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Remember when the NBA instituted a dress code three seasons ago? Remember all the caterwauling? Players balked at having to wear collared shirts and sensible shoes. And they were even less pleased with the no-chains-or-medallions clause. The code was called fascist and racist and, in the immortal words of Marcus Camby, just too damn expensive.
Step into an NBA locker room today. The only sounds you hear are the rustle of silk ties being knotted and the snap of cuffs being linked. "I hear guys used to come to games wearing sweat suits," Thunder forward Kevin Durant says, shaking his head in disbelief. "That just isn't professional."
Times have changed. Players not only have rethought what they wear, they've also rethought what they drive and eat. Gone are the days of a player hopping out of an Escalade with 24-inch spinning rims and tinted windows that rattle from the beat of the speaker box. Now the car is likely to be a dark-colored sedan or SUV with standard equipment. Unlaced Timberlands, baggy jeans, white T-shirts and plate-size pendants have been replaced by Prada shoes, designer suits and button-down shirts. "Guys wearing a nice suit don't get undressed right away, either," says Cavs guard Delonte West. "They take a few turns around the locker room. It's like, 'Yeah, man, we see your suit.'" You can also find players circling the team buffet, casually mentioning the egg-white omelet and protein shake their personal chef whipped up for them that morning.
The makeover is more significant than a few more notched lapels. "You have to give some credit to the dress code," says Lakers guard and NBA Players Association president Derek Fisher. "But the style of NBA players is different because the guys are thinking bigger. They're expanding their minds beyond basketball."
Sure, Dwight Howard will still sport sleeveless T-shirts to floss his chiseled arms, and Brad Miller will always prefer to look like an off-the-grid survivalist on his own time. But the bulk of the twentysomethings in this league are stockpiling more than their share of GQ-worthy threads. "It's not just about the bling-bling anymore," West says. It's more like the ching-ching.
With the league snapping photographs as players left arenas, hitting them with fines of $5,000 or more for sartorial violations, players realized dressing like 'bangers simply wasn't worth it. It didn't hurt that a nattily attired role player like Damon Jones was the first NBA player to land an endorsement deal with a Chinese shoe company. "You have Jay-Z talking about getting paid in euros, about being a rapper and a businessman," says Rockets forward Shane Battier. "Guys want to be players and businessmen. And they understand you have to look the part. They're more sophisticated."
They're also more cautious. About three years ago, then-Celtics guard Sebastian Telfair had a $50,000 gold chain snatched from around his neck in a New York nightclub. In July 2007, then-Heat forward Antoine Walker and Knicks center Eddy Curry were robbed at gunpoint in their off-season Chicago homes by someone who, according to reports, clearly knew them. Five months later, Pacers guard Jamaal Tinsley's Rolls-Royce was pelted with bullets during a high-speed chase. "Discretion" is the word to live by these days. Literally. Some players still sport six figures worth of accessories, but they're more likely to be on their wrist as a bracelet or a Swiss watch than as an iced-out dollar sign on their sternum. There is still a Bentley or a Lamborghini in every player parking lot—case in point, Howard drove a fur-lined Rolls to the photo shoot—but pimpin' rides with sound systems and underlit chassis is passé. "It's a recession, and people are out there hungry," says Hawks forward Josh Smith. "They see us wearing jewelry, and they can't pay their note? They see it as a come-up. Besides, it kind of looks silly."
You can actually give credit to a new wave of rappers and the evolution of an old one for Smith's adult perspective. Kanye West and André 3000 made the preppy sweater-vest-and-polo-look cool. And when Jay-Z turned in his Yankees cap and white T's for French-cuffed shirts and three-piece suits, tailors with NBA clientele noticed. "Guys started buying a ton of woven dress shirts to wear with cuff links," says designer Cary Mitchell. Teams steal defensive schemes; players eye what others are rocking. "It's a copycat league," says Mitchell.
That explains the heightened focus on smart eating, too. When Mark Cuban took over the Mavs, the team started to provide lunch on practice days to make sure players were getting at least one good meal a day. Call it protecting one's investment. These days, nearly every team puts out a daily spread. Players are counseled on the merits of having someone cooking healthy meals for them at home as well. The Trail Blazers take it a step further. "When we interview a player before drafting him, we ask, 'Is Mom coming to live with you?'" says coach Nate McMillan. "If not, we're setting up someone to cook for them."
The league advertised its dress code as a move toward business casual, but it's clear now it was more a move away from hood sinister. Initially, suits were the overriding default wardrobe choice, but over time the boundaries were extended. Sneakers are explicitly forbidden, but players started wearing "athletic lifestyle footwear" made by Prada or Gucci—or even Converse. "These aren't gym shoes," insists Warriors guard Kelenna Azubuike of his white Chuck Taylors, "because I can't play in them." Apparently the league agrees. And the interpretation of "dress jeans" has also been extended. Acid-washed, prestressed, ornately stitched versions hang in lockers from coast to coast. "Some cost more than a suit," McMillan says.
If there's anyone happier than David Stern about the new trend, it's every European player with any fashion sense. Before the dress code was implemented, American players mocked the formfitting attire of their foreign teammates. Time was when Warriors center Andris Biedrins thought he was getting dap when someone said, "That suit is tight." But that was "tight" as in "too small," not as in "That looks sharp." No more. Says Hawks center Zaza Pachulia: "Euro style used to be a bad thing. Now guys like it."
Like the age limit, another decision that at first irked many whom it affected most, the dress code is just the way they do business now in the NBA. Not that it would matter if anyone had objections; the commish isn't interested in how people feel. "We think it's a success," is the official NBA response.
So what's next? Well, tattoos seem to be growing in size, density and color scheme. Players resembling pages from the Sunday comics can't possibly play well in the boardroom or luxury boxes. (See the oversize red lips on Kenyon Martin's neck.) If you think legislating against such a personal means of expression is too fascist, too racist or, with removal costs, too damn expensive, just keep in mind—we've been down this road before.