The Evolution of N.B.A.-Draft Fashion
Last week, Zion Williamson, turning himself out for the occasion of his selection, by the New Orleans Pelicans, as the top pick in the N.B.A. draft, made an auspicious professional début as a man of style. On ESPN, which broadcast the draft-night rituals from the Barclays Center, the eighteen-year-old sparkled in white, like a bride, impeccably groomed for the league, with his proud strut and steady smile. Williamson was getting dressed for his first day of work as a fresh face of a global brand, which sounds like a lot of pressure. But one feature of the coaching philosophy institutionalized at his alma mater, Duke University, is the assertive polish of his media training. He comes from the same school of telegeneity that has brought us the glimmer of Grant Hill and the “90210”-ish pout of Christian Laettner. Williamson wore a tropical suit of ivory, or maybe celestial cream; his jacket had a dinner-jacket shawl collar, while the collar of his discreetly pleated tuxedo shirt was open to his brown neck. He looked sharp: bold and serene, formal but relaxed, trend-savvy yet classicist. He seemed situationally aware that he is entering the league at a flowering of N.B.A. fashion.
The suits of the N.B.A. draft night are a cultural barometer of tailoring. The majestic lapels of Magic Johnson’s three-piece suit of 1979 reflected mainstream decadence. The group portraits of draft classes from that decade look like meetings among prosperous Chrysler salesmen. The 1984 draft featured Michael Jordan, chosen third, in Wall Street-appropriate pinstripes and an unfortunate off-the-rack fit; Sam Bowie, chosen second, wearing the intriguing prep trinket of a collar pin, not unlike John Dean at the Watergate hearings; and the top pick, Hakeem (the Dream) Olajuwon, elegant in a tuxedo, self-expressive in a burgundy bow tie. The Dream anticipated draft night’s transformation into a formal-ish occasion.
As late as 1996, the assembled players still looked like business-school students at a luncheon with alumni. But there was an ill omen that evening in the oversized shoulders of Allen Iverson’s double-breasted number. Traditional suitmakers, under influences as various as Giorgio Armani’s drape and Bill Clinton’s palatial way of wearing Donna Karan suits, descended into bagginess. Meanwhile, the young players were younger than ever, and less conservative in their choices, and frequently attempted modes of ceremonial dress best left to New Jack Swing artists. The awful suits—shapeless, but for their excessive shoulder pads—worn by the N.B.A. draft class of 2003 are now infamous as evidence of an unhappy era in menswear. LeBron James, the top pick that year, seems to have opted to rent a zoot suit for prom.
When James last went to the playoffs, in 2018, with the Cleveland Cavaliers, he ordered custom Thom Browne suits for the whole team to wear into the arena; a few teammates joined their captain in matching their jackets with sensible shorts. Browne was among the trendsetters who influenced the trim cut of suits in this decade, and helped to rescue young men from drowning in the pooling fabric of their pant legs. James, curating his image with Browne’s high-fashion imaginings of traditional American menswear, stated the prowess of his taste, and avenged that now long-ago misstep.
Under the lamps of the global-entertainment culture, basketball players have evolved into paragons of styling and profiling, as Walt Frazier might say. In their public images and personal brands, superstars now variously resemble off-duty supermodels, Vogue-approved socialites, Instagram influencers, Kardashian satellites, concerned citizens in social-justice T-shirts, and part-time haberdashers. Quite a few N.B.A. players now run clothing lines or, at the very least, pretend to design the underpants that they endorse. Even Lance Thomas—once a Duke player, now just a New York Knick—sells hats and shirts branded with the logo of his fishing team, like cross-platform streetwear for the synergistic seas. At the very most, you get Russell Westbrook serving post-apocalyptic looks at an exclusive fashion show, deconstructing machismo in distressed jeans while seated front row. With great bodies for showing clothes—a typically lanky pro is built like a scaled-up catalogue model—they are naturals as party-photo clothes hangers. And, because basketball player’s faces are not obscured by helmets or brims in the course of play, they have a special intimacy with fans.
On draft night, accessories are key—lucky charms, emblems of allegiances, personal statements of panache. This year, there was a memorably diverse flurry of bow ties, and the heirs to Olajuwon variously seemed correctly dressed for dinner dances, garden parties, churches, mosques, and, especially, carnivals. The cross sparkling above Williamson’s humble heart was essential. It strongly mitigated the lounge-lizard potential of the creamy suit, which would also be great for loitering around a Macau casino, say, or drinking rum with tonic under a South Beach black light. With the cross, he was James Bond in the service of black Jesus. The lightness of the suit, the riverboat flossiness of it, was appropriate to Williamson’s new Louisiana home. Its blankness was witty in the context of the draft-night broadcast and the hopes of fans and the arrival of an exciting player. If everything goes according to plan, footage of these ceremonial birth-of-a-superstar moments will air, forevermore, in prelude to many a dunkalicious montage of highlights.
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