As we draw ever closer to the NBA Finals, we turn our attention to various pieces of apparel which have been banned from the league. While many have their roots in the NBA Dress Code which was a direct response to the Pacers-Pistons brawl in 2004, many other items have more curious and strange explanations as to why they have been disallowed.
On November 19, 2004, the NBA and its fans were forced to confront one of the uglier scenes in the league’s history. The “Malice in the Palace” – a fight between the Indiana Pacers and Detroit Pistons which involved not only players but fans – was something that many people thought the NBA would have a hard time recovering from no matter how many suspensions were handed out. While the implementation of a dress code for players was never officially labeled a “direct response” to the brawl, many knew that Commissioner David Stern’s attempt to police how his players looked when not in uniform was him trying to portray a more wholesome image to the general public. The result was a number of changes that were polarizing not only because the NBA was the first major sports league to enact a dress code, but also because many of the changes outlawed popular fashion with hip-hop roots. In addition to the dress code, a number of items have been banned in the NBA; we explore them all.
Air Jordan 1
The official ban of the Air Jordan 1 is still debated to this day – as many believe the league was banning the Air Ship as opposed to Jordan’s first signature shoe.
In an official letter from then NBA Executive Vice President, Russ Granik, to Nike, Granik wrote “in accordance with our conversations, this will confirm and verify that the National Basketball Association’s rules and procedures prohibited the wearing of certain red and black NIKE basketball shoes by Chicago Bulls player Michael Jordan on or around October 18, 1984.”
Did Nike use a faux-controversy to build the Jordan brand? They certainly didn’t shy away from it from an advertising standpoint. In one of their most famous commercials, the transcript reads “on September 15, Nike created a revolutionary new basketball shoe. On October 18, the NBA threw them out of the game. Fortunately, the NBA can’t stop you from wearing them.”
Athletic Propulsion Lab’s Concept 1
Athletic Propulsion Lab is a relative newcomer into the shoe marketplace. While the Air Jordan I was simply outlawed to components relating to “flare,” APL saw its shoes outlawed from the Association due to an “unfair competitive advantage” the shoes gave to its wearers.
According to the official press release, “For the first time in its 64-year history, the National Basketball Association (NBA) has banned a new line of shoes based on the league’s rule against an ‘unfair competitive advantage’ that increases a player’s vertical leap. The league’s ban on Athletic Propulsion Labs’ Concept 1 confirms the company’s claims that the shoe, with its Load ‘N Launch Technology, performs as advertised. No professional player will be allowed to wear the product in games for the upcoming 2010-2011 NBA season. This action comes on the 25th anniversary of the NBA’s ban on Nike’s Air Jordan shoes, albeit for reasons of their colorful appearance rather than any performance advantage. Athletic Propulsion Labs (APL) was notified by a senior NBA official who stated, ‘League rules regulate the footwear that players may wear during an NBA game. Under league rules, players may not wear any shoe during a game ‘that creates an undue competitive advantage (e.g., to increase a player’s vertical leap).’ In light of that rule…players will not be permitted to wear the APL shoes during NBA games.'”
When marketing a shoe that promises to give a wearer greater bounce, there was no greater cosign than the NBA as to the effectiveness of their technology. “That was, for our brand, the best thing that ever happened,” founder Ryan Goldston told Fast Company.
Given the nature of the uniforms, contemporary players try to use any piece of equipment that is allowed to differentiate themselves from teammates. In 2010, then Boston Celtics guard Rajon Rondo began sporting his headband with the NBA logo turned upside down. When the NBA said he had to turn it the “right side up” or face a punishment, Rondo ditched the sweatband altogether. While the NFL often gets called the “No Fun League,” many thought that this ban on “how” he chose to wear a sanctioned piece of equipment was actually pretty ridiculous.
During a game against the Oklahoma City Thunder in 2014, LeBron James suffered a broken nose when he was struck in the face by Serge Ibaka while going up for a dunk. While the injury kept him sidelined against the Bulls, James was a “go” against the Knicks. Prior to lacing ’em up, James joked, “I’ve been talking to Marvel Comics for the last couple of days, and DC Comics, to try to come up with one of the greatest masks of all time. So we’ll see what happens.”
