Inside the NBA’s New Style Wars
The rivalry among the NBA’s elite has spilled off the court and into an arena where athletes have historically feared to tread: high fashion. Players show up for games wearing leather pants, lensless glasses, and printed silk shirts—and that’s just Russell Westbrook. GQ’s Steve Marsh spent a week trailing basketball’s biggest names—Kevin Durant, Kobe, D-Wade, LeBron—to find out how they’re turning the league into a runway for the world’s tallest peacocks.
The moment Russell Westbrook steps off the bus in Denver for the Oklahoma City Thunder’s game against the Nuggets, you get the feeling that something insane is going to happen tonight. He’s wearing red leather motorcycle pants, a Superdry bomber jacket, black Doc Martens with the laces undone, and his trademark superfluous eyeglasses. A meager runway gallery awaits him—just a few security guards, OKC’s team photographer, and me—but he still disembarks with purpose. Even in a league that’s warped from “pinstriped spinnaker on draft night” to “pure line cut slim enough to make Beckham look like a slob,” Russ is a radical: His style is a punk provocation, a sartorial troll, and most crucially a full-on style, not just a series of outré outfits that no other player has the guts to wear. He’s swinging a leather Dopp kit with his right arm in a repetitive motion that could only be described as swag—young, black, and Oi!—and generally looking like he’s striding out of Malcolm McLaren’s London SEX shop in 1976. Every element of his costume is an extension of the identity he projects: part worldly NBA superstar, part suede head hooligan. <!–more Continue Reading This Post–>
A few hours later, in what NBA bloggers now refer to as “the queso incident,” Westbrook lives up to his look. It all starts during a time-out when Rocky the Mountain Lion, the Nuggets’ plushy yellow mascot, heaves up a perfect-looking half-court shot. If he makes it, everybody in the Pepsi Center wins a free side of queso from Qdoba. But as the ball slo-mos toward the rim, Westbrook races over, leaps up, and pulls a supervillain move, intercepting it and inspiring the most scornful cascade of boos I’ve ever heard.
Westbrook’s style-provocateur act has already become renowned in the NBA, because he stars on one of the league’s two best teams, appears regularly on nationally televised games—where coverage of that short catwalk from the bus to the locker room is de rigueur—and is expected to return to the NBA’s fashion week, the Finals, in June. But he is only one point of light in the league’s new style-savvy firmament, just one Instagram account in a sea of vanity-mirrored baller selfies. After all, the Thunder are merely watching the Heat’s (bespoke-tailored) throne. While Kobe Bryant can stand outside the Lakers locker room and proclaim to me, “I’m the Valentino of the NBA,” as he explains that he’s leaving “the preppy-hipster look” to the younger generation, Miami’s swaggy Big Three—LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh—cannot relax. Not in a league where Amar’e Stoudemire can be found posting up in the front row of the Lanvin show at Paris fashion week, where Rajon Rondo’s retinue is trying to persuade Givenchy to pour a custom mold exclusively for his size 13 feet, where Steve Nash can pull the faux-disaffected Clooney, brushing off my questions about his style with an “I don’t take it that seriously” while going Gatsby (that’s Kobe’s nickname for him) in a suit from a Canadian made-to-order Internet clothier that he has a financial stake in.
A few days later, Westbrook’s publicist tells me that within certain rarefied fashion circles, RW is known as “the Kate Moss of the NBA.” Evidently somebody at Vogue wrote this to her in an e-mail. When I ask Russ how he feels about being compared to a female British supermodel famous for making heroin chic and saying things like “Nothing tastes as good as skinny feels,” he assures me he’s cool with it. “It’s a little different,” he says. “But I think it got said because some people are not afraid to do certain things or wear certain stuff. You have to have a certain swagger about you.” Even Westbrook has his limits, of course—Kanye’s infamous leather kilt, for instance. Though in his next breath Russ allows that he’d “be open to it if it were a slimmer fit.”
The NBA has had fashion moments before—Clyde Frazier wearing his wide-brimmed Borsalino on the cover of Esquire, the introduction of the Air Jordan in the mid-’80s, Allen Iverson bringing cornrows, baggy jeans, and garish jewelry from the hood to the hardwood in the late ’90s—but the sine waves of high fashion and locker-room style have never synced up quite like they do right now. More than in any other sport, basketball showcases the individual; we can see each player’s tics and idiosyncrasies when he’s on the court, and that’s how we begin to decide who we think he is. And at least as far back as Frazier, no sport has been more enmeshed in the allure of black culture and style. But recently, whether it’s sparked by the explosion of social media or the imposition of David Stern’s corporate-friendly dress code, or whether it’s just the logical outcome of the ongoing gene splice of NBA superstars to multinational apparel companies, the players are more self-aware than ever, more cognizant that personal style is a prerequisite for personal brand. Whether they actually love fashion or not, they understand the need to be perceived as style leaders, at least of some kind, in order to maximize their shoe-company contracts.
Consider the OKC Thunder. When they’re in uniform, Westbrook and his All-NBA teammate, forward Kevin Durant, are the league’s youngest, most exciting Batman-and-Robin act; in street clothes—the term feels nearly archaic—they are two opposite fronts in the NBA’s escalating style wars. If Westbrook is the NBA’s Kate Moss, then Durant is trying to become its Kate Middleton—aristocratic and punctilious. Whereas Westbrook invites regular hazing from Charles Barkley and three-quarters of Twitter for dressing like a badass Ziggy Stardust in glammy Neil Barrett silver-leather shirts and Givenchy hoodies, Durant keeps it on the Take Ivy tip, seldom venturing far from the prepped-up hipster look favored around the league of late, pairing his Air Jordans or AF1s with various combos of custom-tailored cardigan, collared shirt, and corduroys. He’s running for president, not leading an insurgency.
Compared to the NBA’s established style kings, Durant is still on the climb, newly intrigued, still searching for his look. “I always wanted to be fly,” he tells me outside a Barneys in Santa Monica, where he can’t find one piece of off-the-rack clothing to fit his super-elongated limbs. “I always put stuff together,” he says. “But it was hard for me to find clothes, since I was so tall, my feet were so big, my arms were so long.”