November 23, 2021
When discussing the common ground between sports and fashion, few leagues come to mind faster than the NBA. There are decades of a rich history of players collaborating with sportswear brands to create specialized gear for performance and aesthetics. In modern contexts, high-profile athletes are often discussed for their style as much as their game.
Athletics and high fashion haven’t always coexisted in this way, though. It’s time to discuss how style came to the NBA as it is today and showcase the best-dressed players in the sport.
Early NBA Fashion
To understand fashion in the NBA, three ideas need to be understood: How players dressed a few decades ago, how the year 2005 changed everything, and how players have dressed since then.
In the 90s, loose fits and highly accessorized appearances were in. Basketball aesthetics and streetwear have always been partially inspired by hip-hop, and many of the styles worn by 90s rappers were represented in courtside apparel. During this time, Michael Jordan and Allen Iverson were some of the highest-profile athletes representing these styles.
By the end of that decade, though, the NBA was struggling. Michael Jordan finally retired for good, viewership was down, and public perception of the league was at an all-time low. The final straw came with the 2004 Pacers-Pistons brawl, where a foul led to a courtside fight between the NBA teams. After a spectator threw a drink, the brawl extended to the spectators as well, leading to suspensions and criminal charges for several players.
Something had to be done to reinvent the image of the NBA. Then-commissioner David Stern sought to reinvent the league in 2005 by doing something previously unheard of in the sport: Instituting a strict dress code.
The dress code was as follows: Players must dress in business casual attire when in transit to and from games, when not playing, and during other official NBA business. Prohibited clothing items included jerseys, headgear of any kind, chains, pendants, jeans, flashy jewelry, and sneakers. Before this, NBA style took a lot of cues from hip-hop, and David Stern’s dress code was considered an attack on this.
Player Response to 2005
Many players attacked this ban as an attempt to eliminate their cultural form of expression from the courts. It took no small amount of time for the new dress code to be completely followed, partially because individual coaches had some leeway in enforcement.
While virtually no players were banned solely for dress code violations, many had to pay fines for their reticence in following it. Part of what makes Allen Iverson so symbolic of the older style of dress was his extremely outspoken critique of the new dress code.
Regardless of how players felt about the new dress code, it created a renaissance in NBA fashion. Prior, players were dressing in imitation of popular fashions that were trending at the time. Now, with an avenue of fashion outside of their daily wear, athletes needed to reimage their own wardrobes.
David Stern’s new dress code paired perfectly with the high-profile image and high incomes of top professional athletes. With these two combined, courtside attire and high fashion have finally met, and the tunnels of NBA arenas are now more like a runway. Players from D’Angelo Russell of the Minnesota Timberwolves to Ben Simmons of the Philadelphia 76ers display their unique style.
Rather than just wear what’s popular, every single aspect of a player's wardrobe serves to show off their personally tailored style. If the hype surrounding the NBA’s best dressed is anything to go by, this style won’t be going away any time soon.
Lebron James doesn’t just break limits when it comes to what he’s been doing for the last two decades in basketball. The duration of his domination also means that his fashion choices have also been well-documented. When he was drafted in 2003, this titan wore an oversized white suit, which, while a fit some may still use, contrasts with his modern style.
The distinguishing factors of Lebron’s style are the ease with which he dresses his outfits up or down. You’ll see t-shirts and hoodies worn with either formal or casual jackets in a style that mixes sportswear with the business casual attire demanded by Stern. He also tends to use tailored fits in his wardrobe: His pants and shirts are fitted, neither tightly clinging to his frame nor draping off of it.
Look at the accessories, too: His usual stylistic choices include wearing a pair of headphones, a hat, sunglasses, or a watch. You can bet that in any given picture, James will be wearing plenty of extra pieces to finish his pregame outfit perfectly.
Also of note in his wardrobe are graphic tees that send an image. James is no stranger to voicing his views, especially through his apparel. Whether championing social causes or trying to get more people to vote, his gear sends strong messages.
Another item we can’t go without listing: Beats by Dre. The company behind these ever-popular headphones was founded in 2006, and two years later, their first headphones. In 2008, they also scored an endorsement deal with Lebron James, where he got partial ownership in exchange for wearing their gear. James earned an estimated $30 million for this deal, a fairly hefty payday from a single endorsement.
Few players have had as visible a fashion journey throughout their careers as Dwayne Wade has. When he first started with the NBA in 2003, he dressed the same way everyone else did and emulated his idols, including Allen Iverson. In 2005, he readjusted his wardrobe and asked how he really wanted to dress.
The same competitive fire which serves him when playing also sparks when it comes to his fashion choices. In 2006 he hired a personal stylist to help him break out into the merging worlds of high fashion and athletics. Over the last 15 years, he’s had endorsement deals and collaborations with haute couture brands that make it easy to see why he’s regularly represented on best-dressed lists.