While most players – most famously Rip Hamilton – opted for a hard plastic cover coated in a clear cover, James went for a darker, more textured version than the league was used to. Scoring a game-high 31 points (on 13-for-19 shooting), grabbing four rebounds and dishing out four assists in 37 minutes, many joked that perhaps LeBron’s mask was like Superman’s cape. The Miami Heat even began selling T-shirts with the mask-clad James on the front. Even his teammate Shane Battier couldn’t help but commenting,”Only LeBron can make breaking your nose look cool.”
While Kobe Bryant went for a similar “dark” cover when he had his own broken nose in 2012, the league was quick to step in when it came to LeBron. “It is our understanding LeBron used the black mask because a clear one he was comfortable with wasn’t ready,” NBA spokesman Tim Frank said. LeBron James went back to the clear mask for the next game.
Logos in Haircuts
In 2013, then New York Knicks guard Iman Shumpert saw his support of adidas – in the form of an addition to his now signature box haircut – get him in trouble with the league office. According to league rules, Item 5 of Section H of the NBA rule book’s extended comments section says,“The only article bearing a commercial ‘logo’ which can be worn by players is their shoes.”
2005 proved to be the turning point for individuality both on and off the court for NBA players when Commissioner David Stern enacted a mandatory dress code for all players – making it the first major professional sports league to implement such a rule. With hip-hop culture a major guiding force for the way players dressed at the time, one of the key “fights” revolved around the wearing of do-rags.
In an op-ed that same year by Jabari Asim in The Washington Post, he wrote, “Do-rag defenders cite its usefulness as a cover-up on bad-hair days. I’ve got an answer for that. It’s called a brush. Others have cited it as an emblem of individuality and rebellion against the status quo. Please. For me, it represents the opposite: slavery. It says, I have abandoned free will — a sacred birthright for which my ancestors fought and died — and joined the forces of mindless consumerism. Do-rag embracers are the logical descendants of those same folks who during the ’70s and late ’80s plunked down their ducats for ‘Curl Keepers’ — shower caps slickly repackaged and sold as hair-maintenance necessities.”
One of the biggest supporters/wearers of the do-rag trend was Allen Inverson. He told the Philadelphia Daily News that, “just because you put a guy in a tuxedo, it doesn’t mean he’s a good guy.”
Timberland boots and any pieces of footwear with similar aesthetics were also victims of David Stern’s dress code policy. He said at the time that, “There are different uniforms for different occasions. There’s the uniform you wear on the court, there’s the uniform you wear when you are on business, there’s the uniform you might wear on your casual downtime with your friends and there’s the uniform you might wear when you go back home. We’re just changing the definition of the uniform that you wear when you are on NBA business.”
It seems almost laughable that in a league where rules mandate that players wear jerseys, they are also forbidden from wearing them off the court. At the height of the throwback jersey phenomenon of the late ’90s and early 2000s, NBA players paid homage to past greats in a multitude of sports by donning their Mitchell & Ness jerseys. As part of the “business casual” mandate from Commissioner Stern, he axed any subtle tribute to past greats in other sports by banning them.
Chains and Pendants
Then Indiana Pacers swingman Stephen Jackson was one of the most outspoken players when it came to the implementation of a dress code. Calling the ban of chains worn over clothing a “racist statement” from the league, he wore every long, diamond-studded chain in his collection on October 19, 2005 in protest. In speaking with ESPN, Jackson commented, “I think it’s a racist statement because a lot of the guys who are wearing chains are my age and are black. I wore all my jewelry today to let it be known that I’m upset with it. I’ll wear a suit every day. I think we do need to look more professional because it is a business. A lot of guys have gotten sloppy with the way they dress. But it’s one thing to [enforce a] dress code and it’s another thing if you’re attacking cultures, and that’s what I think they’re doing.”
Even the usually reserved Tim Duncan couldn’t bite his tongue when it came to the league’s control over a player’s choice in jewelry.”I think it’s a load of crap,” Duncan told the San Antonio Express-News. “I understand what they’re trying to do with [forbidding] hats and ‘do rags and [retro] jerseys and stuff. That’s fine. But I don’t understand why they would take it to this level. I think it’s basically retarded. I don’t like the direction they’re going, but who am I?”
Even a single viewing of a game in today’s landscape reveals a player who is wearing much more than just a jersey, shorts and shoes. Compression tights have been favored by many thanks to their extra padding around the knees and thighs which ensure that the various bumps and bruises a player might get during an arduous 82-game season don’t morph into anything more severe. Despite being universally accepted, there was a time when tights were actually outlawed from the game.
