a lot of people in fashion into the fold. I know my wife likes to see what guys are wearing on the sideline."

Oklahoma City Thunder guard Russell Westbrook has been lauded for his style and has an endorsement deal with Barneys New York. Lakers guard Nick Young and his girlfriend, singer Iggy Azalea, are Forever 21 models. Warriors guard Stephen Curry had a deal with the clothing company Express last season.

"Fashion in the NBA has been big for both sides, the fashion industry and the NBA," Young said. "It's been 10 years since the dress code came out? That's crazy. I remember trying to buy a suit.

"We're professionals. You have to dress the part. But we made it even better. People starting getting more fashion forward."

The players' fashion is most on display during their entrances into the arena prior to nationally televised games. Curry, who acknowledged he steps up his style on such occasions, uses stylist Sheraine Robinson.

"There is so much exposure, cameras everywhere and that being part of a game-day process with people filming you walk in, it's important that you are put together and you show your style and your personality through that," Curry said. "When you pick out an outfit, want to look good or dress to the nines, you're only wearing that outfit for an hour. You're going from house or the hotel to the game and then they see a two-minute walk into the locker room and getting into your uniform and maybe postgame."

Still, there are other players like West who could still care less.

"I'm still not one of those guys who are going to come here all decked out and then get sweaty," said West, who was wearing a Spurs sweatsuit after a recent preseason game. "I don't rock like that."

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