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With NBA playoffs underway, players are showing off their talents — and their style


Pro basketball players use what they wear to express themselves and influence culture beyond the court. NPR's Pilar Galvan says there's some history behind the clothes. NBA players had to win a little sartorial freedom.

PILAR GALVAN, BYLINE: Lance Fresh knows how to dress. He is the NBA style guru. Hailing from Brooklyn, N.Y., he grew up rocking dunks and loving basketball. From his work on "Project Runway" to Bleacher Report, he lays it all out.

LANCE FRESH: We got to talk about what the guys are wearing coming to the game and sneakers and things like that. And I learned that players and athletes, that's what they really want to talk about. They didn't want to talk about them having a bad game or shooting 2 for 10.

GALVAN: Players didn't always have that swag, that freedom to express themselves through their fits. In 2005, the NBA instituted a dress code. Players were required to dress in business or conservative attire before and after games. No chains, shorts or T-shirts. Some players, like Jason Richardson, called the code racist. Commissioner David Stern wanted to bring back the Walt Clyde Frazier look, known for stunting in super-fly suits. Then enters Allen Iverson with his cornrows and oversized shorts. Lance Fresh.

FRESH: He's the guy who single-handedly challenged it, and they literally had to create the dress code because of him.

GALVAN: Iverson's looks were edgier, baggier and more akin to hip-hop culture, and Iverson wasn't having it. He paid fines for code violations. Eventually, the dress code dissipated.

FRESH: Now you see it - not just clothes, just, like, style, swag, just braids, tattoos, Vans. That was all him, and that's still here.

GALVAN: The intersection of basketball and fashion pushes the cultural needle. A lot of people draw their inspirations and identities from them.

JOSH CHRISTOPHER: Somebody might not be in the NBA or play basketball, but, like, when you get fly and you put on clothes, people are going to rock with you just because they have that love for fashion.

GALVAN: That's Josh Christopher, a 21-year-old player for the Houston Rockets. He grew up rocking Vans, Kobes on concrete, cutoff sweats, white tees and baby shorts - Cali vibes through and through.

CHRISTOPHER: I just always found clothes to be as, like, a way to express myself. You have fashion weeks you can go to, and it's just a different way to network and connect - I mean, on, like, a business scale.

GALVAN: You can't talk about the business of fashion in the NBA without recognizing the kicks, especially the legacy of Jordans, the most pervasive sneaker on and off the court. Christopher is a Jordan brand athlete.

CHRISTOPHER: For me and my deal and for the brand was for me to be myself but, at the same time, throw some Js on it with it too. Keep the Js alive.

GALVAN: Christopher started working on his personal brand in high school, when he wasn't allowed to profit off his image as an athlete. This was before the NIL policy. Other brands, like Russell Westbrook's Honor The Gift, are fueled by aspiration and invested in their communities. Fresh sees Westbrook as a trailblazer. The profits from some Honor The Gift drops go toward supporting local causes. Their latest collection draws inspiration from Black history and features modern-day Black equestrians the Compton Cowboys.

FRESH: The attention to detail and the dedication to his neighborhood, to where he comes from in LA, I think that's dope. And I think if you can still hold on to some of that piece of home, like, and take that with you in fashion, I think that's amazing.

GALVAN: Athletes like Josh Christopher feel that responsibility. From sneakers to suits, whether it's in the arena tunnel or on the runway, players are putting it on, not only for themselves, but...

CHRISTOPHER: I feel like we should make it our duty as athletes to push our peoples forward.

GALVAN: For their communities.

Pilar Galvan, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Pilar Galvan
Pilar Galvan (she/her) is a reporter whose work focuses on the intersections of media and culture. She is passionate about film, music and sports. She recently graduated from Yale University where she double majored in anthropology, specializing in ethnomusicology, and art, concentrating in digital media. She previously worked in digital media at art institutions including MoMA PS1 in Queens, NY, and the Calouste Gulbenkian Museum in Lisbon, Portugal.