The mid-2000s saw the NBA reeling in the aftermath of the Malice at the Palace. Feeling alienated by the rise of expressions of hip-hop culture among NBA players, corporate sponsors were threatening to leave the league in droves. In order to bridge the growing gap between the league and its financial base, David Stern and the NBA’s white leadership commenced an all-out assault on the symbols of blackness sported by the hip-hop generation, with a dress code as its chief weapon.
And as such, 12 years ago in October, Stern and the NBA implemented a dress code, one that remains in effect to this day.
The new rules did not simply call for players to dress in “business casual.” The rules specifically outlawed certain clothing items strongly identified with hip-hop: sleeveless shirts, shorts, jerseys, T-shirts, sports apparel, chains, pendants, medallions, sunglasses and headphones were included among the banned items. “Headgear of any kind” was targeted in particular, unless said headgear was pre-approved by the team and included some sort of team identifier.
NBA executives tried to pass it off as not a racist measure but one to foster professionalism. David Stern said, “The notion is that if you’re a professional, with it are certain protocols. One of them is the way you dress when you’re on business.”
As Phil Jackson put it, “Our audience is corporate businessmen and corporate businesswomen and kids. So it’s a different audience that you’re dealing with and these players should be aware of it.”
But no matter how men like Jackson or Stern justified the policy, it was a clear attack on the culture of the young black men who comprised the association’s roster. Many players instantly called out the code’s inherent racism. “When I saw the part about chains, hip-hop and throwback jerseys,” Celtics star Paul Pierce said, “I think that’s part of our culture.”
“The NBA is young black males.” Jermaine O’Neal sarcastically asked, “What’s next, we can’t wear our hair in cornrows?”
But the most striking commentary came from Allen Iverson, whose famous “We talkin’ about practice?” press conference, conducted in a white flat-brim Boston Red Sox cap and an oversized white t-shirt, was almost certainly high in the minds of Stern and his front office fellows when the code was implemented.
“You can put a murderer in a suit,” Iverson said, “and he’s still a murderer.”
NBA owners and executives have always walked a tightrope in selling a mostly black league to white America. But the events of the mid-2000s created a perfect storm that threatened the association.