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League Fits: Why the NBA Off-Court Has Become a Fashion Runway

League Fits: Why the NBA Off-Court Has Become a Fashion Runway

Over the past decade, the NBA and its players captured a global audience with their dazzling on-court play, transforming many of the league’s best players into international superstars. But the influence of these athletes extends well beyond their basketball talents. Today’s savvy, stylish basketball greats transformed arena tunnels into “concrete runways” with iconic fashion that has become central to the core of the NBA. 

Perhaps more than any other major sports league, NBA players know how to show up and show out — from LeBron James’ all-white oversized Draft Day suit to Kyle Kuzma’s giant pink sweater, complete with exaggerated sleeves dragging to the floor. Today, there are countless Instagram accounts dedicated to player fits — but how did player swag and style become so central to the league’s culture? Let’s take a look at the origins of the NBA’s fashion revolution. 

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A post shared by Kyle Kuzma (@kuz)

Buttoned-Up Beginnings

The early days of NBA fashion was a tidy affair. With media and fan focus falling solely on what happened on the court, early NBA fashion consisted mostly of neat suits that got the job done. While there were occasional flashes of flair from the likes of Bill Russell, Wilt Chamberlain and more, it wasn’t until the ’60s and ’70s when players like Kareem Abdul-Jabaar, Julius Erving (more famously known as Dr. J), and Walt Frazier retired the flannel suits in favor of something a bit more stylish. 

Fedoras, fur collars and double-breasted blazers were soon locker room staples. As the ’80s arrived, player fashion was still flying mostly under the radar in terms of national media, but that didn’t stop superstars like Magic Johnson from donning some gator-skin boots. 

The Sneaker That Started It All

In 1985, an NBA rookie would partner with a middling running shoe company to release possibly the most influential and important piece of footwear ever: the Air Jordan 1. Michael Jordan’s debut sneaker put Nike on the map and would quickly bring both basketball and fashion to otherworldly heights. 

Jordan’s signature sneaker was infamously banned by the NBA for allegedly violating uniform rules with its distinct black, red and white colorway. Sensing a once-in-a-lifetime marketing opportunity, Nike opted to pay the $5,000 per game fine, so Jordan could continue wearing his shoes on court — meanwhile they created a parallel commercial campaign that touted the flashy kicks as the shoe that, “the NBA can’t stop you from wearing.” Of course, Jordan and Nike got the last laugh as the AJ1’s became an instant hit and launched the player signature sneaker craze that has generated billions of dollars. 

Bigger Doesn’t Always Mean Better

While sneakers began to dominate on-court fashion for basketball players, the pregame fits of the ’90s and early 2000s were a bit of an oversized affair. Enormous suit jackets, fabric to the floor, and more buttons than anyone could have possibly needed became the unending trend of the day. 

Just take a look at the famous (or infamous) 2003 Draft Class, with future superstars LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony, Dwayne Wade and Chris Bosh all donning suits that look eight sizes too big.  

Modern Fashion for a Modern League

In 2005, then NBA commissioner David Stern passed the “business casual” dress code for players, which tightened up fashion guidelines, banning shorts, sleeveless shirts and chains. While this new dress code was initially seen as highly restrictive, the 2005 guidelines were the spark that spurred the NBA’s modern fashion revolution. 

Soon players were trading in their oversized blazers, retro football jerseys and bedazzled t-shirts for fitted three-piece suits. As fashion became more central to NBA culture, the league loosened dress code requirements, making way for some of the more daring and striking fashion we see on the concrete runway today. 

Today, NBA superstars’ fashion choices evolved beyond simple forms of expression and into lucrative business opportunities. James’ first appearance in a pair of Beats by Dre headphones in 2008 made the startup brand go global practically overnight. Of course, James — always the business savvy entrepreneur — had a stake in the company, and when Beats by Dre sold to Apple for $3 billion, James received what was rumored to be the biggest equity cash payout for any professional athlete in history.

Other fashion-forward NBA legends have followed suit. Wade started his own sock company, Stance, which is now the NBA’s official on-court sock. And Russell Westbrook’s eye-popping pregame patterns have made him a style icon in his own right — as well as a published author. Style Drivers is a collection of inspiration Westbrook draws on to shape his on- and off-court fashion creativity. 

With social media accounts like @NBAFashionFits, @LeagueFits and @ProTrending elevating today’s most dazzling — and divisive — NBA fits, basketball fashion is reaching global audiences. Now, gameday doubles as a red carpet runway, as basketball’s style savvy playmakers bring their fashion sense to center court. 

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