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Basketball style that dazzles on — and off — the court

Great players ‘enthrall us not only by what they do but how they do it,’ says the author of a new book about the bond between hoops and fashion.

Allen Iverson in 2004.Steve Freeman/NBAE via Getty Images

In the beginning, there was “Clyde.”

That was Walt Frazier’s nickname, born when he played for the New York Knicks in the 1960s and 1970s. In his fur coats, stylish suits, and wide-brim hats that evoked for some those worn by Warren Beatty in the 1967 film “Bonnie and Clyde” (hence the moniker), Frazier turned the city’s streets into his own runway.

Walt "Clyde" Frazier, photographed in 1973 by Walter Iooss Jr. for Sports Illustrated.Getty Images

Before he was an NBA Hall of Famer, Frazier was basketball’s style oracle, a man who dazzled on and off the court. In 1973, he even wrote a book with sportswriter Ira Berkow and an introduction by Bill Russell — “Rockin’ Steady: A Guide to Basketball and Cool.” It included a full-page sartorial inventory that he called “Clyde’s Wardrobe Stats.”


In the shadow of the civil rights movement, “Black players were free to be flamboyant, to break norms, to eschew the white man’s uniform,” the Pulitzer Prize winner Mitchell S. Jackson writes in his illuminating new book, “Fly: The Big Book of Basketball Fashion.”

Pulitzer Prize winner Mitchell S. Jackson's new book.Artisan/Hachette Book Group

It’s filled with writing about and gorgeous photos of some of the greatest athletes to ever don a team uniform. Jackson’s essays define eras that overlap decades and defy standard measures of time. So instead of the 1990s or 2000s, there’s “Era 4: The Iverson Effect 1999-2009,” referring to the cultural impact of Hall of Famer Allen Iverson, who entered the league in 1996. His street-savvy style of play — that crossover! — was symbiotic with his classic hip-hop fashion.

“The way that Magic [Johnson] would throw a no-look [pass] — he would shuffle [the ball] this way, then throw it that way, and he would make his eyes really big — to me that’s also style,” Jackson told me during a recent interview. “The NBA is the forerunner of fashion in sports. People pay more attention to the style of NBA players, I think, because the game itself is more graceful and stylish. I also think that the NBA is the best . . . [giving] the players the most freedom, and they open up opportunities for them to be themselves.”


Magic Johnson in 1988.Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE via Getty Images

White players, such as Bill Walton and Phil Jackson, with their early-career hippie aesthetics, are included in “Fly.” Jackson talks about how Larry Bird’s no-style style “seemed aligned with his focus on the purity of his game rather than the flashiness of his wardrobe.”

But “Fly” is about Black expression as both a personal manifesto and a rejection of white conformity. (Also, about 70 percent of NBA players are Black.) It’s Michael Jordan’s shaved head, Dennis Rodman’s midriff-bearing shirts, and Russell Westbook’s anything-goes choices. It’s cornrows, long or short ‘locs, gleaming Jesus pieces, and iced-out grills that cost more than a car.

Oklahoma City Thunder star Shai Gilgeous-Alexander wore strands of Mikimoto black and white pearls on the red carpet at the Met Gala in May.NINA WESTERVELT/NYT

NBA style is so consequential, players routinely show up in the front rows of fashion shows in New York and Paris and on the red carpet at the annual Met Gala. What David Stern, the late NBA commissioner, tried to tamp down in 2005 with a racist dress code that required “business casual attire” on the bench instead of the hip-hop styles then dominating the league has become a pillar of the NBA’s popularity and global reach.

Now an arena’s drab tunnel isn’t just a passageway for players to get from the parking lot to the team locker room. It’s a catwalk reserved for players’ most eye-catching styles — think of LeBron James, then with the Cleveland Cavaliers, ahead of a 2018 NBA Finals game. He wore a show-stopping dark gray Thom Browne shorts suit paired with gray calf-length socks and black wingtip ankle boots. That look as they say, “broke” the internet.


There are dozens of Instagram feeds devoted solely to NBA fashion, many probably followed by people who wouldn’t know a layup from a fadeaway.

“Instagram democratized the way you are able to present yourself,” Jackson said. “It also provided a metric so [players] could easily see what’s working and what isn’t.”

Former NBA star Allen Iverson at the Actively Black New York Fashion Week after-party in New York City on Sept. 8.Bennett Raglin/Getty Images for Actively Black

Of course, some fret that there’s too much focus on the style of NBA players and not enough on the substance of their game play. On his podcast in 2020, J.J. Reddick, a former player, said, “There are more guys concerned with getting a pregame fit on Instagram than there are worrying about the win or loss of a basketball game.”

I asked Jackson if there is a downside to what he called players becoming “brands unto themselves.” “Yes. That’s time away from working on your game, that’s time away from getting those 1,000 free throws a day, that’s time away from taking care of your body the way you need to take care of it,” he said. “So while it’s created a platform for them to be successful in another area, I do think there are stars in the league who care more about their fashion than being good basketball players.”


Jackson, 48, who grew up in Portland, Ore., as a fan of that city’s Trail Blazers, said he tried to draft his essays “like a good fast break” that seems “both improvised and also highly crafted.” He would love to see his book reach three players in particular: LeBron, Jordan, and Iverson, all of whom he deeply admires and who he believes exemplify what he calls the “aspirational mantra” of style that’s at the soul of “Fly” — “This is me. This is me. Only me.

Renée Graham is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at Follow her @reneeygraham.