Beyond the actual players, and the impact they may one day make on woefully desperate franchises, the NBA Draft has always been about fashion. People care more today about what Amar’e Stoudemire wore when the Phoenix Suns picked him 9th overall in 2002 than they do about him being the first high schooler to win Rookie of the Year. But that’s not necessarily a bad thing, because look at what he was wearing:
Sorry, that’s not from the ’02 draft. I meant this image. The one where he looks like someone stretched out his torso in Photoshop. That image has found a home on countless “Worst of” NBA Draft fashion rankings, but it also comes from a long-gone era of poor, sloppy fashion decisions, undoubtedly made by style icons and trendsetters trying to make names for themselves. But while we will never ever (never ever ever ever) remember Erick Dampier’s stylist or designer for his 1996 draft suit (below), things are changing.
Inspired by the NBA Draft, many websites, including the most fashion-forward, still pump out the annual “Worst Dressed” features or “All-Time Worst” slideshows. Some fashion writers even believe no progress has been made since the Draft became a televised spectacle in the early ‘80s, and today’s rising stars and would-be icons are in desperate need of a makeover. But the critics are dead wrong, and those who are wise enough to see the evolution of style embrace just how much has changed over the span of four decades.
The Bargain Basement ‘80s
Taken with the second pick in the 1981 draft, Isiah Thomas was a trendsetter. He looked like he was heading to the office to do serious work, and you could call that a metaphor for his career. At least until he became a GM and coach. Other ‘80s draft picks, though, took the draft way more seriously, as if it was a red tie affair. Or, in Hakeem Olajuwon’s case, a red-tie affair, as he looked like he was hosting the Miss America pageant.
That moment was so iconic, of course, that NBA commissioner Adam Silver brought Olajuwon out in a new red bow tie to pay tribute to David Stern for what would be the final time fans would boo him. (Fun fact: Olajuwon was the first player drafted under Stern’s term as commissioner, so what a nice moment!) When the Indiana Pacers selected Chuck Person with the 4th pick in the 1986 draft, it was even a pink tie affair.
But not everyone shared their philosophies of looking good in their biggest moments. Karl Malone’s tie choice for the 1985 draft looked like it came from the boys’ department. Fat Lever kicked back with a cool leisure suit when he went 11th overall in 1982, but he looked like the best-dressed man of the year compared to Terry Cummings, who went second in that draft and wore a polo. Some guys just like to keep it casual.
Then there’s “Worst Dressed” first ballot Hall-of-Famer Vlade Divac, whose 1989 draft outfit speaks for itself.
Dude looks like he had to borrow one item of clothing from everyone else to put his suit together. But there’s charm in that! We’re still talking about it 27-years later.
The Dick Tracy Villain ‘90s
Just as ‘80s NBA Draft fashion might be defined by the iconic images of Olajuwon and Divac, the ‘90s will always be remembered best for three athletes. The most memorable was Jalen Rose and what he refers to as his “Welcome to the NBA” moment (above). Last year, Rose stopped by Jimmy Kimmel Live to discuss the Fab Five 30 for 30, and the host brought up Rose’s draft night attire and particularly that loud tie. Turns out Rose expected to be drafted by the Clippers with the 7th pick, hence the red and white suit, but instead he dropped to the Nuggets at 13. Embarrassing, maybe, but we’ll never stop talking about that suit.
Only two other draft suits rival its unforgettable uniqueness. First, Samaki Walker’s 1996 draft attire:
Only Louisville diehards and random know-it-all fans of the six NBA franchises Walker played for even remember his days on the court, but as soon as you see that hat, it’s like the Mavericks are picking him all over again. In 1997, Tim Thomas forgot his Tommy gun at home, but fortunately Upper Deck immortalized his suit with arguably the most valuable card in the nickel commons box.