Wade’s style is more about complex layering than having the simplest, neatest possible appearance. He’s also all about dressing in whatever he feels most confident in rather than what might be accessible and most broadly appealing. For this reason, he’s seen rocking traditional gear as much as boundary-pushing high fashion.
Before his retirement, Wade hinted that after leaving the court, the world might be seeing more of him in the fashion world. While his minority ownership of the Utah Jazz will no doubt keep him involved in the sport, we’re eagerly awaiting whatever his next fashion foray may be.
All the players on this list have the distinction of being among the NBA’s best-dressed top-performers. Sponsorship deals and collaborations are second-nature to every single one of them. When it comes to building a fashion empire that rivals their place in athletic history, Harden has them beat. This Brooklyn Nets player is as recognizable by his beard as his bold, iconic manner of dress.
We can’t name another NBA star who’s currently serving on the board of one of the country's oldest and well-respected luxury stores. In June, James Harden announced that he would be joining Saks Fifth Avenue as a board member. This position comes after a long history and love of fashion on the part of Harden. He has previously collaborated with numerous luxury designers, inspiring much of our own explicitly athletic lines.
Some people limit themselves to a specific type of dress, whether in terms of color or style. The same cannot be said of Harden, who admits to being confident enough to wear just about anything. This confidence may earn him the occasional critique, but it’s also a boon for him. His energy provides a dedication to couture that’s seen him through high-profile events as recent as this year’s Paris Fashion Week.
Despite his willingness to be bold, he still has a consistency of style in his regular outfits. During the playoffs, he chose minimalist luxury streetwear in a simple sweatsuit that softly glimmered under the lights. Per his stylist, he examines why he should wear a given outfit rather than putting it on because he can afford it. It may be that this exactness in his own attire is what suits Harden to the business end of the fashion industry.
Russell Westbrook distinguishes himself with powerful accessorizing and a closet whose influences span the whole range of fashion trends. Rather than looking at past players for aesthetic inspiration, this point guard said his mother was his biggest fashion inspiration. In an interview, he states that even though he’s been seen on numerous best-dressed lists, his mother always looks better than he does when they meet.
Unlike many others on this list, Westbrook does not have a personal stylist. For this reason, whenever you see his daily or game-day fits, he’s wearing something he chose himself. This self-styled nature shows itself in the fact that Westbrook has served as a designer for his own line.
In 2016, Russell Westbrook launched his fashion line. The line takes inspiration from individuals making the most of themselves, with the most recent addition alluding to the Tuskegee Airmen.
When it comes to his personal style, the current Los Angeles Lakers player wears everything from denim-on-denim to simple, pastel sportswear pieces. Be on the lookout for bold graphic tees and specially patterned outerwear as well.
Westbrook has also made himself a presence on fashion circuits. During New York Fashion Week, he was one of several celebs to make headlines for his choice to pair a white skirt and cream-colored cardigan.
Whenever you see a press photo of Westbrook, watch for one of his signature pieces, a gold “W” necklace. Whether the “W” stands for his own name or the number of wins achieved by this back-to-back MVP is up for debate.
These athletes and former pros didn’t make the top four on this list, but they still dress to impress at every event.
- Carmelo Anthony of the LA Lakers
- Jordan Clarkson of the Utah Jazz
- Nick Young (also known as Swaggy P), currently a free agent
- Amar’e Stoudemire, player development assistant for the Brooklyn Nets
- Garrett Temple of the New Orleans Pelicans
- RJ Barrett of the New York Knicks
Takeaways From the NBA’s Best Dressed
No two players dress alike, from Chris Paul of the Phoenix Suns to Shai Gilgeous-Alexander of Oklahoma City Thunder, which is why we can discuss variations in their style. In the above analysis, a few trends crop up.
- The Fit: Whether you go for oversized gear or tight fit doesn’t matter so much as whether or not it fits well overall. Go for loose clothing, but not baggy. Go for fitted clothing, but not constricting. Many top designers will include instructions on the intended fit and how to achieve more standard fits if desired.
- The Choice: The number one element all these players share is that they dress like themselves. Though they may have fashion icons that inspire them, these players dress the way they want to.
- The Drive: Many players come from backgrounds where they couldn’t afford everything they wanted to wear. Keeping mental track of what they liked and wanted helped them to actualize their wardrobes later on. Even if your taste for fashion outstrips your budget, tracking what you like most can point you towards how you want to dress.
- The Confidence: The players above don’t fear standing out. In fact, many of them relish it. While you don’t have to wear someone nobody has ever seen before and call it fashion, total confidence in what you wear is essential.
Basketball culture initially took style cues from elsewhere before doing much to influence popular fashion on its own. The essential lesson from decades of adapting from popular culture to restrained dress codes is simple: Dress like you.