Ironic Ballers: Rebellious Compliance in the NBA

What does rebellion look like?

In the case of the NBA, it’s colorful, occasionally ironic, and likely not purchased at Brooks Brothers.  They’ve been referred to as hipsters, “nerd chic,” and downright dapper (Buzzfeed is going so far as to host the NBA style playoffs).  Whatever your opinion of these peacocking athletes, there’s no denying that this is not your father’s NBA. Oklahoma Thunder teammates James Harden and Russell Westbrook were named the “two biggest hipsters in the NBA” by Bleacher Report, as part of their “NBA hipster all-star team.” Leading their own post-game fashion parade, these players build anticipation for the press conferences, as fans are not only interested in hearing their thoughts on the game, but tune in to see what these tastemakers are wearing. (Teammate Kevin Durant is also known for wearing a backpack to the post-game press conferences).  Lebron James is part of the popular no-prescription / no-lenses glasses trend. And Dwyane Wade feels largely responsible for helping to usher in this dramatic change in the NBA’s aesthetic.  He went so far as to tell Gilt Man: “If you’re a young guy coming into the league, this is a perfect time.  If you’re a guy who’s edgy, or likes to be a little different, you don’t have to put that to the side. When it comes to playing with colors and pushing the envelope, I think I paved the way for that.” The New York Knicks’ Amare Stoudemire does more than wear fashion – he’s also taken to designing it.  Last year he did a limited edition collection of graphic t’s in collaboration with designer Rachel Roy, and rumor has it he’s coming out with a menswear collection.  Baron Davis has a forthcoming documentary called “American Schlub,” which laments the decline of American male dress standards. (He’s pictured above at a press conference in a clever publicity stunt to create buzz about the film and its subject). So what exactly is this generation of basketball stars rebelling against? Each player may have his own motive – and some may not see it as a sartorial uprising at all. But there is fuel for this wild fashion fire: In 2005, the NBA issued a new dress code, which called for players to wear “business attire” and banned baggy pants, jewelry, hats, and headphones when they are engaged in team or league business. Some read the rules as insultingly racist (but Catherine Fisk counters that opinion, arguing that to call these new rules racist and accuse them of trying “to make players look less ‘black’…says that professional dress is ‘white.’”) But whether you read the ban as racist or not, the looks prescribed by these new rules were in stark contrast to the hip-hop-influenced fashion that was prevalent in the league in 2005 – inspired largely by Allen Iverson’s “urban” aesthetic. Subculture style is about rebellion and the subversion of the mainstream norm. These current NBA looks may not resonate as “counter-culture,” but they do diverge from the traditional suits and conservative looks embraced by older players.  This new image of today’s NBA technically stays in line with the 2005 rules – but it certainly doesn’t look like what the NBA was imagining. This is a brilliant case of what I like to call “rebellious compliance.”  We instinctively look for outlets for rebellion within restrictive dress codes – or, as Erving Goffman referred to it, we find our sense of identity “in the cracks.”  Sometimes defiant dress is where we find that sliver of opportunity for demonstrating individuality within the system. And sometimes that means wearing glasses without lenses. Want to get in on the latest off-court looks? Here are some tips for a style slam-dunk: