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How the NBA became home of trendsetters in fashion

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

They are known for soaring above the court...

(SOUNDBITE OF DRIBBLING)

RASCOE: ...Twisting and turning before their slam dunks...

(CHEERING)

RASCOE: ...Effortless passes and alley-oops - swoosh.

(SOUNDBITE OF BASKETBALL NET SWOOSHING)

RASCOE: You couldn't see it, but I did the little hand signal. Professional basketball players are fly, or they can be. That's also the name of a new coffee table book by Mitchell S. Jackson. "Fly: The Big Book Of Basketball Fashion" argues that the clothing NBA players wear off court is just as influential as their moves on the court. And Mitchell Jackson joins us now to break down the evolution of fashion and basketball over the years. Welcome to the program.

MITCHELL JACKSON: Thank you. Thank you for having me. I liked that. I can imagine that little swoosh, too.

RASCOE: You saw that. Yes. As someone...

JACKSON: Yeah.

RASCOE: ...Who never plays basketball - I'm 5 feet tall and very unathletic. But this book - and it is a coffee table book because, like, it's big, and it has this incredible photo archive of NBA players and all of these iconic looks. Can you describe one of the outfits from the book that you feel really sums up the idea of, like, NBA fashion and style?

JACKSON: Yeah, sure. There's a photo of LeBron on the night that he broke Kareem's scoring record. And I remember watching and seeing him come through the tunnel, and he had on a black - looked like silk suit, and he had the lapel pin on. He had all his jewelry on. He had his shades. He had his inseam hem just right, some black shoe. I was like, oh, homie breaking the record tonight. Like, you can't come down the tunnel looking like this and not break this record tonight. And so I think that's really emblematic of the kind of statements that players make.

RASCOE: Oh, wow. I love the picture of Magic Johnson in the fur coat...

JACKSON: Oh, yeah, that's iconic.

RASCOE: ...With the hood, yeah, going into the - I guess that was the All-Star Game. It's a moment, right?

JACKSON: Oh, no question.

RASCOE: It's a moment.

JACKSON: Yeah. I think it's that - some of that same LeBron energy and - like, I know I'm the man...

RASCOE: Yeah.

JACKSON: ...And I'm going to show up and wear a thing that makes me the center of attention.

RASCOE: And, of course, one of the biggest sports figures ever was Michael Jordan. Your book is divided up into different eras based on, like, what was happening in the game and in the world. And one is simply the Jordan era, and that's from 1981 to 1998. And you say about Michael Jordan that he defined style during this time, quote, "for better or worse." So I want to know - what was the better, and what was the worse?

JACKSON: OK, I'm going to give you two betters. One better was the bald head. You know, Jordan - if you remember when Jordan first came in the league, he had a - kind of a little short afro - very short afro. And then he started - you know, his hairline started receding. And unlike some men who hang on...

RASCOE: (Laughter) Yeah.

JACKSON: ...Maybe too long (laughter)...

RASCOE: Yeah. Yeah, yeah, yeah.

JACKSON: ...Jordan went baldy. And I think he gave a lot of other men courage to wear their hair bald. So I'll give him, you know, that. That was a big style moment. And then I'll say the hoop, right? So...

RASCOE: The hoop earring.

JACKSON: ...The gold hoop. Yeah. A lot of people started wearing gold hoops because of Michael Jordan. And then for the worse, I mean, I - those suits that Mike had on with the 17 buttons and the - you know, that hung down to his kneecap - I just - I disagree with those.

RASCOE: You - OK.

(LAUGHTER)

RASCOE: So you - his...

JACKSON: But I'm also not - you know, I'm not his age, so maybe I'm just not seeing something. But yeah, I disagree with the infinity-button suits.

RASCOE: OK, it's - they were just too big, too baggy. All the baggy suits...

JACKSON: Yeah, yeah, yeah.

RASCOE: ...You didn't feel that.

JACKSON: Yeah, but, you know, I think also - I'm glad you mentioned the eras because the Jordan era to me is - you can't divorce it from Reaganomics, right? And so you think about Jordan coming in '84 and what that meant for the economy to recover. I remember shows like "Miami Vice" - you know, they were wearing suits everywhere. So it was really - "Lifestyles Of The Rich And Famous." Like, it was an era where, like, the economy was kind of flush with money again, and people were being very ostentatious.

