The Rap on NBA Fashion

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A few months ago, I had lunch with a close friend in Manhattan. We met at an upscale Japanese sushi restaurant. He's a partner at a major law firm. He's a graduate of Harvard and a top-tier law school. He showed up for our meal wearing a short-sleeved polo shirt. I'm a journalist and a novelist. My friend probably makes three times my salary. I was dressed in a black Armani suit. I looked like a Master of the Universe, he looked like, at best, Master of His Own Domain. The opposite was really true. Somehow, I ended up paying for lunch.

The NBA made news this week when it was reported that the league was adopting a dress code. The Associated Press reported that the NBA announced in a memo to teams that players would be required to wear "business casual" attire whenever they are engaged in team or league business. Business casual was defined in the memo as including collared shirts, dress slacks and dress shoes. Sleeveless shirts, t-shirts, sunglasses while indoors, chains, pendants, medallions, sneakers, and flip-flops, were out. Headphones (except on a team bus, plane or in the locker room) were forbidden. That meant no hip-hop in public. Sports apparel, unless appropriate for the event and approved by the team, was banned—no more wearing popular throwback jerseys. An NBA spokesperson said players would face fines for violations. The policy would go into effect on November 1st.

Former NBA star Charles Barkley came out for the new dress code. "If a well-dressed white kid and a black kid wearing a do-rag and throwback jersey came to me in a job interview, I'd hire the white kid," Barkley was quoted as saying in the Los Angeles Times. "That's reality. That's the No.1 reason I support the dress code." Of course, if the white kid is 5 ft. tall, the black kid is a 7-footer, and the job you're interviewing for is center for an NBA team, perhaps making a hiring decision based on clothing is a mistake. And that's part of why many current NBA stars came out against the new policy. Why should clothing choices and basketball get mixed up with each another? Some argued that the new policy was anti-black, anti-hip-hop and, perhaps worst of all, anti-bling. Indiana Pacers guard Stephen Jackson told the Associated Press that the league was afraid of becoming "too hip-hop." Boston Celtics star Paul Pierce told the Associated Press: "When I saw the part about chains, hip hop and throwback jerseys, I think that's part of our culture. The NBA is young black males."

Today's NBA stars may not only be fans of throwback jerseys, they seem to be fans of throwback hip-hop. In the 1970s, rappers dressed almost exclusively in street fashions. Today's hottest rap stars routinely dress in street fashions—but the streets are Wall Street and Madison Avenue. The November 2005 issue of Vanity Fair featured a special photo layout devoted to hip-hop. Inside, there was a picture of Jay-Z in a tux at an Oscar party. There was a photo of Queen Latifah in a Ralph Lauren dress and a Giorgio Armani scarf. There was a picture of Snoop Dogg in a blazer, patterned pants and ascot, all by Ralph Lauren. And there was Jay-Z again, this time in a three-piece suit and tie with pocket square, all by Paul Stuart. His outfit made him look like he was on top of the world, and in many ways he is. He's president and CEO of Def Jam Recordings and he's dating Beyonce. Lesser rapper Nelly, by contrast, was pictured in the same issue shirtless, wearing a large necklace and ripped jeans. Nelly is not president or CEO of Def Jam and he's not dating Beyonce. And Nelly's last album was terrible.

Hip-hop is about defying conventions. In the 1970s, street culture was outlaw culture. Dressing down was a way of acting up. In the new millenium, boy bands, prep school students, off-duty lawyers, and even the president and members of his cabinet are dressing casually. The way to challenge society's expectations now, when it comes to hip-hop culture, is to dress like you mean business. Hip-hop stars like Jay-Z, Sean "Diddy" Combs and Kanye West don't just want to be household names, they want to be brand names.

The NBA's new dress code is silly. It makes the players in the league look like they are children who can be ordered around by their parents. That's not going to help the league look cool. Seventh graders aren't going to start saying: "I want to be like Allen Iverson because he wears what he's told!" But players, by dressing sloppily in public appearances, are out of touch with what fans expect out of their fantasy figures. Michael Jordan--the most successful NBA star of all time--understood what the public wanted. He almost never left the locker room before slipping on a tasteful suit. Jordan could not only pay for lunch for every player in the league; he would have them all for lunch on the court. NBA Commissioner David Stern needs to drop the dress code, unless he wants to look like he's running a plantation. But if today's NBA stars want to have the cultural impact of Jay-Z or Jordan they should start dressing better. Throwback jerseys won't cut it. How about wearing one of Jordan's throwback suits?

Christopher John Farley is a TIME contributor. He is the author of the novel Kingston by Starlight