Following their “success” with the dress code, NBA executives then set their sights on what they thought was a visual eyesore: tights. While they argued that players were wearing them for what they looked like as opposed to the medical benefits they provided, the ban was short-lived if ever really enacted by the league thanks to the medical communities support and assertion that, “tights provide compression. Compressed muscles fire efficiently, especially if injured. Players with muscle strains benefit from the improved circulation and support.”
When LeBron James made his decision to “take his talents to South Beach” and play for the Miami Heat, many expected his return home to face his hometown Cleveland Cavaliers to feature plenty of anti-LeBron sentiments. While no one saw anything wrong with that, the Cavs and NBA did want to ensure that it didn’t cross the line. According to ESPN, the team researched various crude and offensive James T-shirts in circulation locally, and officials were stationed at entrances to make sure no fans entered with such shirts or signs that disrespected James or his family members.
“We don’t want to create a police state,” said Tad Carper, the Cavaliers’ senior vice president of communications. “We’ve always had a real energetic, super-charged home crowd and we want to encourage that for every game, including Dec. 2. We want people to enjoy themselves and express themselves, but we don’t want fans to cross the boundaries of decency. We’re not going to allow profanity and things like that. We’ll have no tolerance for anyone trying to cross those boundaries.”
While the NFL most notably had the largest headphone controversy in pro sports thanks to players’ affinity for wearing Beats by Dre and the league partnering with Bose, the NBA has completely outlawed any headphones of any kind while on court – whether during warmups or shoot around – as well as in the locker room.
While the league seemed to soften its stance on compression tights thanks to their medical benefits, the same couldn’t be said for kinesio tape worn by Derrick Rose. Designed to separate layers of skin on athletes in order to limit pain – and coming into prominence at the Olympics in London – Rose was told to stop wearing the tape by NBA brass. Surprisingly, the league actually changed their stance. In an official statement they said, “After a discussion today with Jerry Stackhouse, representing the union, we have decided to allow kinesio tape on an experimental basis so that we can take a fresh look at the possible benefits it might bring to our players.”
Due to the popularity of the piece and the suggestions to dig deeper into the issue, we felt it in our best editorial interest to connect the dots.
Is the NBA dress code and ban on certain items a racial thing? Yes, because the sweeping changes were directed at a singular group; black males with hip-hop sensibilities. In a certain scenario, a brawl could have broken out at The Palace in Auburn Hills between all white and European players. How would the league have reacted to that? Would the league have been able to react to that with such measured do’s and don’t’s? It’s highly unlikely. When the NBA said they had an image problem, it could only be inferred that they believed they couldn’t change who was supplying their product to the fans, but could control how their players sold it on and off the floor.
The sartorial impact wasn’t the only sweeping changes in the wake of the Pistons-Pacers brawl. According to USA Today, “Months later, the league established arena guidelines for security personnel. In the past, the NBA had hired some police and even former Secret Service agents as security, but the brawl led to teams bringing in more experienced personnel. In 2007, the Pacers hired former FBI agent John Gray to lead team security. Gray was one of three agents who brought down Ted Kaczynski, the infamous “Unabomber.” Additionally, the league changed the number of alcoholic beverages and size of said beverages that a person could purchase – as well as eliminated alcohol sales from the fourth quarter. The NBA was wise to acknowledge that the fan element was a major spark the night of November 19, 2004.
A year later, the NBA started NBA Cares – an outreach program that connected players and communities. “The great deeds of hundreds of players were being overshadowed by acts of a very few,” Commissioner Adam Silver commented during the 10-year anniversary of the brawl. “We just had to accept the responsibility that we were not doing a good enough job telling the positive stories about our players and we needed a platform to do that, and that led to the launch of NBA Cares.”
One of the biggest changes to NBA uniforms in the past few years has been the implementation of sleeves to jerseys. Many assume it was a ploy to increase revenue for merchandising, while others believe it to be the first step in creating additional real estate so that brands can advertise on jerseys much in the same way commerce has met sport on soccer kits. But what if the extra bit of material is a sly dress-code of sorts? As of the 2013-2014, five teams in the NBA had rosters where 75% of all of their players had tattoos. An additional 12 teams saw their roster with at least half of their players inked up as well. If there is still one avenue of individuality for a player, it’s what he puts on his skin. It seems ridiculous, given how many tattooed players there are in the NBA. But think back to 2004 and how widespread some of the fashion leanings were as it related to hip-hop culture. How do you change something that in skin deep? You bury it under the weight of the NBA.