RASCOE: Well, I mean, we can't mention Jordan without talking about sneakers. And obviously, there's a whole sneaker culture that's intertwined with basketball, and you have a top 10 in the book. But talk about some of the most impactful basketball sneakers of all time.

JACKSON: I mean, you really got to take it back to PRO-Keds. I think those were the first sneakers that were sponsoring NBA stars. Then you get to Converse and Chuck Taylors who - I mean, everybody wore Chucks. I mean, I had Chucks back in the day. And then Jordan and Nike just took it over, right? We would not have sneaker culture without Michael Jordan and Air Jordans.

RASCOE: After the Jordan era, there's the Iverson effect between 1999 and 2009. Allen Iverson - you know, he had the cornrows, the tattoos, you know, and everything was just so hip-hop. Explain how Iverson changed fashion in basketball.

JACKSON: Yeah, I mean, I'm glad that you mentioned him and hip-hop because I think Iverson is a reflection of hip-hop culture. And at the same time that he is reaching his apex, hip-hop is coming into its golden era - right? - with Jay-Z and Eminem and Nelly - you know, people who are selling diamond records - and the Fugees. And so it's becoming probably the most popular cultural phenomenon in the States. And those rappers and artists and even executives are roughly the same age as the players, right? They're coming out of the same neighborhoods. And so Iverson was a real reflection of that. And I think he also reflected the ethos of that era 'cause hip-hop is kind of brash, and we break the rules. We - you know, we don't follow other people's rules. And I think he really had a lot of that in him. And then he had the good fortune of being a phenomenal generational talent.

RASCOE: And - but then there was this this backlash - right? - like, what you call the dress code era. And this was a reaction to, I guess, like, the big fight that happened at the - at a basketball game against - Malice at the Palace. But it - you know, it also seemed like a reaction to Allen Iverson and to the hip-hop infusion. And obviously, you can't really talk about that without bringing up race. These are mostly Black players, and they're being told to wear business casual. Like, how did the players react?

JACKSON: Well, at first, they pushed back. Iverson was an ardent critic of it. It seemed, on the surface at least, very racially motivated. You can't divorce hip-hop from race and class. And so, yeah, they pushed back. Some people was taking the fines early on, but eventually, people started wearing suits. And I think one of the big stars at the time was Kobe Bryant. And he really embraced suits for - there was a while when Kobe was wearing all Tom Ford suits and really, really impeccable tailoring. I really admired his shift to that. But yeah. And then, you know, the younger guys came in being now the elder statesmen - LeBron, D Wade, Chris Paul - and by the time they got in there and started wearing the suits, it started loosening up a little bit.

RASCOE: I feel like with Instagram, now we're, like, in a super, very fashion-forward moment for basketball players. You interview P.J. Tucker, and he plays for the 76ers. And P.J. said that this current era is the most fashionable in league history. So do you agree with that?

JACKSON: I do. I think they value it more than any era in league history. I think there might be some players who value their fashion as much as they value basketball. I also think they know more about it, and they have more professionals around it. I think the league is supporting it even more, and the opportunities are there - right? - for them to be brand ambassadors, for them to have their own brand. So that is unprecedented in the league.

Speaking of P.J., I just saw him on the cover of SLAM, and I think the cover line was, the NBA's undisputed sneaker king or something like that. And P.J.'s a star. He's a starter in the NBA. But I don't think most people would say that he's an all-league guy, right? So the fact that P.J. is covering SLAM for his sneaker collection, I think, speaks to where we are in NBA fashion - right? - that someone who's not necessarily a huge star on the court can be a huge star off the court.

RASCOE: That's Mitchell S. Jackson talking about "Fly: The Big Book Of Basketball Fashion." Thank you so much for joining us today.

JACKSON: Thank you. Thank you. I had a great chat.

(SOUNDBITE OF THREE 6 MAFIA SONG, "STAY FLY") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Ayesha Rascoe is a White House correspondent for NPR. She is currently covering her third presidential administration. Rascoe's White House coverage has included a number of high profile foreign trips, including President Trump's 2019 summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Hanoi, Vietnam, and President Obama's final NATO summit in Warsaw, Poland in 2016. As a part of the White House team, she's also a regular on the NPR Politics Podcast.
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