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How David Stern’s dress code changed the look of the NBA

The NBA dress code has become a bastion of high-fashion, where players’ pre and postgame outfits become their own running narrative and topic of discussion.

Shots of players rolling into the stadium in elaborate, sometimes altogether ridiculous, outfits, and the subsequent roasting they get from whatever studio analyst is covering the game have become a mainstay of NBA culture.

You’ll see designer frames, studded backpacks, crocodile skin shoes, a whole palette of floral colors, culottes, and really all things that seem more GQ than NBA. Players like Russell Westbrook and Dwyane Wade have made fashion a side-gig.

Westbrook is the creative director of True Religion and Wade has released his own capsule collection with Dean and Dan Caten of DSquared2. But how did we get here?

I remember the days of the baggie white tees and massive chains. The do-rags and the fitteds. Dudes were literally wearing jerseys of other teams to their own sporting events. To many people my age, mid-twenties, that was the peak of the NBA.

The crossovers, the clowning, the shit-talking, shots of Henny at half-time, it doesn’t get better than late 90s/early 2000s NBA.

Perhaps it’s just nostalgia, I mean it’s hard to argue that the style of play isn’t more compelling now as most teams adopt the pace ‘n’ space mentality of running up the floor and shooting as many 3s as possible.

The NBA has become a global brand, with players from 41 different countries and territories on opening day rosters for the 2016/2017 season. Viewership was way down in the post-MJ landscape of the NBA, whereas now the league has never been more watched in the United States and beyond.

On November 19, 2004 the infamous brawl at the Palace of Auburn Hills, which included fans and players throwing bows in the stands, changed the league forever.

It’s hard to measure the exact impact of that moment on the league, but I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that the brawl was a main reason for the implementation of the dress code and an active attempt by the owners, and then commissioner David Stern, to eschew in a new era of a new-look NBA.

It’s also important to note the state of the league that Stern took over in 1984, when cocaine, drug-use, and partying defined the league.

David Stern came in and introduced drug testing for the first time, only ratcheting up the league’s drug policy after Len Bias died of a cocaine overdose two days after being selected second overall in the 1986 NBA draft by the Celtics.

Repeat drug abusers like Roy Tarpley, Lewis Lloyd, Mitchell Wiggins and Richard Dumas were given lifetime bans from the sport as Stern cracked down on the league’s reputation.

A recent piece by ESPN’s Tom Haberstroh titled “Inside the ‘Tinderization’ of today’s NBA” looked at how once NBA players stopped partying on every flight and road trip, performances became better and home-court advantage plummeted.

One particularly illuminating excerpt from Haberstroh’s piece documents the changes in winning percentage of home court teams from the 80s, to the 90s, and then today.

“In the 1987-88 season, home teams won an astounding 67.9 percent of games, boasting an average win margin of 5.8 points, the highest on record. The advantage was so profound that home teams, on average, played at the level of a 55-win team.

“Then, in less than a decade, the home-court advantage gap was sliced in half. By 1996-97, home teams won only 57.5 percent of the time, by an average margin of only 2.6 points. And now, after hovering around 60 percent for most of the 2000s, home-court advantage is dropping again. This season, it sits at an all-time low of 57.4 percent.”

The reason? Haberstroh says, “NBA players are sleeping more and drinking less.”

This can’t all be attributed to David Stern coming in and trying to clean up the league and introducing a new dress code, advances in sports science and clean living gave players longer careers. Beer was taken off team flights and replaced with healthy gourmet spreads.

This is all to say that when David Stern took over the league, he made it a point to clean up the image of the game. Some of these changes were probably for the better of the league, like drug tests and expansion, but twelve years after the dress code was implemented, has it really accomplished anything?

When the league-wide dress code was established at the beginning of the 2005 season, players like Allen Iverson and Stephen Jackson said the rule was implicitly racist.

It’s hard to argue with that logic when the dress code banned things like, “large jewelry, hats, jerseys, tee shirts, jeans, do-rags, and Timbaland-style boots”.

I mean that’s not even especially subtle. That’s a pretty direct assault on the prevalent hip-hop style at the time of baggie jeans, huge chains, and white tees.

At this point in 2017, it seems like most players have learned to embrace the dress code. Almost every current player came into the league with the dress code already established. Hip-hop fashion changed, perhaps even in concordance with the NBA dress code, and now most players seem comfortable in their bougie attire.

Perhaps the NBA is more palatable for the masses now and stars aren’t railing on in the media about having to practice, but let’s have a moment of silence for that long lost era of the NBA.

When disrespect was at an all-time high, no one was joining up to create super-teams, and dudes were rocking Timbs to games.

Also, shouts out to Tim Duncan’s fashion sense.